TRANSCRIPT: Getting STOKE-d About Saving the World with Commercially Viable Space Flight
[Innovation Heroes theme music] This episode of Innovation Heroes is brought to you by Autodesk. Visit shi.com/autodesk for more info.
Welcome to SHI's Innovation Heroes, a podcast exploring the people and businesses making a difference in our constantly disrupted world. I'm your host, Ed McNamara. [Innovation Heroes theme music continues]
William Shatner 00:28
[Star Trek theme plays] Space, the final frontier. [Star Trek theme continues]
Imagine a future where the ways we store our data, grow meat for our dinner tables, and manufacture materials were totally out of this world.... literally, as in all of those things could be happening in orbit. It sounds like something right out of the Jetsons, but the future of industrialized commercial space might be here sooner than we think. [Jetsons theme music plays] [dramatic electronic music plays] We're not quite there yet, of course. In the past 10 years, we've been able to make space flight a lot safer and more reliable, but there's still a ways to go before we enter the next phase of modern space flight.
I think it's, more than anything, driven by a willingness to fail, and the reason I say that is, if you go back to the '50s and '60s, we were developing things at a pace that I'm not sure we've met yet. [dramatic electronic music continues]
Maybe it's because we don't have the kind of pressure cooker situation that birthed the first space race. But if that's the case, then we might just be in luck, or rather out of it. With the growing consumption of resources, population concerns, carbon emissions, forest fires, and any number of other human-caused problems, we need to start thinking big when it comes to saving the planet. [dramatic electronic music continues]
If we're going to put our civilization on a track that is not only sustainable, but also scalable, I think space is a necessary ingredient and a necessary pillar as the step one to understand what's happening in our Earth. [electronic music continues]
The goals driving the new space race are being defined, in large part, by private industry. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are making huge progress towards some truly awesome possibilities, and they're certainly helping to pave the way for the next giant leap for humankind. But there are some practical hurdles that need to be overcome first. Luckily, I know just who to talk to. Andy Lapsa is building the tech we need to get to space and to keep going back there in a sustainable, economically feasible way. [pensive music] Andy spent a decade working as a rocket engineer for Blue Origin, directing the BE-3 and BE-3U engine projects and serving as Development Lead Test for the BE-4. He holds a PhD in Aerospace, Aeronautical, and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Michigan. And now, Andy's leading up his own space venture as the Co-Founder of STOKE Space Technologies, Inc. Andy, thank you so much for joining us today on Innovation Heroes. [pensive music continues]
Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
So as Co-founder and CEO of a company called STOKE Space Technologies, when you have space in your title, you're definitely gonna have a pretty cool story. [chuckles] Can you tell us a little about how your journey has been, and tell us how you started out and how you got to where you are now?
For sure. I started out, I guess, right out of graduate school. I went to Blue Origin. We were about 100 people at that time in 2009. I started out doing a number of R&D programs and then, in 2011, we started looking at something that became the BE-4 engine and the New Glenn vehicle, and I was really lucky to be, you know, one of the first three people to start answering questions along those lines. And at that time, it was a completely blank page. We were thinking about all kinds of very basic questions that, you know, kind of, were the questions that you would ask if you were to build rockets for the first time, and they're all the right questions to be asking at that time in history, in the industry, really challenging the status quo and trying to rethink the way rocketry is done. And then, that experience evolved into what is now the BE-4 engine and the New Glenn rocket, and so I held a handful of different roles through that process, got to lead the development testing on the program all the way up through full scale, hot fire demonstration testing, and then I went on to run the BE-3 and BE-3U programs as they were evolving toward human flight on the BE-3 side and BE-3U is the upper stage for New Glenn, so that was an earlier stage program that, you know, was really getting going, so it was an opportunity to get back in at, more or less, the ground floor there. The question then is "Okay, why go start a new company?" and that was not a linear path for me, let's say. One of the things I noticed in my last couple of years at Blue is, well, first of all, it's a different company than when I started. It's much, much bigger, and you know, there were reasons why I wanted to start thinking about what's next. And then, the next thing that really energized me was the shift in market that started to happen in my last couple of years at Blue. You started to see this really vibrant and viable commercial sector in space, lots of different verticals emerging, and lots of competition within each vertical, and those are, kind of, the ingredients that you need to have a healthy, robust economy in space, and this was all starting to happen in, you know, kind of 2015, 2016, and beyond, and I got excited by that, and I guess maybe one epiphany I had - it's not really that profound - but for me, I realized that, you know, I'm all about Elon 's mission of colonizing Mars. I'm all about Jeff's mission of having millions of people living and working in space. I love both of those things. But I think if you're gonna have either one of them, the ingredient that you must have first is a robust and healthy economy in space, and then that foundation is what leads to a sustainable, long-term, very grand visions, so I wanted to be a part of it. So I left Blue. Yeah, I left Blue. I started to think about what's next. I started to think hard about what I view as the end state of this industry, and I started to look at the different players in the market and, you know, honestly, my initial reaction was to go pick one, who I thought was going to be the winner, and then go join it.
