Former NASA CTO on how to think ‘mission first’ and what’s next for a free space economy

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Linda Lacina, Digital Editor, World Economic Forum


Astra began – like so many companies – in a garage. But it stands apart as a member of the $400 billion space economy sector. This space tech company isn’t looking to build cities on Mars but to offer much needed space services – launching satellites and delivering payloads into orbit – for a growing space economy.

Chris Kemp, Astra’s co-founder, is part of a new generation of entrepreneurs reshaping how we use space to conduct business here on earth, improving our connectivity and ensuring we’re better using our natural resources in the process.

The leaders shaping this bigger, more competitive space economy, will do what all pioneers and entrepreneurs do in any era: draw from a range of past experiences to create something no one has seen before.

Kemp is uniquely prepared for this. He worked at NASA in a number of roles (including CTO of IT), where he helped rethink how large amounts of data were processed and stored, helping to drive cloud computing and open source technology capabilities for the US government.

His work also helped drive new collaborations. In one NASA initiative, he worked with big tech companies to help offset the infrastructure costs needed to make a wealth of space data available to the public. As a result, for the first time, members of the public – from researchers to school children – could use tools such as Google Earth or Microsoft Worldwide Telescope to easily access all the data from every NASA mission, get a 3D view of the universe or even do a ‘fly by’ of different planets.

Creating more inventive collaborations – to shape technology, regulation, and more – will be key for the space economy to stay free and competitive, a fact stressed in a special report Kemp recently collaborated on with McKinsey and the World Economic Forum.

Space economy pioneers will also need to think differently. Kemp also brings a special perspective to the sector as a serial entrepreneur. He helped develop or launch a range of different projects as those sectors were developing, from the early social network Classmates.com, to vacation rental platform Escapia, to the opensource shopping tool for Kroger OpenShop.

Those experiences have helped him understand how to focus on the opportunity ahead and when to pivot. He leverages those lessons – and how to build from past experiences – in a course he teaches at Stanford Business School and every day at Astra. Leveraging failure – and building perseverance – is critical in any industry but especially important in a sector working with rockets and little margin for error.

Meet The Leader caught up with Kemp at May’s Davos Annual Meeting where he shared what’s next for the space economy, how he focuses on what’s mission critical – and how failure can drive your successes. Read more in the transcript below.

We lost a rocket right before a launch. The next week, the pandemic hit. This was a moment for the company where everything counted. ”— Chris Kemp, CEO, Astra

TRANSCRIPT

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Can you define the space economy for us?

Chris Kemp: Well, space economy is all of the sum-total of economic activities that are enabled through space. So, you probably take some of these things for granted and don’t even know space is involved, but a lot of the internet and the communications that occurs around the planet, whenever you’re watching, you know, any kind of live video feed from around the world, that’s typically being beamed up through satellites through space. Increasingly broadband connectivity is being delivered through space as well.

If you’re talking on a cellphone and you’re in a remote region of the world, you’re typically using the space network for backhaul and, you know, obviously things like GPS. I think people often think of astronauts and they think of space tourism and space travel, but in reality, that’s a small fraction of the overall almost half a trillion-dollar space economy.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: The space economy can improve life on earth, but what will that look like? What can we expect on the ground?

Chris Kemp: I think much in the same way that you can’t even imagine your life without a mobile device or without the internet, we won’t be able to imagine what it was like to manage the resources on our planet without having the ability to see things in real-time from space.

We take weather, we take GP services, for granted they’ve been around for a long time. Imagine weather that is incredibly accurate. Imagine being able to have the kind of visibility into what’s happening in your neighbourhood that can only be provided if you’re looking down from space.

Building on that, imagine everything connected. Imagine your phone never losing connectivity, being able to message people regardless of where you are. And then that all working seamlessly together with wifi and cellular networks. I think we’re going to see services that are just so integrated into our devices, our cars, our homes, that you’ll take them for granted, just like you kind of do with GPS today.

“I think much in the same way that you can’t even imagine your life without a mobile device or without the internet, we won’t be able to imagine what it was like to manage the resources on our planet without having the ability to see things in real time from space.””— Chris Kemp, CEO, Astra

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: And what would be the most surprising element of that in your mind?

Chris Kemp: I think how it changes how we operate businesses. If you’re able to truly understand, for example, how much carbon is coming out of a specific factory, you can begin to hold people accountable and you can hold companies and nations accountable for things in a way that you really can’t today.

And I think that that’ll change how we think about economic systems, incentives and policies in law. And that’ll take many decades to really fully be integrated into how we do things, because some of these capabilities are here today. Many people don’t even know about them, let alone have the ability to integrate them into their existing products and businesses.

