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First Rocket Lab U.S. launch is a success after NASA delays

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The company’s Electron rocket lifts off from LC-2 at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Jan. 24, 2023.

Brady Kenniston / Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab‘s first U.S. launch got off the ground Tuesday evening, marking a successful mission and a long-awaited expansion of the company’s capabilities.

The company’s Electron rocket launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia, carrying a trio of satellites to orbit for radio frequency analytics specialist Hawkeye 360.

“Electron is already the leading small orbital rocket globally, and today’s perfect mission from a new pad is testament to our team’s unrelenting commitment to mission success,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement Tuesday night.

The mission was Rocket Lab’s 33rd to date, but the first from U.S. soil. The company has been regularly launching from its two private launchpads in New Zealand – with nine successful missions last year.

Tuesday’s launch also comes after years of delays.

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The company selected Wallops in late 2018 to build a new launchpad, called LC-2, and aimed for a debut launch by the third quarter of 2019. The company completed work on the ground infrastructure less than a year later and conducted initial testing with an Electron on the pad in mid-2020, but a new safety software system from NASA held up the inaugural launch attempt, according to Rocket Lab.

Beck previously said that NASA’s development of the software was “supposed to be complete by the end” of 2021. But certification of the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU), which is used to automatically monitor a rocket launch and destroy the vehicle if it heads off course, wasn’t completed until last year.

The software was designed to serve the role traditionally performed by a person, known as a “range safety officer,” who monitors the launch’s data.

While some rocket building companies have developed proprietary versions of autonomous flight safety software, NASA heralds its NAFTU system as “revolutionary” since it can be used by “any launch provider at all U.S. launch ranges.” NASA also says NAFTU will help save time and money associated with conducting an orbital rocket launch safely — cost savings that will benefit the agency and companies alike.

NASA’s completion of the system fills a “critical gap in modernizing our nation’s launch ranges,” Wallops director David Pierce said in a statement after Rocket Lab’s launch.

“We’re proud to have made this and future U.S. Rocket Lab Electron launches possible with our game-changing flight safety technology,” he said.

Rocket Lab previously said it expects to conduct 14 Electron launches in 2023, with anywhere from four to six flying from LC-2 in Wallops. The company is slated to release fourth-quarter results after market close on Feb. 28.

Rocket Lab stock was down about 2% in early trading Wednesday from its previous close of $4.97 a share. Like other pure-play space stocks, the company’s stock has regained ground this month after a brutal 2022, with shares up roughly 28% year to date.

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U.S. plans to stop buying Covid shots in the fall. What that means

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A pharmacist delivers a COVID-19 booster dose at a Chicago CVS store in October.

Antonio Perez | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

The U.S. will stop buying Covid shots at reduced price for the entire country and shift vaccine distribution to the private market as soon as early fall, shifting the cost to U.S. insurers and uninsured Americans who stand to lose access to the free vaccines.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House Covid response coordinator, said in an an interview with UCSF Department of Medicine on Thursday that the shift to a private market will happen over the summer or early fall, though no exact date has been set.

A senior official with the Health and Human Services Department told CNBC the fall would be a natural time to transition to a private market, particularly if the Food and Drug Administration selects a new Covid strain for the vaccines and asks the manufacturers to produce updated shots ahead of the respiratory virus season.

For the past two years, the U.S. has bought the vaccines directly from Pfizer and Moderna at an average price of about $21 per dose, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The federal government has required pharmacies, doctor’s offices and hospitals to provide these shots for free to everyone regardless of their insurance status.

If you have health insurance

When the federal Covid vaccination program ends, the shots will remain free for people who have health insurance due to requirements under the Affordable Care Act.

But uninsured adults may have to pay for their immunizations when Pfizer and Moderna start selling the shots on the private market and the current federal stockpile runs out. There is a federal program to provide free vaccines to children whose families or caretakers can’t afford the shots.

Jha said on Tuesday the planned switch is not tied to the end of the Covid public health emergency in May.

“The end of the PHE does NOT mean people will suddenly not be able to get the vaccines and treatments they need,” Jha wrote in a Twitter thread on Tuesday.

When the federal government no longer buys vaccines at a discount for the entire nation, individual health-care providers will purchase the shots from the vaccine makers at a higher price.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told CNBC last month that the company is preparing to sell the vaccines on the private market as early as this fall. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told investors during the company’s earnings call this week that he is preparing for the vaccines to go commercial in the second half of the year.

Pfizer and Moderna have said they are considering hiking the price of the vaccines to somewhere around $110 to $130 per dose once the U.S. government pulls out of the vaccine program.

If you’re uninsured

“If you’re uninsured, then you might be faced with the full cost,” said Cynthia Cox, an expert on the Affordable Care Act at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But the U.S. still has a substantial stockpile of free vaccines left. The Biden administration ordered 171 million omicron boosters last year. About 51 million boosters have been administered so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The uninsured will continue to have access to these 120 million doses for free, but it’s unclear how long the supply will last.

“With the supply we have of vaccines and antivirals, we don’t think we’re going to be in a state of precipitous transition to drop this on market partners,” the HHS official said.

Although the vaccine makers are preparing to sell shots on the private market later this year, it’s possible that the federal stockpile of free shots could last longer than that because booster uptake has been low, Cox said.

