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Transcript: The Path Forward: The Private Sector in Space with Rob Meyerson

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/19/2022 Washington Post Live

MR. DAVENPORT: Good morning, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Christian Davenport, a reporter covering NASA and the space industry for The Washington Post. And I am so pleased to be joined today by Rob Meyerson, the CEO of Delalune Space, and a board member of Axiom Space, which is wrapping up that historic mission to the International Space Station. We’ll talk about that and the broader space economy. But first, Rob Meyerson, welcome.

MR. MEYERSON: Thank you, Christian. It's such a pleasure to be here. Really looking forward to this conversation.

MR. DAVENPORT: Yeah, well, thanks so much for being here. We're thrilled. Let's just start with the news of the day. I mean, this is a historic mission where you've got four private citizens, not a single person working for the government, three passengers who have paid $55 million each for those rides to and from the space station, and then more than a week on the space station. I wonder if you can talk, Rob, about the significance of this mission.

MR. MEYERSON: Oh, sure. Yeah, you know, Axiom Space was founded in Houston, Texas, by Kam Ghaffarian and Mike Suffredini, who is the company CEO. And these two bring decades of experience working with and for NASA, and I can't think of a better founding team for a mission such as this.

And what Axiom is doing is building the successor to the International Space Station. So, they have an exclusive contract with NASA to access the port on the ISS, which I think of as like a gate at an airport. And so Axiom is currently designing and building the first module of their private space station, and they'll launch it and attach it to the ISS in 2024.

And then after that, they'll launch and add on three more modules over the next several years following that first one. And then by the end of this decade, the Axiom station will be complete, and it will separate from the ISS and become its own free flying space station. And it'll serve a wide range of missions for government and private industry customers and private astronauts like this Ax-1 mission.

What's significant about the Ax-1 mission, as you noted, is that it's the first all-private astronaut mission. These four astronauts that are on board include one Axiom employee who's a former highly experienced NASA astronaut, Michael López-Alegría. The other three are private citizens--one American, one Canadian, and one Israeli.

And in addition to this mission being, you know, the first for private astronauts, it's also the first time that joint operations have been conducted between private astronauts and government astronauts, because there's significant research being done, research on human health, research on future space station self-assembly, as well as research on augmented reality and other--and other items.

And so I think it's really this mission is so exciting, because it is a turning point for future commercial operations in low-Earth orbit. And we envision applications for, you know, Fortune 500 companies, global companies doing research in space manufacturing, entertainment, marketing, and as well as what's going on with Ax-1, you know, private astronaut missions. So--

MR. DAVENPORT: Yeah, and they talked a lot about--before this mission about the work they were going to be doing when they were up there. They said they didn't want to be called tourists, that they were going to be up there really working, doing their science experiments. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about some of the things they've been doing since they've been on the station.

MR. MEYERSON: Sure. Well, you know, just over the weekend, there was a demonstration of self-assembly, which is a research project called TESSERAE at MIT Media Lab. As far as I understand, those experiments went well, where they were testing out panels that will seek out--you know, float around in space and seek each other out and form a structure that could form a future space station.

They're doing--as I mentioned, they're doing research on heart health in microgravity. They're doing research on vision. They're doing research on spine health, working with the Cleveland Clinic. They're doing a polymetric experiment, testing out augmented reality. And then just lots and lots of STEM outreach, working with schools and organizations around the world.

MR. DAVENPORT: And it was clear. They didn't want to be seen as a burden. And they saw themselves as trying to forge a path forward to let other people come on to the station and have them be welcomed by NASA. But, Rob, you know, I wonder if you could place this in some context, too. I mean, there's sort of a long arc of, you know, ordinary citizens thinking about going to space, and it's been embedded in sort of our culture and our consciousness. I mean, this is really pushing the boundaries of that. But I wonder if you could sort of place this in the broader narrative.

