How Orbit Fab Is Building The First Gas Stations In Earth Orbit
Tell us your background and about your startup
During my first year of university at UNSW in Sydney, I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. I wanted to do something useful for the world and started considering existential risks. The calculus of integrating the loss of humanity out to infinity led me to the conclusion that getting humans off this rock was the most important thing I could be working on.
I decided to spend my career figuring out how to create permanent jobs off Earth in order to bootstrap humanity’s settlement of the solar system.
So I started an undergraduate satellite project, and after university got a job in Canada building small space telescopes and satellite pointing systems. I got the chance to build a few interesting satellites including inflatable habitat modules and greenhouse gas monitoring systems.
In my spare time, I designed tracking systems and instruments for gun-launched systems and hypersonic impact probes. That led to my first startup doing instrumentation for the mining industry using some interesting nuclear physics toolkit. I’ve also had startups doing high speed internet for Antarctica, radiation screening of electronic components and more recently an asteroid mining company.
My current company, Orbit Fab, is building the first gas stations in space. We’ve been operating for a year and have one fuel tanker test-bed on the International Space Station and a second launching in 2 weeks. To make this work we need everyone to use a standard “fueling port”, so we designed one in collaboration with a couple dozen companies and will be shipping the first units to a paying customer in a month.
How did the idea come about and what was it like getting started?
I had the opportunity to help found, and later to lead, Deep Space Industries. DSI had the Big Hairy Audacious Goal of mining asteroids, and a focused business strategy of developing thrusters for small satellites. These thrusters run on asteroid-derived propellants, but more importantly they meet a need in the market and have been commercially successful. While speaking with customers, and also while doing our own spacecraft designs, it was apparent that the constraints of limited fuel is a real pain point.
The vision of Orbit Fab is to address that pain point and enable a bustling industrial economy in space by supplying propellant and other chemical products. My personal goal in this is to create a market for propellants and place the first purchase order with an asteroid mining company.
This is my 6th or 7th startup. I know a lot about what to expect, but each one has been a learning experience. It’s always nerve-wracking to start something like this as you don’t know for sure if you’ll get funded, if the customers will be interested in your product, or if you’ll be able to convince good people to join the team. Eventually you learn to live with the perpetual uncertainty.
"One export job can create 10 to 100 internal economy jobs, so everything will follow once we have achieved that first step."
Why is the problem you are solving important?
I believe that the biggest problem in the space industry is exports. There are currently only two commercial exports from space: telecommunications services and Earth imagery. Both of these are ably served by robotic systems, so there is no demand for human workers.
On Earth we find people living in all manner of inhospitable places so long as there is a paying job for them to do. One export job can create 10 to 100 internal economy jobs, so everything will follow once we have achieved that first step. The defining challenge of my career has been to find new export markets from space that will create the first permanent job in Earth Orbit as part of a profitable business endeavor.
When I started thinking about creating permanent jobs in space, I listed all the industries that I thought might generate sufficient revenue to be able to support the cost of keeping someone alive and happy up there. My list only had two things: tourism and mining (since then I’ve only been able to add 2 more: in-orbit manufacturing and entertainment content). I couldn’t see myself as a tour operator, so I started thinking about mining.
At Deep Space Industries we developed and commercialized thrusters that run on asteroid-derived propellants. Orbit Fab is creating a market for those propellants in Earth orbit.
We want to build Orbit Fab into a propellant manufacturing and chemical supply company that can supply the in-orbit transport network and manufacturing activities. Our hope is that this enables a lot of entrepreneurs to enter the field and help develop a bustling industrial economy in space that will, soon enough, support that first permanent job in space.
What are some achievements you're proud of?
We founded Orbit Fab at the beginning of 2018 and got funded in May/June. With a team of 4 (and a bit of outside help) we built two tanker test-beds in less than 5 months and handed them over to NASA fully-qualified for flight. It’s one of the fastest “founding to flight” stories in the industry and we’re pretty proud of that. In June, we will resupply the International Space Station with water from one of the tanker test-beds!
What have been some of the biggest challenges you've faced? How did you overcome them?
I set a fairly high personal goal 20 years ago: create a permanent job off Earth. No one had done it then, and still no one has. The biggest challenge was figuring out where to start. Each business I’ve created since has been building towards that, specifically with the intent of achieving asteroid mining.
Every step has the challenges that the market doesn’t exist, the technology doesn’t exist, the regulations don’t exist, and the capital markets don’t understand it. That all comes on top of the typical challenges of a startup. My approach to overcoming these is planning, persistence, breaking down the problem to tractable *and profitable* steps, and a lot of impatience.
I often describe Orbit Fab’s gas stations as “step 2” towards asteroids mining. Step 1 was what we did at Deep Space Industries: creating thrusters that can run of asteroid-derived materials. Now step 2 is creating a market for that fuel in Earth orbit. One day we will place a purchase order for asteroid-derived propellant, but there’s a few steps in between.
What are your next steps?
Orbit Fab is currently working on bringing the fueling port to market, making sure it is extremely robust while also being cost-effective. Following that, we are looking forward to having our first operational tanker in orbit in early 2020, followed shortly by fuel sale trials.
What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?
My advice is simple: focus on your customers. Obsess about them. Learn more about what makes them successful than they know about themselves. This isn’t new advice, and you see it repeated often across all industries. It gets repeated so much because engineers are very bad at it, because they love their technology. If you are building something that people are prepared to pay for, you’ve got a fighting chance that your startup can succeed.
There were many lessons I had to learn from harsh experience. Choosing co-founders, negotiating to keep a clean cap table, knowing when to walk away from a failing business and how to do so honorably, how to hire and how to fire people. These are all soft skills and I wasn’t born with them. Expect to make mistakes with these and many other things, but get up, brush yourself off, and go at it again. Rest assured than everyone makes these mistakes, and the successful people just learn more quickly and recover more quickly.
"If you are building something that people are prepared to pay for, you’ve got a fighting chance that your startup can succeed."
What’s the best way for the public to support you in your mission?
Firstly, I want to encourage entrepreneurial-minded people to look at the space industry. There are so many inefficiencies in how we operate right now, which provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to improve how we do things and make money while they are at it.
For the general public, please follow us on our social media. Our vision is to become the gateway to the solar system. Get people excited about the possibilities and freedoms that refueling allows to the industry. This is the first step to colonizing the Moon, mining asteroids, building large space structures, etc. We will become the fuel and materials depot that will catalyze the industry, just like SpaceX did with the launch industry. Finally, think about what you can do through on-orbit refueling and if there’s an opportunity to create a business do it!
And of course, if you’re building a satellite, use a fueling port that lets you refuel in orbit!
Where can people find out more about you and follow along?
Check out our website, www.orbitfab.space, and find us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. If you see any news about satellite servicing or asteroid mining, please send it our way by tagging us in a post.
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