On Orbit Podcast Puts New Space Under the Microscope

Agility was one aspect of New Space that On Orbit guests could agree on, as they put the hotly debated term under the microscope during a live podcast recording at SATELLITE 2020.

Traditionally the space industry has worked with very long production cycles, explained Tanya Harrison, manager of science programs for Planet Labs, a company building a global network of earth observation satellites.

“You build it, you test the hell out of it, because you want to make sure it will not fail,” she said.

But that could mean working on a project on the ground for ten years before a decision was even made whether to launch it or not. In New Space, Harrison said, “We have a new mentality, where we’re a lot less worried. … We’ll launch something and then test it in orbit.”

“That difference encapsulates what New Space is,” she said.

“New Space is global,” observed podcast co-host Grace Graham, an aerospace student at Utah State University. Graham said that the shared dream of space unites people from all over the world — “It’s not just America, Russia, and China anymore.”

But coining the term might be premature, argued Charlie Nitschelm, chair of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).

“Where we can go in space is still very much on the horizon,” he said, contrasting it with the internet. “It’s not like dotcom, where you could get together with a few friends and a laptop and build a million-dollar business over the weekend. You can’t do that in space right now.”

Until the space sector can mirror the low-entry barriers and massive potential for scale seen in the broader tech sector, Nitschelm said it doesn’t warrant the term New Space. “Once we get that barrier to entry down to where any student, anyone, can start a business in a dorm room and have an impact on the space industry, that’s when it will be New Space,” he said.

New Space, in addition to being agile and global, is “transparent as much as possible,” said Ali Younis, head of business development and product marketing for satellite broadband provider Astranis. “There’s not a lot of mystery or darkness to it. It’s very accessible.”

And that transparency makes it attractive to young people who want to work on issues that increase the quality of life for humanity, instead of working on projects funded by militaries and intelligence agencies, Nitschelm agreed, adding, “They want to believe in the mission.”

Rafferty Jackson, an investor and mentor with Jack Industries and Astia Angel, said that working for and selling to the government is a barrier to entry for young people wanting to join the space industry.

“To me, New Space is all about private investment coming to private companies,” she said, and that the term is a means of branding the industry to give it the same kind of appeal as Silicon Valley.

Yet reality is more complex, Jackson acknowledged, noting military and government dollars continue to be critical for many space startups, by funding proof-of-concept demonstrations, for example. “It gives the start ups access to a little seed capital without equity dilution and it gives them some real-world experience of working to meet a customers demands.” she said.

Jackson even described herself as the older person “throwing rocks” on the panel, pushing back on the notion that New Space was so much more agile than its predecessor. She cited the Apollo program, that those engineers worked under the same kind of time constraints that start ups do today.

“If you go back to the Apollo program, everything you are saying [about New Space] is everything that they were saying then. All the engineers that worked on Apollo were so excited, they didn’t sleep, they were so mission driven,” she said. “Constraint is one of the things that defines New Space, and NASA had that.”

She also argued against the idea of New Space in contrast to a monolithic “Old Space.”

“I don’t like the idea of New Space and old space, because it suggests that old space was all one way, and is one way, and cannot change. And that‘s not true, it’s been as fluid. If we were working on [the] Apollo [program], we’d call it New Space. It was innovative and agile and all those things,” Jackson said. VS

The On Orbit episode from this session will be released in April. Listen to all of the On Orbit episodes here.

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