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SpaceX’s next rocket launch is doomed, and that’s great for astronauts

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  • SpaceX plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday morning — and cause the rocket to fail 84 seconds into flight and explode shortly thereafter.
  • The goal of the mission is to show that a new spaceship called Crew Dragon can safely escape from a rocket that’s not working correctly.
  • The in-flight abort test is a penultimate step toward SpaceX launching its first human passengers into space: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
  • If the flight is successful, SpaceX should launch Behnken and Hurley this year.
  • Click here to read more BI Prime stories.

SpaceX is about to do the unthinkable.

On Sunday morning, the company plans to launch a doomed Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with a brand-new spaceship for NASA, called Crew Dragon, perched on top.

The 230-foot-tall vehicle is expected to heave itself off the ground between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. ET, but then suddenly shut down its engines about 84 seconds into flight. At that point, the Falcon 9 will be traveling nearly twice the speed of sound some 13 miles above Earth’s surface. 

What comes next for the rocket will be catastrophic. Within seconds of cutting its engines, aerodynamic forces will throttle the uncontrolled, tube-shaped body and rip it to pieces. Inside, huge tanks full of liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene propellant will rip open — so a large explosion and fireball is almost a given.

But if all goes according to plan, the Crew Dragon will escape to safety moments after the failure begins. 

Such a scenario is one of an astronaut’s worst nightmares, but NASA is excited to get on with the flight. That’s because the spectacle is part of a highly orchestrated, human-free, and strenuous test of the Crew Dragon’s launch escape or abort system. 

If the empty spaceship flies away to safety and splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean, as planned, SpaceX will be a penultimate step closer to launching astronauts — its first-ever human passengers — who are part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“We are purposely failing a launch vehicle to make sure that our abort system on the spacecraft that we’ll be flying for our crews works,” Kathy Lueders, the manager of the agency’s program, said during a televised press briefing on Friday. “This is a very important test.”

‘Way past ready for this to happen’

nasa astronauts commercial crew program august 2018 AP_18215575643268

Nine astronauts will fly the first four crewed missions inside SpaceX and Boeing’s new spaceships for NASA, called Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively.

NASA via AP


More than the safety of SpaceX’s launch system for astronauts is riding on the in-flight abort test. In fact, NASA’s ability to launch astronauts from American soil at all partly depends on it.

In July 2011, NASA retired its space shuttle fleet without a new American ship to get astronauts to and from orbit from the International Space Station — a $150 billion, football field-size laboratory that orbits Earth. Since that time, the agency has had no practical choice but to buy tickets aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for astronauts, to the tune of about $80 million per seat today.

The first crewed flights of NASA’s commercial program were supposed to start taking off around 2015. But neither SpaceX nor Boeing, which is also part of the agency’s program, have not yet completed rigorous mandatory testing required to launch astronauts.

“Most of us are just way past ready for this to happen. It has taken a lot longer than anybody thought,” Wayne Hale, an aerospace engineering consultant and retired NASA space shuttle program manager, told Business Insider. “This year we really need to do it. It really needs to be done.”

Saturday’s test is the next-to-last step toward that goal, which is why it’s so crucial that everything go right.

“The number-one most important thing is we launch them safely,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management, said during NASA’s briefing at Kennedy Space Center on Friday.

Hale said that “everybody hopes at this stage that success is the outcome.” But he added that in-flight abort tests are not only rare — only a handful of them have been done since the Apollo moon program in the 1960s — but also “a very difficult situation” where “many things can go wrong.”

SpaceX has had trouble with its parachutes, for example, though Hale noted that tweaking and testing has apparently resolved those difficulties. Meanwhile, Boeing also saw a parachute deployment hiccup with its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft due to an incorrect rigging. A clock error on the Starliner also caused Boeing’s first uncrewed launch of the vehicle toward the space station to veer wildly off-course.

A rocket mission designed to fail — then to fall

spacex crew dragon spaceship space capsule four parachutes drop test nasa DROP_TEST_image_01

SpaceX performs a parachute test for its Crew Dragon spaceship, which is designed to ferry NASA astronauts to and from space.

NASA


Benji said the Crew Dragon is pre-programmed to detach itself from the Falcon 9 rocket “at the right point in time” if anything goes wrong.

“We’re looking for anything that’s off-nominal,” he told Business Insider.

