I recently attended a Silicon Valley investor conference for so-called new space. Space 2.0, as the conference is called, has a catchy name with a hint of the software heritage that the modern aerospace industry aspires to associate with. After all, who doesn’t want to be associated with the tremendous accomplishments of the information era and its boundless ability to create value and attract investors? Despite the provocative name, I found the conference participants to be the most interesting aspect of this event.
One of the basic problems with the aerospace industry, as I see it, is that it’s so small in terms of human capital that at times the industry seems to have only 324 people working it. Clearly that is an exaggeration but for those of us in the business more than 20 years, it’s hard to go to a traditional aerospace conference and not know half the people there. I sometimes jokingly refer to those of us that frequent these conferences as “human barnacles.” This small human dimension of the traditional aerospace industry is in some way at the heart of its challenges as it faces an uncertain future and tries to cope with a rapidly changing financial and technological environment.
The conference attendee mix really brought home the idea that the older generation of aerospace leaders has finally stopped and taken notice of what is going on in the entrepreneurial sector known as new space. There is a lot of money flowing into this sector, lots of new faces showing up and lots of new ideas and value being created. The traditionalists, or “old space” as they are termed by some, are now taking the time to investigate this new energetic sector of the aerospace industry.
The whole episode reminds me of an older relative who once looked at my daughter’s iPod and was unable to truly comprehend that his entire vinyl record collection could fit into that “tiny little thing” in his hand. Despite being college educated in physics, he seemed to disbelieve that this technological feat was even possible. He spent seemingly forever looking at the device, turning it over and over in his hands and never quite comprehending it. I saw some of the same behavior at the Space 2.0 conference.
Some people use the terms “new space” and “old space” as a way to divide the industry. I find this unhelpful to understanding the fundamental mechanisms at work. I find the true divisions in the emerging industry falling more along the lines of career background and ability to think about problems in new ways. Recognizing this simple fact told me more about the changes underway in the industry than anything else.
It would be unfair to tarnish everyone over the age of 30 in the aerospace industry as being a “dinosaur.” To simply toss aside the accomplishments of the past 70 years in this business is not only wrong but misses the point entirely. The industry is evolving constantly. Commercial space is not new. Equity-financed space companies are not new. What is new is the renewed energy with which this new sector is growing.
The keynote speaker at the conference was Dan Berkenstock, one of the founders of Skybox Imaging, who recently sold their startup to Google for $500 million. I helped Dan and his team raise the money they needed from the venture capital community and develop technically from the very beginning until their sale to Google.
Dan is truly a story of “new space” success. He graduated from the University of Michigan 13 years ago and became involved in Skybox early on when it was composed of just a few individuals from Stanford University with absolutely no experience in the space industry. They had a dream, keen minds and a will to make something happen that many people told them was impossible. They didn’t listen to the naysayers, they worked hard, they hired experienced individuals with open minds, they matured the technical concept, they built and tested hardware and they eventually were successful.
Despite the fact that they have satellites flying and have sold their little startup for a hefty sum of cash, I still hear grumbling and complaining from some traditional aerospace observers that Skybox failed to complete the constellation of satellites or was somehow an anomaly. It’s really hard to argue with such individuals as they are bent on seeing their own lives and existences in such a way that they don’t feel irrelevant to the future. I have seen the same thing in the past, and the comparison of the past with the present was striking to me.
During my career, I spent almost 25 years working with the Soviets, and later the Russians, on space programs. One thing clear from the beginning of my work with them was that the Soviet/Russian space industry was government owned and operated in the strictest sense of the term and remained so despite any apparent private ownership of the companies and design bureaus. It was clearly based on Soviet economics where the government set the demand and decided what was built, how many were built, how much it would cost, how many people would be employed and what kinds of salaries would be paid.
We injected both government and private capital into Russian space projects to develop flight hardware and other items of interest. The result was always the same and the Russian industry remained unchanged. Neither the outcome nor the industry itself was altered by the outside influence, new capital, new ways of doing things or new ideas. While we did eventually have some successes working with the Russians, most of the projects were overly complex and difficult to manage. Despite extremely low price points, the Russian aerospace industry suffered from a lack of good projects and the resulting brain drain to the software and financial sectors. The Russian space industry never became the major force in the global aerospace that many expected 25 years ago.
It occurred to me about five years ago that the greatest irony of my life is that the U.S. aerospace industry was based on essentially the same economic model where demand, costs, production methods and schedule are set by the government and its five-year plan. The same aerospace industry that put a man on the moon and defeated the great Soviet threat in the defense of capitalism was, and still is, operating on a Soviet economic model with little resemblance to the capitalistic economic model in which it is immersed.
The implications of this idea are profound. I have written about this before and what this means to the future of aerospace in the United States. The reaction to this observation has been stark, disturbing and interesting. Many of the defensive responses were mirrored in similar attitudes and comments at the Space 2.0 conference. I can only conclude that the success of the U.S. aerospace industry has been in spite of the economic model that it operated under and is a testament to many talented and driven individuals that made good things happen.
While the jury is still out on the so-called new space movement, it is clearly different from traditional aerospace and more closely aligned with the capitalist roots from which it derives financial support.
There have been a number of important successes in this sector including Iridium, SpaceX, Skybox and now Planet Labs. The future is even more impressive and holds even greater opportunities for a whole host of companies such as PlanetIQ, Rocket Lab, Moon Express and Satellogic. These companies will transform the way we transit the Earth-space corridor and how we observe Earth while creating undreamed-of financial and social value.
The story is still being written by these companies, but it’s clear from what I see that they are leading the way to a new era of space exploration that is as exciting as it is potentially lucrative.
In the end, success in all of these ventures is about the people who bring their passions, their drive, their visions and their simple hard work to the table. Our early space efforts that put mankind on the moon had the same passions and produced great results despite the crippling effects of the economic system in which it operated.
In both new space and traditional space, great accomplishments depend on people who come from humble beginnings, arrive from all walks of life, believe in making their dreams come true and believe that they can make the world a better place in the process. I simply cannot think of a better American story than this and am proud that Silicon Valley has become the hub and focus for this new spirit and energy in space.
In the end, this new entrepreneurial space industry is an extension of the boundless energy of capitalism. I am optimistic that the new era that ties economic return to our space exploration efforts will be a golden era much like the rush to build the “New World” and the early Space Age that put mankind on the moon. I have waited my entire career for this to happen and feel a renewed optimism for our future.
Jim Cantrell is chief executive of Strategic Space Development, an aerospace and technology consulting firm based in Tucson, Arizona, and was on the founding team of SpaceX.