SpaceX’s first astronaut mission could take off in May

SpaceX is getting very close to its goal of flying actual astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft. After a successful in-flight abort (IFA) test in January, it had basically crossed off all the major milestones needed before flying people, first on a demonstration mission referred to as “Demo-2” by SpaceX and its commercial crew partner NASA.

We now know the working date that SpaceX is aiming for with that crucial mission: May 7. To be clear, that’s very much a working date and the actual mission could slip either later, or even earlier, according to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger who first reported the timeline.

We knew before today that SpaceX was getting very close to be mission-ready in terms of its spacecraft. The Government Accountability Office released a report last week detailing progress on the commercial crew program and noted that the Crew Dragon capsule that will be used to fly astronauts for Demo-2 was on track to be completed “3 months earlier” than was expected based on most recent timelines.

Demo-2 will be the second demonstration mission of Crew Dragon, following a Demo-1 uncrewed mission that flew in March of last year. That mission saw the SpaceX spacecraft fly to the International Space Station (ISS), dock with the orbital lab, undock and return safely to Earth with a controlled landing, all using automated processes and without anyone on board.

The Demo-2 mission will fly two crew, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both NASA astronauts who will be completing their third spaceflight during the mission. Bob and Doug will at least fly aboard Crew Dragon to the ISS, replicating the Demo-1 mission but with a crew on board, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently shared that it would be looking into the possibility of extending the duration of the mission (which had been planned for two weeks) to allow it to actually rotate the crew of the ISS, just like what currently happens with Soyuz astronaut flights.

As alway with space, expect some movement in that target date, but we are getting close enough now that the general ballpark should be a pretty accurate reflection of when things go down, barring any major issues between now and then.

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Daily Crunch: MWC faces coronavirus concerns

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. As top exhibitors pull out of MWC, organizers implement stringent safeguards

A couple of weeks before the event, the organizers of Mobile World Congress have issued some fairly sweeping safeguards over growing concerns around the coronavirus. After a number of high-profile back-outs, the organizers announced a ban of visitors originating from the Hubei province, whose capital Wuhan is believed to be the origin of the epidemic.

Following this news on Sunday, Sony and Amazon also pulled out of MWC.

2. NASA and ESA’s Solar Orbiter begins its nearly two-year journey to the Sun

After years of development, an exciting new scientific research spacecraft has launched on its journey to study our solar system’s central player: the Sun.

3. Netflix’s movies only won two Oscars this year

Two Oscars — Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Laura Dern’s performance in “Marriage Story” and Best Documentary Feature for “American Factory” — are a respectable showing for a studio that only started making movies a few years ago. Yet it still feels like a disappointment, given Netflix’s 24 nominations and its aggressive Oscar campaigns.

4. Starling Bank raises another £60M from existing backers

Starling Bank, the U.K.-based challenger bank founded by banking veteran Anne Boden, has raised another £60 million from its existing investors, Merian Global Investors and Harry McPike’s JTC. Starling is also disclosing that customers have opened 1.25 million consumer and business accounts since its banking app launched in May 2017.

5. The team behind Apple’s ‘Mythic Quest’ says video games aren’t the punch line

When video game publisher Ubisoft first approached “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” stars Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day about creating a new show set in the game industry, McElhenney said they weren’t interested — at least not initially. But a visit to Ubisoft’s Montreal office changed his mind.

6. Index Fund’s portfolio is driving long-overdue innovation in femcare

We chatted with Index principal Hannah Seal about the fund’s investment in tampon startup Daye and her broader thoughts on a new generation of female-focused startups. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The Equity team has some thoughts about Casper’s IPO, as well as the strong post-IPO performance of One Medical. And over on Original Content, we review Netflix’s Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana” — even if you’re not a Swiftie, I think we had a fun conversation about celebrity culture.

