Intuitive Machines Exploits Space Savvy to Boost Innovation on Earth

Steve Altemus wants to bring the rigor of manned spaceflight to energy and healthcare, as well as the private space industry.

As one example, the company he founded to do that, Intuitive Machines, creates software that helps oil companies do more precise drilling by leveraging the founders’ experience in engineering for space. “These are algorithms that we developed in navigating missions to Mars or flying in space,” Altemus says.

Other software from the company provides complex modeling that Altemus says can predict and mitigate for variables such as wind, ocean currents, weather, and nearby ships that would affect a blowout like that at BP’s Macondo well five years ago. “You can test and practice how you would cap an exploded well before you even show up in the Gulf,” he says.

The medical side of Intuitive Machines’ business is the least developed so far but Altemus says he hopes to work on problems related to patient medical records and other digital health issues.

In the meantime, it makes sense that Intuitive Machines which was founded two years ago this week, would also seek to excel in the growing private space industry. Mostly notably, the company has built a small spacecraft that is set to take its first flight in October 2016. Altemus says it’s the only aircraft besides SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle that is designed to be able to return to Earth. “We can land on Earth with precision of within 15 meters accuracy,” he says. “That’s essential for a runway.”

Due to NASA’s presence, Houston has long been associated with space innovation in the U.S. As NASA has downsized its operations, private companies have stepped into the breach shuttling scientific research experiments into the zero-gravity environment of the International Space Station. One of these companies in Nanoracks, a Clear Lake, TX-based space company that essentially sells to researchers transportation and access to lab space at the ISS.

Earlier this month, the city of Houston announced that the Federal Aviation Administration had approved the former Ellington Air Force Base, located near NASA, as a Spaceport. Ellington would become the 10th federally designated commercial spaceport in the U.S., designed to be a place where private space companies would launch satellites and spacecraft, and train astronauts.

“We’re seeing a market being created and open for commercial space businesses to thrive,” Altemus says. “Talent will attract talent.”

(Colorado-based Sierra Nevada, which operates the “Dream Chaser” spacecraft, announced last this year that it would be interested in using the Ellington spaceport facilities as well.)

Altemus formed Intuitive Machines shortly after concluding a 25-year-career at NASA that included stints as the head of engineering for the human spaceflight program and as deputy director at the Johnson Space Center. Altemus says he and his partners have run the company through personal savings and revenues—it has grown to 45 employees from 6—and will now look to outside investment to scale up development of a high-fidelity sensor drone for infrastructure surveillance. (Think, oil and gas pipelines or industrial agriculture.)

In the meantime, Altemus says he and his partners continually embrace a lesson learned by many who seek to commercialize new technologies: “As engineers, we put a lot of value in the technical solution,” Altemus says. “We’re good at that, but the technical solution is 20 percent of the business. Eighty percent or more is the work that has to go into creating the business model that allows your technical solution to come to the market.”

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