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ACA requirements

But for the overwhelming majority of people with private insurance, the Affordable Care Act will cover the cost of the vaccines. Under the ACA, private health insurance is required to cover all immunizations recommended by the CDC at no cost to the consumer.

Medicare would cover the shots for seniors, who are the most vulnerable to the virus, and lower-income people could get the vaccine through Medicaid.

There may be a small number of legacy private health insurance plans from before the ACA that are not required to cover Covid vaccines, Cox said. The HHS official said most of those plans will likely pay for the shots.

In addition, some short-term insurance policies might not pay for the vaccines, Cox said. These plans were expanded during the Trump administration and aren’t required to comply with the ACA.

The ACA also allows private insurance to limit vaccine coverage to in-network providers, Cox said. People who have grown accustomed to getting vaccinated at any pharmacy during the pandemic might have to go to a specific drugstore in the future to get a free shot, she said.

Consumers could also see their health insurance premiums increase if Pfizer and Moderna hike the price of the shots, Cox said.

Paxlovid may not be free

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Axis Bank exposure to Adani Group ‘comfortable’, only 0.94% of its net advances

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Reuters | | Posted by Singh Rahul Sunilkumar

Axis Bank on Saturday said its exposure to Adani Group entities stood at 0.94% of its net advances on December 31, adding that it remained comfortable with its exposure. Read: How Adani’s $58 billion wipeout in 6 days fares vs Bankman-Fried’s wealth loss

“Our exposure to Adani Group is primarily t o the operating companies in the Ports, Transmission, Power, Gas Distribution, Roads, Airports etc,” the bank said.

The Adani Group, led by billionaire Gautam Adani, is reeling from a U.S. short-seller’s scathing report in January that has cratered its shares, prompted calls from opposition lawmakers for a wider probe and the central bank to check on banks’ exposure to the conglomerate. ALSO READ: Axis Bank Q3 result: Profit jumps 62% to 5,853 cr

State Bank of India, the country’s largest lender, said on Friday it has no concerns so far regarding its exposure to the Adani Group and that any further financing to the conglomerate’s projects would be “evaluated on its own merit”.

SBI’s total exposure to the conglomerate was 0.9% of its total loan book, or around 270 billion rupees ($3.30 billion), the bank’s Chairman Dinesh Kumar Khara said.

The crisis at Adani Group was triggered by last month’s report by Hindenburg Research that accused the conglomerate of stock manipulation and unsustainable debt. Adani Group has rejected the criticism and denied wrongdoing in detailed rebuttals.

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Inside Relativity Space’s monster factory 3D-printing reusable rockets

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The exterior of “The Wormhole” factory.

Relativity Space

LONG BEACH, California – It was a few days into the new year yet Relativity Space’s factory was anything but quiet, a din of activity with massive 3D printers humming and the clanging of construction ringing out.

Now about eight years on from its founding, Relativity continues to grow as it pursues a novel way of manufacturing rockets out of mostly 3D-printed structures and parts. Relativity believes that its approach will make building orbital-class rockets much faster than traditional methods, requiring thousands less parts and enabling changes to be made via software — aiming to create rockets from raw materials in as little as 60 days.

The company has raised over $1.3 billion in capital to date and continues to expand its footprint, including the addition of more than 150 acres at NASA’s rocket engine testing center in Mississippi. Relativity was named to CNBC’s Disruptor 50 last year.

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The company’s first rocket, known Terran 1, is currently in the final stages of preparation for its inaugural launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida. That rocket was built in “The Portal,” the 120,000-square-foot factory the company built in Long Beach.

The inside of “The Wormhole” factory in Long Beach, California.

Relativity Space

But earlier this month CNBC took a look inside “The Wormhole:” The more than one-million square foot facility where Boeing previously built C-17 aircraft is where Relativity now is filling in with machinery and building its larger, reusable line of Terran R rockets.

“I actually tried to kill this project several times,” Relativity CEO and co-founder Tim Ellis told CNBC, gesturing to one of the company’s newest additive manufacturing machines – this one given an internal codename “Reaper,” in reference to the StarCraft games — which marks the fourth generation of the company’s Stargate printers.

A closeup look at one of the company’s “Reaper” printers at work.

Relativity Space

Unlike Relativity’s prior Stargate generations, which printed vertically, the fourth generation ones building the main structures of Terran R are printing horizontally. Ellis emphasized the change allows its printers to manufacture seven times faster than the third generation, and have been tested at speeds up to 12 times faster.

The scale of one of the Stargate “Reaper” printers.

Relativity Space

“[Printing horizontally] seems very counterintuitive, but it ends up enabling a certain change in the physics of the printhead which is then much, much faster,” Ellis said.

A pair of the company’s “Reaper” 3D-printers.

Relativity Space

So far, the company is utilizing about a third of the cavernous former Boeing facility, where Ellis said Relativity has room for about a dozen printers that can produce Terran R rockets at a pace of “several a year.”

For 2023, Relativity is focused on getting Terran 1 to orbit, to prove its approach works, as well as demonstrate how “fast we can progress the additive technology,” Ellis said.

“Given the overall economy, we’re obviously being very scrappy still, and making sure we’re delivering results,” he added.

The company’s Terran 1 rocket stands on its launchpad at LC-16 in Cape Canaveral, Florida ahead of the inaugural launch attempt.

Trevor Mahlmann / Relativity Space

Correction: A previous of this story misstated the speed the company’s 3D-printers had been tested.

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