How AWS is opening up space with the cloud

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Clinton Crosier, a retired U.S. Air Force major general who helped organize the standup of the U.S. Space Force, recently celebrated his anniversary of joining cloud giant AWS to lead its newly created Aerospace and Satellite business team.

SpaceNews caught up with Crosier at the Space Symposium in Colorado to learn more about AWS’ plans for the global space industry.

 

I imagine you have spent a lot of time this past year building out the team around Aerospace and Satellite, and all the admin that’s behind setting up a new business division. Where are you with that and what’s left to do?

We’ve made amazing progress — because AWS is such a well-established company with mechanisms and processes, all the admin was done. We were able to focus on building the space business that offers the cloud to the space enterprise. Unlike when I stood up the U.S. Space Force two years ago when we started from scratch, AWS had a lot of the pieces in place. 

So the task in front of us was to build out a team of space experts. AWS has cloud experts in every room, and I believe the best cloud experts in the world, but the vision of AWS was to fill this new niche industry, the space cloud industry, where you’ve got people that deeply understand the space mission and deeply understand the cloud. When you bring them together in concert, there’s a great synergy between what the cloud can offer the space industry. 

We spent the first six months going out and hiring people who have spent their careers designing rockets and building ground stations, flying satellites and conducting space exploration. We’re now up and running a global business in every corner of the world. I’ve got teams in Europe, Asia and here in the United States, and we’re continuing to build and expand, growing our team and the number of customers we support. 

What are some of the new use cases that the cloud is enabling in space that interests you the most?

I’m really excited about high-performance compute as it provides additional capability for digital modeling, digital simulation and engineering. We hear a lot in the acquisition industry about needing to move to digital engineering, but there are so many disparate tools out there and they don’t work together and don’t interface. 

And if it allows you to do digital modeling, it won’t port the data over to digital engineering and vice versa. We know that our capabilities at AWS have the ability to provide that environment and fuse it all together. Boom [Supersonic] have designed their entire aircraft on the AWS cloud using our high-performance compute and digital modeling capability. In the last three years, they’ve executed 6,000 years of high-performance compute in three years. How can they do that? They spin up 10,000 servers simultaneously and, with some of the fastest computers anywhere in the world, they can increase by six X their productivity. 

I think we will soon see rockets and satellites being designed in a digital modeling engineering environment as well.

Network virtualization and space-as-a-service business models are opening up space capabilities to more non-space companies, but the satellite industry remains something of a closed system. How can the space industry expand market share outside its borders?

One thing that I think is a really positive trend that we’ve seen in the last couple of years is the commercialization of the space industry. You know, 33 years for me in the Air Force, operating satellites and launching rockets, it was very much enclosed. We flew our own satellites, built our own ground stations. The U.S. government and other governments around the world have realized that there is so much advanced technology out in the commercial sector, and that costs have come down so much. 

We’re excited about that because, one, we think it’s the right thing to do and, two, we manage hundreds and hundreds of companies who now have the opportunity to compete for some of those missions that were exclusively for the DoD or intelligence community before. And because they can build them on AWS cloud, they can go faster with more innovation, with more artificial intelligence, machine learning and less cost than they could ever do before. That’s really opening up and expanding what we’re seeing in space. 

AWS recently partnered with Greece’s government on economic and technology initiatives that aim to turn the country into a regional space hub. How does this fit into Aerospace and Satellite’s global expansion strategy?

It fits right in the center of it. We want to create an opportunity where anybody in the world can be part of the space industry. One of the things we’ve done is lower the barrier. In the past a company would have to expend $20, $30, $40 million to build out their own enterprise infrastructure architecture with the cloud. Rather than spending $30 million on an enterprise and then having to dedicate 50 people to manage it, AWS can do that for you and can spend that $30 million on your mission. So that’s the first piece. 

The second piece is AWS Ground station. We launched AWS Ground Station about two years ago, and that was the same concept: don’t go spending millions of dollars building ground station infrastructure, use ours, pay by the minute for only what you use, and invest your money back in the business or the mission end of your space capability.

Part of making space available all over the world is partnering with key organizations — whether it’s a government or space consortium, and helping them move into the space industry. We are even supporting universities, which in student clubs are building microsats and launching them on hosted launches. That’s how much the barrier of entry has come down. The agreement with the government of Greece and others you’ll see over time allow us to empower those local governments, or local communities or ecosystems, to lean into the space industry the way they couldn’t do without our support.

Governments, in particular, can be hesitant to adopt space as a service business models, because of a lack of control over the generated data, do you see that changing?

Well, just to be clear, there isn’t a lack of control over the data. One of the things we’re very proud of at AWS is we have built our entire business model on the fact that, as a customer, you own your data, period. When I have data from a space company operating on the cloud, I can go in and see that they’re using a compute instance or a storage capability, but we have no insight into the data itself. That’s locked and controlled by the customer. That’s really important, and educating customers is a great way to help them understand you do control the data, you determine where it’s stored, what part of the globe, what region it’s in, who can have access to it. You have full control of all those sorts of things. 

The space industry was born out of the DoD, national security and intelligence. Now we’ve seen that proliferate to commercial industry, but security is still a critical concern. 

When the intelligence community came in and vetted and certified the AWS infrastructure up to top secret work levels 10 years ago, that was a game-changer for any DoD or intelligence community organization that was hesitant about putting their information on the cloud … we got all the government certifications for secret and top secret, along with HIPAA and all the global financial institutions certifications … you name the security, and we have the authority to operate. 

Companies used to feel like they had to trade innovation for security. They knew they could innovate on the cloud far faster than anything else, but they were concerned about security. 

From the first of its kind partnership in Greece to the accelerator you run with Seraphim Capital, it’s been an eventful year for Aerospace and Satellite. What can we expect from the coming year?

When AWS opened up its vision about building a dedicated space team, when they asked me to come in and lead it, part of the conversation was, are we going to fully resource the things that we need to be able to do to really propel the industry forward? I’m happy to say that they’ve given me the people I’ve asked for, and given me the ability to guide long range development efforts. 

We’re doing things to support space companies right now on their current workloads, but we’re also partnering with our customers in a number of ways where they’ve told us, hey, what we really want a year from now, two years from now, three years out, is X or Y. We’ve been able to put a team together and incubate with the customer on delivering some of those capabilities that don’t exist today, but we know will power the space industry in the future. Those are the kinds of things you’ll see us come out with in the next number of months or so.