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Localytics founders announce Demand Sage, a startup bringing marketing intelligence to small and mid-sized businesses

Just a couple days after mobile analytics and marketing company Localytics was acquired by Upland Software, two of its founders are announcing their new startup Demand Sage.

CEO Raj Aggarwal and CTO Henry Cipolla previously co-founded and served in the same roles at Localytics, and they founded Demand Sage with Chief Product Officer Randy Dailey — who Aggarwal described as the “perpetual all star” of the Localytics product team.

Aggarwal explained that the idea for Demand Sage emerged from their time at Localytics, where the team worked with large enterprises and used customer data to “refine their customer experience.” But he discovered that “even for a mid-sized company like ourselves, it was impossible, infeasible to take advantage of those same capabilities.”

At least, it was impossible in the past, but Aggarwal said the landscape has changed in ways that allow Demand Sage to now bring “the best of a large enterprise’s marketing intelligence capabilities to small and medium-sized companies” (as he put it in a blog post introducing the company).

First, there’s cost. Aggarwal told me that while a smaller business can’t afford the “massive cost to cleanse and manipulate data,” many are now using online software that collects and structures the data for them, so Demand Sage can take advantage of that work.

“The problem is that the enterprise solutions are built in a way that requires customization or data manipulation as the first step to really understand what that data is,” he said. “That’s what makes it cost tens of thousands of dollars, often. That’s the first piece that we think we can eliminate immediately.”

Second, there’s the fact that marketers are increasingly creating their reports in Google Sheets, because of its flexibility. And third, Aggarwal said that while “the raw cost of computation has gone down,” the data remains “pretty difficult to access and challenging for a non-data scientist to use it.”

So Demand Sage was built to take advantage of and address these shifts. It initially plugs into HubSpot (with plans to integrate with other marketing platforms) and Google Sheets, automatically generating what Aggarwal said are “spreadsheets that are well-formatted and well structured” to highlight trends and anomalies that are relevant to marketers, which can then be used for “communicating those insights back into organizations.”

To be clear, we’re not talking about basic analytics data, but rather more nuanced analysis.

“We might ask them what factors influenced customer converting down the funnel, and they would say we don’t do that analysis,” Dailey said. “They often just left it on the cutting room floor.”

As for whether Demand Sage can perform this kind of analysis across different industries, Cipolla added, “Because the data is coming from a really opinionated API, typical data science tasks like anomaly detection and basic predictions should work for any industry.”

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2021 NASA budget request includes $3.3B for human lunar landers, $430M for Moon resource development

The Trump White House today issued its fiscal 2021 budget request, and it included a 12% increase in requested funding to NASA’s coffers, as expected. That puts the total request for NASA at $25.2 billion, nearly half, or $12.3 billion, of which is earmarked specifically to support NASA’s efforts to return to the surface of the Moon and to eventually land people on Mars.

Highlights from the proposed budget, which was issued by the Office of Management and Budget on Monday, include $3.3 billion specifically designate to develop human lunar lander systems that will be used to take astronauts to the Moon’s surface from staging positions in lunar orbit. It outlines that these will rely on “competition, industry innovation and robust Government oversight” to produce safe and reliable systems for “sustainable exploration.”

It also adds $4 billion for continued development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, which combined will be used to provide transportation of astronauts from Earth to the Moon. The budget specifically says that these funds will be used by the agency to “complete these systems and start to establish a regular flight cadence.”

Also included in the request are $175 million for spacesuits to be used by astronauts on the surface of the Moon, along with $212 million for rovers that will be used for transportation. There’s $254 million included for the Commercial Lunar Landing Services (CLPS) program through which NASA is sourcing private partners to deliver scientific and cargo payloads to the Moon’s surface ahead of sending astronauts back in 2024.

A $430 million pool is included to specifically fund a “Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative,” which includes the development and demonstration of technologies that will be employed to take advantage of Moon-based resources for power generation, astronaut habitats and exploration tools. These will be used to support Moon exploration, both robotic and human, according to the proposed budget, and also to then be leveraged for similar use in eventual Mars missions.

