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Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin auctions spaceflight seat for $28 million

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A New Shepard rocket launches on a test flight.

Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos‘ space venture Blue Origin auctioned off a seat on its upcoming first crewed spaceflight on Saturday for $28 million.

The winning bidder, whose name wasn’t released, will fly to the edge of space with the Amazon founder and his brother Mark on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket scheduled to launch on July 20. The company said it will reveal the name of the auction winner in the coming weeks.

Bidding opened at $4.8 million but surpassed $20 million within the first few minutes of the auction. The auction’s proceeds will be donated to Blue Origin’s education-focused nonprofit Club for the Future, which supports kids interested in future STEM careers.

Blue Origin director of astronaut and orbital sales Ariane Cornell said during the auction webcast that New Shepard’s first passenger flight will carry four people, including Bezos, his brother, the auction winner and a fourth person to be announced later.

Autonomous spaceflight

New Shepard, a rocket that carries a capsule to an altitude of over 340,000 feet, has flown more than a dozen successful test flights without passengers, including one in April at the company’s facility in the Texas desert. It’s designed to carry up to six people and flies autonomously — without needing a pilot. The capsule has massive windows to give passengers a view of the earth below during about three minutes in zero gravity, before returning to Earth.

Blue Origin’s system launches vertically, and both the rocket and capsule are reusable. The boosters land vertically on a concrete pad at the company’s facility in Van Horn, Texas, while the capsules land using a set of parachutes.

The interior of the latest New Shepard capsule

Blue Origin

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 and still owns the company, funding it through share sales of his Amazon stock.

July 20 is notable because it also marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Branson and Musk

VSS Unity fires its rocket engine shortly after launching on its third spaceflight on May 22, 2021.

Virgin Galactic

Bezos and fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson are in a race to get to space, but each in different ways. Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic are competing to take passengers on short flights to the edge of space, a sector known as suborbital tourism, while Musk’s SpaceX is launching private passengers on further, multi-day flights, in what is known as orbital tourism.

Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have been developing rocket-powered spacecraft, but that is where the similarities end. While Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket launches vertically from the ground, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system is released mid-air and returns to Earth in a glide for a runway landing, like an aircraft.

Virgin Galactic’s system is also flown by two pilots, while Blue Origin’s launches without one. Branson’s company has also flown a test spaceflight with a passenger onboard, although the company has three spaceflight tests remaining before it begins flying commercial customers – which is planned to start in 2022.

SpaceX launches its Crew Dragon spacecraft to orbit atop its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, having sent 10 astronauts to the International Space Station on three missions to date.

In addition to the government flights, Musk’s company is planning to launch multiple private astronaut missions in the year ahead – beginning with the all-civilian Inspiration4 mission that is planned for September. SpaceX is also launching at least four private missions for Axiom Space, starting early next year.

Blue Origin’s auction may have netted $28 million, but a seat on a suborbital spacecraft is typically much less expensive. Virgin Galactic has historically sold reservations between $200,000 and $250,000 per ticket, and more recently charged the Italian Air Force about $500,000 per ticket for a training spaceflight.

Musk’s orbital missions are more costly than the suborbital flights, with NASA paying SpaceX about $55 million per seat for spaceflights to the ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft named “Resilience” is seen docked to the International Space Station.

NASA

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Renewable hydrogen can travel through existing pipelines, CEO says

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The CEO of Italian infrastructure giant Snam on Friday outlined a vision for the future of hydrogen, saying the “beauty” of it was that it could be easily stored and transported.

Speaking to CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe,” Marco Alverà spoke about how current systems would be used to facilitate the delivery of hydrogen produced using renewable sources as well as biofuels.

“Right now, if you turn on your heater in Italy the gas is flowing from Russia, all the way from Siberia, in pipelines,” he said. 

“Tomorrow, we will have hydrogen produced in North Africa, in the North Sea, with solar and wind resources,” Alverà said. “And that hydrogen can travel through the existing pipeline.”

Alvera said Snam had tested different percentages of blending – including as much as 100% hydrogen – in existing pipes, and it had worked.

“So that’s an energy transition using the infrastructure we have,” he said. “And the very good news is that this new renewable energy will cost less than existing fossil fuel energy, which is [a] real breakthrough.”

Read more about clean energy from CNBC Pro

Described by the International Energy Agency as a “versatile energy carrier,” hydrogen has a diverse range of applications and can be deployed in sectors such as industry and transport.

It can be produced in a number of ways. One method includes using electrolysis, with an electric current splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen.

If the electricity used in this process comes from a renewable source, such as wind or solar, then some call it green or renewable hydrogen.

Currently, the vast majority of hydrogen generation is based on fossil fuels, and green hydrogen is expensive to produce.

Challenges ahead

In an interview with CNBC on Friday, Enel CEO Francesco Starace said there was “no competition for capital between hydrogen and renewables.”

“Hydrogen today is a niche, and it is a niche that needs to develop into commercial standard and into … big industry, competitive pricing,” Starace said, signaling that such a shift would probably take 10 years.

“So it’s a big effort in R&D, it’s a big effort in prototypes, a big effort in pilot plants, but nothing compared to what goes on, on the very large and competitive battlefield of renewables today.”

Indeed, while there is excitement about the potential role hydrogen could play going forward, it still has challenges.

Earlier this week, a briefing from the World Energy Council said low-carbon hydrogen wasn’t “cost competitive with other energy supplies in most applications and locations.”

It added that the situation was unlikely to change unless there was “significant support to bridge the price gap.”

The analysis — which was put together in collaboration with PwC and the U.S. Electric Power Research Institute — raised the question of where funding for such support would come from, but also pointed to the increasing profile of the sector and the positive effect this could have.