MR. MEYERSON: Oh, sure. Yeah, that's an interesting point. The--I think of space tourism in a sort of a full--as you call it, an arc, a full lifecycle. You know, start out with terrestrial space tourism, visiting space museums, going to NASA visitor centers, traveling to watch rocket launches. Then the next level of that is participating in things like zero gravity flights or flying on a high-performance airplane or operating in a centrifuge. And there's companies that are popping up now, like a company founded by Jason Andrews here in Seattle called Orbite, which is going to do spaceflight training. And then there's the growing array of suborbital or near space options like Blue Origin’s New Shepard, Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, and then the Space Perspective’s balloon option which, which are all interesting and will be available for hundreds of thousands of dollars to maybe a million dollars per ticket.

And then last fall we saw the indication of Inspiration4, which was a three-day mission on SpaceX’s to crew Dragon vehicle that that flight was purchased by Jared Isaacman, and one seat was--you know, one seat was--it was an auction, a charitable mission. One seat was given away to someone who worked at St. Jude's, and two other seats were given away via different mechanisms. And that mission was successful. And Jared is planning to fly several other missions called the Polaris mission.

And then Ax-1 here is the premium experience. It’s an eight-day stay at the ISS. In the future, that will be an eight or longer day stay at the Axiom Space Station, which will, you know, debut later this decade.

MR. DAVENPORT: It just seems like there's so much momentum now in terms of human spaceflight. I mean, you mentioned the suborbital tourism flights, the Inspiration4 mission, the Axiom one. And Jared Isaacman who funded Inspiration4 has now bought three more flights with SpaceX. So, I wonder--you know, we'll talk about the future a little bit more later. But I wonder if you could just, in terms of the space tourism and private citizens going to space, what do you see as coming next?

MR. MEYERSON: Well, I think--I think we're going to see a lot more momentum with the Blue Origin New Shepard mission. They've said they have plans to double their flight rate this year. And I think--I think that's exciting. We've seen one flight already this year with Gary Lai from Blue Origin and George Nield, formerly of the FAA, people that we in the industry know quite well, but also, four other private citizens who purchased their tickets and have really valued that experience, that opportunity to see the Earth from up high, from 100 kilometers, see the atmosphere, the thin line of the atmosphere, and then also get an opportunity to float freely and experienced that for the first time.

So, I think we're going to see--you know, over the next coming years, we're going to see, you know, continued growth. And you know, over decades to centuries type of a timeline, we’ll eventually have more and more people, you know, eventually to the vision of millions of people living and working in space.

MR. DAVENPORT: Right. And so you've mentioned that Axiom is, of course, working on their own space station. This is a commercial space station, a private habitat that would first dock with the International Space Station. But ultimately, the planning is, is that it would replace the ISS, which is kind of remarkable, if you think about that. But it follows the trajectory where NASA has been outsourcing to the private sector, first cargo flights to the International Space Station, sending up supplies and food and science experiments, then human spaceflight to the ISS, which we've seen with SpaceX and the Commercial Crew Program and now flying private citizens. But the fact that we now have, you know, privately run habitats that are being developed, that seems to me a whole different level. And I wonder if you can talk about that for a minute, Rob.

MR. MEYERSON: Sure. Yeah, yeah. So building the successor to the International Space Station, there'll be--there'll be several successors. And Axiom happens to have the contract to access this port on the ISS. So, they're the only company that is building on to the ISS, adding those modules on in preparation for eventually separating and creating their own free flying station.

The modules will have--support living. They'll have bedrooms. They'll have eating areas. There's also going to be a research and manufacturing module. There's going to be an observatory that will have large windows and have the opportunity to view the Earth from space, and then there will be a power and control module that will be the last element that's added prior to separation.

The first habitation module is being built over in Italy by Thales Alenia, the structure, and then Axiom Space is building out the subsystems, life support, propulsion windows, and other items that will be integrated into that module prior to launch in 2024.


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MR. DAVENPORT: Can you talk a little bit about how the commercial stations would be different from a government, you know, run station where you have to partner with many different nations? I mean, in Axiom’s materials, you know, we know that, for example, it's being designed by the famous French architect and designer Philippe Starck. And you know, there's talk about the attention to detail and even it having a luxury feel. When I think about, you know, going to space, I just--I just want to survive. I want to make sure I stay alive. But obviously, that's crucial to what Axiom wants to do, but they're taking it a step further. So, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about, you know, how a private station would be different than a government one.

