Is This the Future?

In many ways, humanity is at a turning point, and one of the sectors in which this fact is made most palpable is in space exploration. In recent years, we have landed on a comet, traveled to worlds at the furthest reaches of our solar system, and flung ourselves into the era of commercial spaceflight and reusable rockets.

To that end, one thing is clear: The long-term future of the human species in space will be decided in the coming years, so it makes sense to start talking now.

Recently, the Space Frontier Foundation—an organization whose mission is to help us shirk gravity’s intolerable yoke by fostering the private space industry—brought together representatives from some of the biggest players in the private space industry (Planetary Resources, Vulcan Aerospace, Blue Origin, and Bigelow Aerospace...just to name a few), for the eleventh annual NewSpace Conference, an event aimed at evaluating the current state and future prospects of an endeavor that very few of us get to participate in: The quiet conquest of the final frontier.

Hannah Kerner and Jeff Matthews, respectively Executive Director and Director of Venture Strategy and Research at the Space Frontier Foundation, both have some big ideas (and even bigger plans) for the commercial human presence in space, and speaking with them shed a great deal of light on where we are headed.

The Problem-Solver and the Moneyman

NewSpace, for those of you not “in the know,” is that spectacular and long-anticipated sea change that’s recently convulsed the tech industry—the pioneering efforts of private companies in providing low-cost access to space.  We’ve all seen the rousing footage of reusable rockets landing at sea, or inflatable modules docked to the International Space Station; but if my talk with Hannah and Jeff is any indication—the best is decidedly yet to come.

First, a few words about Hannah Kerner and Jeff Matthews.  Their passion for space and their enthusiasm for the good works of the Space Frontier Foundation are genuine and obvious; their knowledge about all things NewSpace—its outlook and the problems confronting it, together with the opportunities awaiting it—is profound and clearly the product of great familiarity with the topic.

So it’s wise to listen very carefully to what they have to say about the prospects and future of human spaceflight, and it’s a little like eavesdropping on the guarded talk of the industry’s most prescient oracles.

As Executive Director of the Space Frontier Foundation, and with a background in engineering and computer science, Hannah approaches the issue of the human development of space from a scientific standpoint. As someone who wants to solve problems, she saw space as affording endless opportunities to do just that.

Furthermore, she rejected the seeming false choice between space and her other great passion—humanitarian issues.  Inspired by the efforts of groups using space imagery to locate mass graves and catalogue genocidal depredations, she realized that the causes of space development and fostering human rights were not mutually exclusive.

Ever since, she’s been committed to the idea of space as a powerful tool to right wrongs and empower the oppressed, and as an instrument for giving all human beings a rightful voice in the affairs of our planet.

Jeff, on the other hand, approaches the matter from a very different direction.  Space, you might say, is in his DNA. His grandfather was involved in Project Mercury, during NASA’s heyday in the 1960s, and he grew up listening to stories about that exciting time.  It was part of the air he breathed, so to speak, and he wanted to contribute in any way he could.

So he made the obvious choice for any space enthusiast: He became a finance major.

It’s a decision that’s stood him—and, for that matter, the private space industry—in good stead at the Space Frontier Foundation.  As Director of Venture Strategy and Research, he’s heading up a new initiative called the NewSpace Venture Labs—a virtual accelerator aimed at encouraging innovation in the NewSpace sector.

“Our goal,” Jeff explains, “is to empower NewSpace enthusiasts, investors and entrepreneurs to transform innovative ideas into launch-ready ventures.” Enter the NewSpace 2016 conference.

Getting From Here to There

Traditionally, the NewSpace conferences have been held in Silicon Valley—a very natural choice for marshaling the financial resources, technological innovation, and intellectual heft needed to solve the challenges posed by space.  But now, for the first time, the conference has moved beyond the borders of the Golden State, reflecting the unprecedented growth that NewSpace is currently experiencing.

And it makes sense that Seattle should be the first of these new aerospace technology clusters.  It already possesses, in Boeing and Microsoft, the requisite knowledge base and intellectual capital to support private space activities—there’s even been some poaching, Jeff informed me, of Nintendo employees.

But Seattle’s chiefest contribution to the industry is its status as a hub for middle-market companies that provide support services and technologies—communications, software development, spacecraft components manufacturing, data analysis, and many others.  These are the real enablers of private spaceflight, allowing companies to focus on their core competencies without having to build up a cumbersome support infrastructure from scratch.

“Being a space company does not mean you need to have hardware in space,” Hannah explains. “There’s so much more to it.”

That’s where NewSpace 2016 comes into the picture.  It’s one of the only conferences that gathers the many components of the NewSpace equation into one room—space entrepreneurs, technology developers, enthusiasts, and investors.