When you talk with a lot of people who are involved in space and, you know, space exploration and engineering, such as yourself, is that a lifelong, like, love affair? Have you always looked to the skies and thought, "This is something that I'm always gonna be involved in?" Or is that something that came later?
I'll be perfectly honest. When I was in elementary school, I guess, yes. I was excited by space. I was excited by rockets and that type of thing. In fact, my parents have some video where I almost laid out [laughing] exactly my career path. [Ed laughs] In middle school, you know, I kind of took a big detour. I got started getting interested in art and architecture and wanted to do that for a while, and in high school, I took math and physics. I was good at math and physics, and I said, "You know what? Like, I wanna do that, too," and civil engineering sounded cool 'cause it was a combination of all of those things. I went into college thinking I wanted to do civil, but then I took some mechanical courses, and I liked things that moved. I like mechanisms, and so I shifted over to mechanical. Then I started getting into fluids classes, and I liked that the most out of anything, so fluid dynamics, and combustion became a passion. I went to grad school for that, but most of my grad school is, A, pretty fundamental and, B, applications for airbreathing propulsion, so it really wasn't until the very end that I made a full circle back to rocketry, when I... You know, SpaceX and Blue Origin were still pretty young at that point. I was excited by small companies. There weren't the number of startups back then that there are now, and, yeah, I thought it was a great opportunity and so I went to after it.
You know, when you when you look at these vehicles, SpaceX and Blue Origin, they kind of have their own, you know, look and feel to them. Did that architecture stick with you at all? Do you feel like you've benefited from that later on, in terms of looking at the types of vehicles you're gonna design to go into space?
