Sunday, November 28, 2010

Interview with the Founder of The NewSpace Business Group

Are you a NewSpace organization? Could you use a group of MBA’s at your disposal to complete company projects without the cost of keeping them on your payroll? Meet the NewSpace Business Group. Think of the NewSpace Business Group as a network for nearly minted passionate, space-minded MBA’s that gain valuable business experience by solving real world problems for the NewSpace industry.

So listen up Altius, Armadillo, Bigelow, Masten, XCOR, SFF, and NLV Challenge competitors. The NewSpace Business Group is available to assist with your:
  • Market Research
  • Competitive Analysis
  • Pricing Strategies
  • Business Development Strategies
  • Business Plan Development
  • Internships
  • and more.
Here is an interview with the group's founder, Jonathan Card (another interview in the series from Space Studies Institute’s Space Manufacturing Conference 14).

Q: Describe the NewSpace Business Group.

Jonathan Card: The NewSpace Business Group is a student group for business students, historically at the MBA level, interested in space businesses. We are focused on bridging the gap between the space technical community and other specialties in business that are necessary to run a successful company. One of the most destructive things that our current space policy has done is that NASA has frequently had to act as the intermediary between the space companies and the public. NASA's goal has been to foment experimentation and technical advances that were necessary in the 1960s to get humans to space.

Unfortunately, it's not enough for the technology to exist, but it has to exist in a network of social institutions that manufacture it, improve it, and operate it and there has been limited success in forming these kinds of institutions. This is very difficult for the government to do in a democracy, but NASA has recently begun to rectify this. COTS, SBIR, and, I think, Obama's recent NASA budget have started to bridge this gap.

The NewSpace Business Group is a setting for people in the space community to apply what they are learning in school to the industry that needs to learn it and so that business people that specialize in Marketing, in Finance, or in other aspects of private companies can learn from the NewSpace Business Group members on their campus that space is a viable place to do business and make a profit. It's less and less true that there's only one customer (NASA), that you need to get money (from NASA) before you can build anything, that you need to structure your company around government contracting and procedures.

Q: There are many other campus organizations. Why do you think you will be able to attract top business talent?

Jonathan Card: Because space is awesome, of course! It's space! Seriously, though, space is the New World of our time. It's a place that is unsettled and full of riches, from solutions to the energy crisis to new IP that can only be discovered in space. It is what will keep our civilization alive when an asteroid comes to finish us off like the dinosaurs before us, when nuclear weapons finally get out of hand, and when some unknowable tragedy strikes our ecosphere. In the end, money is the way for the people to show what's important to them; since space is important, there must be money to be made and the one to figure it out, gets to keep it. Fortunes were made, lost, and made over and over in the transatlantic trade and in the mines and forests of the New World. It will happen again in space.

Q: How do you see the NewSpace Business Group benefiting the NewSpace industry?

Jonathan Card: I would like to see NewSpace alumni forming the next cadre of managers and entrepreneurs of space-oriented companies. There are a lot of exciting companies coming of age right now and there are still holes to be filled in. Companies are just learning to talk to each other, how to do business with each other, and what institutions other industries created for themselves that space companies don't have because the unrelenting NASA-focus of the past has prevented a mature industry from emerging organically.

There are opportunities here that we haven't yet dreamt, and they are problems that MBAs and other business school students study full-time. We are the leaders that will make this industry make money and will make money elsewhere and bring it to NewSpace and so into the future.

Q: What you like the NewSpace Business Group to grow into over the next few years?

Jonathan Card: I'd like to make it into a national campus organization whose members know each other, work together, and can learn to rely on each other. I'd also like to make it into a group whose name becomes a credential; that, with the NewSpace Business Group on their resume, business school students can be assured of at least an interview with investors, companies, and other firms in the space industry.

Q: How can the New Space Industry benefit from your group’s efforts today? Internships? Projects? Other?

Jonathan Card: We have done projects for NewSpace groups already; we helped organize some of the events at the NewSpace 2009 conference (it was this experience that led to me becoming Treasurer of the Foundation) and we did an industry analysis of the future of the CubeSat industry for a Google Lunar X Prize competitor applying modern industry theories of innovation to see if we can establish some insight into the future growth of that technology. Portions of that paper are being prepared for public distribution; stay tuned to or our LinkedIn group for more information on that, probably in December. We are always looking for projects and internships for our participants. The benefits are subtle and more widespread than you may think.

