Open Source Space Revolution

From Jeff Manber – CEO of NanoRacks LLC

Hi, I’m here to talk about a revolution. This revolution is about how we do business on the International Space Station. But the revolution is also about something even more important, and that’s who’s doing business on the International Space Station now.

space industryRich Parnell, David Anderman. And we went to NASA and we said, we got a deal for you. We want to do something different. We want to change the way we work with NASA, and you work with us in the private sector.

NASA’s Opinion

And NASA’s like, what you got in mind? And we said, look, we’ll sell finance to put hardware on the station, we’ll pay for it ourselves, we don’t want money from you. But what we want in return is permission from you to let us market the hardware commercially around the world. NASA thought about this and they said, okay, we’ll let you do it.

The first company in the world to own its own hardware on the International Space Station

And so we became, in 2009, the first company in the world to own its own hardware on the International Space Station and to market it commercially. It was a real tough time. Mike and his team in Houston got our first research platform ready by April, we launched on STS131. We got the second platform ready to go, I think in June or July. It was a tough time. Here we are, we’re paying for this ourselves. And people would ask us, whose your investors? And we’d say, well Mastercard and Visa.

NanoRacks Mantra

So it was sort of the internet, sort of software model. And at NanoRacks we started off with sort of a mantra — four things. And those four things were, we would always be commercial, we would always be open source, very important that this box and I’ll tell you about it, the NanoLab, our platforms are open source, we want to tap the creativity of as many people around the world as possible.

Commercial Space Utilization

For too long, space, and especially space utilization, there’s this been barriers erected. Some of by government, some are just practice and mindset. So we’ve made a determination to be as open source as possible. And now we’re really proud that there’s at least three companies that we know that are building NanoLabs, and building circuit boards that do different things. And that’s really cool. Three is not a big number, but in the space business and creating an ecosystem, it’s a big number.

Standardized Hardware

We also said, we would only use, as much as possible, standardized hardware. We didn’t want to invent anything new. And finally, miniaturization. You can do a lot today in a small four inch by four inch by four inch box. But equally important, it’s expensive to get to space. Okay? And the smaller –as small as you are, ok- the smaller you are, the cheaper it is.

And so this is a – I hope a video, maybe a video of our platform on the station and it shows the astronaut, oops, okay, this is another one, this is another video, and one of our mantras is also, it doesn’t have to be perfect, the hardware. We can get over that mindset. Watch this NanoLab. Astronaut Don Pettit is loading some biologicals into our NanoLab, and it pops open. Well, in the old days, NASA would have a whole investigative team. What does Don do? [audience laughs] Ducktape. [audience applauds] That’s a new NASA, and that’s a new partnership.

Mike Johnson

And I have to tell you – no, I’m being serious, because when Mike Johnson goes into the shop in Houston, and we designed some of the hardware, we don’t say, it’s gotta be perfect, it’s gotta work every time. In the old days it would take three-four-five years to build a piece of hardware for low earth orbit. And then it would take two-three years to get on the manifest. So everything had to be perfect.

One of our – we’re a small company. We have a lot of mantras. One of our mantras is, it’s okay to fail. Failure is okay. You learn things from failure. And when we first said that to NASA, they were like, what do you mean failure? We said, it’s okay. If something doesn’t work, we had the Fischer Institute of Israel did a stem cell and cancer cell project. It didn’t really work the first time, it’s interesting. What did they do? They flew with us again a second time. And it’s a whole new way of thinking. We promised ourselves, we will be as commercial at NanoRacks as any business is on the planet earth. Why should space be different?

Prioritizing the Payloads

So another example is at NASA, they prioritize the payloads. And they spend a lot of time saying, okay this payload is valuable, you’ll go here on the manifest, and this one is valuable. And I was at a meeting at NASA and a woman said to me, how do you prioritize your payloads? And I was like, ma’am when the check clears the bank, you go to the front of the line. [audience laughs] That’s commercial. That’s not commercial space. That’s commercial.

And we’ve learned haven’t we in the last 20 years that the best system for utilization, for commerce, for doing business is commercial.

