Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Differential equations are scrawled across an old-fashioned blackboard in Rob Hoyt’s office. On another wall, he’s framed the cover of a sci-fi novel he hasn’t had time to finish.
Hoyt runs a space-technology company with the unlikely name of Tethers Unlimited that’s dedicated to figuring out how far-out ideas can be made practical.
His growing team of nearly 30 engineers has built a space-propulsion engine that uses water as fuel; invented a spiderlike robot to build large structures in space; and is researching how to capture an asteroid for study by enveloping it in a giant bag and towing it to lunar orbit.
“We really like to push the boundary of what is science fiction versus science reality,” Hoyt said. “My overall motivation is to enable mankind to settle the solar system.”
Yet Tethers is a 2-decade-old, moneymaking business, not some “Star Trek” fantasy.
Today, it’s drawing new energy from a surge in the commercial-space business in the Greater Seattle area, which is buzzing with excitement, innovation and private money:
- Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that now employs more than 350 people at its Kent headquarters, in April impressed the world with a successful test launch of its new spacecraft.
- Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has opened a SpaceX office in Redmond aimed at designing a huge constellation of satellites.
- Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace, its headquarters overlooking the stadium where Allen’s Seahawks play, later this year plans to roll out from a California desert hangar the biggest airplane ever built, designed to be an airborne-launch platform for spacecraft.
- Planetary Resources, with more than 30 employees in Redmond, is riding this wave of space enthusiasm with an enticing vision to mine asteroids.
Meanwhile, other players that have been around for decades are benefiting both from the buzz around the billionaires and from technological advances that slash the cost of the commercial-space business. Among them:
- Aerojet Rocketdyne, with 520 employees in Redmond, builds small rockets that have propelled spacecraft to every planet in the solar system. In April, NASA awarded it $18 million to develop an ion thruster for deep-space travel.
- Spaceflight, formerly Andrews Space, with about 70 employees in Tukwila, makes compact, powerful satellites and is expanding rapidly, thanks to a $20 million investment from venture-capital firms, including Vulcan.
New technology, old roots
One driver of the new space business is the revolution in consumer electronics that has made it possible to build very small, cheap satellites — some, called cubesats, as small as 4 inches on a side.
“The photos on Google Earth came from a satellite as big as a Suburban and cost $150 million to launch,” said Spaceflight CEO Jason Andrews. But now, “computing and processing power has gotten to a point where you no longer need these “Battlestar Galactica” satellites.”
With the latest technology, he added, “It is so much cheaper, you can afford to throw it away after one, two or three years.”
Before 2013, about 60 or 70 satellites were launched annually worldwide, said Marco Caceres, space-industry analyst with the Teal Group. Last year, driven by the proliferation of cubesats, the number spiked past 400.
At least three ambitious ventures — the SpaceX/Google effort; OneWeb, backed by Richard Branson; and Leosat — are planning large new satellite constellations to provide broadband Internet access.
Locally, such efforts have a not-so-encouraging precedent. Twenty years ago, local tech billionaires Bill Gates and Craig McCaw backed the similar Kirkland-based Teledesic communications-satellite project with the lofty goal of enabling phone calls and Internet access across the planet.
And to launch these constellations affordably, Kirkland-based Kistler Aerospace spent more than $550 million to develop a reusable-launch rocket — well ahead of SpaceX.
But with expensive satellite phones the weight of a brick, and with too few users of the then-new Internet, the idea proved ahead of its time.
When the dot-com bubble burst, potential customers evaporated and Teledesic went bankrupt along with the competing Iridium and Globalstar constellation projects. Kistler folded before its rocket ever left the launchpad.
This time around it will be different, space-industry insiders insist.
The Internet now connects directly with more than a billion people worldwide through computers or smartphones, offering tech entrepreneurs the opportunity to develop businesses based on new apps using satellite data.
For decades the U.S. space industry has been centered in Southern California, Huntsville, Ala., and Florida. With software and the Internet ever more intricately linked to the technology, Silicon Valley has become a new player.