Last spring, we arranged a campus talk by Dannie Stamp, the former COO of Iridium (you can watch this on our YouTube channel); bringing such a luminary to campus was important to the school and it was my understanding at the end of the year that the school was interested in building stronger ties with him. This kind of relationship can be an important way for NewSpace to be highlighted in publications and to be used as examples in classrooms. That kind of publicity, in the context of other topics, is an important way to mainstream what we're doing.

Q: How can the New Space Industry help you become successful? Where do you need help to take the New Space Business Group to the next level?

Jonathan Card: I don't really want to focus on "how can the NewSpace industry help me". It's important to me that this remains a group that comes together to help the industry. Even when we are looking for projects, it's important that those projects are not just make-work for the sake of a good idea. If we can't help NewSpace, there's no point is being a group. If NewSpace can't help humanity, there's no point in it existing. I firmly believe that for-profit businesses, and those of us that believe in the power of the private sector, exist solely to serve others and be others-centered; usually our customers. I guess the most the NewSpace industry can do for us is to remember that we are there for them, and our members are a group of people that will know something about their industry, and if they need something done or they need good people, we are here to help.

Q: If anyone reading this wants to get involved how can they get a hold of you?

Jonathan Card: will still reach me, even though I've graduated, as will any message through the LinkedIn group. This has been dormant for the last few months, but we're revisiting it and will be re-opening it for new members soon. We welcome industry members, students, prospective students, or anyone else that wants to keep up on our activities.

Q: What should I have asked that I didn’t?

Jonathan Card: What are you doing now?

The NewSpace Business Group has alumni at Sargent Controls, which manufactures parts for military and civil space and airplane parts, and we have several members that have started their own businesses after business school.

I'm working at a cloud software company, B50 Data, making software for tracking maintenance for commercial shipping fleets. We're finishing our first round of sales calls without any venture or angel capital, and we're very optimistic. In addition to polishing the paper on CubeSats for publication, I'm finishing a paper overviewing international property law and various means of resolving complex IP legal situations, like those in cloud computing, other than expanding the power of the UN.

I've also started inquiring about re-establishing the Serviceable Spacecraft Committee on Standards at the AIAA so that we can start work on docking, berthing, and refueling standards that we need in order to have things like orbital fuel depots. I've heard so many people talk about how NASA needs to start establishing industry standards, but that's not NASA's job. It's our job, and it's time we did something about it. I've gotten some interest in it from some good people, but it's still an infant idea. I'm also heading up several committees for the Space Frontier Foundation, and I'm investigating some interesting possibilities that may lead to a NewSpace company. Nothing definite yet, but I'll keep you informed.

Friday, November 26, 2010

When It’s Darkest Men See the Stars

"When It’s Darkest Men See the Stars."  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Steve Blank is optimistic entrepreneurs have created the, "dawn of a new era for a new American economy built on entrepreneurship and innovation."  His excellent post focuses on why startups have fundamentally changed and are changing the business landscape by serving as the process incubator for the business world. 

Although Steve uses Silicon Valley for his examples, New Space can learn from and be encouraged by his perspective.  Read Steve's post for some rational optimism and insight on the coming decade of the entrepreneur.  I especially like this (long) quote from Steve (emphasis mine):
When James Watt started the industrial revolution with the steam engine in 1775 no one said, “This is the day everything changes.” When Karl Benz drove around Mannheim in 1885, no one said, “There will be 500 million of these driving around in a century.” And certainly in 1958 when Noyce and Kilby invented the integrated circuit, the idea of a quintillion (10 to the 18th) transistors being produced each year seemed ludicrous. 
Yet it’s possible that we’ll look back to this decade as the beginning of our own revolution. We may remember this as the time when scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs were integrated into the fabric of society faster than they had ever been before. When the speed of how businesses operated changed forever. As the time when we reinvented the American economy and our Gross Domestic Product began to take off and the U.S. and the world reached a level of wealth never seen before.
It may be the dawn of a new era for a new American economy built on entrepreneurship and innovation.  One that our children will look back on and marvel that when it was the darkest, we saw the stars.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Interview with Al Globus: Infrared Space-Based Solar Power

SBSP Concept Graphic
I attended The Space Studies Institute’s Space Manufacturing Conference 14 at the end of October 2010. Over the coming months, I will post interviews from people at that conference.

