Dylan Taylor, Chairman and CEO, joined the Source Code Podcast to talk about the big business of space travel.
A few hundred people have been to space. Just shy of 250 have been to the International Space Station, and all of two dozen have been on the moon. Pretty soon, though, all of those numbers are about to get a lot bigger.
The space industry is booming, as companies and governments alike vie to create new ways to get people into orbit and new things to do once they get there. They’re trying to figure out what space tourism might look like; how to design a space hotel; what life might look like on Mars; and how to train a whole lot of astronauts in a really short time. And, eventually, how to bring the cost of a ticket down to something more than a handful of people can afford. Dylan Taylor is one of the people leading the charge. He’s the CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, a holding company whose teams are working on everything from launch capabilities to in-orbit services to an oven that can cook in zero gravity. He came on the Source Code Podcast to talk about the state of the space business, what the next few years might look like and whether he’s reserved his spot in line for a space flight.
One thing I’ve learned about this industry is that it’s actually newer than I realized, at least as a private enterprise. It seems like really in the last decade, but even in the last several years, space has really ramped up in a big way. So can you give me a brief history lesson on private space enterprise?
Oh boy, yeah. I think it’s true what you just said, but it’s also not true, in the sense that we had the Apollo program, which inspired a whole generation of scientists. What we were missing, and I think where we went a little bit sideways, is our transportation.
If you think about the Apollo program, what was promised was a daily shuttle to space, the so-called Space Shuttle. And that was going to open up “the high frontier,” as it was called, and it was going to bring all this infrastructure to space and allow us to live and work in space. This was in the 1970s, the 1980s. And what ended up happening, unfortunately, is the space shuttle became a bit of a problem program. And instead of it being a daily shuttle, it became a couple-of-years Space Shuttle. And it ended up being hundreds of thousands of dollars a pound to get mass to orbit. So that’s really where we stubbed our toe.
And then fast forward to the early ’90s, when you had other space entrepreneurs that were trying to crack the nut. You know, famously, a group took over the Mir space station, which was the Russian Space Station. So we had a lot of — call them renegades, or, frontier-pioneer types in space. But what was always missing is access. If you look at all the business plans, they all presuppose you can get to space.
So what has changed? Well, what’s changed is SpaceX, frankly. That totally changed the game. Elon, coming from outside the industry, looked at it from a first principles standpoint. He looked at it from base physics, and said, “Why is [it] costing so much? I don’t get it.” So now that we’ve opened up inexpensive access to space, we now have the ability for all these different business plans to flourish. And so I think that’s what we’re seeing now.
The other side of the time horizon also seems really interesting. A lot of the conversations I have with folks about space, they presuppose that we are all going to live on Mars, or that there’s going to be some Wall-E ship in space that we all spend a lot of our time on. The question of how we get there is really interesting, but so is how long it takes. You’re a guy who’s running a business, you’re not doing government-funded science for its own sake. So when you spend your time thinking about this stuff, what time horizons are useful to think about? Is it even useful to spend your time thinking about what life is going to be like when we all live on Mars?
It is! Because that’s what inspires me. What inspires me is, I think space is transformational for humanity. I think it’s the next big thing. I think it allows us to imagine what humanity 2.0 could be. So I’m inspired by that. And so for me being from the business world, and believing in free markets and capital markets, it’s more about, how do we build the sustainable economic business case to make sure that we can open up the high frontier? So I’m inspired by Mars, I’m inspired by the moon. I’m inspired by having infrastructure and free space, you know, space stations and the like.
But just to reinforce the point you made, the Space Station is at 240 miles above the Earth, the moon is at 220,000 miles away from the Earth. And Mars is 35 million miles away from the Earth. So just in terms of order of complexity, it’s not 10x more complex, it’s 1,000x more complex to go to Mars. And I don’t know if people fully appreciate that.
In the here and now, it seems to me that the two most obviously interesting space businesses are satellite internet and the actual work of launching stuff into orbit. What am I missing?
Well, I would expand satellite internet to Earth observation in general. If you think about the dataset being created with all these constellations, certainly internet access is one thing, transmitting ones and zeros.
But also just data collection, whether it’s for climate or whether it’s for economic optimization of shipping routes or rail routes for logistics. Google has built a trillion-dollar dataset organizing known terrestrial information: telling you what’s happened or if a store is open or whatever the case may be. Think about a database that’s even more robust, that’s persistent, that’s always-on and is predictive in its qualities about the global economic paradigm we live in — what’s that database worth? I don’t know. But it’s worth more than a trillion dollars.
To me, it’s a bit like ecommerce. I don’t think anybody would have had the Amazon lottery ticket in the ’90s, saying a bookseller was going to capture 80% of ecommerce. But if you would have just bet the sector — bought pets.com, beyond.com, amazon.com — you would have killed it. I think of Earth observation like that as well.
