Former NASA Scientist Predicts “Gold Rush” in Space
"I'm not saying we'll find aliens in five years or anything like that. But space will touch every part of our lives."
When he was a computer scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Sailesh Ramakrishnan developed algorithms for Mars rovers.
Several jobs later, Ramakrishnan co-founded the venture capital firm Rocketship, which invests in industries including space. Space travel, he believes, is ripe for a “gold rush” and developments made in it, he predicts, will transform nearly every other aspect of our lives. Futurism caught up with Ramakrishnan and our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity, is below.
Futurism: Hi, thanks for taking the time to chat! I understand that you have a lot of thoughts on the future of space development and the space exploration industry. But before we get into anything too specific, I’m curious about the trajectory that your career has taken: From developing robotic assistants for seniors, to computer science at NASA and then engineering at Walmart, and now marketing and venture capital for startups. What set you down this road, and what inspired the jump from doing the research to investing in it?
SR: What I do hasn’t actually changed on a day-to-day basis. I am still a computer scientist. What I was doing at NASA was working on the AI for Mars rovers. What I was doing at Walmart was working on AI algorithms that handled a large amount of web data, social media data, and transaction data. What I’m doing now at Rocketship is also the same. But the end object of each situation is different. At NASA the end objective was to make these rovers much more autonomous but be careful about not putting or taking on too much risk. Because these are rovers that are on another planet and it’s very expensive to deliver them, it’s not like on Earth where if your algorithm makes a mistake you can go switch it off and switch it back on.
At Walmart, the end goal was to improve the revenue, to improve the understanding of what consumer behavior is, and help Walmart take advantage of that. At Rocketship, the end goal is to use this data to identify potentially successful companies. In one way of thinking of it, the computer scientist aspect of me has stayed the same. This incarnation of my career brings together a lot of these aspects.
I imagine the perilous nature of space exploration can come with unique frustrations and challenges. As someone who moved from the scientific research side to the financial side of the space industry, did those frustrations change?
SR: Back when I was working at NASA, anything in space was extremely costly. And so only national governments had the ability to fund those kinds of endeavors. The actual work was perhaps being done by companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and all these others. But the financial footing typically came from national governments. It was very capital intensive, took a significant amount of time for value to be derived, and sometimes the value was not immediately clear.
What has changed since then is similar to what happened with computers, the internet revolution, and eventually the move to the cloud. That level of innovation is now happening in the space industry and how startups are built as well.
Right after I left NASA, to build a startup you had to come up with an idea, and if that idea required significant computational resources, you had to buy the hardware and set up the entire operation yourself. You’re limited by the hardware, and you had to build the technology. That on its own would weed out a whole host of ideas you could try. Eventually, you get to the point of a minimum viable product. With the advent of Amazon Web Services, almost all of that became commoditized. To start a company, all I need is a laptop with an internet connection. I can get to a clear, reasonably functioning product through these resources in a matter of months. That wave has only accelerated the pace at which startups are being built.
Before, a space company even in the private sector would need somewhere between 100 and 200 million to even get to a product. Today, perhaps a small number of millions or even less, you can get to something demonstrable in a reasonable time frame. It’s no longer “I need to lay out three years and 200 million and potentially it’s lost.”
So costs are lower now, regardless of which angle you’re coming from? Is that the idea behind your prediction that space is about to have a “gold rush” as venture capital flocks to the industry — that costs are reasonable to the point that investing in a project has become feasible?
SR: So there are two aspects to the gold rush analogy. The first is what you just said. Because the components are now there, the barrier to entry for startups and innovation is relatively low. The number of space-related startups has gone up tremendously in this year, even during the throes of the pandemic. I think it’s going to be even more next year compared to this year.
Before, it would take a specialized investor with deep pockets or an investor who had deep knowledge of space technology to make these kinds of investments because it would take many years to see if one would be viable or not.
Now, because of this trend, you can attract a much broader range of investors. You can see the progress in near-time rather than long-time, and it requires smaller amounts of capital. It’s a combination of the process at which startups can be built and the amount of validation time it takes to attract investors.
The second aspect of the analogy is this common saying that in the gold rush, you don’t want to invest in the miners. You want to invest in the person selling the picks and shovels. This is the other aspect. In this gold rush, space is still a high-risk business, no matter how you slice it. But what is not as high-risk is the components themselves. That is a very unique investment opportunity. Investing in the picks and shovels that are supporting these operations.