This being a space business blog, I gravitated to interview those presenting ideas which were intriguing from a business perspective. You be the judge.

The first interview is with Al Globus. Al presented this paper at SM14 on a way to significantly reduce the size of a profitable (or nearly profitable) first-generation solar power satellite that could be launched on a single EELV for under $100M.

Q: Typical powersat plans require massive satellites in GEO. Talk about why this is and how your plan for space-based solar power is different.

Al Globus: The size of traditional PowerSats is driven by the choice of microwaves for power beaming. This requires km scale antennas on orbit. My plan uses infrared which reduces the size of the power beam by a factor of 30,000-120,000 (depending on assumptions). This means the on-orbit power beam can be just a few meters across, radically reducing the size of PowerSats.

Q: Your paper recommends powersats beam energy back to earth using infra-red instead of microwave wavelengths. What are tradeoffs between infer-red and microwave for powersat transmission and how you came to prefer infrared?

Al Globus: The big advantage is size. This is because the size of the beam is directly proportional to the wavelength and infrared is a much smaller wavelength than microwaves.

Disadvantages include: high energy density on the ground which is a safety concern, the state of the art is not good enough yet, and higher atmospheric absorption. In practice this may mean that powersats using infrared power beaming are limited to desert-like locations due to absorption by rain. Fortunately, there are large electricity markets in very dry regions such as Southern California, North Africa, and much of Australia. This is more than large enough to get SSP into the energy mix and pave the way for larger satellites that can serve more of the market.

Q: Talk about advances in thin film helio-gyros. What are they (for us non-engineers) and how can they help solution the space based solar power problem?

Al Globus: The advantage of thin-film heliogyros is mass (weight). First, the material is very thin and therefore very light. The power producing bits of the Ikaros satellite are only 32.5 microns thick and probably weigh about 45 g/m^2. A heliogyro does not use masts and rigging to hold the material facing to the sun. Instead, it spins. As a anyone who has played on a merry-go-round knows, spinning produces a force outward from the center. This is used to stiffen the solar-power absorbing materials. On Earth this could never work due to gravity, wind, etc. In space these are not an issue. The Ikaros only spins at 1-2 rpm which is sufficient to keep the material facing the sun.

Q: Talk about how you get a commercial power satellite up in only one EELV launch.

Al Globus:
  • First, you need to convert the Ikaros to a powersat by covering the entire sail area with thin-film solar cells.
  • Second, you need to scale it up to 200+ m on a side (from 14m).
  • Third, you need to develop the power beaming equipment with a 2.6 ton mass budget and mechanical constraints.
  • Fourth, you need to keep the power beaming equipment cool.
  • Fifth, you need 20% efficient solar cells.
  • Sixth, you need to be able to get a bulk discount from SpaceX (promising to launch more PowerSats).
  • Seventh, you need to do all this development for perhaps a hundred million of dollars or so.
  • Eighth, you need to sell the power in remote places where the price is very high.
In practice, the first satellite probably won't be profitable. However, if it doesn't lose too much money we're good. The second satellite will cost a lot less than the first.

Q: Your paper describes the potential profitability of a 5MW power satellite by selling to niche markets. What niche markets are you considering?

Al Globus: US military forward bases. There is also evidence that certain Italian markets were willing to pay $0.29/kwh at at least one point in the past.

Q: You say in your paper, the easiest and most profitable powersat research area is system design. Why do you think that is and what are some beneficial research topics?

Al Globus: There is no really well thought out design for infrared power beaming from orbit to earth. While the paper is pretty specific on how to generate the power (based on the Ikaros, which is in orbit and works) the power beaming bits of the paper are more of an existence proof: finding bits and pieces of data here and there than indicate that there should be some design with the desired properties. However, knowing that there is a solution doesn't mean you know what the solution is. That's the purpose of this research: come up with actual point designs that could be tested.

Q: What should I have asked that I didn’t?

Al Globus: Are there others who have proposed similar ideas? Yes. Lots of people have looked into infrared power beaming for space solar power. However, as far as I know, this is the first time using heliogyros for power production has been proposed.