Like a meddlesome but well-intentioned matchmaker, it marries capital to the startups that need it most, and creates opportunities to form fruitful partnerships—in other words (and forgive the mixed metaphors), it introduces the commercial space industry’s right hand to its left, and makes sure they’re both firmly on the same page.

NewSpace Today—and Tomorrow

When I asked Hannah and Jeff to share their thoughts on the future of the private space industry, I was a little surprised by their answers. There was no talk of generation ships, terraforming planets, or epic journeys through wormholes to explore distant black holes.

They were concerned instead with the homely, unromantic business of simply getting out there—building the infrastructure and support industries to underwrite all those lofty dreams of transforming humankind into a truly interplanetary species.

The struggle in the past for the commercial space industry was simply getting into space, but the success of SpaceX and others has meant that this formerly consuming challenge no longer has quite the same cachet that it used to.

“It’s not a solved problem,” Hannah says, “but it’s a handled one.”

And that means searching for some new problems to handle.  The foremost of these is constructing the requisite infrastructure in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to pave the way for the really exciting stuff in deep space.  Right now, it’s a restrictive bottleneck; NASA holds all the “water rights” in LEO, and it’s not likely to relinquish them anytime soon—at least not without a fight.

But when once private industry figures out how to build a sustainable infrastructure and economy in LEO…it’s Katie bar the door, because the possibilities are endless and not even the sky’s the limit.

“It’s not as difficult to be a space company anymore,” Jeff explains, “but there’s still a lot that needs to be done, and I think if we start filling in the space infrastructure…you really start opening up a lot of interesting aspiration opportunities, a lot of interesting business cases, and the people that are now getting a lot of press, like Planetary Resources and those companies, it really starts to make them a lot more viable as a business—especially from the asteroid-mining perspective.”

Bigelow Space Habitat

Hannah and Jeff envision the evolution of a “hub-and-spoke” model, similar to that used by the airline industry, for jumping off from the Earth into deep space; already, we’re starting to see the first tentative steps toward assembling a support base and economic system in LEO, with Made In Space looking to create 3D printing manufactories in zero-g, and Bigelow Aerospace already successfully testing their inflatable, modular space station components.

If they succeed, it’ll mean a revolution in space exploration—just hitch a ride into space, and you’ve got everything you need right there to get you where you ultimately want to go.

But the biggest near-term opportunities for space startups are not where you’d expect.  There’s an enormous unmet need for information from space—acquiring, analyzing, assimilating and making easily accessible the huge amounts of data streaming in from all the current and soon-to-be satellites and sensors circling the Earth.

“I think there’s a demand for people to do something with that data,” Hannah observes. “There’s so much data but very few companies working on tools to make useful predictions from it, or build dashboards that people can use this data with.”

Companies like Atlas Space Operations are already shouldering the burden of space communications, allowing other operations to focus on their key technological innovations; and this is where a general technological hub like Seattle has an important role to play.  With its huge and diverse pool of talent, it’s possible to supply the know-how to fill virtually any gap in the space infrastructure spectrum.

Where It’s All Headed

But what about the “big picture”—perhaps the biggest picture of all? What is the point of it all, and what is humankind’s ultimate destiny in space?

For Hannah, the conquest of space—despite the martial metaphor—is about ridding ourselves of warfare and the wasteful destruction of life.  It’s not about creating some interplanetary New Atlantis where all conflict ceases to exist; it’s about channeling those instincts into healthier avenues, and putting them to work for the betterment of the species.

“I see exploration as something that unites humans and steps us out of that way of thinking about relatively petty things,” she says.

“We live in this enormous expanding universe, and it’s incredible that we’re even capable of understanding these concepts as puny humans.  I think through exploring space together as multiple nations, we kind of break down that idea of conflict between nations, and really unlock the power of what humans can do.”

Jeff sees our future in space, not as an insurmountable challenge, but as something that will become commonplace and an indispensable part of our lives—a communal undertaking with an enormous capacity to change our way of life for the better.

“If you look at space movies, and a lot of TV shows, it always focuses on the lone challenge of space—you get The Martian, you get Interstellar, all fantastic movies, but it’s all about a small group of people pushing it.  My goal is looking more toward something that you see in The Expanse, for example, where space is just an everyday part of everyone’s lives.”

I think it’s safe to say that the work that Hannah Kerner, Jeff Matthews, and the Space Frontier Foundation are doing is taking us a long way toward making both visions a reality.  Right now, it’s baby steps, and the NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle is one of the earliest and most tentative.

But it’s those first steps that are the most important.  See for yourself what the Space Frontier Foundation is doing here, and find a way to participate in this next great human adventure—if you’re so inclined.  And you can learn a little more about NewSpace 2016 here.

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