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Masten Space Systems Files for Bankruptcy

In Space, No One Can Hear You Default …

Masten Space Systems, the California-based developer of vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing (VTVL) unmanned space-vehicles, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The hardships by which the company has been beset—notwithstanding its having fielded a number of promising spaceflight concepts and technology demonstrator aircraft—underscore the volatility of the capital-intensive space industry. 

Founded in 2004 under the unofficial tenet of Shut up and fly, Masten was recognized by its aerospace-industry peers as a gritty outfit in which young engineers cut their proverbial teeth developing prize-winning reusable space-vehicles suited to lunar landing operations. In short order, Masten won a number of NASA contracts, the most notable of which was a 2020 award of $75-million to deliver eight scientific payloads as part of a larger NASA mission to the moon’s south pole.

The undertaking funded by the NASA monies was to be known as Masten Mission 1—or MM1—and called for the company’s Xelene lunar lander to be delivered to lunar orbit by SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy rocket booster. 

The enterprise proved immediately problematic, however, as Masten had predicated its proposal to NASA on pre-COVID labor-force and supply-chain realities. Faced with idiocies the likes of lockdowns and shipping-freezes, Masten found itself between $10-million and $30-million shy of delivering the hardware it had promised NASA.

In early 2021, Masten's board and senior management endeavored to raise $60-million in outside capital. Previously, the company’s solicitations had raised little more than seed sums from angel investors. Regrettably, the effort failed to land a lead investor, and Masten remained in dire financial straits, tenuously existing from contract to contract and plying any profits to the shoring-up of its own operations. 

In January 2022, Masten’s board of directors effectively removed CEO Sean Mahoney. Parties familiar with the company’s inner-workings reported a COVID-related NASA payment of $1.4-million in February served only to prolong Masten’s death throes. NASA distributed the funds as part of the broader federal disaster relief program to U.S. businesses. By July, Masten had furloughed nearly all of its workers. 

A NASA spokesperson subsequently stated the agency had received notification that its payloads slated for delivery aboard Masten Mission One may be impacted by Masten business operations. The spokesperson further stated that were Masten Space Systems to prove unable of carrying out its contractual obligations, NASA would manifest its payload on other CLPS flights.

To date, NASA has paid $66.1-million of the contract for Masten's mission.

According to Masten’s bankruptcy filing, the company has between 50 and 99 creditors, and estimates its assets to be worth between $10-million and $50-million, with debts amounting to the same. The filing also specified that immediate attention ought be given to significant stores of explosives and hazardous chemicals that Masten counts among its assets.

FMI: www.masten.aero

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