Why isn't the government funding R&D in this area? Good question. DOE spends about $400 million per year on fusion research and, while SSP is a difficult problem, it is a lot further along than fusion. After all, satellites in orbit regularly generate useful quantities of solar power, something fusion has never done. SSP's current budget: $0.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gravity for Sale

xGRF Concept Graphic
Back in June, guest blogger, Kirk Sorensen, over at Selenian Boondocks described a cool concept for generating artificial gravity from a tether (and a Canfield joint). I read the paper behind the concept.  Last week when Jon Goff at Selenian Boondocks followed up with this post about a Variable Gravity Research Facility (xGRF) as a Flagship Technology Demonstrator, it reminded me I needed to post some business applications for such a facility as well.

Could such a facility be run commercially? In the discussion below, I will use the International Space Station (ISS) as my example, but the model I present would work equally well with other orbital destinations like a Bigelow Aerospace habitat.

For us non-engineers, think of the xGRF as a Bigelow module (habitable volume) with a large tether attached. Because of the power (almost magic) of the conservation of angular momentum, when the tether is unwound, the station spins. When the tether is re-wound, the tether stops spinning (this is where the engineers shoot me for over simplifying – but you get the idea).
  • Because such a station could be spun at various rates, multiple G-Loads are possible. 
  • Because the station could be despun quickly, the xGRF station is easier to dock with. 
  • Because the station can be despun and respun at a low energy cost, the station is cheaper to operate.

Selling Gravity
Could an entrepreneur run such a gravity facility at a profit? Their profit centers could be both the “gravity service” they offer (a night sleep under gravity) as well as the data they generate from the effects of varying levels of gravity on humans (for use by others in planning long-duration space flights). Those guests staying on an xGRF become both customer and lab rat.

I don’t think it is too ambitious of a goal to return astronauts to earth with NO LONGTERM NEGATIVE EFFECTS from microgravity. Although obviously not achievable currently, I think we are all assuming humanity has to develop this capability someday – the current system in untenable. Is such life-enhancing effects possible through short bursts of artificial gravity? We do not know.

Even if the effects of artificial gravity prove less than completely restorative, as long as you assume the benefit from short bursts of artificially gravity is superior to the current system of significant daily exercise, I believe one could still develop a lucrative market for a gravity service. The option to sleep under artificial gravity could become highly desirable - one of those services that moves from “luxury” to “requirement” in people’s minds very quickly.

So my idea…
Let’s explore the idea of a commercial xGRF with an example: Put an xGRF in an orbit that would allow for frequent trips to the ISS (low transfer times between facilities and low delta-v costs). Astronauts would work in the microgravity environment of the ISS and sleep in the artificial gravity environment of the xGRF with daily transfer tugs moving astronauts between the two facilities. Co-locating an xGRF with the ISS could:
  • DOUBLE the productivity of the ISS as measured in astronauts’ daily “workable” hours (see the tables below for more on how one doubles station productivity) and 
  • Reduce microgravity physiological impacts on astronauts in orbit.

Here are the details:
  • Transfer time between stations should take no more than two hours
  • Astronaut time on xGRF equals 10 hours per day
  • Astronaut time on ISS equals 10 hours per day
  • Three Astronaut shifts of four astronauts per shift
  • Increase ISS crew size from six to eight at any given time (assuming life support could handle 8 on ISS)
  • Allow around-the-clock work on the ISS – including constant experiment monitoring if needed
  • Repurpose current ISS sleeping, exercise, & personal spaces into science and experiment space 
  • Productive Astronaut hours per day on ISS could increase by 100% without any new modules added to the station itself (from 60 productive hours per day with a crew of six to 120 productive hours per day with shift work outlined below)

Table 1 below highlights the productivity of three shifts of four astronauts transferring between ISS and xGRF daily:

Table 2 below highlights the current productivity (note, exercise and sleep times are my estimates only):

  • The political challenges to be allowed to dock with the ISS three times per day are enormous (perhaps too enormous)
  • The logistics of frequent dockings are significant. Note these first two challenges are relevant to my last post about the last mile problem for mico-cargo delivery to these stations. If today’s post highlights how we are struggling to solve frequent deliveries for macro-cargo, how pessimistic should we be regarding micro-cargo deliveries noted in my last post?
  • Allowing a spinning station so close to the ISS (or any orbital station) creates security challenges that must to addressed. There is always a chance the two stations will collide. Do the benefits outweigh the risks?  How can the risks be mitigated?
  • Is two hours really enough time to transfer between stations? If not, does the loss of productivity from longer “commutes” (three hours, four hours?) degrade the idea to the point of being unexecutable?

