Aerospace acumen is in the Puget Sound’s DNA. As the former one-company town that Boeing helped build, the area has long hosted some of the world’s top talent in flight engineering. Now the next chapter of that story is being written. An ambitious new aerospace industry is emerging, its sights literally set on the stars, and the Puget Sound is quickly becoming its ground zero.
From devising technology that can cheapen rocket launches, to exploring ways to mine asteroids for precious minerals, a plethora of space-focused ventures have been springing up in the area in recent years. So many have appeared that a loose-knit group began meeting this summer — tentatively titled the Washington State Space Coalition — to push for economic support from the state government.
The audaciousness of these companies has generated a lot of interest, and nowhere was that more apparent than at a Museum of Flight panel discussion earlier this month. In front of a packed crowd, three leaders in the fledgling industry discussed “Space: Are we There Yet?” Moderating the discussion was museum president Douglas King, who was as enthusiastic about space commercialization as the panelists who stand to profit from it.
"What will people say about our era in 1000 years?” King asked. “They won’t be talking about Syria, our economy, or things like that. They’ll be saying this was when people first left the planet.” No one understood the point of PCs a few decades ago, King said, and when he first met Steve Jobs, “he was a scraggly haired kid no one took seriously.” Commercializing space, King believes, is similarly misunderstood, and one day could be just as important.
The comment was apt. The commercial space industry wouldn’t exist in its current form without the backing of tech billionaires, who have bankrolled some of its most prominent companies. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the founder of Blue Origin in Kent, which aims to cut the cost of launching rockets into space. Google chiefs Eric Schmidt and Larry Page are funders of Planetary Resources in Bellevue, a company that wants to mine asteroids for precious minerals. Paypal co-founder Elon Musk and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen both fund space ventures outside the state. Billionaire Richard Branson provides capital for the space tourism company Virgin Galactic.
Two of the three companies represented on the panel fit that bill – Virgin Galactic and Planetary Resources. The third, Seattle-based Space Angels Network, is an aerospace-focused angel investor group. While much of the discussion focused on juicy topics like mankind’s potential and mining asteroids, Space Angels' managing director Joe Landon was on-hand to bring things back to earth, and sketch out the industry's economic realities.
As he sees it, a number of factors have made Puget Sound the epicenter of the commercial space industry. “There’s a long history of aerospace in this area, and that means there’s suppliers who know what it takes to support aerospace ventures,” said Landon. “But to start a good company, you need good people, a commercial infrastructure around you, and capital. The Puget Sound has all three… With the tech industry in the area, there’s capital here that doesn’t exist elsewhere.”
This raises an interesting question: Is space commercialization really a mainstream industry of the future, or just a lark for the world’s richest people? Puget Sound's newest big industry, which is attracting some of the smartest people in aeronautics, certainly has a shot at more widespread success. The satellite technology Planetary Resources is developing for asteroid exploration, argued Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki, could be used in other areas of research. Contracts from the military and NASA can pay the bills as private companies gear up for space missions, and could even make them profitable if those missions don’t happen.
On the other hand, according to Virgin Galactic VP William Pomerantz, the roughly 600 people signed up as space tourists with the company face a roughly $600,000 pricetag. And mining an asteroid can cost billions of dollars, the return on which would be a long time coming and hinged on a number of uncertainties. Both business plans are tightly tied to the whims of wealthy investors.
The words “hail mary” and “risky” pop up a lot in discussion and Lewicki admits that's just a part of play. “We don’t say ‘failure is not an option.’ We say ‘failure is a way to get there.’” That's a slogan that only investors with money to burn would be comfortable with. But it also represents a big opening for innovation.
“There are big differences between investing in an iPhone app and a space-based venture,” said Landon. “If you’re going to invest in space, you want to invest in a company that’s going to fail fast, fail often, and learn from it.” Lewicki admitted the industry “may sound a bit sci-fi today, but the foundations are there.”
Those foundations include not only funding, but also advancements in technology. The processing power in a modern PC dwarfs that found in spacecrafts of decades past, and costs are pretty much guaranteed to keep falling, giving today's space companies a much longer runway for success. If some consider the commercial space industry unrealistic, panelists argued, so was the space race of the 1960s.
As far as Landon is concerned, the trajectory of Puget Sound’s commercial space industry is almost certainly upward. As more like-minded companies move to the area, the industry’s local ecosystem grows, and becomes more appealing to other space-oriented ventures. This, he says, is why “we’re already seeing a real space cluster here.” One that will likely grow.
As the discussion drew to a close, an audience member asked the panel whether Seattle could become the Silicon Valley of Space.
“I don’t know if I’d call Seattle the Silicon Valley of Space,” said Landon. “Maybe instead, one day we’ll refer to the Silicon Valley as the Seattle of the Internet.”