Seattle to Mars: Exploring Substance and Hype in a New Era of Space

We’ve reached a new level of excitement about space in Seattle, and across the country, with “The Martian” as the No. 1 film at American movie theaters for the second weekend in a row.

This adds to an already amazing year in which humanity has landed a probe on the surface of a comet, taken beautiful images of Pluto from the New Horizons mission, and made continued strides in the development of new commercial spacecraft.

People are thinking and talking about space in ways that we haven’t seen in at least a generation. The tantalizing prospect of space as a new commercial frontier is helping expand our notion of who and what we’ll send into space, and why we’ll do it. [We’ll cover Seattle’s role as a hub for entrepreneurship in a new era of space exploration at Xconomy’s Seattle 2035 conference Oct. 30. Check out the full agenda here.]

Space exploration and entrepreneurship are perhaps as complicated a business as there is, with overlapping and interlocking technologies, motivations, and, yes, often enormous price tags—though the dramatic improvements in cost and capabilities that put powerful computers in our pockets are working in this industry, too.

Matt Damon, who plays Astronaut Mark Watney in "The Martian," doing some social media outreach on behalf of NASA. Photo via 20th Century Fox.

Matt Damon, aka Astronaut Mark Watney in “The Martian,” doing some social media on behalf of NASA. Photo via 20th Century Fox.

It can be hard to separate the substance from the hype, particularly right now, when Hollywood’s greatest space director and NASA team up for a blockbuster, which the space agency is using to elevate awareness of its own real-life plans for sending humans to Mars. NASA, no slouch at media relations in the age of Apollo, has demonstrated its mastery over social media, contributing to a new space craze unlike any experienced by those of us who grew up after the Apollo Program. Even the Moon got in on the act, showing up all bright and gorgeous late last month, then blushing red… almost Mars-like.

Before we get to the substance, let’s dispense with the hype. In this case, I love and accept it, and here’s one reason why: Nothing gets kids, and adults, excited about science and technology like space. Kids grasp early on that space is all about the cutting edge of technology, that science—Science!, as “The Martian” makes abundantly clear—is what it takes to go to space, and survive there. “Don’t speculate, rely on data,” said Rebecca Yeung, 10, who with her sister, Kimberly, 8, launched a balloon that reached an altitude of 78,461 feet, at the GeekWire Summit. (A full interview with the Yeung sisters is here.)

At a time when calls for more STEM education are ringing out at tech conferences, political rallies, and across the Internet, excitement can be the overlooked ingredient: You still have to get kids excited enough to begin and continue the long journey to becoming proficient in STEM disciplines. Space is something you can point to and say, “This is why.”

Rocket Building Boom

Now what of the substance behind this new space excitement? It seems to me there’s plenty of it. Here are a few recent examples:

Astronaut Michael Barratt.  Image Credit: NASA

Astronaut Michael Barratt. Image Credit: NASA

Astronaut Michael Barratt—a native son of Washington who joined NASA in 1991—called this “a unique time” in human space exploration during a recent event at The Museum of Flight. He cited rockets designed to carry crews and cargo into low Earth orbit being built by Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin. “There has never been a time in history where so many manned spacecraft have been built—not thought about—these are being built,” he said.

Here in Seattle, space-related businesses and the entrepreneurs, investors, and engineers who would start and join them, are growing, and gaining visibility. Our local billionaires are part of the reason, though their companies—Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace—conduct lots of work outside the region, too. Meanwhile, we’re benefitting from the expansion of other billionaires’ space companies into the region.

Indeed, the opening of what could become a large satellite SpaceX office in Redmond, announced late last year, is perhaps the biggest news to come out of the local space sector, such as it is, ever. (The office is not just remote from SpaceX’s Hawthorne, CA, headquarters, it’s also going to work on satellite communications.)

SpaceX joins an interesting and somewhat eclectic group of Seattle-area space businesses, numbering in the dozens, depending on how and who you count. Some, like rocket-engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne, were here before the Moonshot. Others, like Planetary Resources, represent a new breed of space business imbued with a new entrepreneurial spirit.

