Above, Ursa Major Rocket Test
From first flights on Mars to a rocket company CEO recently hosting SNL, the space world has been making some exciting headlines as of late. But where exactly are we in the maturity and development timeline of the space economy? In the last 10 years, there has been over $180B of equity investment into nearly 1,500 private companies driving the commercialized space ecosystem. The increased competition in an arena traditionally limited to a few government-funded players has shifted market dynamics and is beginning to form an altogether new outlook on what a modern landscape could look like in the upper reaches of our atmosphere.
At Fahrenheit 212, we’re increasingly curious how a nascent and complex industry can address some of the key hurdles that will allow a market traditionally limited to a few, potentially become many. What needs to happen to make the elevated ambitions of the industry come to fruition? How are today’s newest and most innovative players in the space economy thinking about their own business models in the context of an evolving market? A few weeks ago we sat down with Joe Laurienti, CEO of Colorado-based rocket developer, Ursa Major Technologies, to understand what the future of the space industry could look like and how Ursa is playing an integral role.
Stetson Hallowell: Hey Joe - to kick things off, people see a lot of things in the headlines these days about the space industry, but what are the most important themes happening in the market right now in your mind?
Joe Laurienti: Yes, I mean in the last 10 years there has been such a tremendous shift. Prior to it being a bunch of publicly funded defense contractors, space was really a thing of nation-states. When things started it was extremely rare to have access to orbit, then eventually the rarified air was being able to put people in orbit, and now we’re in a place where SpaceX has launched astronauts. They're launching again in August or September, and this is going to be the first entirely commercial launch which is really cool, no NASA astronauts.
Alongside that is commercial access to space and commercialization. When we say that it means if you're a scrappy startup, or if you’re a University project, or someone like Google, and you want to launch satellites, you have access to it. You don't have to go through a defense contractor or a government program to get access to space. Cost is not a discriminator yet. It's still all about access. That's really the point - if you want to get to space, you can find a means to do it. I think we're there.
The next step is really reducing costs, reducing wait times, increasing that access. So instead of waiting two years after a satellite is signed up to launch, maybe you can launch tomorrow. It’s really this reason the industry is getting so much attention, especially from Wall Street and those looking ten to twenty years in the future. The cost of space electronics is decreasing, the cost to develop the software is decreasing, and the cost to get to orbit is decreasing - which means we have a really fast feedback loop and we should be able to develop new capable technologies in space for 1/100th the cost that it would have taken in the 90s when this was all big government contractors.
SH: Almost sounds like you're in a similar moment to the 60s where we are about to go from 10,000 square feet for a computer to a PC at every desk, a lot of interesting dynamics enabling change and increasing access.
JL: That's actually an analogy I often use when thinking about Ursa and our approach. You know if this is the next PC because it's all about accessibility and low cost, and getting space in the hands of everyone like Bill Gates did with the PC, we want to be Intel or AMD. We want to provide this core component that allows Dell to compete with HP, Apple, Motorola, and IBM who were incumbents in the PC race. We think we’re a very necessary but obvious next step in the industry.
SH: With that, what’s Ursa all about?
JL: Our business is about making rocket engines for launch vehicles to put satellites in orbit. I started Ursa after working at some really innovative space companies, and the idea was to take what I thought was the logical next step in the industry. These companies were doing really innovative things, but like many other technological industries, they were vertically integrated. So for me, as a propulsion engineer, I was focused on one piece of that puzzle - one link in this huge value chain, and I wanted to start a company to hopefully solve that link and really advanced that link.
Our goal is to optimize that technology and propulsion for the industry by building rocket engines a number of launchers can use, and in doing so create a bit of competition in the market, and also offer some entrants the ability to compete that may not have existed before.
SH: How could an approach like this shift the dynamics of the traditional customer base?
JL: Yeah, the clearest answer that's really exciting to us is that because we have engines that are available on the market, there should be an ability for launchers to emerge that don't have to raise as much money. Prior to having rocket engines on the market, if you wanted to start a large company, it's probably four or five years of engine development, and that's probably 50% of your cost, if not more. Just to get to the first few attempts of orbit. So having an option out there should mean companies can get to market much sooner, much cheaper, and compete pretty quickly.
SH: And how has that been playing out? Looking at the broader aerospace industry in general, there's traditionally been room for just a few players, is that changing?
JL: The way we see the market is there's a lot of diversity in end-use and application. We don't think that there are going to be 100 launchers that are all competing for the same few launches - it’s a nice thought, especially if you're a satellite company, to think that you could go to a drop-down menu and look at the prices for a bunch of different launchers and their launch date availability and pick the one that makes sense - but I think it will be a smaller selection of launchers, and they'll have different diverse offerings.
For example, if you're a government customer that wants to launch a payload by itself on a particular day, a couple of years from now, you can select a launcher that's probably really low risk, perhaps high cost, and reliably very on time. Alternatively, you might be a commercial customer who just wants the cheapest ride to orbit, and there will be a launch service dedicated to that - and everything in between. Right now there are even launchers looking at rapid response, so the ability to launch really on a moment's notice, for example. It will be a diversity of players, not dozens of launchers. They will differentiate on the type of launch services they specialize in and offer.
SH: How about new industries and new downstream end-users altogether? Who gets to benefit from commercial space advancing that didn’t before?
JL: Definitely. You know we’re one piece of the puzzle, and the engines are exciting because we truly get things off the ground, we're that big barrier. But at the end of the day, we are one cog and we're an enabler to the end state, which is either transportation services or data services for on-orbit technologies.
Some of the stuff that really excites me looking years in the future is the idea that space is so accessible and so normalized that you don't even think about the fact that the data is coming from space. There's a little bit of that today, but an example is the idea that here in Colorado (where we’re based), a farmer might pay $2.00 to download really accurate, up-to-date thermal and water availability maps from on-orbit assets. Today the technology that is collecting that type of data is likely selling it to big industries or hedge funds that want to know these things - but the idea that someone with 15 acres of land could just go on some app and download it, that's what really excites me about space.
SH: What sort of big hurdle do you wish you could immediately address to help accelerate growth?
JL: That's a really good question. It probably changes every day based on what's front of mind. Supply chain is always a big risk even if you're in sourcing and you’re vertically integrating, it’s a tremendous risk. For us, it's everything from parts that we need fabbed and brought in house to the machines to fab the parts that we’re trying to bring in house. So that's always a huge risk. I think that will always be a focus of ours because as your technology advances and you iterate on things, your supply chain changes, and I don't think it's a risk that's going away.
The other one that's front of mind is talent, and that's an exciting one because obviously, your talent is the heart of your company, but I think it’s talent in a couple of ways. There's talent with really relevant next-generation aerospace experience - but you don't want to be entirely that talent. So, we brought in employees from automotive and F1 and John Deere and other areas to bring new mindsets to how we approach problem-solving. It's these two competing ideas working together, and as we grow the company you’ve kind of got this pendulum that you want to ensure is taking in the right frequency.