May 22, 2023

Today's Topics

Hello! American Idol crowned the winner of the 21st season of the show last night. Not sure what season of Chartr we're on, probably somewhere around 3. Strap in for 18 (at least) more! Today we're exploring:

  • Space race: Blue Origin just won a major contract with NASA.
  • The X-date: The US treasury is running out of money.
  • Substitute slowdown: Beyond Meat's sales are stalling, and now the company is being sued.
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Artemis

On Friday, NASA announced that it had selected a group led by Jeff Bezos' space company, Blue Origin, to develop a moon lander for the Artemis program. The project will cost more than $7bn in total, with the NASA contract worth $3.5bn and Blue Origin contributing more than $3.4bn in order to build the 50-foot-tall spacecraft.

The Artemis program, led by NASA with its partners in Europe, Japan and Canada, has one main goal; to get astronauts back on the moon — a feat not accomplished since Apollo 17 more than 5 decades ago. Artemis is well underway following the successful Artemis I mission in 2022, which saw an uncrewed Orion spacecraft orbit the moon. The mission is set to be replicated in 2024, this time with a crew onboard.

Private launch

NASA's decision to award the contract to Blue Origin's team, which includes collaboration with industry giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, comes after two deals with Elon Musk's SpaceX for its Starship lander. Indeed, the latest deal is indicative of a more commercially collaborative NASA that has been increasing its reliance on the private sector, licensing a record-breaking 79 commercial launches last year.

SpaceX being chosen ahead of Blue Origin sparked court drama in 2021 as Bezos' company sued the US government for unfairly favoring Musk's company, claiming it would have been better to have chosen two companies. With the latest news, SpaceX — which has done more private launches than any other company — is now slated to conduct the inaugural lunar landing for Artemis in late 2025. Blue Origin crews will have to wait until 2029 for the Artemis V mission.

GoFundMe (treasury edition)

The US treasury’s cash balance has dipped below $100bn, further ramping up the pressure on lawmakers to solve the impending national debt crisis.

Although it’s volatile (like personal bank balances often are), the treasury’s cash pile of $57.3bn, recorded last Thursday, is by far the lowest figure for more than a year — and it’s well below the $150bn minimum that the treasury reportedly likes to keep as a buffer.

The X-date

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said to lawmakers that the “X-date” — the date when the US can no longer guarantee its ability to pay bills — is June 1st. If the US government does run out of money, the biggest problem is a default on its debt. Most analysts agree that a default would lead to complete financial chaos but the reality is that it’s anyone’s guess, because it’s never happened before.

The current debt ceiling stands at a whopping $31.4 trillion, legally limiting how much the treasury can borrow.

Talks between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy are set to resume today, as each side negotiates the latest fiscal package that would raise the limit, though both parties remain ideologically opposed on whether the new debt ceiling should come with deep cuts to, or caps on, federal spending.

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Substitute slowdown

Beyond Meat, once a poster child for the future of plant-based meat substitutes, is having a tough time catching a break. Last week, it came to light that the company is being sued after a securities class action suit was brought on behalf of purchasers of Beyond Meat stock between May 2020 and October 2022.

The claim, essentially, is that Beyond Meat “misled investors” as to the likelihood and potential success of large-scale partnerships with retailers like McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC and others, most of which never went beyond the testing stage. Whether the legal challenge holds up in court is one thing — the company itself blames “changing consumer patterns” — but even if it doesn’t, Beyond Meat is still a shadow of its former self.

Just a few years ago the company was on top of the world. Health-and-planet-conscious consumers were eager to try meat alternatives, and Beyond’s revenues were soaring — clocking $97m of sales in the first quarter of 2020, nearly two-and-a-half times what it had managed the year before. Only the most cynical of naysayers would have predicted that by 2023 the company would report $92m of sales in the same quarter, down 5% after 3 years of effort — but that's exactly what's happened.

Some believe the writing is on the wall for fake meat, with consumers unconvinced by the products, reverting back to real meat or eating other plant-based foods. Others argue that it's simply a category in the "trough of disillusionment" part of the much-theorized hype cycle, and expectations simply need a reset. For the next major leap in innovation we may have to wait for lab-grown meat, which some companies are hoping will be as cost effective (and delicious) as real meat by as early as 2030.

More Data

• Twitter Blue subscribers, those who pay $8 a month for the premium service, can now upload 2-hour videos, unfortunately that's making it a hub for pirated movies.

Italy’s 10,925 ft volcano Mount Etna erupted yesterday, halting flights into Sicily.

• Eat before it melts: Japanese Byakuya’ ice cream becomes the most expensive at more than $6,000 per scoop.

Fast X, the latest in the Fast & Furious franchise, raced past $67.5m in its domestic opening weekend and zoomed to $319m globally.

Hi-Viz

• Visualizing alternative histories with the help of AI.

• Have we had peak superhero? Explore our latest Sunday deep dive.

Quick cut: Instagram is now reportedly planning to launch a Twitter clone, but what feature did they originally copy from Snapchat that today is highly popular? P.S. Forgive how old the below chart looks, it was literally one of the very first that we made. [Answer below].

Answer here.

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