This is the time that those foundation building blocks are being built.
It sounds like what we’re getting at is that we’re finally seeing a standardized foundation or infrastructure for space exploration being built out. You compared it to Amazon Web Services before. Do you see something comparable, an organized, off-the-shelf, tool or system for new startups to use, emerging for space? How far does the analogy go?
SR: Similar to the previous efforts before AWS, I think we are so early that we’re not able to clearly visualize the standardization that you’re asking about.
The standardization of individual components is starting to happen, and that will depend on who the key players are. But now SpaceX is starting to standardize payload sizes. Why? Because they need to ride on a bus, the bus has slots, those slots have dimensions, and the dimensions have a price.
The propulsion systems are also being standardized in some sense. “Low Earth orbit” is not actually a single orbit, it’s a range of orbits. Depending on your application, you’re going to need different propulsion systems.
A lot of the standardization is happening, but it’s still fragmented over multiple players because there’s no dominant entity. And I think it will be unlikely that there will be a single dominant entity.
In recent years and especially in the U.S., we saw a momentous shift from NASA and other government agencies handling most aspects of space exploration toward an increase in contracts with private companies. In the future, what direction do you see these partnerships taking? What will the role be of governments versus private agencies?
SR: Very similar to how things are with the internet, I think the government’s role will change to two segments. One is in ensuring a level playing field in terms of regulations and access and making sure that there’s no overwhelming price monopolies and so on. So it’s converting from where they are a single dominant player to making sure that the playing field is open and accessible to all players.
The second role is there are still going to be tremendous use cases that are not immediately financially interesting for a private player. For example, let’s say for the aspect of climate change. While SpaceX is launching all of these satellites, the use case for Starlink is communication. They’re not necessarily going to make their first launch product about monitoring for climate change. National governments need to do that. So there are going to be several use cases that meet the needs of a single government or the planet as a whole that require innovation in terms of how and what needs to be delivered to space. And all that’s still just looking down to the Earth.
Another significant aspect of space exploration is outbound, looking out from here. And SpaceX has demonstrated interest in that, but national governments play a significant role in looking out — greater astronomy, greater exploration, and that requires significant innovation.
I think there’s still a lot of space for national governments, but the immediate low-hanging fruit will be taken over by companies. And this is exactly what happened with the internet. The internet, if you remember was a DARPA project, and initially every piece of hardware was government hardware. This is going to happen in space as well.
That’s everything I came in planning to ask you. Is there anything else you want to add or that I might not have known to ask you about?
SR: One is something that is not necessarily written about: the transformation that is happening in the minds of children watching this transformation. My daughter is now living in a world where multiple launches to space happen on a weekly basis. And of course, I got her interested enough to watch a launch and it was super exciting. But going from the world I was living in, where a launch or two or three happen in a year, to a world where launches are far more common – kids are living in a world where the future is here for them.
That is tremendously changing children’s thinking and imagination. This is something that I think is really, really worth finding ways to support. You see this pretty much in every child, most of them know about these things, the rockets that fly. It’s super exciting. Children’s perspectives of space is also rapidly changing.
The second is, and this is where I’ll say far-out things and you’ll say I’m crazy — lots of things that seem like science fiction are now in our world. But there was also some really far-out science fiction stuff about space. This observation is about how, whether we know it or not, something related to space will be changing our lives on a regular basis. Whether it be communication, materials, or travel, this is going to not just be a change that is happening to a few people or to a country, this change is going to be enough to impact each of our lives on a fundamental basis.
And this is going to happen much faster than anticipated. Within the next five years, we’ll see impacts. Maybe it’s faster travel, new materials. Perhaps it’s new educational disciplines. Maybe this kind of engineering is going to be a separate engineering field from what aeronautics and astronautics were. This is going to be permeating into our lives in a way that is super exciting.
Admittedly, that’s not as far-out as whatever you led me to believe you were going to say! It seems like plenty of what we use in everyday life has been developed by the space industry or the military. Like you said, there’s the internet coming from DARPA, and plenty of things like Velcro coming from the space program.
SR: Right, but Velcro wasn’t really transformative in our lives. Everything we do will have some component of space in it. I’m not saying we’ll find aliens in five years or anything like that. But space will touch every part of our lives. Whether the phone you’re talking to is talking to something in space, any transaction you’re doing is going to be routed through space.
Anything and everything you think of doing is going to change. And it’s going to change because this acceleration is happening so fast, like the internet. This is that kind of transformation but even faster.
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