MR. MEYERSON: Well, that point about survival versus thriving in space is--we need to make that transition and get to the point where we're really thriving in space. And Axiom is going to--going to help us take that first step. The ISS has been in orbit for more than 20 years. It's nearing the end of its life, and we need to have a replacement. So, NASA is funding, you know, through a small contract with Axiom and smart contracts with three other companies, new development to ensure that there is at least one successor to the ISS by the end of the decade.

And the key difference between these two--I mean, you know, this is--this is going to be in space. I mean, it's--yes, there are designers putting this together trying to think differently, create a--create a different experience than what is had on the ISS. And think about how the ISS was put together. It was--it was designed by a cohort of international partners, and from--it was launched on, you know, the space shuttle, the Russian Soyuz rockets. And this vehicle is going to be built commercially with, you know, a human-centered design mindset. That is a very important part of the of Axiom’s design principles and their design philosophy. And we're going to be thinking about the end customers in the beginning. So, I think that that's one of the key differences.

I think another key difference is that, at least with Axiom, each module is going to be its own spacecraft. So, you won't have to have two or more astronauts in spacesuits outside muscling these modules into position. They'll actually dock themselves. And I think that's, an innovation because it'll allow for reconfiguration as the needs change for the space station over time.

MR. DAVENPORT: And over the years, I mean, NASA has invested more than $100 billion into the International Space Station, and it's, you know, built it and operated it in collaboration with other nations. So, what is the economic viability of a commercial station? I mean, what's the market? Who are your customers? How is that all going to work?

MR. MEYERSON: Yeah, that's a lot of money. And the ISS really cost that much to build because it was built by that international core, the core of international partners, but also it was launched by more expensive options like the space shuttle. The space shuttle was used for much of the launch of the space station. And now you have lower cost options for launch. The cost of launch has come down, you know, 50 to 100 percent over the last seven years due to competition, reusability, and other--and other changes in the industry. So, the ISS also relied on those professional astronauts to build it. Whereas future space stations are going to rely on things like self-assembly and lower cost launch and--to bring back the cost back down. But that's the cost part of it.

And then the demand side, you know, is going to have to come from a whole range of other customers and clients. So, in addition to private astronauts, you'll have professional astronauts from other countries who don't have their own human spaceflight program. So, they could work with Axiom to fly people up to the Axiom station, as--which becomes a revenue stream for Axiom. The other revenue streams are things like research and development and in-space manufacturing, which I think will become more and more useful as the access to space is simplified through working through a commercial partner.

And then I think there's other markets like entertainment and marketing that really aren't accessible to a government facility like the ISS because of priorities of crew time and the priority going to research, but in the future, we could see in-space movies being filmed, in-space sports, other things that that could be primary uses for a commercial private space station.

MR. DAVENPORT: Yeah, in-space movies, in-space sports in a weightless environment, that'd be pretty cool. Just one more quick one on the--on the station. The White House is committed to extending the life of the ISS to 2030. There's been some--obviously some tension with our main partner, Russia. NASA is looking to the commercial sector for the successor to the ISS. I mean, will you be ready in time to replace the ISS?

MR. MEYERSON: I think--I think we will. You know, each of, you know, Axiom and the other companies that are--that are building private space stations need to raise private money because NASA is not going to provide the--you know, pay full freight, pay the whole bill for these like they did for the ISS, and they shouldn't. These types of capabilities like crew and cargo services, like you mentioned earlier, Christian, should be services that the government pays for, so that the government's, you know, precious budget can go to doing cutting-edge research and deep space exploration--you know, going to the moon and Mars. So, yeah, we will be--we're building hardware at Axiom now, and we will be ready by the end of the decade to replace the ISS.

