The Space Frontier Foundation has put on a NewSpace conference every year since 2006 as a way to bring together people involved in the space industry—be they from established companies, startups, or government agencies—with investors and tech innovators. The confab ventured out of the Silicon Valley and landed in Seattle for the first time last week, in a nod to the growing number of new-space companies located in the area. Interestingly, one of the takeaways from the conference is that NewSpace may be something of a misnomer, an unnecessary distinction given the direction in which the industry is headed.
“This future, we call next space,” said Charles Beames, president of Vulcan Aerospace.
Aerojet Rocketdyne would qualify as old space if you want to make a distinction; the Redmond-based company was founded back in the 1950s and has built more than 15,000 rocket engines that have powered missions to every planet in the solar system.
“There’s a lot of talk of new space versus old space, but I think the key relevant thing to me is innovating versus stagnating,” said Fred Wilson, director of business development at Aerojet, who noted that the company’s track record is no guarantee of future success. “It’s the successful innovators that grow over time. Even though we’ve been around for 50-60 years, if we quit innovating we’re not going to be around much longer.”
Distinction without a difference
Debra Facktor Lepore, vice president and general manager of strategic operations at Ball Aerospace, finds the dichotomy to be a false one.
“It’s about old and new and everything in between, both working together to advance the future of space,” Lepore said. She noted that the relationships between entrepreneurs and startups and more established companies can evolve to meet the specific business or technical needs in each situation, and that an us-versus-them approach can be disruptive. Lepore called the relationship synergistic.
“In the end it is all about the people and being passionate about going to space: why we go there, how we get there, what we do there, what we discover when we’re there, and making a difference for our lives here on Earth and in pioneering discoveries to make a difference for beyond our planet and the solar system,” Lepore said.
Building real businesses
Beames, of Vulcan, noted that one aspect of new space that really is new is that the laws of economics are beginning to apply to low-Earth orbit. It isn’t enough for companies to simply go to space; they must have concrete business plans, real products or services, and customers who want those things. Vulcan aims to support startups to help them get there.
“It’s all about enabling access to the entrepreneur; the entrepreneur that wants to create a business, the entrepreneur that has an idea to solve a really tough problem,” he said. Sometimes, the challenge for space businesses is the long wait to get a project launched and off the planet. Beames said providing convenient and timely access to low-Earth orbit could help raise confidence among investors.
“Keeping the proverbial two-men-in-a-garage together for two years, that’s a long time to be paying salary without being able to either generate revenue or to raise equity,” he observed.
Jim Simpson, senior vice president of strategy and business development with Aerojet Rocketdyne, said space companies, new or old, need to remember a key fact. His voice lowered to a near whisper, as if he were divulging a well-kept secret: “Businesses need to make money,” he said, echoing the point about sound economic practices.
While there’s a lot that is new about the space industry, Simpson reminded conference attendees that one old player can’t be ignored. He pointed out that two-thirds of all space missions are still government missions, and that the government remains a big economic player in the industry.
“There’s going to be a struggle between the government and commercial space applications as far as the dynamics are concerned,” Simpson said, adding that he expects that will lead to a healthy evolution.
“Old space and new space: it’s about the ideas, the drive, the people, the innovation and the partnerships,” said Lepore of Ball Aerospace. “All of us are really working to make a difference to pioneer discoveries, explore the universe, have a sustainable planet, improve our quality of life. Is it new? Is it old? Is it mid? Is it next?” she asked.
“It’s always about what’s next,” she concluded.