Another $529 million is set aside for the “robotic exploration of Mars,” including a return mission to bring a Martian soil sample back to Earth for the first time ever, and a mission that will involve mapping water ice near the surface of the planet for the use of eventual human explorers.

Other considerations in the budget proposal include support for “new space stations” to ensure continued American presence in low Earth orbit, as well as astronaut training. It also continues to fund the X-59 supersonic flight demonstrator that NASA is developing with a target first flight of 2022, which is meant to provide a blueprint for future commercial supersonic overland passenger aircraft.

It also includes a proposed cut of a number of science missions, as well as the Office of STEM Engagement, which supports STEM activities in schools. This is not the first time the STEM office has been on the chopping block, however, and so far it has managed to survive the ax.

NASA is addressing the budget request and what it means for the administration’s plans in a briefing later today. We’ll provide updates about salient details as they become available.

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Fb Workplace co-founder launches downtime fire alarm Kintaba

“It’s an open secret that every company is on fire” says Kintaba co-founder John Egan. “At any given moment something is going horribly wrong in a way that it has never gone wrong before.” Code failure downtimes, server outages, and hack attacks plague engineering teams. Yet the tools for waking up the right employees, assembling a team to fix the problem, and doing a post-mortem to assess how to prevent it from happening again can be as chaotic as the crisis itself.

Text messages, Slack channels, task managers, and Google Docs aren’t sufficient for actually learning from mistakes. Alerting systems like PagerDuty focus on the rapid response, but not the educational process in the aftermath. Finally there’s a more holistic solution to incident response with today’s launch of Kintaba.

The Kintaba team experienced these pains first hand while working at Facebook after Egan and Zac Morris’ Y Combinator-backed data transfer startup Caffeinated Mind was acqui-hired in 2012. Years later when they tried to build a blockchain startup and the whole stack was constantly in flames, they longed for a better incident alert tool. So they built one themselves and named it after the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where gold is used to fill in cracked pottery “which teaches us to embrace the imperfect and to value the repaired” Egan says.

With today’s launch, Kintaba offers a clear dashboard where everyone in the company can see what major problems have cropped up, plus who’s responding and how. Kintaba’s live activity log  and collaboration space for responders let them debate and analyze their mitigation moves. It integrates with Slack, and lets team members subscribe to different levels of alerts or search through issues with categorized hashtags.

“The ability to turn catastrophes into opportunities is one of the biggest differentiating factors between successful and unsuccessful teams and companies” says Egan. That’s why Kintaba doesn’t stop when your outage does.

Kintaba Founders (from left): John Egan Zac Morris Cole Potrocky

As the fire gets contained, Kintaba provides a rich text editor connected to its dashboard for quickly constructing a post-mortem of what went wrong, why, what fixes were tried, what worked, and how to safeguard systems for the future. Its automated scheduling assistant helps teams plan meetings to internalize the post-mortem.

Kintaba’s well-pedigreed team and their approach to an unsexy but critical software-as-a-service attracted $2.25 million in funding led by New York’s FirstMark Capital.

“All these features add up to Kintaba taking away all the annoying administrative overhead and organization that comes with running a successful modern incident management practice” says Egan, “so you can focus on fixing the big issues and learning from the experience.”

Egan, Morris and Cole Potrocky met while working at Facebook, which is known for spawning other enterprise productivity startups based on its top-notch internal tools. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz built a task management system to reduce how many meetings he had to hold, then left to turn that into Asana which filed to go public this week.

The trio had been working on internal communication and engineering tools as well as the procedures for employing them. “We saw first hand working at companies like Facebook how powerful those practices can be and wanted to make them easier for anyone to implement without having to stitch a bunch of tools together” Egan tells me. He stuck around to co-found Facebook’ enterprise collaboration suite Workplace while Potrocky built engineering architecture there and Morris became a mobile security lead at Uber.

