The Martian by Andy Weir wasn’t the first book about space exploration by a non-famous author that got made into a big Hollywood movie. Space-movie buffs know that back in 1998, a former NASA engineer named Homer Hickam wrote a memoir called Rocket Boys that was made into the 1999 film October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Laura Dern.
What’s less widely known is that Hickam followed up that success with his first book-length work of fiction, a 1999 cult hit called Back to the Moon. It was a techno-thriller about a renegade scientist who hijacks a space shuttle and figures out how to fly it all the way to the moon, to gather a rare helium isotope needed as a fuel for nuclear fusion.
I ate up the Hickam novel, both because I was working at NASA at the time and because I was impatient for our actual return to the moon.
To me, the space shuttle was an amazing invention, but it felt like a technological dead end, forever limited (the antics in Hickam’s book notwithstanding) to low-earth orbit. As an “orphan of Apollo”—born a few years too late to remember NASA’s six moon landings between 1969 and 1972—I’d been waiting a long time for someone to figure out how we’ll really travel back to the moon, and then beyond.
Today we’re still waiting. There’s some talk within NASA about sending astronauts to orbit the moon aboard the new Orion spacecraft as soon as 2018, some three to five years earlier than previously planned. SpaceX wants to do something similar. But even if those plans pan out, the astronauts wouldn’t touch down. And while the European Space Agency has proposed building a Moon Village to take the place of the International Space Station (which is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024), there’s no timeline for that project yet.
In fact, it looks like the next batch of spacecraft heading to the lunar surface will be the privately operated robotic rovers built by the five teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. Whichever team is the first to land their rover first, maneuver it 500 meters across the surface, and send back high-definition video pictures will win the $20 million first prize. (The pressure is on, since the prize expires after December 31, 2017, but after years of delays, all five GLXP teams now have rocket rides reserved.)
And that could be a harbinger of a new era of space exploration led, in large part, by private, non-governmental entities. These days, national space agencies just don’t seem to have the vision, the cash, or the popular support needed to initiate humanity’s next big steps into space. They’ve left a leadership vacuum as big as space itself. And it’s being filled by dozens of private companies of all scales—not just the giant aerospace manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Airbus and the makers of the new generation of reusable rockets like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, but also—and just as intriguingly—a raft of smaller startups.
This week’s episode of Soonish is all about those “astropreneurs,” the early-stage space entrepreneurs who hope to make it big by inventing faster, better, cheaper technologies for propulsion, surveillance, manufacturing, and other activities in space.
Many of these companies are benefiting from the introduction of the Cubesat design specification, an open standard built around 10x10x10-centimeter blocks that can be combined into satellites of arbitrary size. There’s a growing supply chain of Cubesat components, with some merchants even offering parts on Amazon. That means space startups can build satellites mostly using off-the-shelf technology, while focusing the real innovation and investment on the components that are core to their mission. In the case of Lunar Station, a startup featured in this week’s episode, that’s a high-definition digital video camera that will capture and retransmit live-stream video of the moon.
But other startups are already looking beyond the microsatellite market. Accion Systems in Boston, another company featured in this episode, started off thinking that it would offer its new liquid-propellant-based ion engines solely to Cubesat builders. But now the company also wants to supply its engines to makers of larger satellites with masses of 50kg to 150kg, according to CEO Natalya Bailey.
Space offers not just microgravity but an unfettered view of the heavens and the earth. So tomorrow’s space economy will likely revolve around a mix of activities such as Earth observation, manufacturing, and mining and fuel production. And it’s not just billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk pouring money into these visions: venture capital funds put more than $2 billion into space companies in 2015. (More recent figures aren’t available yet.) And according to Ariel Waldman, a space activist and author who's also featured in this episode, there are more ways than ever for average citizens to get involved in space exploration.
“It’s probably a little bit frothy right now, but in the longer term, commercial space is here to stay,” says Bailey at Accion Systems, which has raised nearly $10 million in venture backing. “When people said ‘Let's lay down hundreds and hundreds of miles of copper wire to communicate with people,’ I'm sure some folks thought that was crazy too. I think we're just at another inflection point like that. And sure, we may lose some of the new space startups. But I think space is just going to continue to become more and more present in our lives.”
It's about time.
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Blair DeWitt, co-founder and CEO, Lunar Station
Natalya Bailey, co-founder and CEO, Accion Systems
Ariel Waldman, founder, SpaceHack.org
Barret Schlegelmilch, co-founder and COO, Lunar Station
Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal, with detailed transcripts and audio recordings of the mission
Reaching for the Stars, Across 4.37 Light-Years, by Dennis Overbye, The New York Times, April 12, 2016
Trump advisers’ space plan: To moon, Mars and beyond, by Bryan Bender, Politico, February 9, 2017
What’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There, by Ariel Waldman
Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay
All additional music by Podington Bear:
Thanks to my guests for taking the time to join this week’s show: Natalya Bailey, Blair Dewitt, Barret Schlegelmilch, and Ariel Waldman.
Schlegelmilch’s invitation to the New Space Age Conference that he organized at the MIT Sloan School of Management in March 2017 was the key to getting this whole episode started.
Dan Novy kindly invited me to the MIT Media Lab space conference Beyond the Cradle, which was held the very next day and was also amazing.
Christian Bailey at Curated Innovation helped to set up my interview with his wife Natalya Bailey, née Brikner.
Sean Casey at the Silicon Valley Space Center helped orient me to the space entrepreneurship scene on the West Coast.
Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com