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Shelli Brunswick Interview with Austin Link of Starfish Space

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Well hello, and welcome to another Space Foundation Space Commerce Entrepreneurial interview. I’m Shelli Brunswick, Chief Operating Officer at Space Foundation. Today I have the privilege to talk to Austin Link. Hello Austin, welcome to our show.

 

Hello Shelli, it’s good to be here, thank you for having me.

 

You’re very welcome. Well let me share with our audience a little bit about your background. So, Austin is the co-founder at Starfish Space, where he’s giving life to on orbit services. Originally from Iowa, he then went to Stanford for a BS in physics and later Purdue for an MS in aerospace engineering. In the aerospace industry, Austin has worked at Lockheed Martin on THAD and at Blue Origin on a variety of launch vehicles and engines. His particular focus has been on space system architecture, modeling, and operating under uncertainty, all tools that are being applied at Starfish Space. Outside of Aerospace, Austin lives in Kent WA with his fiancé Jess and their three basset hounds. He also occasionally coaches high school basketball. Well, I don’t know how you have time to coach high school basketball, amazing!

 

We’re, we’re kind of figuring that out right now, it’s a six week season starting off at the moment, and we’re going to see how much I can do, I do my best, it’s fun, it is fun. You gotta have a good hobby besides work and being an entrepreneur.

 

Which leads me to our first, really, question that I gotta ask you. You and your co-founder Trevor Bennett are former Blue Origin engineers. What made you want to start Starfish a year and a half ago?

 

Well, so first, it’s worth highlighting, Blue Origin was an awesome place to work, right? And I was incredibly fortunate to be there over an incredibly exciting period of time. There’s an awesome group of engineers all through the company and, kind of a tremendous high-level vision to that that’s inspiring on a daily basis. What happened for Trevor and I, and Trevor and I were close friends before Starfish, right? And as we had conversations, we just got really excited about the idea of a space tug, and there’s two things about the space tug for satellite servicing that got us excited. And so, number one, as we look at the future of space and in the future of the off-world economy, and what are humans going to do, as we expand out into the final frontier. I think that, that what stood out to both Trevor and I was, boy there’s,  it’s really important to have autonomy, to have logistics, to have robotics, as just the technological infrastructure that the off-world economy is going to build upon. And we see a space tug eventually part of that infrastructure. Now a challenge is that, as you look at large manufacturing, on orbit assembly, on orbit tourism, generating power, mining, these are all great things for the future off-world economy, they are all potentially a long way off and challenging to build a business around right now, and what’s really exciting about satellite servicing is, hey these are the same autonomy, logistics, robotics, technologies that we start today, and we can provide value to customers today, and so that’s got, what got us really excited, that’s what got our wheels turning and our brains spinning, and then as an engineer, it’s always a little bit of a calculated decision, and so you run the numbers, and you say, OK, I think we can do this for a while, and, and then, what really gave me confidence as part of it all is being able to work with Trevor, because he’s, he’s just a great person to work with and a great engineer, and a great entrepreneur, so I’ve been really fortunate in that sense.

 

Excellent, that’s exciting! Now, I think for some of our audience, we’re going to have to take this back just a step and say, you’re developing a space tug. So, what, exactly, is a space tug, and what is its purpose? And why is it important, as you said, in this global space, current or future ecosystem?

 

Yeah, so, a space tug, sort of broadly as a term, is a satellite that interacts with other satellites in orbit and we kind of differentiate, there are some folks who use the term space tug for a delivery into orbit at the beginning of a satellite’s life, almost kick stage on the rocket to take you up and drop you off, our use of the term space tug in this sense is more on the satellite service side, and you know, we’re not the only ones looking at servicing, there’s a lot of great companies out there, and Northrop Grumman and the mission extension vehicle’s really exciting, and I know Astroscale is starting on the ELSA-d mission and in general the value of satellite servicing is that allows you to get more out of your satellites and there’s, there’s kind of two primary missions in that. And so one is, you can help extend the life of an existing satellite that they may be limited by the amount of propellant they have on board, and as a space tug, like our Otter, you can come and attach to the back of that satellite and fulfill the same role that the propellant and propulsion system was doing, and then the second aspect of this, and this is one that maybe we can thank Sandra Bullock, is a little bit more in the popular consciousness, is, is space debris, and as we launch more and more satellites, especially over the 2020’s here, we’re going to be launching five times as many satellites as in all of human history until now, and that means that, that space debris really becomes a challenge that threatens this infrastructure that a variety of companies and organizations around the world are developing in orbit, and so, if we want to preserve this infrastructure, we need the ability to help clear out dead satellites which are effectively just threats and hazards for this infrastructure and that’s the, that’s the important, importance of the satellite servicing, importance of a space tug like our Otter, and all of this is, we allow satellites to continue to do, and to really maximize the things that they’re designed to do and the value that they provide for people here on earth.