In the case of Sunday’s test, the rocket will shut down while the vehicle is moving through extreme, though not maximum, forces in the atmosphere — what Lueders described as “a stressing test” for the entire system, and one that SpaceX ultimately chose over less trying and expensive ones.

“Getting this test behind us is a huge milestone,” she said. (The launch was originally scheduled for Saturday, but NASA and SpaceX delayed it due to worsening weather conditions.)

Shortly after detaching from the rocket on Saturday, Reed said Crew Dragon should fire its SuperDraco escape engines for about 10 seconds. That should be enough to put many miles between the doomed rocket and the spaceship.

“We expect there to be some sort of ignition, and probably a fireball of some kind. Whether I would call it an explosion that you would see from the ground? I don’t know,” Reed said of the rocket. “We’ll have to see what actually happens.”

As the rocket breaks up, Crew Dragon will coast to an altitude of about 25 miles, shed its aerodynamic “trunk” (which serves as dead weight), and begin to fall toward Earth, according to a SpaceX animation on YouTube (below). The plummeting capsule will then use clusters of small rocket engines, called reaction-control thrusters, to right itself at high speed. The goal is to keep the gumdrop-shaped base facing down — and its parachute pods pointed up.

About 4 minutes and 30 seconds after launch, two small drogue shoots will pop out of the capsule’s top to stabilize its fall. Four enormous main parachutes will deploy about a minute later and dramatically slow down the vehicle. A little while later — about nine minutes total into the mission — the Crew Dragon is supposed to splash down about 20 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX recovery crews on boats should be ready and waiting to recover it.

SpaceX and NASA will then review all of the data they collect from the safety test and see if it matches their predictive computer models. That process could take months, and smaller tests may be required afterward.

Assuming the abort test is a success, SpaceX will be poised to fly its first-ever humans — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — on a demonstration mission called Demo-2. (In March 2019, the company launched an uncrewed Crew Dragon to the space station and back on a mission called Demo-1.)

“The main objective of this test is to show that we can carry the astronauts safely away from the rocket in case anything’s going wrong,” Reed said.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on January 17, 2019.



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Coronavirus: Italy has most cases outside Asia, scrambles to curb spread

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  • Italy is scrambling to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus within its borders as cases of COVID-19 soar.
  • Italy has the most cases outside of Asia. As of Wednesday evening, 12 people there had died from the disease.
  • The country has put almost a dozen towns under lockdown, canceled major sporting events, and debated closing its borders with neighboring countries.
  • The two most infected regions are Lombardy and Veneto in the north of Italy, home to Milan and Venice. New cases are also being reported in southern Italy.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Italy is scrambling to fight a coronavirus outbreak after a sharp spike in cases and deaths made it the worst-hit country outside of Asia.

As of Wednesday evening, 12 people in Italy had died from the virus. Italian authorities reported at least 400 cases of COVID-19 in the country, according to the BBC.

All the people who have died in Italy were elderly or had other health complications, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and the Associated Press reported.

The country has put 11 towns on lockdown to contain the virus’ spread.

The two most infected regions are Lombardy and Veneto in the north, which contain the major cities of Milan and Venice. But the virus has also spread farther south, with regions including Tuscany and the island of Sicily also reporting cases on Tuesday and Wednesday.

People wearing sanitary masks walk past the Duomo gothic cathedral in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. A dozen Italian towns saw daily life disrupted after the deaths of two people infected with the virus from China and a pair of case clusters without direct links to the outbreak abroad. A rapid spike in infections prompted authorities in the northern Lombardy and Veneto regions to close schools, businesses and restaurants and to cancel sporting events and Masses. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

People walk past the Duomo in Milan on February 23.

Associated Press


Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced an emergency plan to quarantine towns late on Saturday, locking down the settlements by blocking most travel to and from them. He said the quarantine could last for weeks, the BBC reported.

Italian officials estimated on Monday that about 100,000 people in the country were affected by the travel restrictions. Schools, museums, and theaters across the region have been closed.

Police officers and members of the armed forces have been given the authority to enforce the lockdown, the BBC reported.

Italy coronavirus

Italian troops near a checkpoint at the entrance of the small Northern Italian town of Vo Euganeo, situated in the red zone of the coronavirus outbreak, on February 24.

MARCO SABADIN/AFP via Getty Images


On Tuesday, Conte warned against panic and defended the country’s response to the virus.

“Obviously I can’t say I’m not worried because I don’t want anyone to think we’re underestimating this emergency,” he said, according to the AP. “But we trust that with the measures we’ve implemented there will be a containing effect in the coming days.”