Well, I would say that I've benefited from the process as much as anything, and I would say that I've benefited from the attitude that has emerged in space and rocketry, that, you know, it is that we can reinvent this, we can do these things with relatively small groups of people now, and some of the things that seem like they should be doable in science fiction are actually doable, right? If you go back 10 years ago, 10 years ago, nobody had returned a rocket from space and landed it vertically, propulsively, and that was a big question mark. There's no physics reason why you shouldn't be able to do that, but nobody had done it, and so it was a big deal when, I think it was within about a month, that Blue Origin landed the New Shepard propulsion module, and then SpaceX landed the first-stage successfully. [gentle electronic music]
It seems like vehicle development has really accelerated. You know, I was just doing some research, and when I was a kid, it was the space shuttle that was the really, you know, the cool new thing, but you look at that program. It started in '72, the first flight wasn't until 1981, the final flight was, you know, 2011, and it seemed like it was the same vehicle over the course of, you know, concept to retirement over a 40-year period, but it seems like what you guys are doing now is happening, and the development's happening much more quickly. Is this driven by private commercial ventures? What's changed, and what really flipped the switch? [gentle electronic music continues]
I think it's, more than anything, driven by a willingness to fail, and the reason I say that is, if you go back to the '50s and '60s, we were developing things at a pace that I'm not sure we've met yet. [chuckles] If you look at the number of different programs, you know, a lot of them, we haven't even heard about. A lot of the research that I go back and do and, you know, try to come up with new ideas, I go back and dig in and do research and, you know, almost everything, not only did they already think about in the '60s, but they built it and tested it, and there's a report out there for it. [Ed laughs] So they just did a remarkable thing, and the big difference between that era and then, let's say the '70s, '80s, '90s, is a willingness to fail back then, and we lost that for whatever reason. So, what private industry, I think, has done is reinject that willingness to fail, and, you know, kind of designed around iteration better. [gentle electronic music continues]
So STOKE Space Technologies has a really cool mission as your guiding force. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yeah. So STOKE is building fully and rapidly reusable rockets, specifically for that commercial satellite market that I talked about earlier, and, you know, the way I see it, the analogy I draw is that companies like SpaceX are the freight trains to space. That's an important sector, but we are the low-cost and on-demand Sprinter van that takes customers directly to their final orbit, and I think that, as you start to look at full constellations, that's actually a higher-value proposition. [gentle electronic music continues]
How much-- when you mention cost, like, how much does cost factor into... You know, in terms of the satellites that are out there now, I mean, the cost of satellites are coming down. Is there a direct relation with the cost of launching into space, and therefore the need for, you know, sustainability through completely, you know, reusable vehicles?
20 years ago, 10 years ago, most satellites were still very large. They were large physically, and they were large monetarily, right? So it wasn't unreasonable to have multi-billion dollar satellites, you know, for government purposes, that are being launched into space, and in that paradigm, if a launch costs $150 million, which is about what they cost, you know, pre-SpaceX, it doesn't really matter that much, right? Plus or minus $50 million. Eh, it's a line item, but it's not the driver, which is crazy. What's happened since then is we build satellites now that are, you know, a couple hundred thousand dollars, even tens of thousands of dollars and, in this new world, if your launch costs $150 million, you know, guess what? Suddenly, it's the cost driver for the whole enterprise, its launch, so we're seeing that. That, I think, more fundamentally than, you know, what SpaceX has done in terms of cost of launch, I think that is the more fundamental shift that's happened in the market.
You mentioned a couple of them, but what are some of the other issues that are in the way of us moving into the next phase of commercially-viable, space tech development right now?
Well, cost is still a big driver. You know, SpaceX advertised $5,000 per kilogram. It's probably more than that if you're a small satellite once you factor in getting from your door to your funnel, place in orbit. Availability's no good. There were, I think, 114 launches total, globally, in 2020, but only 55 of them were actually available to Western allies, so all of the rest were performed by China, Russia, and Iran, so that's just not a lot of-- you know, if there are 55 planes taking off in the world in a given year, there's just not a lot of options for where to go and when to go, so that's another huge one. And then, yeah, the option value into final orbit, you know, people wanna own their schedule, and they wanna own their budget, and they wanna own their orbit, and you don't get all those three with today's launch infrastructure and, because of that, people are willing to pay, you know, 12x and more, $60,000 per kilogram and more to go, you know, basically, own the launch instead of own a seat on the launch. So it's still a big headwind.
Yeah, those first FedEx ads said, "When you absolutely, positively have to have it there overnight," not, you know, "Hey, we'll get there when it gets there," kind of thing, right? So... [laughs]
That's right. We talk about 114 launches, and we've talked about schedule. Another thing is reliability, right? We're not reliable. In 2020, 10% of all launches failed to make their orbit.
And that's not a good record and, in fact, you know, it's been single digits, but solid single digits for the last handful of decades in terms of launch success rate. You know, if you had even 5% of your FedEx packages were lost, you would not be a happy customer, right?