Self Financed Space Services

So how have we done? We went — We’re pretty nervous, we’re self-financing, we went operational on August of 2010. And let me introduce you to some of the new faces of space researchers. These are students in El Paso, Texas, and they had the experience of doing a complex biological payload via NanoRacks. They’re working with our educational partners NCESSE. And in the year-and-a-half we’ve been operational, Jeff Goldstein at NCESSE has signed up over 30 school districts in America who have flown on the International Space Station, complex biological payloads, with no NASA funding.

NASA tells us this is the first time in history there’s been a national space student program like this with no NASA funding. We’ve flown 45 to 50 payloads in the last year, year-and-a-half, we have 80, over 80 payloads under contract now. And recently NASA gave us permission to put an external platform — one of our platforms, outside the station. So it’s a major step forward. Again, self-financed. We’re taking no money from NASA in the traditional sense. We welcome them as a customer.

Creative Freedom

But because they come in as a customer, they don’t tell us how to design, they don’t tell us how do it. And NASA’s beginning to say, you know what, because you got your money on the line, we know it’s going to be as safe as possible. And they’re right about that. So you need a lot fewer people. When you go commercial, and when it’s open source, people come to you and give you ideas.

And it’s not just in America. These four things that is core mantra, commercial, open source, standardized hardware, and miniaturization. Here’s a customer of ours from Vietnam University. We’re becoming the first company in the world to deploy a satellite from the International Space Station. And if you look at the picture, they’re holding three satellites. And if you notice, it’s in the same form factor as our NanoLabs. And when we set out to do our NanoLabs, we said, let’s take the standard of design form factor known throughout the world. So that there’s no technology transfer. So everybody knows what they’re doing. And these are customers of ours who is deploying from the station. And we were able to do it in our average time, which we’re averaging from contract signing to deployment, nine months.

Our Payload Workshop

This is a workshop we held in Riyadh, and we’re very proud that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has signed a multi-year agreement with us, for students and researchers to use the International Space Station. And we’ve also signed three schools in Israel. And it’s not just students. I brought a lot of the pictures of the students because they’re more powerful to me somehow. But we’re also flying researchers doing cancer and stem cell. And so it’s really running the gamut in the 80 payloads we now have under contract.

This is a fascinating story. This is Valley Christian of San Jose. And these folks are right in the middle of Silicon Valley. And it’s a high school. And they became the first high school to pay their own way to go to the International Space Station. And their parents are all in Silicon Valley, so trust me, the sophistication of the circuit board in their NanoLab was unbelievable. And when we went to the NASA safety review, the NASA folks kept saying, this is a high school? [audience laughs]

Open Source Revolution

But it just shows, that when you have the open source, when you lower the barriers, you don’t know where the next great idea is going to come from. We accept that in software, don’t we? We accept that in computers. We accept that in biology and genetics. We’ve never really accepted that in space. We’ve still taken the view, many of us, that space is different. It takes years. And we’re part of this new revolution showing, that if you apply standard commercial practices, work closely with the new NASA, pass that safety test –as safety review board, there’s a lot that will change. And a lot of people will come forward.

There’s also another sort of new way of thinking I wanted to share with you. We’ve realized and we now have three platforms pretty much on the station, a fourth going outside. We have microscopes, we have some other hardware, all self-financed, and we realized there’s no centrifuge. So we were talking to our friends in Germany at Astrium, and they knew of a centrifuge that has flown five times on the shuttle, and they thought it was in a museum. It’d been put away – been retired. We took it out of the museum. You don’t have to re-invent hardware. The whole concept of, you know, I have to build the hardware, it has to be perfect, we don’t think that’s necessary anymore.

My Parting Message

So this is the message I’d like to leave with you today is that, you know, this is a really exciting time. And we get jaded because things move slowly. And for those of us who’ve been working this for a very long time to try and get space, to be just another place to do business, this is our moment. You can fly to low earth orbit now on any number of vehicles. And by the way, we were very proud to be the only commercial payload on SpaceX. And we had 15 research payloads on there. And they just came down a few days ago on Soyuz. And we delivered it to the customer yesterday. That’s commercial.

We need NASA’s help. But that’s the proper role of the government. NASA is our landlord, they’re our regulator, but they’re no longer our competitor. And that’s really beautiful. We got a space station up there. It’s going to be there for a long time. And if we can show – show others, and maybe show ourselves, that it’s possible in space to do normal commercial practices, I am positive, that the future for us in low earth orbit and far beyond will be far greater than we ever dreamed of. Thank you.