He also told La Repubblica that “we need to stop panic.” 

Empty carnivals, fashion shows, and soccer stadiums

The virus has prompted the cancelation of the annual Venice Carnival and the closing of some major landmarks.

The fashion house Giorgio Armani also held its runway show at Milan Fashion Week in an empty theater as a precaution.

Major soccer games have been played in empty stadiums, including the clash between the league leaders Juventus and Inter Milan on Sunday.

Photos show stores packed with shoppers and shelves rapidly emptying.

Coronavirus Italy empty stores

Empty shelves in a supermarket in Milan, Italy on February 23.

Luca Bruno/AP Photos


Neighboring countries are worried

Italy’s north has open borders with France, Austria, Switzerland, and Slovenia.

Italians or people who recently visited Italy have tested positive for the coronavirus in Algeria, Austria, Brazil, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Spain, and Switzerland, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Italy coronavirus

A couple on the subway at the Duomo underground station in Milan on February 25.

REUTERS/Yara Nardi


Matteo Salvini, the former deputy prime minister of the country who leads the far-right Northern League party, called for the country’s borders to be closed, but Conte dismissed the idea at a Saturday press conference.

“I don’t think the conditions for such a move exist at this point,” Conte said, according to Politico.

The European Union said on Monday that it was not considering any travel suspensions within the bloc’s border-free area, also known as the Schengen Area.

France warned anyone visiting the Lombardy and Veneto regions to wear face masks, regularly check their temperature, and avoid nonessential travel, the AP reported.

italy giuseppe conte government

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi


Officials in France and Austria are monitoring their borders for visitors from Italy who could be carrying the virus, according to the AP. Ireland has also advised its citizens not to travel to affected areas of Italy, and the UK told people to avoid “all but essential” travel to affected towns.

Romania’s health ministry on Sunday said all Romanian citizens coming back from Lombardy and Veneto would be quarantined for 14 days, Politico reported.

Austria temporarily halted rail traffic across its border with Italy on Sunday but later recommenced it.

Trains traveling out of the country from the north of Italy may also face delays and cancellations as train companies perform health checks, sanitize train carriages, and expect reduced demand for travel, La Repubblica reported.

Italy coronavirus

Tourists wear protective masks in Rome on January 31, 2020.

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images


The EU urged coordination during the outbreak

The EU on Monday said it was monitoring the spread of the coronavirus “around the clock” and said it would spend 232 million euros, or $252 million, to try to prevent a global outbreak.

Stella Kyriakides, the EU’s Health Commissioner, told reporters Wednesday that EU countries have to have a coordinated response to tackling the virus.

“All member states need to inform us of their preparedness plans,” she said, according to Reuters. “Diverging approaches across the EU should be avoided.”

The coronavirus, thought to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has now infected more than 80,000 people and spread to at least 40 other countries, though most only have a handful of cases. 

France recorded its first death from the coronavirus on Wednesday, though authorities say they do not yet know how or where the person contracted the virus.

The World Health Organization warned over the weekend that the window of opportunity to contain the virus was narrowing.



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Why is Nordstrom Rack so cheap? Overstock, past seasons

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  • Nordstrom Rack is thriving even as its full-price store struggles to find its footing amid an uncertain retail climate.
  • During its most recent earnings call, Nordstrom reported eight consecutive quarters of sales growth for its off-price business, while its full-price department store posted declines. 
  • Here’s how Nordstrom Rack keeps its prices so low. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Since its humble beginnings in 1973 as a clearance center in the basement of a Seattle store, Nordstrom Rack has flourished into a go-to destination for discounted designer goods. 

Nearly 50 years later, Nordstrom Rack has nearly 250 total stores and serves as an integral piece of the Nordstrom business. In December, Nordstrom reported that its off-price companies — which also includes the e-commerce company, HauteLook — posted positive sales and increasing inventory turns for the eighth consecutive quarter. In the third quarter of 2019, off-price net sales grew by 1.2% while full-price declined by 4.1%. 

Discount retailers have been popular for decades, but they especially resonated with shoppers in the wake of the recession and continued to grow in subsequent years. Today traditional retailers are leaning on these models more than ever, and Nordstrom isn’t alone in finding solace in the world of off-price: Macy’s recently announced plans to expand Macy’s Backstage in response to growing demand for discounts. 

While Nordstrom Rack sources a significant amount of its inventory from overstock at its full-price store, it also produces some low-cost yet stylish items exclusively for the store.

