Silicon Valley Goes to Space

| November 18, 2013 | 8 Comments
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Update: On November 21st, a Russian Dnepr rocket successfully launched into orbit Skybox Imaging’s first satellite, SkySat-1.

In May 2012, SpaceX became the first company to make a commercial mission to the International Space Station, successfully ferrying more than 1,000 pounds of supplies to the station. But SpaceX’s founder and CEO, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, has a larger prize in mind: flying people to Mars aboard SpaceX rockets within 10 or 15 years.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, founded by billionaire British entrepreneur Richard Branson, is on track to launch its first commercial spacecraft next year, rocketing “space tourists” on a $250,000 ride to the edge of space. So far, the company has collected deposits from more than 600 passengers, including wealthy children of the space age and celebrities like Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Today’s space exploration efforts look far different than the historic exploration of space pioneered by NASA during the Apollo missions of the 1960s and ’70s. Then, during the height of the Cold War, the US locked technological and ideological horns with the Soviet Union to prove that American ingenuity and technological prowess would triumph in the race to land a man on the moon.

But now, in the age of cutbacks and federal furloughs, NASA is turning to the private sector to more cheaply get to Low Earth Orbit, a region roughly 100 to 600 miles above earth where the International Space Station is located. From space tourism to plans to mine the moon, dozens of for-profit companies, many with the business models, characters and the high-tech, risk-taking culture of Silicon Valley, are reshaping American space exploration.

Stanford Aeronautics Professor G. Scott Hubbard, who worked at NASA for 20 years, said NASA’s growing partnership with the private sector is critical for America to work more efficiently and cheaply in space.

“In the old days, with all of these specifications, the reviews would get down to every nut and bolt,” he said. “In this new age, now, in ‘new space’, companies like SpaceX, like Orbital Sciences, are building their own vehicles, and NASA is saying, ‘OK, if you give us a service meeting this type of a milestone and this level of reliability, we’ll just take it…we’re not going to investigate every nut and bolt.’”

But the private sector isn’t simply providing lower-cost services to NASA. More fundamentally, it is disrupting the space industry by creating new technologies that make getting into space cheaper. And that is expanding the commercial, scientific and even extreme adventure possibilities of space.

Many of the country’s new space entrepreneurs hail from the tech sector and some, like Elon Musk, rocketed to prominence with startup success in the early days of e-commerce.

“Elon Musk didn’t come from an aerospace background, he is a computer scientist by training,” said Silicon Valley venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, a SpaceX board member and investor in the company. “And he thinks about the rocket like computer scientists would – modular reuse, modern programming languages, everything.”

Clearly, there are risks associated with these new, for-profit space ventures. Not only does the threat of commercial failure loom large, so too is the threat of accidents aboard the rocket ships gearing up to fly wealthy thrill-seekers and space buffs dozens of miles above earth.

“If we fly in space often enough, people will die. That’s not a pleasant truth but it is the truth,” said Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave, California company that, like Virgin Galactic, is also accepting deposits for rides aboard its rocket ship.

Leaders of new space companies see the ventures in many ways similar to innovative, bootstrapping tech startups eager to take on bigger competitors.

SpaceX President and COO, Gwynne Shotwell, in an interview filmed at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, a gritty city five miles outside of L.A,  confidently spoke about the disruptive impact of SpaceX’s technologies and unorthodox business practices, which include publicly listing the multi-million-dollar price tag a client can expect to pay to launch its payload aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX, shows off rocket engines being built at the company's headquarters near L.A. Image by Jayme Roy

Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX, shows off rocket engines being built at the company’s headquarters near L.A. Image by Jayme Roy

“We’re winning launches from the Europeans, from the Russians, as well as from the Chinese,” she said. “Internationally, we’re probably 30 to 40 percent less expensive than our competitors.”

Shotwell said that a fully reusable rocket – such as the Grasshopper rocket that SpaceX is developing – could make the cost of a rocket launch 12 times less expensive than it is today.

Why is this important?

“The number one hurdle to making the space enterprise really flourish has to be access to space at an affordable price,” said Hubbard.

The cost of sending a payload into orbit has been stuck at roughly $10,000 a pound, according to Hubbard. “If you could get it to $1,000 or even $100 a pound, you’re going to see a lot more business activity,” he added.

Reducing the cost of getting to space is one central theme uniting many of these scrappy, “new space” startups who are able to cut costs and assume a level of risk-taking that government aerospace contractors have traditionally avoided.