So, too, has the Seattle area, with local companies playing a variety of roles.
Aerojet’s local rocket-making unit, the veteran among Pacific Northwest space companies, designs and builds small rockets used to position and maneuver spacecraft or satellites once they’ve reached space.
At an 80-acre Redmond campus opened in 1968, technicians sitting at long benches inside climate-controlled clean rooms meticulously assemble hundreds of these rockets per year. The rockets range in size from a few feet tall, producing 700 pounds of thrust, to tiny jets that generate just one-twentieth of a pound of thrust, used to tweak a spacecraft’s position.
“I think you breathe out your nose more than that,” said Dave Hartsell, who runs the Aerojet test-fire facility.
Since a malfunctioning rocket could render a spacecraft useless, the manufacturing process is closely controlled.
Parts are produced in a shop capable of machining the tiniest holes in the hardest metal alloys ever created.
After assembly, the rocket engines are sent to a vibration lab to ensure they can survive the intense shaking of a launch into orbit, and then to Hartsell’s facility in a separate building where rockets are test-fired inside huge cylindrical vacuum tanks.
Roger Myers, executive director of advanced in-space programs at Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet, said “rockets from Redmond” have powered space probes and landers that have visited all the planets of our solar system, including the twin Voyager probes launched in 1977 now traveling in interstellar space more than 12 billion miles away. When last needed a couple of years ago, those rockets still worked.
Aerojet rockets also guide most of the U.S. satellites in the sky, including those that send GPS location data to your phone and the ones transmitting DirecTV programming.
Today, Aerojet is researching new technologies. It has used 3D additive manufacturing to “print” a 4-inch-cube propulsion rocket from titanium powder.
And while Aerojet in Redmond produces mostly chemical rockets — powerful, fast and noisy, akin to speedboats — it’s also developing advanced electric ion rockets that are more like the sailboats of space, efficient enough to power a spacecraft all the way to Mars.
With Aerojet churning out rockets of such diverse sizes and technologies for the burgeoning space business, Myers said he expects employment at the Redmond site to increase 10 to 20 percent this year.
Spaceflight CEO Andrews started out as an aerospace engineer at Kistler, the Kirkland rocket company.
Even though that effort failed, it proved seminal for local space businesses. Rob Meyerson, who now runs Blue Origin, also came from Kistler.
Andrews formed his own company in 1999 and now is riding the satellite boom.
The company builds small satellites, listed at $3.5 million for the basic communications model and $5 million for an imaging satellite. Spaceflight has also developed a ringlike frame for holding dozens of small satellites on a launch rocket.
The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command has ordered a military variant of Spaceflight’s imaging satellite, called Kestrel Eye, that will be used to provide tactical “eyes in the sky” in combat zones.
A government database shows Spaceflight has won $10 million in such federal contracts from NASA and the Pentagon over the past five years.
The relatively low pricing of Spaceflight’s satellites has also attracted the new wave of entrepreneurial startups that are designing their own satellite apps.
So he’s moved into a second business, acting as a freight forwarder to companies that have a satellite they want launched. Spaceflight offers them ride shares: slots on rockets scheduled to launch for other purposes.
And Andrews is developing a third branch to his space business, creating a network of ground stations that can communicate with small satellites for companies that don’t have that infrastructure.
“We’re essentially building cellphone towers for space,” Andrews said.
Funded by the influx of money from Vulcan and other venture firms, the first ground station is in Tukwila and two more will be built in Alaska and in New Zealand.
Andrews said complete coverage of the Earth from near-Earth orbit will require thousands of satellites, so he’s not worried about duplication from all the competing commercial-satellite projects in the works.
“We’re not sure who’ll win, but we want to be able to partake by building satellites, launching satellites and helping all these companies,” said Andrews.
Of all the space startups around the Seattle area, Planetary Resources has one of the wildest visions: to mine asteroids.
Planetary plans to extract rare metals and haul them back to Earth.