 

That’s excellent! And so, I think that really helped our audience understand what, what a tug is, and how we’re going to do, how you’re going to do satellite servicing. I do want to pivot back to the space debris removal, we do know that is becoming more challenging, we see that on the news, we know that the UN has a sustainability development goal for, you know, for looking at debris as well, both on the planet, but also the UN, Office of Outer Space Affairs. So, can you explain to our audience, you know, you shared a little bit about how launch is going up, and the problem, and the challenge, like you said, with Sandra Bullock’s movie, but can you explain, what does that really mean, if we don’t start removing the debris or thinking about debris mitigation, what will that really mean to our usability of space?

 

So, in the broad scheme, satellites left in orbit, especially above a certain altitude, stay in orbit for forever, and, and as the number of satellites increases, you have the potential to collide, and you create more debris when you collide, and, you know, the ultimate case that is is always used when describing space debris is Kessler syndrome, and that’s when you have debris that triggers a chain reaction, and effectively destroys all of the infrastructure that you have in that orbit. Now, that is sort of the ultimate, the worst case that space debris can go, and if that were to happen, then everybody’s satellite TV goes out, everybody’s GPS goes out, and you can’t navigate anywhere, you can’t use financial systems that rely on GPS, and so the infrastructure that we built in space is hugely important for the things that we’re doing today, and it turns out that orbits, like many things on earth, are really scarce natural resources, and you have to take action to preserve them, and end many satellite operators already do, right, they take efforts to go to disposal orbits called graveyard orbits, or to reenter into the atmosphere to make sure that they’re not leaving behind debris in these valuable orbits that are scarce natural resources, but really the key that changes this decade, and the reason that this is the time, now is the time to be solving this problem, is that the problem scales dramatically with the number of satellites, and there are satellites, and they have been in orbits, but people are also, space is a big place, and so it’s only at a certain level that it, only at a certain number of satellites that this really becomes a serious threat to the infrastructure that we have in orbit. And with all of the launches of companies like SpaceX with Starlink and One Web, and Amazon Kuiper, Telesat, and just a massive proliferation of satellite constellations, we think the time is now, and in-space debris is really going to be a threat to these very valuable constellations, and unless we’re taking the actions to mitigate the debris and ensure that we’re preserving the, preserving these orbits to be able to continue to operate and provide service to people.

 

That, that’s an excellent description, and I was talking to some individuals earlier who are, you know, interested in, you know, those large constellations, and the benefits they bring, but as you said, the management of those, of those areas that have to be managed, just like any other precious resource and that your company is going to help maintain. So that’s fantastic, and obviously, debris removal is a huge issue. You did talk earlier about the profitability, you and Trevor ran the numbers, and you think you can do this. So, how have you formed a business model around this service to eventually, you know, make it profitable?

 

That’s part of the challenge, right? And not just with space debris, but almost with, with, a variety of environmental concerns that they, they suffer from a tragedy of the Commons is, it’s called that, we all have the potential negative effects, but that doesn’t mean that any of us are incentivized to pay, to solve the problem, because the negative effects were spread across all of us, and the challenge in here as well, if we’re going to solve this, and Trevor and I have chosen the approach of creating a business to try to solve, to solve the debris problem, and provide other capabilities that come with satellite servicing, and to do that well, you have to provide value that outweighs your costs, and be able to get the money to continue operating this business for us. The way that a space tug makes financial sense is not disposing of all of the constellation satellites, but we dispose of a portion, we’re really a supplementary disposal method, and so the value proposition for a satellite constellation is to say, look, you may think that you would normally be operating for five years, you could take a chance and operate six or seven years, you know, if you do that five percent, 10% of your satellites aren’t going to make it, if you use Starfish to clean up that last five to 10% you can get that extra year or two out of every satellite. The additional value that you get for that oftentimes is in hundreds of millions of dollars in these constellations that are large investments, and that dwarfs the cost that you pay for the supplemental space tug.

 

Excellent, you talked a little earlier in your intro about, you know, that future global economy, you know, will be interplanetary, a species, and, you know, and that started with small steps, where we started in low earth orbit, which is where a lot of these satellites are, and we hope to have the cislunar orbit, and then to Mars. So, how does the, your space tug help us develop those first few steps for that off world economy? And in your mind, what is that big picture, and how does developing the space tug influence that future off world development?

 

So, we’re all, we’re all space nerds, right Shelli, probably everybody listening, and we all have the different parts of the future off-world economy that excite us, and then gets us motivated, and go, boy, this is an exciting future to dream about as a species and as a planet. I know for me, one of the, one of the big visions that I would love to do, and maybe I watch too much 90s television, but I would love to be Jean-Luc Picard, standing on the deck of the Enterprise someday. I’m curious, to help frame some of the, well, how does this get to that long term goal, that off-world economy, Shelli, for you, what gets you excited about the future in space? What gets you jumping out of bed in the morning, go, hey, I want this to happen, I want to make this happen?