One of these companies, Masten Space Systems, builds, tests and pushes to the limits vertical takeoff and vertical landing rockets at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the Southern California desert.

Engineer Travis O'Neal (in blue) oversees interns setting up Masten's Xaero-B rocket for a tethered flight test. Image by Jayme Roy.

Engineer Travis O’Neal (in blue) oversees interns setting up Masten’s Xaero-B rocket for a tethered flight test. Image by Jayme Roy.

Masten’s reusable rockets are being used to test out landing software and components being developed by clients such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has generated stunning new images and new information about Mars with its Curiosity rover over the past year.

Eventually, Masten CEO Sean Mahoney said, the company wants to reach a wider market by making its rockets available to researchers hungry for low-cost, fast and easy access to perform suborbital atmospheric experiments.

This new generation of space entrepreneurs is innovating more than rockets, however.

Skybox Imaging, based in Mountain View, sees itself as building “the iPhone of satellites.” The company exemplifies the Silicon Valley startup culture with its free, catered lunches, pickup games of basketball and a mission control powered exclusively by rows of shiny Macs.

Technicians at Skybox Imaging work on a satellite in a clean room at the company's headquarters in Mountain View. Image by Blake McHugh.

Technicians at Skybox Imaging work on a satellite in a clean room at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View. Image by Blake McHugh.

Skybox is carving out a new niche in the satellite imaging industry with lower-cost imaging satellites that are built with the latest computer processors to transmit rapid satellite imagery and video of practically any location on the planet, said the company’s co-founder and Executive Vice-President, Dan Berkenstock.

The potential applications include monitoring deforestation activity to tracking shipping activity in a busy California port, from day-to-day and month to month.

Skybox says its customers will be able to access online current satellite imagery of locations they’re interested in tracking for presumably a lot less than the “couple of thousand dollars” that Berkenstock said it costs today for a customer to order a new satellite image and receive it months later.

The trade-off, however, is quality: although Skybox’s satellites will provide high-resolution images, they won’t be as sophisticated as what the SUV-sized, expensive imaging satellites can provide.

“We can count how many cars are in a parking lot, but we probably can’t tell you it’s a Buick versus a Honda,” said Berkenstock.

The company plans to launch its first two satellites from rockets in Kazakhstan, starting sometime by the end of this year. A few years from now, the satellites may launch aboard SpaceX rockets fromVandenberg Air Force Base, he said.

It would be a fitting connection between two companies attempting to disrupt the space industry and bring it firmly into the digital age.


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Category: Astronomy, Engineering, Television, Video

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About the Author ()

Sheraz Sadiq is an Emmy Award-winning producer at San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED. In 2012, he received the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism award for a story he produced about the seismic retrofit of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system which serves the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to producing television content for KQED Science, he has also created online features and written news articles on scientific subjects ranging from astronomy to synthetic biology.
  • Mark Roberts

    Thanks for the good documentary. A small correction: the Apollo program cost about $22 billion (in 1960s dollars), not $2.5 billion.

    • Sheraz Sadiq

      Hi Mark, thanks for the comment. The narration in the program stated that the cost of the last Apollo mission to the moon was $2.5 billion and not the cost of the entire program, which you’re right, would be substantially much more.

      • Mark Roberts

        Sheraz, I apologize for missing that. Thanks for the correction.

  • spacechampion

    Weird how the doc says Jurvetson knows Elon Musk well yet states erroneously that Musk is a computer scientist by training. Musk got his bachelor degrees in Physics and Economics. He’s self taught in computer programming.

    • Sheraz Sadiq

      To be clear, interview subject Steve Jurvetson said that Elon Musk is a computer scientist. The quote from Jurvetson is, “Folks like Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, didn’t come from an aerospace background. He is a computer scientist by training and he thinks about the rocket like computer scientists would – modular reuse, modern programming languages, everything.” It’s possible that Jurvetson meant that Musk’s training was self-taught or it could just as easily be possible that Musk has had some training in computer programming.

  • Tracy Nguyen

    They missed a major player in the new space industry – Planet Labs, a SF based company building and operating their own small satellites. They’ve already launched 2, and are preparing to launch a whole constellation. *Full disclosure, I work there.*

  • Beth Schechter

    Glad we’re talking about this, but also wish there was some mention of Planet Labs

  • Dmytro Serduke