In addition, Planetary hopes to excavate ice from asteroids. Because solar power could be used to separate the hydrogen and oxygen in water, and the gases then burned together to produce thrust, water is a potential rocket fuel in space.
In this vision, future spacecraft will stop at interplanetary gas stations that dispense water mined from asteroids.
The company’s big ambition has attracted high-level engineering talent. And its stellar list of investors includes Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Microsoft millionaire Charles Simonyi. Hollywood director James Cameron is listed as an adviser.
Eric Anderson, Planetary’s founder and co-chairman, is well-connected in Silicon Valley. In an interview, he said bringing significant resources from asteroids back to Earth is still a long way off.
“I’d say it probably will be 10 years,” said Anderson. “I think it will be less than 20.”
Planetary’s “biggest challenge,” he said, is generating revenue to survive until that long-term payoff.
He said the company will get by while it develops spacecraft for its long-term mission by selling its technology services to both the government and commercial customers.
So far, though, there’s little to show for it.
The company has been awarded a total of $1.45 million in NASA research contracts over the past three years. The federal contract database shows Planetary has annual revenue of just $1.3 million, not nearly enough to support more than 30 engineers.
That leaves the company dependent on its private investors. “We’re good for the next couple of years while we continue to build more revenue opportunities,” Anderson said.
Planetary has also generated money through public excitement. It ran a Kickstarter campaign that persuaded 17,000 people to pledge a total of $1.5 million in return for a promise that they’d get a “selfie in space.”
The idea is to put a selfie stick on a Planetary satellite and to have it photograph a video monitor upon which the company will project images of the people who contributed money. Voilà, a selfie with your image on a monitor and the Earth in the background.
But it’ll be at least a couple of years before that selfie satellite goes up, Anderson conceded.
Last October, Planetary’s first satellite was blown up when the Antares rocket that was to deliver it to the space station exploded on the launchpad. In April, the company sent up its second, which will be released from the International Space Station in a few weeks.
To keep its fans engaged as they wait for the selfies, Planetary recently sold T-shirts online, celebrating its first satellite in space. It sold just over 1,200 T-shirts at $20 each.
Tethers CEO Hoyt, 46, with a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics, is no billionaire.
He works out of a nondescript business park in Bothell and comes to the office in plaid shirt, jeans and hiking shoes.
Company revenue comes from doing groundbreaking research for the government.
Since 2010, Tethers has won more than $11 million in contracts from NASA and the Department of Defense, with a further $5 million worth currently in process.
Spending his workday solving high-end scientific and engineering challenges, Hoyt is a nerd who’s gone to heaven.
Tethers has designed and is testing a thruster rocket that uses water as fuel, the technology that Planetary Resources hopes will provide a major reason to mine asteroids.
It also has finished phase one of a NASA project researching how to capture a giant lump of rock careening through space, stop it spinning using a tiny satellite, then tow it into orbit around the moon for study.
“Not all the way back to Earth,” Hoyt offered reassuringly. “People would freak out.”
Hoyt showed elements of his latest project in the Bothell lab recently: trusses that are 3D-printed and fabricated by a spiderlike robot.
The concept is to use such trusses in orbit to fabricate large structures, which might, for example, carry large solar arrays.
The company started out developing space “tethers,” which are long wires let out from satellites that hang down vertically toward the Earth.
Electrical currents moving along the wires within the Earth’s magnetic field cause a perpendicular force to be exerted on the wire and hence on the satellite, causing either drag that slows the satellite so it de-orbits, or a push that sends it into higher orbit.
De-orbiting this way requires no power source and is akin to sailing in the Earth’s magnetic field.
Hoyt went to Japan to buy the $150,000 computerized braiding machine he customized to make the tethers out of high-strength fibers such as metalized Kevlar.
The machine’s original purpose was to make lace for kimonos and Victoria Secret-type underwear. Hoyt jokes that “bulletproof underwear” is his fallback-business plan.
For now, he won’t be needing one. As the space business booms, Tethers has just doubled its lab space and is hiring.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org