As with most tantalizing space business concepts, this one falls into the category of, “If I only had a billion dollars…” I do like Jon Goff’s idea of developing a xGRF as a NASA Flagship Technology Demonstrator. Regardless, once commercial station operators have achieved a few more milestones, this concept may be worth a deeper look – adding productivity to our astronauts in orbit and more importantly, improving the quality of life of those working off-world.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Micro-Cargo Delivery & The Last Mile Problem

Orbital Tech's Space Station Concept
With the NLV Challenge Seminar last weekend in Menlo Park, I have (again) been thinking about NanoSat Launcher markets.

First a quick refresher: a NanoSat Launch Vehicle (NLV) is an orbital launcher dedicated to very small payloads (~1-50kg). Currently there is no dedicated launch vehicle for such payloads. Interested customers are forced to seek out secondary payload status on larger launch vehicles. Secondary payloads are launched WHEN the primary payload dictates and WHERE (in the orbit that) the primary payload dictates.

In my estimation, two features of a commercial NLV system will disproportionately drive market demand. A successful commercial NanoSat Launch Vehicle service must be able to:
  1. Launch with limited lead time (fast integration combined with frequent launch opportunities) and
  2. Launch at low cost. I've heard price points between $500K to $1M per flight. At these price points, universities could bundle 12-24 CubeSats into a single payload and launch multiple times during a student’s college career (current wait time for a CubeSat launch can be 5-7 years).
Now, let's talk markets: I believe the demand for an NLV will be divided into two major categories:

I believe micro-cargo delivery to orbiting stations will be the larger of the two markets. I admit, with no current demonstrated market, this assertion is a bit speculative, but here is my simple logic. Developing a complex system like a satellite can take months or years, emergency needs/wants can develop in seconds. For example, how do you get an emergency supply of insulin to a visiting astronaut on a Bigelow Aerospace or Orbital Technologies space station?  Not on a Dragon resupply mission which won't lauch for another month. 

Bigelow announced on Oct 7, 2010, his company's need for 24 flights per year to his stations starting in the year, 2017. But those flights will be planned months (years?) in advance. What happens when the stations need short-term "emergency" items: a wrench, a computer chip, fresh apples?

What opportunities for luxury, science, convenience, or commerce does such a micro-cargo service open up for those on station? This is where the NLV could really augment the larger deliveries from SpaceX, Boeing, and Orbital. With an NLV, station operators can have both large, regularly scheduled deliveries as well as more frequent micro-cargo deliveries working together to service their needs.

But once in LEO, how does the NLV actually deliver the payload to the station itself? We have a "last mile" problem. The ISS, Bigelow, or Orbital Technologies are going to require that vehicles approaching their stations do not damage them. But on-board rendezvous and docking technologies may be too massive for a NanoSat Launcher to include on board (not to mention expensive/time-consuming for the entrepreneur to develop).

In addition, it is unclear to me that orbiting stations are set up to handle the volume of deliveries an NLV service could theoretically provide. An NLV may be able to provide daily "milk runs" to an orbiting station, but could the station handle that much throughput at their airlocks? A last mile solution is required for micro-cargo delivery to truly become the "killer app" for NLV's that I believe it could be.

A Last Mile Solution would:
  • Eliminate/minimize on-board NLV rendezvous and docking hardware
  • Facilitate the increased opps tempo of frequent station deliveries
  • Ensure the safety of delivered payload
  • Ensure the safety of the orbital station itself
The company that solves this last mile problem for delivering micro-cargo to orbital destinations will significantly enhance the attractiveness of any NanoSat Launcher in operation. And if one company vertically integrates the last mile solution with a company-created NLV, such a combination could serve as a significant barrier to entry for other NLV competitors unable to offer such a comprehensive solution.

We need entrepreneurs to solve the last mile problem for micro-cargo delivery to orbital destinations.  There's profit in it for you if you do.