MR. DAVENPORT: So, you know, there's a lot of talk about, you know, these space billionaires--I call them the space barons--Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson. I mean, Jeff is putting in a billion dollars a year of his own money into Blue Origin, where obviously you worked, and were present there for a long time. But I wonder, I mean, what does it take to have a self-sustaining space economy where you don't have to rely on the government as the driving force, or you know, on these enormously wealthy individuals who have the wealth of a government? I mean, when do we get to the point and what will it take to have the self-sustaining space economy?

MR. MEYERSON: Yeah, the--so currently, you know, our space economy is what I call it a space for Earth economy. It's one that produces imagery, bits, and scientific discoveries for the benefit of Earth. And we're really nowhere near creating that space for space, that in-space economy that's self-sustaining. And to do so is going to require a much greater understanding of the impacts of the space environment on a variety of things that we make on Earth. And the space environment is not just microgravity, but thermal gradients, extreme heat to cold temperature, vacuum, radiation. And this is why the ISS and Axiom station will be key to creating this in-space economy. It's the first step. So, I envision global companies of all sizes using the space environment as a way to improve their products and their processes. And once these benefits are well understood, we'll start to see the growth of in-space manufacturing, first building things that will be brought back to Earth but later serving in-space customers.

MR. DAVENPORT: There's always so much attention, you know, on the on the billionaires and on human spaceflight. But really what's driving this space economy in large part is the satellites in this revolution and satellite technology that allows them to be smaller and more capable. And we're seeing these constellations of satellites, where we're talking hundreds or thousands of satellites being put up into Earth orbit to beam the internet down to ground stations. And obviously SpaceX is doing this with Starlink, and Amazon just announced earlier a huge deal where it's bought 83 launches from three different launch providers, all on rockets that have yet to fly. So, Rob, I wonder what you make of that deal and what it says about this broader space economy.

MR. MEYERSON: Yeah, this is the largest purchase of launch services in industry history. So, there's a lot to talk about there. And the key point is the one you've already made, which is that all the launchers announced are brand new and haven't launched yet.

And to help understand the significance of that, look back in history to recent new launchers. And just--I did some research. Just as a thought experiment, how long did it take for each of these rockets to get to 20 flights? For the Atlas V and the Ariane 5, which are operated by United Launch Alliance and Arianespace, respectively, it took about seven years to go from first launch to the 20th launch. For the Falcon 9 by SpaceX, it took about five and a half years. And for Rocket Lab, a smaller rocket, the Electron, it took about four years to get to 20 flights. So, it's not months. You know, it's years.

And so for these new rockets to get--that hadn’t launched yet to get to their first launch and then get to their 20th flight to serve Amazon Project Kuiper, is--it’s a--you know, it's a big--that's a--that's a big, big ask, and these companies are going to be challenged to ramp up and get there. And I think it's a good challenge. I think the industry needs that kind of challenge with--because with this one announcement Amazon has bought up, you know, much of the medium and heavy launch capacity for the next half decade. And so that last point is important as well, because there's still thousands of satellites being developed by others than Amazon, you know, other companies, commercial companies, government agencies, and they'll need to rely on other new launchers to get them to orbit.

So, I think this is--this is good news for new launchers in the industry, like companies like ABL Space, Relativity Space and Stoke Space, who are who are building either responsive or reusable launchers themselves. So--

MR. DAVENPORT: And what do you think are the biggest areas of growth going forward? And we see a lot of challenges in space, too, not just with the economics or the engineering and the technical side, but with the enormous amount of debris that's out there as well. I mean, looking forward, what are some of the other sectors we should be paying more attention to?

MR. MEYERSON: Well, I think, you know, the debris problem, you know, space domain awareness or space, traffic management is really going to be one of the grand challenges of our generation, something that we really need to start spending some time on. And it's not just something that an engineer can go run some calculations and solve. It's--it takes diplomacy. It takes countries working together, putting rules in place, and abiding by those rules. And so I think that is very important. It's also--technology is also important, and there's space tugs and deorbiting devices that can be used to ensure that satellites at end of life will come out of orbit, rather than just float around and become a barrier to other commerce up in space.