As somebody who travels pretty often, if you told me I had a 10% chance on every flight of not getting to where I was going, for some reason, I might double think that amount of activity.
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If you're like me, your head is probably already spinning from all those huge and, frankly, not very hopeful numbers that Andy was able to rattle off. But buckle up, because Andy's got even more stats that are sure to blow your mind as he helps steer us into the future of commercially viable spaceflight. [gentle music continues] So, in terms of affordability and availability, you know, what will we be seeing in the next 5, 10, 20 years to be able to deliver on, you know, what's affordable, and available, and economical in terms of spaceflight?
Let me describe this in maybe another analogy. If you look at the aircraft world - you just alluded to it - you are able to go wherever you wanna go, whenever you wanna go for about $5 per kilogram on a commercial aircraft, and when you look at those vehicles, the workhorse vehicles in that industry is the 737 or A320-class aircraft, those things cost $100 million, $120 million, right? They are expensive, they're complex, but they're able to deliver you wherever you wanna go, whenever you wanna go, at $5 per kilogram. If you look at space launch, the best option we have in space launch today is a Falcon 9. Falcon 9 costs $60 million. It's $5,000 per kilogram, but it's $60 million, which is actually less than the cost of a 737 but delivers goods to final orbit at a factor of 1000 greater than what the aircraft is doing, and the reason is not because of the complexity of the vehicle. It's not because of the cost of the vehicle. The only reason is because a Falcon 9 is only partially reused, so partially reused only a handful of times. I think their record is still 10 reuses on the booster, and it takes about a month to turn it around, which is amazing, by the way. I'm not trying to say that it's not, right? 10 years ago, those numbers were zero reuses, and, you know, infinite turnaround effectively. So it's amazing what's happened in the last 10 years, but the point is that we're only beginning to scratch the tip of the iceberg, and we've got a lot more to go. We've got a whole factor of 1000 that we can go push on as an industry. That's what we need to do. So I think vehicles that fly with very high cadence, very high frequency, and are 100% reusable, kind of attack that factor, and no other approach really does.
What do you think you can get that turnaround time down to? If it's a month now, what's the goal?
Our goal is to be able to turn a vehicle around in a day.
Yeah, I don't think there's any fundamental blocker to do that, but you have to think about it from the ground up. You can't back into it. You can't take an initially disposable rocket and say, "You know, I'm gonna turn it around in a day," and, you know, make some adaptation. I don't think it works that way. I think you have to design for it upfront.
Absolutely. Okay, so this idea of taking Earth-based tech and moving it into space seems pretty incredible. Why do we need to be looking at making options like this possible, basically moving technology from being Earth-based, you know, into space itself? You know, why does it matter, and, you know, how can we benefit from it? And what makes it the right time to start doing that now?
Here's one thing that motivates me. If you look at our place in history, we're at a very unique spot in history. About 200 years ago-- let's go back 200 years-- our global population was about half a billion people so, you know, for perspective, we've been around, you know, tens of thousands of years, a long, long, long time, and it took that long to get to half a billion people. In the last 200 years-- that's a handful of generations-- we've gone from half a billion people to 8 billion people, and if you were to plot that, it looks like a horizontal line, and then a very distinct inflection point and a vertical line. And so, we're at this point in history where our population is scaling at an incredible pace and there's all kinds of follow-on, I guess, metrics that also follow that trajectory, right? Carbon emissions in the atmosphere, all kinds of things, energy production, energy use is almost one-to-one. You can lay those two plots, almost, you know, one-for-one on top of each other. It's a pretty interesting metric. So all of this stuff is happening. It's happening in a very short period of time. I think it's fair to say that none of us fully understand what the impact of that step change has been, and is going to be, and I think-- so there's a couple of things. I think that, if we're going to put our civilization on a track that is not only sustainable, but also scalable, I think space is a necessary ingredient and a necessary pillar to doing that. It's also a fundamentally necessary pillar for us to understand this is step one, understand what's happening in our Earth. You know, a lot of the things