Saturday, October 16, 2010

Interview with bloon's founder José Mariano Lopez Urdiales

There are two main customer categories for suborbital space flights:
  1. Those that want “the experience” and
  2. Those that want “the view”
Those seeking “the experience” could be adventure seekers valuing the high-g’s, motion sickness, and perceived danger; they could be floaters valuing the micro-gravity free-floating opportunities; or they could be scientists valuing some aspect of the flight profile.

Those seeking “the view” want to see the curvature of the earth, view earth landmarks, see the blackness of space, or take pictures of the stars. These people want an eye-witness account of what space looks like more than an account of what space feels like.

Although most potential customers in category one (“the experience” seekers) are also in category two (“the view” seekers). I doubt the reverse is true. In fact for Virgin Galactic and XCOR, which will be offering suborbital rides that include both both categories of experiences, these companies will sell tickets to "the view" seekers only if there is not a viable alternative for low-intensity, “view only” trips.

Enter an alternative: bloon.

bloon is the first product of Spanish startup, zero2infinity, offering customers “the view” of space while enduring a less intense balloon-based ascent instead of a rocket one. The images above are illustrations from the bloon website.

Here is a quick comparison between the two suborbital offerings - excuse the gross generalizations in the rocktet column:

Below is a video where zero2infinity flies the Spanish Soccer team’s red jersey to 33km highlighting the team's recent success at this year’s World Cup. After the video is my interview with zero2infinity’s founder, José Mariano Lopez Urdiales about his plan for the company.

And now my interview with zero2infinity’s founder, José Mariano Lopez Urdiales.

Project-related Questions:

Q: What is bloon? Can you give a summary of your company’s suborbital balloon experience?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: Seeing the curvature of the horizon, a black starry sky under a white hot sun and the Earth atmosphere as a blue thin layer protecting our planet from the harshness of the cosmos. It’s a visual experience that many people would like to enjoy. Well, bloon is my company’s solution to the problem of offering that view in a safe, sustainable and enjoyable manner.

Four flight participants lift off vertically in a pressurized piloted pod. The pod soars to near space with the aid of a helium sail. It spends two hours at a cruising altitude of about 36km. The choice of altitude is optimal in terms of experience and safety because it is high enough so that the human eye can appreciate all the visual cues of suborbital flight and not too high to complicate the return with a high-speed re-entry. Flight participants will be able to gaze at our planet through panoramic windows; this is possible because our speeds are always relatively low. Different customers will want to do different things while they are up there, listen to the explanations from the pilots, eat, pray, write a poem, it’s left to their imagination. Every bloon flight is a bespoke experience and privacy can be provided on board. The descent procedure starts and the pod lands on a predefined spot using a guided parafoil and vented airbags. We’ve selected textile-based decelerators because they’ve proven to be the most reliable and safe way of coming back into the atmosphere and landing. The Russian, Chinese, early American and most new American real spacecraft designers seem to agree.

Q: What are the remaining milestones between today and commercial operations?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: We are halfway through our fundraising and expect to be done by the end of 2010. The next major milestone is to fly a first human. That will be an experimental flight and could happen as early as late 2011. In 2012 will be mostly busy testing. Then we’ll go through the certification period, first with EASA and later on with the FAA. Certification is a complex issue, many steps have to be certified, the company, the vehicle, the operators, etc. We expect the first commercial operations to take place somewhere between 2013 and 2015.

Q: You mentioned on your website the potential for participants to experience one-third, one-sixth, or microgravity during a portion of the experience. Describe how this is achieved and how long that portion of the experience might last.

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: Once the pod separates from the balloon, it free-falls and a stabilizer parachute is deployed. The parachute can regulate how much it opens using a cord at its rim. A control system operates that cord using as data input the acceleration felt by the pod. This technique can reproduce different acceleration profiles. Typically lower acceleration levels can be sustained for shorter times. Thus microgravity can be felt for about 20s and lunar gravity could be about a minute and so on.

Q: What training would I need as a participant?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: Strictly speaking, with a half a day briefing on security procedures it should be enough. However many participants will likely enjoy other preparatory activities to make the most of their flight. These may include, space photography, basic astronomy, discussions with scientists providing scientific piggyback payloads, etc.