Like many blockchain projects, Kintaba’s predecessor, crypto collectibles wallet Vault, proved an engineering nightmare without clear product market fit. So the team ditched it, pivoted to build out the internal alerting tool they’d been tinkering with. That origin story sounds a lot like Slack’s, which began as a gaming company that pivoted to turn its internal chat tool into a business.

So what’s the difference between Kintaba and just using Slack and email or a monitoring tool like PagerDuty, Splunk’s VictorOps, or Atlassian’s OpsGenie? Here’s how Egan breaks a sit downtime situation handled with Kintaba:

“You’re on call and your pager is blowing up because all your servers have stopped serving data. You’re overwhelmed and the root cause could be any of the multitude of systems sending you alerts. With Kintaba, you aren’t left to fend for yourself. You declare an incident with high severity and the system creates a collaborative space that automatically adds an experienced IMOC (incident manager on call) along with other relevant on calls. Kintaba also posts in a company-wide incident Slack channel. Now you can work together to solve the problem right inside the incident’s collaborative space or in Slack while simultaneously keeping stakeholders updated by directing them to the Kintaba incident page instead of sending out update emails. Interested parties can get quick info from the stickied comments and #tags. Once the incident is resolved, Kintaba helps you write a postmortem of what went wrong, how it was fixed, and what will be done to prevent it from happening. Kintaba then automatically distributes the postmortem and sets up an incident review on your calendar.”

Essentially, instead of having one employee panicking about what to do until the team struggles to coordinate across a bunch of fragmented messaging threads, a smoother incident reporting process and all the discussion happens in Kintaba. And if there’s a security breach that a non-engineer notices, they can launch a Kintaba alert and assemble the legal and PR team to help too.

Alternatively, Egan describes the downtime  fiascos he’d experience without Kintaba like this:

The on call has to start waking up their management chain to try and figure out who needs to be involved. The team maybe throws a Slack channel together but since there’s no common high severity incident management system and so many teams are affected by the downtime, other teams are also throwing slack channels together, email threads are happening all over the place, and multiple groups of people are trying to solve the problem at once. Engineers begin stepping all over each other and sales teams start emailing managers demanding to know what’s happening. Once the problem is solved, no one thinks to write up a postmortem and even if they do it only gets distributed to a few people and isn’t saved outside that email chain. Managers blame each other and point fingers at people instead of taking a level headed approach to reviewing the process that led to the failure. In short: panic, thrash, and poor communication.

While monitoring apps like PagerDuty can do a good job of indicating there’s a problem, they’re weaker at the collaborative resolution and post-mortem process, and designed just for engineers rather than everyone like Kintaba. Egan says “It’s kind of like comparing the difference between the warning lights on a piece of machinery and the big red emergency button on a factory floor.  We’re the big red button . . . That also means you don’t have to rip out PagerDuty to use Kintaba” since it can be the trigger that starts the Kintaba flow.

Still, Kintaba will have to prove that it’s so much better than a shared Google Doc, an adequate replacement for monitoring solutions, or a necessary add-on that companies should pay $12 per user per month. PagerDuty’s deeper technical focus helped it go public a year ago, though it’s fallen about 60% since to a market cap of $1.75 billion. Still, customers like Dropbox, Zoom, and Vodafone rely on its SMS incident alerts, while Kintaba’s integration with Slack might not be enough to rouse coders from their slumber when something catches fire.

If Kintaba can succeed in incident resolution with today’s launch, the four-person team sees adjacent markets in task prioritization, knowledge sharing, observability, and team collaboration, though those would pit it against some massive rivals. If it can’t, perhaps Slack or Microsoft Teams could be suitable soft landings for Kintaba, bringing more structured systems for dealing with major screwups to their communication platforms.

When asked why he wanted to build a legacy atop software that might seem a bit boring on the surface, Egan concluded that “Companies using Kintaba should be learning faster than their competitors . . . Everyone deserves to work within a culture that grows stronger through failure.”

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