that we know today are based on space-based observation, things like, you know, our ice caps melting, right? We get all of that from space-based observation. We get, you know, ocean currents. We get all kinds of things from space. There's a lot more that needs to be done in space, right? One example where I think space plays a big role is, let's take forest fires. Forest fires - this is a shocking statistic that I didn't know - over 20% of our global carbon emissions come from forest fires every year. It's an amazing number, and so, when you start to think about how are we going to curb carbon emissions? There's no answer that's complete unless you address forest fires. There's all kinds of other observations. You know, there's different ways to observe plastic concentration, you know, microplastics in the oceans. We can observe who major emitters of different things like plastics, or like carbon, or whatever, we can figure out what those sources are, and then we can go mitigate those things. So that's step one, I think. I think not only understanding what's happening in the world, but also, you know, how to fix it, those are all gonna be from space-based observation, and then fast forwarding, we're gonna see things like manufacturing move on orbit. On orbit is actually a great place to do a lot of things with one exception, and that exception is, it's really expensive, it's really slow, and it's a pain in the ass to get to space, and it's a pain in the ass to get back from space, right? But if you remove that barrier, if you allow yourself to think that way, and remove that barrier, space is a great place for a lot of things. There's 24-hour, unfiltered, unlimited sunlight. There's a perfect vacuum of space. A lot of, you know, semiconductor, and other industrial applications require vacuum that's actually pretty expensive and slow to create on Earth, and you're in microgravity. Microgravity is great for certain things. Microgravity is great for creating metallic alloys that are perfect with no variation, so you get, you know, perfect crystallin alloys in space. It's great for pulling fiber optics. It's great for protein growing, which can be not only, you know, used for organ transplants, potentially, but also you can grow proteins for consumption, food consumption. [dramatic electronic music] There's a whole lot of different options and things that make sense in space, provided that it doesn't cost a lot to get there, and it doesn't cost a lot to get back.
So with your company's technology, though, it'll be more feasible to get satellites and, you know, innovative tech up into orbit, but what problems do you think making this process easier could cause? And are you already considering some of those solutions, or avoiding, you know, the potential pitfalls of getting tech up into space, you know, easier and more efficiently?
I think, in anything you do, especially, you know, we're in the nascent point of the industry and so the way we have to think about it is what does this look like at massive scale, right? What does this look like when we're sending, you know, even one flight per day sounds pretty outlandish in today's world? Well, let's say we're doing one flight per day. Let's say we're doing 10 flights per day, or even more, right? What does that look like? And I think the obvious thing that we have to do is address space junk. That's a hot topic of, you know, kind of concern as we put up thousands and thousands more satellites, but I also think that it's an entirely controllable problem. Where it starts is with sustainable, I guess, delivery on orbit, so what that means is that we are not generating more junk when we put it on orbit. One big driver of junk, especially if we're launching thousands of times per year, is traditionally second stages, which are fully expendable. They go up with the satellite, they get dropped off, and then they float on orbit for years and years and years. In fact, they constitute, by far, the largest mass fraction of all space junk on orbit today. We need to not do that [chuckles] and we need to have separation systems that don't have explosive bolts that create fragmentation on orbit and things like that, right? And so, that's step one: don't make more junk. [dramatic electronic music continues] I think you'll see regulation emerge on orbit a little bit more. You'll see international cooperation emerge because, if we don't do those things, we're gonna be in a position of, you know, more-or-less mutually assured destruction where, you know, one satellite collision can create many more, since it's creating a debris field, right? So I think you're gonna see those things, and it's necessary. [dramatic electronic music continues]
Talking about space, it's such a notable example of what happens when you're led through-- you know, you're led by innovation heroes, shall we say, you know? What has your industry taught you about being a successful innovator, and maybe what lessons can the rest of us learn from Bezos, Musk, and yourself?