One area that I think is really interesting for growth--and we're still, you know, just kind of touching the surface of--is geospatial analytics. Using data from satellites, aircraft, ground sensors to provide actionable data to organizations, in government and industry, we're now starting to apply AI and machine learning and edge computing to this market to make it more and more effective, and we're seeing really creative new businesses that are--that are coming up in that area.

And I think they're going to eventually be essential to improving the efficiency of industries like agriculture and mining and insurance and others. I think when we get into in-space to infrastructure and cislunar, going to the moon, those are--those are things that are going to really need to be government led. And so, you know, there's a lot of exciting companies in those areas, but the government is going to be the launch customer, the banker customer for those for quite a while until that in-space economy can be developed. And then they'll start to take off. And I see that as, you know, something in the five to 10-year timeframe where those things will start to--those types of businesses will start to ramp up.

MR. DAVENPORT: And what about the workforce? I mean, when you look back historically on the aerospace sectors, there's a lot of ways similar to the defense side. But now, you know, some--so digital, needs software programmers with these reusable rockets. I mean, I just wonder if you could, you know, give us a sense of what the workplace looks like and do we have the talent base we need to build up this space economy that you're talking about?

MR. MEYERSON: Yeah, we don't. And I'd like to cover both the workforce and the industrial base, because I think--I think those are--those are two very important parts. As far as workforce, you know, we're not producing enough engineers. We're also not producing enough builders--you know, people--machinists, technicians, welders, who are--who can help to build the hardware that we're designing. And we certainly don't have a diverse enough workforce in aerospace. So, I want to see more support for programs for young people like FIRST Robotics in high schools and middle schools that encourage and inspire people to go into STEM careers. And like I hinted at earlier, college isn't the right choice for everybody. So, encouraging people to step into these hands-on careers, learning those critical build skills like machining, welding, and assembly operations is important.

On the industrial base, I think it's--you know, with the billions of dollars that are being invested in new rockets and new satellites and other capabilities, I think we've long ignored the industrial base, the companies that actually build the parts, provide the raw materials, do the--you know, do the machining and the forging and casting. And that industrial base is fragmented, and it's unreliable. And quite honestly, not every startup can afford to develop their own--you know, build their own machine shop, you know, vertically integrate. Not every company can do that. So, we need a strong industrial base to support what's going on around America and around the world.

And since leaving Blue Origin, I've become an angel investor and advisor to some exciting companies in this area. One of those is Hermeus, which is doing hypersonics. Those are vehicles that fly above Mach 5. So Hermeus is building reconnaissance aircraft and eventually transport aircraft. But the hypersonics industrial base is really in need of strengthening, and Hermeus has stepped in and raised one big contract from the Air Force and raised, you know, about 100--more than $100 million from private investors.

Another company that's really focused on that industrial basis is Hadrian automation, out of Hawthorne, California. And they're building the digitally enabled machine shop of the future and recently raised money from Lux Capital and Andreessen Horowitz.

And then finally, I'm doing some work with the University of Texas at El Paso, which has built a coalition called El Paso Makes, and they're investing in aerospace manufacturing and workforce training in the El Paso region. And so I've been advisor to this group. But they’ve brought in big industrial partners like Blue Origin, General Motors, and Lockheed Martin to name a few, and really excited about what they're going to build. So--

MR. DAVENPORT: Yeah, no, there's so much going on for sure. We could fill up an hour easy on this topic. But unfortunately, that's all the time we have today. Rob Meyerson, thank you so much for spending some time with us today. We really appreciate it.

MR. MEYERSON: Christian, I really enjoyed it. And I would like to do a quick shoutout happy birthday to my daughter Lily [phonetic] in Pittsburgh, who will be home with us in a couple of days. But I just want to say happy birthday, Lily [phonetic].

MR. DAVENPORT: Well, as it turns out, it’s my kids', my twins’ birthday today. So, I’ll say happy birthday to Andy [phonetic] and Harrison [phonetic]. And thanks to all of you out there for joining us at Washington Post Live. Please log into WashingtonPostLive.com and register to see all the programming we have coming forward. There’s a lot of great stuff to come. Again, thank you so much.

[End recorded session]

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