Tom Soderstrom: He was head of NASA JPL for 14 years and today oversees the space economy at Amazon [rozhovor]

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According to skeptics, the successes in the conquest of space will not be repeated, because behind them were the unprecedented space races of two competing superpowers in the second half of the 20th century. And especially their astronomical budgets, which eventually drove one of them to the point of collapse.

Fortunately, there are also optimists among us who believe that we will soon return to space, which we currently occupy mainly in low Earth orbits, and that someone other than just Matt Damon will finally be walking on Mars.

Fourteen years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

One of them is Tom Soderstrom – in his own words, a technologist, engineer and futurologist. Of course, he is not another naive dreamer from the Internet who will tell you without blushing that we will be mining precious metals on nearby asteroids in a few years, but a person who has at least enough professional experience to support his visions.

Video: Tom Soderstrom’s Official Locket

Tom Soderstrom spent fourteen years at NASA, where he served for many years as chief of technology and innovation at one of the most famous research facilities in the world, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 2020, he combined experience from the federal agency with the private sector and moved under the wing of Amazon, where he currently works as the chief futurologist and advisor for space – Director of Chief Technologists.

I was able to talk briefly with Soderstrom at the recent re:MARS conference, where he was speaking at Fr new wave space economy and commercialization of space.

Why did we wait so long for SpaceX?

As if there weren’t already a bunch of useless buzzwords in the world. What on earth is this? new space economy? Can you explain this to the average reader?

No, wait, that’s very important. In order to talk about the new wave, we must first explain what it is old. For more than fifty years, the conquest of space has been the domain of only a few governments of the world. We had the United States, the Soviet Union, then Great Britain and France joined in a bit, but space was essentially a state affair.

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Space has been a state affair for decades, but that is changing, says Soderstrom

Why did we wait so long for companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin?

Because early space exploration was extremely expensive and all the know-how was held by state institutions and contractors. Together, they first had to lay the foundations on which today the universe is democratized and opened up for wider business.

After all, state incentives and public grants also stood at the beginning of the current and purely commercial Internet…

Yes exactly. The same thing happened in space, and at the turn of the century the private sector finally began to discover it.

Did you see him as competition at NASA?

No way! We waited for him as a mercy. After all, the private sector is much more efficient. He just needed those solid foundations. And not only him. By the numbers, 23 new space agencies have been created over the past fifteen years around the world, and over the next few years more than 20,000 new satellites will enter orbit with the commercial sphere.

A trip to space is 15x cheaper today

How is it possible that launching satellites into LEO has become routine?

Thanks to the fact that first units became interested in the space business, then dozens and today hundreds of large companies and small predatory startups, and all together created a new market that made access to space incredibly cheap. Transporting cargo to low orbits today is 15x cheaper than fifteen years ago, satellite development costs have dropped even 20x and remote communication with the ship, for example through our AWS Ground Station, costs a third.

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Space has never been as cheap as it is today, Soderstrom shows

So the orbit will soon be quite crowded…

Over the next few years, the number of satellites in low orbit will more than double. Most of them will be satellites of Internet operators – especially Starlink and Kuiper – but a significant part will be dedicated to remote sensing of the Earth. Investments in connection with global climate change will be a major accelerator.

The new space economy will therefore no longer be about mere surveillance, what do the big boys do (NASA, ESA, China, etc.), but about active participation. What NASA is doing today, for example, in the field of remote sensing of the Earth, will be economically available for the commercial sector as well.

One example is the Amazon space accelerator startup Lunar Outpost, which is developing a series of small and relatively inexpensive rovers for the lunar surface and will offer customers lunar exploration as a service. The first commercial mission with the MAPP rover, commissioned by the American University of MIT, will start next spring.

More satellites overhead, more data…

More precisely, 100x more data than fifteen years ago, and thanks to more powerful computers and clouds, their analysis is also 100x cheaper. And availability! We want businesses and government organizations to release as much data as possible for higher goodwhich is why we announced the new Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative (ASDI) at re:MARS.

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Soderstrom presents the ASDI initiative: 100 PB of space data for scientists

We will create traffic regulations for space

But is there still enough space at the edge of space? We are still at the beginning, but not only astronomers are already complaining about light smog and the risk of cosmic debris.