When I look back, I think that, you know, seeing the way Jeff, and observing the way, Elon think, I think, first principle's don't be afraid to think about first principles first, right? Don't take at face value, necessarily, the solutions that we've seen before, because there's a lot, especially you know, before new space started to emerge, there's a whole lot of inputs. Even now, right, there's a whole lot of inputs that go into why things look the way they look, and they might be optimized for things that, you know, frankly, no longer apply. So first principles, I think, is always, always the guiding light, and then, I think one thing that maybe SpaceX should be credited for, more than anything, is the way our industry thinks in terms of development, how we develop things through iteration, rather than necessarily through top-down, rigorous analysis, design systems engineering. It's the same way that you would develop something in your garage, and it's the way that engineering should be done with a judicious and careful combination of upfront design and analysis with a very robust system of rapid build, iterate, fail, fix. And so, you need to design whatever program you're working on, you need to design your program and your company to be able to do both of those things, have excellent, top-notch design and experience, but also have the ability to build, test, fail, fix as fast as possible.
Do you ever stop and think like, "Boy, from a historical perspective, we're really doing something that's gonna be remembered here?"
Yeah, it is. [laughs] [Ed laughs] Listen, it is an amazing moment. We're just lucky to be part of this moment in history. Not only within the last, let's say 100 years, but within the last 10 years, also, as an industry, you know, if you go back 10 years ago, you could not hire a team of people who had experience building really large-scale rocketry, from a complete blank page all the way up through flight. Those people simply did not exist, right? Today, you have people who have done the whole walk from blank page, all the way through flight, and they've done it at multiple different programs, and there are even people who've done it themselves, you know, multiple times, and so I think the industry base is at a completely different point, and that makes us really lucky. That makes us primed to be able to attack what really is the holy grail of rocketry, right? We're not the first person, by any stretch, to talk about high-cadence rapid reuse of 100% reusable vehicles that go to and from space. We've been dreaming about that for at least 70 years, but we're at the moment in history where it's actually, the timing is right to go do this, for real.
Being a movie buff, I can't let you get out of here without asking this question. What is your favorite space movie?
2001: A Space Odyssey. [Ed laughs]
[Innovation Heroes theme music] Why is that?
I don't know. It's just out there. It's so creative and crazy to think about, and bizarre, and when I watched it as a kid in the '80s, it was just, like, full of awe and wonder. I like that a lot.
It's a great choice. Andy Lapsa, Co-Founder and CEO of STOKE Space Technologies, thank you so much for your time on Innovation Heroes today. We really appreciate it.
All right, thank you for having me. [Innovation Heroes theme music continues]
It's a dark world out there, but the future is looking a little brighter, thanks to people like Andy and his team at STOKE. Knowing that they're working on solutions to these big sustainability problems helps me sleep a little easier, and it's amazing to think that the first step could be something as cool as commercially viable spaceflight. [Innovation Heroes theme music]
Thanks for listening to this episode of Innovation Heroes. Next time on the podcast, I'll be speaking with Michael Beneville, the Chief Creative Officer at Area15. Sound familiar? You might remember Area15 from earlier this season when we spoke to Intel's Stacey Shulman. Michael and his team have created Area15 as a space that goes beyond spectatorship. They're proving what true tech-driven participation can look like in the modern world, so tune in in two weeks. You won't wanna miss it. [Innovation Heroes theme music] If you enjoyed this episode, then consider being our hero. Smash that like and subscribe button to Innovation Heroes, wherever you get your podcasts. Innovation Heroes is a Pilgrim Content production in collaboration with SHI. Our producers are Tobin Dalrymple and Jessica Schmidt. Our associate producer is Olivia Trono, with production assistance from Carmi Levy, Ronny Latimore, Jane Norman, and Amanda Scheffer-Cavanagh. I'm your host, Ed McNamara, and I'll be back with another amazing story in two weeks.
This episode of Innovation Heroes has been brought to you by Autodesk. Visit shi.com/autodesk to get started.