Q: And now a personal question from looking at the graphics on your website, does the bloon cabin include a drink bar and bathroom? With such a long experience(!), as a participant, I would probably appreciate both?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: bloon does include both as we want our clients to be as comfortable as possible and to really enjoy the experience. Food to the taste of the clients can also be provided.

Business-related Questions:

Q: What is your source of company funding (Grants, Friends/Family, Angels, VC’s, Bank Loans, etc.)?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: After a year funding it myself, I’ve been blessed with angels that have been able to propel the project beyond what I could achieve with my own resources.

Q: How much funding do you need to raise (and how much have you raised to date)?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: The whole project requires about €16M in capital. I cannot disclose the amount committed to date as we are in the middle of a funding round.

Q: Your price point of $100K per ticket is half of Virgin Galactic’s. Talk about your pricing strategy (why not $10K, why not $200K?).

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: You are correct about the ticket price. From our experience, there is another metric that is as important as the ticket, that is the price per minute of experience. Since the view from near space is the core of the experience (who would pay to fly on a windowless spacecraft?), our price is over an order of magnitude below rocket-based alternatives.

We have to cover our costs and make a profit and that sets a minimum, we could not do $10K with our current technology. We are also very keen to provide highly customized solutions such as taking off and landing from a part of the world, or flying into a solar eclipse, to customers willing and able to afford such extras.

Q: Do you see a market in scientific applications?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: Definitely. Just as suborbital reusable crewed rockets are an improvement over conventional sounding rockets, and specific programs like NASA’s CRuSR will support them, bloon signifies an improvement over conventional high altitude balloons. Regardless of the overall density of the means to reach near-space (heavier or lighter than air), having a human physically in the loop is an outstanding advantage for research. If it is valuable at labs at ground level and on orbit as well, I do not see why it would not be valuable for intermediate altitudes.

Q: What has been your greatest success to date with bloon?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: With so much to do I tend to move on and think of the next steps and challenges rather than reflect on any particulars events of success. If pressured I’d say: we’ve flown and successfully recovered a pressurized scaled prototype to near space altitudes.

Q: What has been your greatest disappointment (or challenge) with bloon, to date?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: I had this romantic idea of the venture capital firms as risk takers and out-of-the-box thinkers that, like free spirits, partner with entrepreneurs to change the world at a profit. Well, I have utterly failed to find any of that, and that was a disappointment. Fortunately, other ways of getting funded exist. And if there are any VCs reading that want to prove me wrong, I’d love to hear from you.

Q: What is your next big challenge to overcome?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: We are very much concentrated in our first piloted flight to near space.

Q: Your company is founded in Spain, talk about the experience of starting a space-related company in Spain, with its business and regulatory environment.

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: For some reason many of the brightest students in Spain tend to pick aerospace engineering as a career choice. From my experience in the USA, France and the Netherlands that is not the case there. Law, Computer Science or Biotech are much better magnets for talent there. Full labor costs (wages + insurances) in Spain are significantly lower than in most other advanced economies. Another huge advantage is the absence of ITAR restrictions. We will be able to fly passengers from any nationality, regardless of the embargo status of their home nation. This is an incredible advantage over firms developing in the USA. And the weather here is amazing, which is equally good for quality of life and test flying.

Q: You have attended the International Space University’s Summer Session. Talk about that experience and how it affected this project. Would you recommend ISU’s Summer Session to other budding Space Entrepreneurs?

José Mariano Lopez Urdiales: I would highly recommend the ISU experience; it really helps to get things to happen. I went to ISU in the Chilean winter of 2000 for their two months program. There I worked on two projects, one the creation of a Chilean Space Agency and the other one was titled Space Tourism: from dream to reality. I find remarkable that in 2001 the Agency was setup along the lines of the white paper we prepared at ISU and that very year the first so-called space tourist, Dennis Tito flew to the ISS. That report was the first time I wrote, and as far as I know anybody else, how balloons can offer the benefits that private space explorers desire.