 

What gets me excited? I, I have the best job in the world, I get to talk to smart people like you who are telling me how we’re going to make it happen, and then, I like to be the advocate who goes out, and shares that message with everyone.

 

And when you’re advocating, when you’re sharing, like look, this is what can happen in space, what is the future of space is, is most exciting to you?

 

What I find most exciting a lot of times, is how we benefit here on earth. So, I, you know, I was just on some calls earlier today, internationally, and so many of those countries in parts of the world are looking at how space can benefit them here on planet earth. So, that really gets me excited thinking, about how do we use space for growing, agriculture, and energy solutions, and healthcare benefits, and better transportation, and like you said, all the technology that we’re benefiting from here on earth. So, when I share with people,  it’s super exciting to be thinking about going to Mars, but all the technology we’re going to use to get there, with how we’re going to, you know, human, humankind living on another planet within, you know, different gravity, and how does that affect the human body and create new medical breakthroughs, and energy, and agriculture, and water management. I love sharing the story about how another entrepreneur, it may not be you, but an entrepreneur who says, wow that’s great technology, I want to commercialize that, and, and bring that to planet earth, and make planet earth a better place, and so I get excited about that technology transfer. And then I also get excited about sharing the message about space, and all the careers that are available in space, all the careers from the supply chain that is helping you manufacture the parts and pieces for your tug, all the way to the rocket scientist, yourself, you know, who’s developing it. I love all those jobs in between, and I want to be out there telling everyone that we can help them find a place in this new global space ecosystem.

 

Yeah, I, that’s, that’s awesome. And that is incredibly exciting, and I think that aligns a lot with, with some of what we talk about at Starfish. And then a you know we’re going to space but it’s to provide value for the people on earth and this is this is I know a little bit of a Blue Origin is them also right they go to space to help earth out and the way that we see we really fit into this is as you think about the next generation of things that you might be able to do into space that help people on earth you think about well what if we could do manufacturing what if we could create materials or create Pharmaceuticals that can help people on earth. But we have to create a space you think well what if there’s what if we could have larger satellites that can provide connectivity to more people what if we could generate power in space and then we don’t have to have power stations here on earth and many of these next waves involve well you’re not going to build an entire power plant and then stick it on top of a rocket and send it up there you have to do activities you have to be dynamic and interactive in orbit and the capabilities that the logistics robotics the autonomy that today does things and kind of extending value you know adding 30-40% onto a satellites lifetime. Well in the future that’s also the infrastructure that enables this whole new set of capabilities and so you can imagine someday boy we don’t have a power plant here we’re just collecting solar and then we’re just transferring that down to earth and to create that power plant you probably need to get materials from other locations and that’s transportation and autonomous operations and you need to build this power station and that’s robotics and there’s shuttling the parts around in all of this is standing on top of the same technologies that we can start to develop today as part of the satellite servicing industry and that’s what makes that’s what makes me really excited right? As I slowly come to terms with like maybe I’m not ever going to stand on the Enterprise, but I can talk to Siri and pretend like it every once in a while. But we can be part of the pathway there and we can help build the infrastructure and help develop space in a way that it provides values to humans all here on earth.

 

Absolutely I love that, and I loved how you turn the tables around and made me the you know you were the interviewer so really good switch there. I am going to ask you, so you do have some exciting news coming up that you know Starfish Space is launching its software this June on a SpaceX Falcon 9 for your first in space demonstration. What is your goal with that in space demonstration? Do you help them discover and learn well this is really exciting step for us as a company here? And you know the nature of a startup is I sit here, and I talk about the big picture things and or will we be someday where we help in the off-world economy. But it really is a long road to get there and you have to be diligent about what is the path to get there and you have to celebrate the successes that you have and we’ve been fortunate to have some successes and this test this summer is a big highlight of them. So, as we’ve explored the technological space in this region explored the development of honor to us there is one thing that stands out is the key technology to be able to do all of these in a reliable happen in a reliable manner and that’s rendezvous proximity operations and docking or our pod as it’s often called and that’s really the challenge that how does our space tug here come up to the satellite here and move in and safely dock with it and not smash your solar panel and create more debris and not miss align and attach to something that’s going to fall right off end it that rendezvous proximity operations and docking is a challenging process and we’ve decided to make it a little more challenging ourselves because we’re trying to do it in a particularly efficient but difficult manner and that’s by using exclusively electric propulsion which is very fuel efficient propulsion type for satellites. So, our test this summer we’re going to be testing out this software which we call Cephalopod because Starfish Space and Otter and Cephalopod and we spend a lot of time Googling aquatic names and it’s wonderful but we’re going to be testing Cephalopod on orbit. It’s going up in late June or maybe early July because we know how rocket launches go but will be able to begin testing in the August timeframe and we’re going to fly a couple of proximity operations project trajectories and we’re really going to be able to validate our software and algorithms behind it in the physics modeling that we do when we test locally. And so for us this is a tremendous demonstration on look we’re building great confidence in our software and our ability to model and continue to develop the software so that is remove towards the Otter when the order is actually operating around somebody else’s satellite we can trust it we know that it’s reliable we know that it’s safe that it’s precise and that we’re going to be able to provide a successful service to our customers. We should also highlight in this that as you well know Shelli part of the part of what makes all of this possible is that there’s a series of amazing companies and individuals working throughout the space industry and the only reason why we can go to orbit and test in anything like the timeline in the company that we’re in right now is because we’re working with great people and so I should really extend as we try to do regularly extend our thanks to people like Astro Digital who build the satellite people like Orbit Fab who is coordinating the mission Benchmark Space Systems and their thrusters that we’re using Axion Space Systems and their thrusters that we’re using and it’s really part of the excitement of the new wave of space that there are lots of companies that are all working towards this this future in orbit and towards providing new capabilities for the people on earth below. And it’s been great to partner with all of these companies and work with them and we’re really thankful for that.