Here’s a closer look at how Nordstrom Rack keeps its prices so low: 



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JPMorgan wealth and asset management unit on M&A, hiring, US expansion

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  • JPMorgan execs provided new details on plans to grow the bank’s wealth and asset management businesses.
  • The Wall Street bank is considering M&A as a core part of its growth strategy for asset and wealth management for the next decade. It also plans to hire more than 500 front-office employees in that division this year.
  •  
  • “We’re going to be much more aggressive in acquisitions across the board,” JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said at the end of the bank’s annual investor day presentation on Tuesday. 
  • JPMorgan in December restructured its wealth management business to better compete against the traditional US wirehouses like Morgan Stanley and Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.
  • Visit BI Prime for more wealth management stories.

JPMorgan is looking at possible M&A to boost its wealth and asset management business, executives at the firm said on Tuesday, comments that come on the heels of a rush of deal announcements. 

“We’re going to be much more aggressive in acquisitions across the board,” JPMorgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon told investors and analysts at the bank’s annual investor day. 

The bank laid out its plans just days after rival Morgan Stanley said it would buy discount brokerage E-Trade for $13 billion and asset management giants Franklin Resources and Legg Mason announced a $4.5 billion merger.

Industry dynamics like investors plowing money into passive investments, rock-bottom customer fees, “mid-tier managers being squeezed,'” and operating in the late innings of a historically long bull market are all conditions that JPMorgan flagged as advantageous to M&A right now.   

Kristin Lemkau of JPMorgan

Kristin Lemkau, pictured here in 2019, was formerly the firm’s marketing chief.

Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images


“We’re looking at everything,” Mary Callahan Erdoes, the chief executive of the asset and wealth management business line, said in prepared remarks, referring to M&A possibilities. “But we’re looking for adjacent capabilities. We’re not looking for scale. We don’t need it. We’ve got what we need, we want to just keep growing what we have. We’re very selective.”

JPMorgan also plans to hire more than 500 front-office wealth and asset management staffers this year, and expand its US presence.

The firm’s hiring plans encompass both financial advisers and other investment professionals. Globally, JPMorgan has around 1,000 investment specialists across asset management, and 6,500 wealth advisers. In the US, it has some 3,700 advisers across 5,000 branches.

Across the US, it plans to expand between this year and 2021 in 14 areas including parts of Alabama, Nebraska, and Iowa, where it currently has no branch presence.

The wealth business also plans to grow its footprint in areas including Minneapolis, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. 

JPMorgan executives also said the bank would focus on expanding its private bank globally, growing asset management, and building out alternative investment offerings.

An aggressive wealth focus for JPMorgan — and everyone else 

JPMorgan’s recent overhaul and new focus on the business comes as wealth management and the traditional brokerage space has morphed into a battleground for US firms.

The industry has become increasingly crowded and ultra-competitive, filled with legacy players and new digital entrants vying for the same set of young investors accustomed to low-cost financial services.

Another dimension to the competition is the intergenerational wealth transfer expected over the next decade, and firms are chomping at the bit to expand wealth services and draw in new customers who may one day turn into lucrative wealth management clients.

What many analysts point to as a need for scale has also driven other mega-mergers, like the $26 billion Charles Schwab-TD Ameritrade combination set to close later this year. Charles Schwab also said on Monday that it would acquire a $10.5 billion fixed-income investment manager for an undisclosed amount.

The bank in December said it would form a new unit combining its US wealth management, Chase branch network’s financial-advisory business, and You Invest online brokerage businesses. Kristin Lemkau, who was the firm’s marketing chief up until December, was appointed to lead the new unit and is now chief executive of US wealth management.

The reorganization, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, was an effort to bulk up its position against the traditional US wirehouses, like Morgan Stanley and Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. 

JPMorgan’s assets under management have trailed those rivals. It manages some $2.4 trillion across both asset and wealth management as of Dec. 31 while Morgan Stanley, for instance, oversees $2.7 trillion in its wealth management business alone. 

Before the reorganization, JPMorgan’s various wealth businesses were not housed under one unit. The newly formed wealth management business caters to clients with up to $25 million in assets; the private bank for ultra-wealthy clients is separate from the new unit.

Rival banks have recently said they plan to double down on their wealth management businesses. Goldman Sachs said late last month at its first investor day that it planned to add financial advisers in the Americas, its Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) segment, and in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. 



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