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CDC warns as contagious as chickenpox, may make people sicker

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The CDC warned House lawmakers that the delta variant sweeping across the country is as contagious as chickenpox, has a longer transmission window than the original Covid-19 strain and may make older people sicker, even if they’ve been fully vaccinated.

The warning on Thursday was made in a confidential document that was reviewed by CNBC and authenticated by the federal health agency.

Delta, now in at least 132 countries and already the dominant form of the disease in the United States, is more transmissible than the common cold, the 1918 Spanish flu, smallpox, Ebola, MERS and SARS, according to the document. Only measles appears to spread faster than the variant.

“The war has changed,” officials of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote.

Health officials said federal and state leaders should communicate to the public the benefits of getting vaccinated, adding the Covid vaccine shots reduce the risk of severe disease and death “10-fold or greater” and reduce the risk of infection “3-fold.”

Vaccines prevent more than 90% of severe disease, but may be less effective at preventing infection, they said, making community spread among the vaccinated more likely. The document said 35,000 symptomatic infections are occurring per week among 162 million vaccinated Americans.

Separately, the CDC has said 5,914 fully vaccinated people have been hospitalized or have died with Covid infections as of July 19, the most recent data available. Breakthrough cases, which occur in the fully vaccinated, happen more frequently in gatherings of people and in groups at risk of primary vaccine failure, according to the document.

Health officials also said federal and state leaders should consider vaccine mandates, particularly for health-care workers, universal masking and other community mitigation strategies. President Joe Biden announced on Thursday his administration would require federal workers to prove their vaccination status or submit to a series of rigorous safety protocols.

The documents presented to lawmakers came two days after the CDC reversed course on its prior guidance and recommended fully vaccinated Americans who live in areas with high Covid infection rates resume wearing face masks indoors. The guidelines cover about two-thirds of the U.S. population, according to a CNBC analysis.

Dr. Paul Offit, who advises the FDA on Covid vaccines, said Friday it is “profoundly” upsetting that the U.S. hasn’t gotten a critical portion of the population vaccinated, adding delta has “changed the game.” About half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

“Yesterday, you had 90,000 cases and close to 400 deaths,” Offit said. “Those are same numbers you saw last summer. I mean, last summer, you had a fully susceptible population and you had no vaccine.”

He said the CDC documents highlight just how “frustrated” federal officials are, given that there are safe and effective vaccines.

“The war isn’t against the virus anymore. It’s also at some level a war against ourselves,” he said.

People infected with the delta variant carry up to 1,000 times more virus in their nasal passages than other strains, resulting in higher transmissibility, even among the vaccinated, according to federal health officials. The CDC noted that studies in Canada, Singapore and Scotland found higher odds of hospitalization, ICU admission, oxygen needs, pneumonia or death among people infected with the delta variant.

While the variant, which surfaced in India, continues to hit unvaccinated people the hardest, some vaccinated people could be carrying higher levels of the virus than previously understood and are potentially transmitting it to others, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday. She added the variant behaves “uniquely differently from past strains of the virus.”

“This pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health of all Americans,” Walensky told reporters on a call.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said Walensky and White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci briefed the committee on the new data Thursday.

“I am deeply concerned about the rapidly increasing rates of coronavirus infections in states around the country that is being driven by the Delta variant,” Clyburn said in a statement, noting that Covid cases have increased by 145% in the last two weeks and hospitalizations and deaths are rising again, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates. “This sudden turn of events threatens to undermine the significant progress we have made this year to overcome the pandemic.”

–CNBC’s Rich Mendez, Robert Towey and Nate Rattner contributed to this report.

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Infrastructure stocks, ETFs to watch as bill advances through Congress

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Infrastructure stocks took off late this week as a bill backed by President Joe Biden cleared another key hurdle.

Late Wednesday, the Senate voted to advance the infrastructure bill, which includes $550 billion in new spending for such projects as moving the country to clean energy reliance, building roads and rails and expanding internet access.

The PAVE ETF, whose stocks include Deere and Union Pacific, rose more than 1% on Thursday on the heels of that progress.

While the bill has a way to go with the details still unknown, any influx of spending could have an outsized impact on industrials, materials and utilities stocks. CNBC’s “Trading Nation” asked its traders on Thursday about what companies they see as key beneficiaries.

“There’s a lot of ways to play this,” said Gina Sanchez, CEO of Chantico Global and chief market strategist at Lido Advisors. She pointed to the PAVE or IFRA infrastructure ETFs as two broad ways to gain exposure.

But her favorite way to play the space is through the materials sector.

“They have been putting one foot in front of the other to the tune of over 30% this year, and so you could play the broad materials ETF or you could play specific names like BHP Billiton or Cleveland-Cliffs. …These are steel names, and you need steel, you need aggregates, Vulcan Materials, and so those are the kinds of names that we’re looking at right now to sort of really get ahead of this trade,” she said.

JC O’Hara, chief market technician at MKM Partners, said “follow the money” by investing in the areas where the most funds are earmarked within the bill.

“We found two key segments that we want to explore further — first, power infrastructure. A big portion of money is allocated to this, so you have to look at utilities, and the second portion is water. We have $50 billion for water infrastructure proposed at this time, another $55 billion for replacing all the country’s lead pipes, so that’s a big chunk of this bill,” O’Hara said.

There’s one name in particular that stands out to O’Hara — American Water Works, a $31 billion utilities company that has gained 11% in July.

“If you look at the chart, there has been strong accumulation over the last 12 months. This week, the utilities are breaking out to new highs, so technically very sound. And finally, this utility sports a decent dividend yield in line with the U.S. 10-year, but what we like about this is the dividend growth growing at 10% a year,” said O’Hara.

American Water yields 1.4%, slightly better than the S&P 500. The stock has underperformed the S&P 500 this year, but has picked up steam in the past month.

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