Despite recent setbacks in space exploration, Hannah Kerner is still betting on its viability. The 22-year-old executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose members represent an eclectic group of space-focused companies, notes that in the span of a single generation, space exploration has been transformed from a public endeavor to a largely private pursuit.
Hundreds of companies are raising money from investors, laying the groundwork for daring missions and advertising new services. Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin in Kent, Washington, is building a reusable capsule that paying passengers will employ to glimpse the curvature of the Earth, while Astrobotic Technology Inc. in Pittsburgh wants to create a shipping service to deliver technology and other payloads to the moon.
Companies have set their sights high, but the industry has suffered three major calamities in the past year. In June, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated shortly after takeoff in Florida. In October of last year, a rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. (a forerunner of Orbital ATK Inc.) exploded during liftoff in Virginia, causing $13 million in damage to the launch pad at a NASA facility. And just days later, a Virgin Galactic LLC pilot died during a failed test flight.
Despite those struggles, investors continue to fund private-sector space operations. In the past 10 years, the industry has received more than $10 billion in private funding, according to NewSpace Global, an industry research group.
Kerner fell in love with outer space at an unlikely moment four years ago: She was attending a lecture about genocide at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative when one of the presenters spoke of using satellites to track atrocities perpetrated on citizens by their own governments.
Inspired by the opportunity to merge her interests in space and human rights, Kerner began her space career as an intern at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and its Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Later, she briefly joined Planet Labs Inc., a company in San Francisco that aimed to deploy satellites into low orbit to survey everything from agriculture to weather systems to the ebb and flow of refugee populations. Kerner is currently pursuing a doctorate in exploration-systems design at Arizona State University. She also heads the annual NewSpace Conference, an industry gathering that enjoyed record attendance last year.
Kerner spoke with International Business Times about the business of private space exploration and its value to humanity.
IBT: You could apply your computer-science expertise to plenty of fields. Why are you so captivated by outer space?
Hannah Kerner: This exercise of pushing ourselves to think and question things is how we achieve anything in this world. The way I see it, scientific inquiry of the universe has the heaviest impact on humanity. When we find these things out like -- our sun is going to turn into a red giant or this asteroid is going to impact the Earth -- it’s worth it.
IBT: Why not keep space exploration a public pursuit instead of permitting private companies to set their own goals for space?
Kerner: I think it’s important to have both. The private industry makes sense with the analog of air transportation. That was a government project at first. Then it starts to become more standardized in technology, and the private sector takes it over and you have competition, which drives down the price and makes it more accessible. It’s important for the private industry to provide accessibility to the public.
The private industry can take on these things that are really not what NASA should be focusing on. And there’s things that NASA can take on that there’s no business case for. It doesn’t make sense for a private company to send a satellite to explore plumes on Europa. There’s no business case for that.
IBT: Space is a famously risky industry with long payoffs. Yet there’s been a deluge of new space companies in recent years. What do you think investors see when they survey this landscape?
Kerner: I think what investors really like to see now is that in the beginning, you are a reasonable team that can execute on this mission. I think when investors are starting, they’re not really expecting to see how their investments pay back in five to 10 years. They know it’s going to take time. I think really what they’re looking for is economic impact -- like what industries is this going to create, what is reasonably going to come out of this? I think it’s extremely important for companies to show very early that they have a feasible project. We see space startups all the time. It’s kind of like -- give me $10 million and I’ll build it. They don’t want to see that.
IBT: Who are the major investors in the space industry?
Kerner: The top five most active investors in space right now are Lux Capital, Bessemer Venture Partners, Khosla, Founders Fund, and RRE Ventures. And Draper Fisher Juvertson. I think a lot of these companies have a reputation for early insight into space projects. It’s important to have investors that have diverse experience, too, because you really learn a lot from not talking [just] to all the space people.
IBT: How can new investors or the public distinguish between those companies that have it together and those that do not?
Kerner: I think the industry we see in the news a lot is solid. If you’re reading about them having investment, I think they are very solid, but they are a minority in the grander scheme. In the new space community, there are very few companies that meet this sort of requirement of -- has real business plan, has ability to make impact in short amount of time, has the money to do it and has the right team. I think that’s probably the most important thing that tech has figured out and that space has not.
IBT: Every time there’s an event like the recent SpaceX rocket failure, it seems like everyone in the industry repeats the same phrase in interviews and on social media -- “Space is hard.” It’s become a mantra. Is this an intentional strategy, and what do you think of it?
Kerner: I think what they’re not realizing when they say space is hard is that people take that very seriously, right? They’re like -- space is hard. Why would I want to invest in that? Too hard. Expensive. I don’t want anything to do with that.
It’s like this whole mind-set of, that’s something you can’t break into, and I think that’s really hurt the industry even in terms of recruiting people because they’re like -- oh, it’s hard and it’s going to take forever to get anything done. It’s true it is hard to put humans in space and keep them alive. It is hard. But I think this whole thing has become a mantra for not getting what we want. It’s become something we tell ourselves about why we haven’t gotten there yet.
I wouldn’t want to invest in anybody who’s like -- I can’t do this. It’s superimportant in space to show capability early because you’re already at a disadvantage. People think it’s just too far out so you want to show -- it’s not, you can understand this, this is viable.
IBT: Spectacular failures are an inevitable part of this industry. How do you recommend that companies prepare for and embrace these failures?
Kerner: I think these companies need to have resilient business models and they need to be elastic. I think we see a lot of companies failing when very early on they’re like -- this is what we’re doing. We’re going to mine this asteroid and it’s like, if you don’t do that, you look kind of dumb. The way you define your goals determines when you will fail.
IBT: Where do you think the industry could improve?
Kerner: I think the use of water and fuel is something that the space industry needs to look out for. Rockets work because you’re dumping fuel out the bottom. You’re just dumping it at a rate that will push you up. It’s hugely wasteful. But what’s great about private companies is the public holds you accountable.
IBT: What do you look forward to seeing from the industry in the coming year?
Kerner: I think this year, one of these companies is going to start flying customers’ small satellite payloads. There are so many companies competing for the small satellite launch sector and one of them is going to get there this year. They’ve got to.