Seattle: Space Outfitters

Chris Lewicki, a veteran of three NASA missions to Mars and Planetary Resources’ president and chief engineer, joined about 100 people for a Space Entrepreneurs MeetUp at the pavilion in Kirkland’s Marina Park on one of the last warm evenings of summer. (Sean McClinton, organizer of the Space Entrepreneurs, said most of his group’s membership is in the Pacific Northwest, but that “people outside of Seattle are definitely noticing what’s happening here.”)

Lewicki talked about his company’s “crazy, audacious” plans to capture asteroids and mine them for things people need in space—which is to say, everything—thereby greatly reducing the loads we have to lift into orbit and beyond with enormous, expensive rockets. It’s a grandiose vision, to be sure, but in the end, it amounts to a resources business, as simple and old as selling timber, or supplies to prospectors bound for the Klondike—and therefore familiar here.

“This city was built by resources… This city was built by the Yukon gold rush, fisheries, woodlands, ” Lewicki said of Seattle, which he deems an ideal place for building a new generation of space businesses.

The first target is water—for drinking, and perhaps more importantly, for rocket fuel. And the metals that Planetary Resources aims to mine from nearly 4,000 asteroids in orbit near Earth could be a key enabler of humanity’s evolution into a multi-planetary species. It costs $60 million a ton to lift something into orbit today, Lewicki said. Even if private space companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX reduce launch costs dramatically, Planetary Resources believes it will ultimately be far cheaper to capture resources in space and use them to manufacture and propel spacecraft.

The crowd at a Space Entrepreneurs in Kirkland, WA. Photo by Joe Follansbee / Space Entrepreneurs

The crowd at a Space Entrepreneurs MeetUp in Kirkland, WA. Photo by Joe Follansbee / Space Entrepreneurs

“The platinum apple that’s out at the end of this roadmap, and the perfection of the industry, is ultimately bringing the scarcest and most valuable things all the way back here to the surface of the planet,” he said.

In the meantime, new space companies have to create near-term value in the steps they take toward a long-term goal, he said.

Investment Opportunity

That’s particularly true for those companies attracting private investment—and the ranks of private space investors are growing.

“The best space-related companies are ones that are using the unique vantage point of space or the unique environment of space to provide a service that is needed now, and people are willing to pay for now,” said Joe Landon, chairman of the Space Angels Network, an angel investing group.

Joe Landon

Joe Landon

Examples include satellite imaging for a range of terrestrial applications from business intelligence to economic forecasting to mapmaking—the reason Google paid $500 million for Skybox Imaging. Locally, Spaceflight Inc. launched BlackSky Global earlier this year to provide rapidly refreshed satellite images to government and commercial customers.

Earlier this fall, about 20 members of the Space Angels Network visited companies in the Seattle area on the 9-year-old group’s second “Members Expedition.” The first expedition was to Southern California, Landon said. Seattle was the obvious next choice.

“Seattle reflects the industry at this point where you’ve got so many companies here, many of them newer companies that are looking for angel investment,” he said.

The network has about 70 members worldwide, mainly in the U.S. Half of the investors are people with space or aerospace experience, either as a founder of a company or investor, Landon said. “The other half, which is quickly overtaking that first group, is people who are successful investors and entrepreneurs—largely in other industries, primarily tech—who are really interested in space and want to be an investor,” he said.

The increased interest from investors is a reflection of both growing media and public interest in space, and “a real feeling in the industry that there’s opportunity to make money here as an investor,” Landon said. “SpaceX is a great example. The company went from nothing in 2002 to something like a $12 billion valuation right now. And the pace is quickening.”

San Francisco-based Planet Labs, founded in 2010, raised $118 million earlier this year at a valuation of $1.13 billion.

Of course, those are private valuations, perhaps a bit inflated by the aforementioned hype. Still, it’s great to see investors putting money behind something so big and transcendent, instead of just the next iOS app.

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