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The new space race isn’t just about billionaire passengers

July 1, 2021, 9:48 AM UTC

Good morning.

There’s a massive business space race underway, and it involves more than the trio of billionaires—Bezos, Branson and Musk—who are competing for bragging rights. 

This morning, Astra becomes the first space company to trade on the NASDAQ, having completed a SPAC transaction with Holicity, which was started and funded largely by cellular phone pioneer Craig McCaw. The transaction raised $500 million for Astra, which it will use to build out its low-earth orbit satellite platform business. Rocket Lab is close to closing a similar space-SPAC transaction. All told, analysts believe space infrastructure investment will top $10 billion this year, up from a record $8.9 billion in 2020.

I spoke yesterday with Chris Kemp, CEO of Astra, whose ambitions for the business go far beyond telecommunications. “There is an absolute revolution happening,” he says. “People are starting to realize there are these killer apps that can be based in space. Astra is enabling this entire economy.” He says the company will use its funds to triple the size of its rocket factory and provide launches on at least a monthly basis. He claims to have more than 50 launches already under contract—half government, half commercial.

Astra recently announced a multi-launch contract with Planet, which provides satellite imagery and other space-based data. Kemp sees environmental management as a critical use case for his platform. “We can help create a healthier, more connected planet,” with satellites that are able to “measure CO2 emissions from space, measure methane emissions” and change “the way we grow food, the way we manage resources, the way we manage water. There are disruptive companies in all these spaces.”

“It’s like an AWS business,” he says of Astra. “We want to put intelligence in lower orbit.” And don’t call it a “rocket company.” “We are no more a rocket company than Amazon is a truck company.”

By the way, Bezos and his brother are targeting July 20 for their trip into space. Richard Branson is being more circumspect but says “when my engineers tell me that I can go to space, I’m ready, fit and healthy to go.” Musk seems to be holding out for an orbital flight, or a trip to Mars. For his part, Kemp thinks this high-profile tourism misses the point, and creates an unnecessary level of risk: “Our customers, none of them are people. We’ve got to shift this thinking around large, high-volume projects that are too big to fail. Our products are technology. It gives us the freedom to innovate. Gmail doesn’t break when a server fails.”

Meanwhile, Fortune’s Shawn Tully is focused on rocketing prices, and where they may head from here. You can read his piece this morning here. More news below.

News below.

Alan Murray
@alansmurray

alan.murray@fortune.com

TOP NEWS

Robinhood settlement

Meme-stock-trading star Robinhood will pay $70 million to settle allegations of misleading millions of customers and letting thousands of clients trade inappropriate options. It's a record penalty that comes as Robinhood prepares for its IPO. Fortune

CureVac efficacy

Germany's CureVac has reported an overall efficacy for its COVID-19 vaccine of 48%. These final trial results are only marginally better than those reported in initial findings a couple weeks ago, and still not good enough to meet the 50% is-it-worth-it threshold. CureVac's shares are down 16%, though the company points out that its vaccine does still fully protect 18-to-60-year-olds against hospitalization or death. Fortune

Web NFT

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web's core technology, has auctioned off a non-fungible token of the source code for more than $5.4 million, which he says he will donate somewhere. Berners-Lee famously declined to copyright or otherwise IP-protect the code, which is why the Web became what it is, so what's the deal here? TimBL says the NFT is basically like an autographed copy. A very expensive one. Wired

Trump Organization

The Trump Organization and its longstanding CFO, Allen Weisselberg, are reportedly going to be hit with tax-related criminal charges today. The former president himself will apparently not be implicated in the alleged crimes, which are said to focus on the avoidance of tax payments on fringe benefits. Wall Street Journal

AROUND THE WATER COOLER

ExxonMobil vs science

"Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we hide our science? Absolutely not. Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing, there’s nothing illegal about that." That's ExxonMobil Capitol Hill lobbyist Keith McCoy, caught on video in a Greenpeace sting as he talks about the oil giant lobbying against climate legislation. Channel 4

Pushing vaccines

Can employers force their workers to get vaccinated? As S. Mitra Kalita writes in this week's edition of Fortune Worksheet, that's a gray area. Relay Payments chief people officer Amy Zimmerman recommends flexibility, when employees refuse to come back to work alongside unvaccinated people: "Get comfortable with living in the gray for a bit longer. I realize that’s not what many employers want to hear, but that’s our reality." Fortune

Rock on

Music festivals in the U.S. have been selling out both for this year and next, at a record speed and also at higher prices than before the pandemic. Fortune

Hospital pricing

Six months after a federal rule came into effect, theoretically giving Americans greater visibility into hospital pricing, not much has changed. As Fortune's Geoff Colvin explains, few patients know about the rule, few hospitals are fully complying with it, and the machine-readable files of payer-specific charges that the rule mandates are still not readable by the flesh-and-blood beings that need to see them. Fortune

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.

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