But the commercial sphere is much more flexible. When astronomers started complaining about Starlink’s glowing satellites disrupting their observations, we told the Kuiper engineers that they needed to do something about it immediately. They soon came up with a special anti-reflective surface. After all, SpaceX is also experimenting with the same thing, so this will certainly not be a problem in the future. Satellite light smog will disappear completely over time.

And what is the trash?

On the contrary, the problem is that everyone today builds satellites that will safely fall into the atmosphere and burn up at the end of their useful lives. And you see, this is just another opportunity for companies from all over the world to develop new and easily degradable materials for spacecraft structures, or to figure out how to get the remains of massive bodies from the first era of spaceflight out of the sky.

Will we see similar regulation as, for example, at the beginning of individual automobile transport more than 100 years ago?

Certainly. The rules will come and will be shaped jointly by the public and private sectors in a similar way to the internet.

Cooperation between the public and private sectors in the creation of space regulation will be key, because NASA, ESA and other agencies have never sent as many objects into orbit as private companies will get there in this decade alone. On the other hand, the new head of ESA, Josef Aschbacher, warned last year against excessive involvement of the private sector in the creation of international space regulations.

So will we still need government agencies like NASA in the future?

Of course, they will still be there to tread paths that do not yet have commercial potential. NASA will put a man on the moon again in 2024, build a sustainable base on its surface by the end of the decade, and later a station in orbit. All of this will be necessary for the planning and training of manned missions to Mars.

Space Tourist Club

The first time we went to the moon was only because of the space rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union – it was about politics rather than economics. A mission to Mars would be a similar mouthful, but who will defend the astronomical costs to taxpayers when we no longer have plants?

There’s one more piece to the space economy puzzle: the enormous club of billionaires. We have Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos here – they’re space tourists – and for them, like Elon Musk, it’s a life’s mission to get other tourists into space. We are explorers, discovery is our human nature…

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SpaceX wants to cash in on the journey to Mars via Starlink, Blue Origin by building the first purely commercial station on Orbital Reef

So do you think that the private sector can generate enough resources to go to Mars in this way as well?

I believe so. And I sincerely hope so, because the problem with public agencies is that they are constantly fighting for their budgets. It’s like on a swing with them. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I worked on a project looking for a way to deflect a dangerous body on a collision course with Earth. But the presidential election came, the new NASA budget and everything ended up on ice.

So the era when similar missions will be supported exclusively by public resources is probably slowly coming to an end. The private sector will be much more involved and the journey to Mars will be a joint effort. Although the space race between states may have stopped, it will most likely be replaced by competition between companies. We have Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and a bunch more coming up.

Cooperation between the private and public sectors not only in the client-supplier axis is already taking place and is also expected during all phases of the Artemis mission. If the Orion spacecraft successfully launches to the Moon (yet unmanned) during the summer and as planned, it will carry a bunch of purely commercial technology on board. For example, the Alexa assistant from Amazon. The aim is to test a new way of voice control of the on-board computer.

Shouldn’t we rather invest these economic resources down here on the earth’s surface? According to critics, we have enough of our own problems, but what if the money for missions to the moon and Mars were invested in cancer treatment, for example…

I am deeply convinced that it will be the commercialization of space that will ultimately save our planet and life here not only from threats on Earth, but also from those from space – perhaps in the form of an asteroid on a collision course. However, in order to do this and to be able to leave our planet and travel to the stars, space simply has to become a business.

Artemis Live: Man’s Return to the Moon

Artemis is NASA’s space program, whose mission is to restore human flights to the Moon. A Gateway station will be built in lunar orbit. The crew will be transported to the station by the Orion spacecraft, launched by the SLS rocket. The HLS module will transport astronauts to the surface of the moon, which will be SpaceX’s Starship at least for the first landing.

Scheduled Missions:

  • Artemis 1: An unmanned flight where the Orion spacecraft will be guided into orbit around the Moon and then back to Earth. Deadline: end of 2021
  • Artemis 2: A manned orbit around the moon. Deadline: 2023
  • Artemis 3: Man landing on the moon. Deadline: 2024 at the earliest
  • CLPS: Transportation of scientific experiments to the surface of the Moon in support of the Artemis program. Deadline: from 2021

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