I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading up and thinking about space. I’m doing that partly to get ready for a few different panels I’m invited to sit on, but also out of curiosity. I’ve come to see this vertical as a bit of a dark horse. In racing parlance, that’s a term for a horse that is unknown to gamblers and thus difficult to establish betting odds for. What I mean by that analogy is I think entrepreneurs aught to pay more attention to the space vertical.
There are three essential steps for getting your business safely into space.
I spend my days working with very early stage inventors. Essentially scientists with results so promising that it seems like a moral imperative to at least try bringing them out of the lab.
The common denominator between these cases is what we call deeptech. That means it’s never trivial to reach the market, but also that the impact can be great if you do. The semiconductor is an example of deeptech, as is CRISPR.
Whatever field these cases* happen to be in, there’s also another thing uniting them: they all start out as solutions looking for appropriate problems to address.
*I’m using the term case here, to include the vast number of teams who are either pre-incorporation, or fail before they even get to the point of incorporation.
When this type of case fail—or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say when the pursuit of commercialization is abandoned, and the team shifts its focus back into the lab—they often do so for a similar reason. It’s very rarely because the technology isn’t good enough, instead it’s because they can’t find a customer with a big enough of a problem to be willing to pay a premium for having it solved.
Or to put it more plainly: the flawed but functional solutions that already exists on the market are good enough. Nobody is willing to pick up the bill for a more elegant solution; the improvement it offers isn’t worth the investment given the structure of terrestrial bound market economy. I keep seeing results in the lab which could be real game-changers if they were ever brought successfully to market, and I keep seeing what a struggle it remains to close the gap between lab and market.
I think this really boils down to a problem of scarcity. Or rather: insufficient scarcity. For example: Making real on the promise of fusion energy is clearly within reach now. The fact that we’re not pursuing this type of opportunity more aggressively, boils down to a lacking sense of urgency rather than to the fact that the problems at hand are particularly hard to crack from a scientific point of view. We—as a civilisation—lack sense of urgency because the current solutions are profitable enough. Sure it’s a headache to deal with the radioactive fallout from fission energy, or with depending on Russian gas, but it’s headaches that we chose to live with. Or that the mysterious force known as ‘the market’ places its bets on.
Space is different. It’s a domain where scarcity can never be ignored. It’s where every little gradual improvement counts, and where no costs will be spared to realize the potential of step-changing technologies.
In a word: it’s where deeptech teams should be looking for appropriate problems to address. I think there’s a plain reason that they seldom do; they’re simply not aware of the kinds of problems that need to be solved in space.
A spark would be all it takes to ignite their reorientation. Many teams who currently think they’re in photonics, or biotech, or AI, simply haven’t realised yet that they’re really in space.
For a long time, the barriers to enter space were exceptionally high. The few business stakeholders who got to contribute at all, were part of an exclusive club of corporate giants, mostly belonging to the military industrial complex.
That started to change with the Ansari X Prize, which was instituted in 1996 and awarded to Burt Rutan and his Spaceship One in 2004. These events, together with the founding of SpaceX in 2002, sparked the era that is referred to as Newspace.
Whether Newspace really kicked into gear 2010, as many would claim, or only in 2017, as some say, is not important. What’s important is that it really did signify the beginning of a new logic in the space industry; one where it became possible for privately funded initiatives to get in on the space game.
Newspace is partly an effect of demilitarization. After the end of the Cold War, there was simply not enough political willingness to keep prioritizing the kind of project that had once been important both in terms of prestige and of national security.
Playing into this dynamic, Newspace is also an effect of economies of scale. Once commercial players got a real foothold, the price of infrastructure began coming down. This created the virtuous cycle we’re seeing now, where the cost of launching a payload into space keep dropping sharply.
Which means it’s now possible to go from the proverbial “two gals in a garage”, to having hardware in orbit on a budget and within a timeframe that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. (I know because I’ve witnessed this first hand).
The other thing Newspace has meant is the evangelical aspect, which has always been an integral part of the industry but has gained even more prominence lately.
You can see hints of this same phenomenon if you’re looking into, for example, subcultures around certain programming languages, but nowhere is it as pronounced as in space. People who are in this industry tend to see it as a passionate calling, something that they can’t not do.
There’s a funny story to illustrate this in Robert C. Jacobson’s book Space is Open for Business : The Industry That Can Transform Humanity. Jacobson interviews a former director of communication at NASA, who describes how her colleagues put her on a strict diet of science fiction in order for her to understand what they were doing, and to ultimately be able to sell their dreams to congress. Looking back she acknowledge that this was indeed the best possible way for her to be introduced into the space industry. In her own words: “we can’t build and launch what we first haven’t dreamt.”
I imagine this evangelical fervor means the social and emotional barriers to entry are relatively low compared to other industries. Like: If you’re crazy enough to try to enter the space circus, your very enthusiasm take you far in terms of entry ticket.
The space industry is big on standards. Failing to implement them can have disastrous effects. The Mars Climate Orbiter crashed because the navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the metric system in its calculations while Lockheed Martin Astronautics, which designed and built the spacecraft, provided crucial acceleration data in the Imperial system of inches and feet.
Stupid mistakes like that is difficult to avoid even within one tightly controlled organisation like NASA. Trying to implement and follow standards in multi-stakeholder projects, such as the ISS, becomes orders of magnitude more challenging.
That’s where protocols come to the rescue. If standards are meant to impose unity, the purpose of protocols is to mitigate differences.
Example: Long before the international space station, an American space craft successfully performed a docking procedure with a Soviet counterpart. The two vessels were different in a myriad ways. They even depended on maintaining different levels of oxygen saturation. An in-orbit rendezvous like that must have been impossibly hard, but could never have worked at all if it wasn’t for countless protocols regulating in minute detail how to connect systems that weren’t built for interaction.
(The story of this docking is retold in poet and science writer Maria Küchen’s absolutely sublime book Rymdens Alfabet.)
In a figurative sense, I see the need for docking protocols to also regulate interactions between corporate entities in the space industry. There are two reasons for this. Established corporate giants need the constant stream of innovation generated by new entrants—and new entrants need to ‘dock’ with established players in order to survive long enough so that they won’t go out of business before they can reach the market with their innovations.
SpaceX still exists today thanks to the contracts it was awarded by NASA and the US military. But for every SpaceX, there’s a graveyard full of failed startups which should have been given a better chance. They didn’t go belly-up because there was anything wrong with their tech, but because they couldn’t find customers and/or partnerships fast enough. And the reason it didn’t happen, is because there’s no obvious protocol for space startups to engage with space incumbents.
Or rather: there didn’t use to be, but I’m happy to see that starting to change. Just the other day I shared stage with both startups, scaleups, niche investors and veteran players in the space industry. The occasion gave a refreshing pause from the largely pessimistic discourse that forms the background noise of our times. Space is different. It provides lots of room for optimism.