 

That’s excellent you shared a number of great tips along the way about proper financing and partnerships and you’ve accomplished so much in a year and a half. What is some advice you’d like to give to others who want to enter this space ecosystem?

 

You know I’ll confess Shelli I don’t know if there’s enough data points or enough sample size to really say anybody should trust any portion of Austin’s advice and we try to remember that about ourselves when we set out maybe I’ll relay somebody else’s advice then when we set out to start starfish Space talked with a number of friends from a number of backgrounds and a couple of my friends who have started and successfully developed companies and one of them sat me down he said it’s so awesome one incredible journey you’re gonna learn and you’re going to pour yourself into it and it’ll be really fulfilling and exhausting. And he said but you need to know Austin engineers make the worst founders. And I was like what are you talking about? I think engineers can be great founders. No, engineers make the worst founders and the reason that engineers make the worst founders is you’re going to spend all of your time sitting there doing engineering building some cool product until you just run out of money. And he said you need to understand this because engineers that know engineers make the worst founders and are able to successfully correct for their biases and their shortcomings in the process can be the best founders but I think that that’s something that we try to pay attention to and you all just stems from that advice and limits and maybe makes hypocritical any answer to this question is recognizing that that we have a small sample size and we’re early in the process and we found a few things that we believe that’s been successful for us but there’s a long way to go and we need to continue to learn and we need to continue to develop and build our skills and build our team if we’re going to actually operate the Otter if we’re going to actually provide infrastructure for an off world economy that helps people here on earth. And so I know that’s take that with a grain of salt because all the reasons that I just explained but that’s something that that was advised to me early in the process and that’s something that I and Trevor and our whole team we try to pay attention to our own our own uncertainties in our own learnings that we need to do.

 

Well, I think that makes you a great CEO that demonstrates your emotional intelligence, so I think that’s a fantastic way to wrap things up with our audience. I do want to thank you and I do hope that you’ll come back and share some of your findings from this launch and this demonstration with us you know you said in August you’ll get some data maybe you’ll come back in September, October and share more with us about how things are going.

 

Yeah it’s an exciting process we’ll get we’ll get some great data coming out of it, would love to update you along the way and you know I just want to extend to thanks to you and some of the work that Space Foundation does right? A little part of what put us on this journey was for me a trip to the Space Symposium back in 2019 which is long ago it feels I guess is really the last time that an in person Space Symposium happened but you know the what to me is always great about the space industry is that is  the space industry and the ties among the industry and the bonds that we have together because we’re all dreaming of the same thing and whether we’re whether we’re Jean-Luc Picard on the deck of the Enterprise or whether we’re Sandra Bullock and we’re trying to navigate our way through various space stations we all have dreams of being in space and doing exciting things for the future of humans and it’s awesome to be able to work together with everybody in the process and so the work that people like you and many others do to help cultivate the industry like this is really awesome and I really appreciate you having us on to be a little part of it.

 

Well we’re grateful for you joining us today and I guess that means I have to be Captain Janeway then on Voyager.

 

I that’s another great captain along the way there we go.

 

Well thank you so much. I would also like to thank our audience for joining us today, and if they’d like to learn more about Space Commerce and Entrepreneurship series, they can go to our website at spacefoundation.org.  Thank you, and we look forward to you joining us for another awesome entrepreneurial interview, there’s a place for everyone in the new global space ecosystem.


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Shelli Brunswick Interview with Austin Link of Starfish Space