In terms of what else is out there, there’s a lot of other business plans that I’m excited about. One is what I’ll call generally “on-orbit or in-orbit servicing.” And essentially, this is robotics in space. We have a space debris issue. This allows us to clean up space debris, capture satellites, refuel satellites, extend their useful life, raise their orbit, push them down and burn them up. This enables things like space manufacturing, this enables private space stations, space-based power, space-based communication. A lot of these business plans are enabled by advanced robotics in orbit.
And then the last one I’ll mention is really planetary resources. We are going back to the moon. There are a lot of these rare earth minerals on the moon. So that could be another business case to go back to the moon.
And that stuff is, it sounds like, more immediate than I would have guessed. It’s interesting that you’re already deep in the “how do we mine the moon?” kinds of questions, which I think to a lot of people still feel like decades-away science fiction.
I think it’ll happen in the 2020s. I mean, we are going to go back to the moon. I’m skeptical that it’ll happen in 2024 as planned. But I think 2026 is gonna happen. And when we go back, we now have the technology to extract oxygen from moon regolith. We have the ability to make steel on the moon. We have the ability to make habitat on the moon. And if we can do all those things … you have unlimited energy, by definition, there’s unlimited solar on the moon. You can do things like mine rare earth minerals. That’s possible.
That’s really exciting. So you mentioned the “don’t buy Amazon, buy the sector” approach. Is that how you feel about Voyager Holdings? You’re just betting on space, and who knows exactly how it’ll all shake out, but you’re confident enough in the sector?
I certainly have done that for my private space investment, but Voyager’s a bit different. The thesis there is that the industry is very healthy. Early-stage capital is abundant. However, we’re not scaling particularly well. Even SpaceX is not a big company in the whole scheme of the world.
And part of the issue is a lot of the aggregators for industries — like private equity or strategic buyers — aren’t particularly well-suited to space. A lot of the value creation is by marrying different capabilities. If you have a launch capability, and you have a hardware spacecraft capability, and you have a data and analytics capability, and that’s all within the same vertically integrated company, you’re capable of capturing more of the value in the industry. And that’s really an operating challenge.
The way we’re thinking about it is, what capabilities can you assemble over time to essentially capture the flag? The flag being the capability to bid for the most complex missions that are awarded by the government or by other commercial buyers. So it’s all about capability. And it’s all about what do you have in-house that you’re able to deliver in an integrated way?
Why do a bunch of separate companies? My guess is this has to do with how funding works, and how money sources move in this industry. But why do that, as opposed to trying to build one company with one CEO that does everything under one roof in one name?
Because you don’t want to stifle innovation. Pick any industry you’ve ever been involved in. The innovators, the people at the very leading edge, do they want to be a badged employee for IBM or Microsoft or Lockheed Martin? The answer is no. And a lot of them came from those companies to start whatever venture they’re in. So you can’t stifle the innovation. And that’s really the challenge. At the very top of the industry, you have companies that are very, very, very capable, but they’re not terribly innovative. And so what we’re trying to do is thread the needle between not stifling the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, but yet providing the scale and integration that you need to create value.
And as you think about who belongs in the Voyager portfolio, you mentioned robotics, right? Robotics is obviously overlapping with space, but it’s also very much its own industry. And then you talk about data analytics, which is also very much its own industry. How broad does that make your purview? Space is eventually going to be kind of about everything, right? You could buy a real estate company and call it a space company!
You nailed it. I joke with my friends that everyone’s in the space industry. They just don’t know it yet.
I think of it in terms of actual space capabilities, things you would only be able to do in space. And then functional areas that essentially create more robustness around your capability. Robotics is one of those things, but it applies to many industries: AI, data analytics, edge computing, even biotech. So we think of those in terms of things we need to do really well, or find really good partners to do. But then, of course, there are areas of the space industry that are really specific to space, like life support. Other than going to the bottom of the ocean, you don’t really have that environment here on Earth. So there are definitely areas that are space-specific, and then other areas that span other industries.
Am I right in thinking that kind of the first version of this is going to be basically, space tourism, where regular people — first with a lot of money, and then with less money — can get on a spacecraft and fly around the Earth? Is that the next goal post here?
Yeah, I think so. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin should be flying soon. Virgin just had a test a couple of weeks ago, which didn’t go particularly well, unfortunately. But it didn’t go horribly either, they didn’t have an accident or anything. So I think that is going to happen.
And just to be clear, that’s crossing the Kármán line, which is 62 miles above the Earth, 100,000 kilometers. You will get your astronaut wings, but essentially, it’s a bit of a joyride. You’re gonna get a little bit of microgravity, but round-trip it’s something like 20 minutes max. This is compared to other space tourists who actually went to the International Space Station. And not only is that $50 million, round numbers, but you have to train for months. So it’s a big commitment. It’s a totally different level of space tourism, if you will. But I think when people see people they know going to space on a regular basis, I think it’ll change the world. I really, really believe that.