We’ve announced that we started to work with the UK government to try to establish a spaceport up in SaxaVord, in Scotland. I think that’s really just the beginning. We’d love to see spaceports in every country, and we’d love to see every space agency in the world have access to space.

Today, there are over 75 space agencies. Less than 10 of them actually have sovereign space access. There’s a huge opportunity by democratizing access to space for the entrepreneurs and the companies and the space agencies in these countries to further have access to the kinds of things that just a few countries do today.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You were involved with this incredible report that just came out on the future of space governance and the space economy. There’s a lot of actions that were noted in the report. Can you outline those for us?

Chris Kemp: One of the things that was very clear in the report is we neither want to over nor under regulate space. And the reality today is that things that should be against the law are simply not. For example, destroying a satellite in space, causing debris to permanently make an area of space unusable for commercial or really any purpose. And I think we need international law to make these types of things that are really bad for humanity actually illegal.

But I think you can also overdo it. And what I’d hate to see happen is one of these events occur where regulators step in and they overregulate and then they impact the ability for commercial companies to operate in space.

When most laws were established in space in the 1950s and 1960s, only nation states had access to space and unfortunately, a lot of the laws didn’t contemplate a lot of the commercial activity that we now see in space. The majority of satellites in space are now commercial satellites. In fact, now the majority of launches into space are commercial launches. And as companies like Astra, SpaceX continue to scale we’ll see even more commercial activity in space.

So, we want to have nation states step in and work together to create law and policy that creates the maximum economic value for humanity. And the report does a fantastic job of capturing this tension that needs to exist as we move forward.

“We want to have nation states step in and work together to create law and policy that creates the maximum economic value for humanity.” ”— Chris Kemp, CEO, Astra

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: And if that space governance gap is not bridged, what happens? What is the worst-case scenario?

Chris Kemp: The report contemplates a few different scenarios. One scenario is we do nothing and it’s wild, wild west. And we allow you know, some of the largest space companies and actors to try to self-regulate. I think that that could potentially result in a suboptimal use of space. When you look at how technology can now be used to allow more competition and more sharing in space safely, just if we do the work.

If we overregulate it’s equally bad. We could see the launch becoming more expensive, more regulated. Operating satellites and operating within the spectrum that satellites operate becoming even more constrained. I think that would be bad. But I think the positive outcome which the report really tries to highlight is this equilibrium where we implement the right policies that allow maximum commercial participation while at the same time not creating problems such as space debris that could impact our overall ability to use space for benefit.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: An important part of the report was collaboration and partnerships, and you have a special perspective on this. You worked at NASA and I’m going to read this to make sure I don’t have it wrong. You structured an alternative for the typical government procurement, right? So, you had public private partnerships from big tech companies and they helped offset the costs of sort of different things that you guys needed.

So, can you talk a little bit about that and the types of partnerships, the new types of thinking that we’re going to need to build this new space economy?

Chris Kemp: That’s a great question. I really believe in partnerships. Most of the countries on earth don’t need to build their own AWS or Microsoft Azure, Salesforce.com, because it already exists. They can subscribe to these things as services, and then they can configure it uniquely for their needs. When you look at things like mega satellite constellations, a country that is small does not need a mega constellation. The majority of the satellites will only spend less than a percent of their time over that country. So, 99.9% of the time they’re over other countries where that country might not have spectrum to even operate.

Through partnerships with the telcos in these countries, and by thinking about security and standards so that we can use, like cloud computing, a shared constellation and shared multi-tenant infrastructure in space like we do with cloud computing, it’ll allow these countries and these companies to much more inexpensively and rapidly access space. I think that this really could unlock the potential of space.

“This really could unlock the potential of space.” ”

It used to be if you wanted to build an internet company, you had to buy millions of dollars of servers build networks, have data centers and you had to have a lot of people that under understood how to operate all of this.

Now you pull out your credit card and you sign up for infrastructure as a service platform services, software services, and you can just rapidly get a business up and running by using these existing services. The same thing is happening to space right now. It’s kind of like the internet in 1999 where we’re about to see a big revolution where a transition is occurring from kind of a mainframe computing era of space to a cloud computing era of space.

And we accomplish that through partnerships. And when we have a tech stack and space that allows all of these technologies to come together through standards, we’ll see something akin to the internet happen, where space will become even less costly and much more accessible to operate in.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What excites you about that?

Chris Kemp: Well, it’s my background. I came out of software. I built a project called OpenStack which brought a lot of infrastructure together and it allowed a lot of the technologies that we take for granted to be accessible, like cloud computing within enterprises.

I see this transition as being a natural evolution of what’s happened in the internet and tech and now that it’s happening in space, we’re going to see that happen. I’m really excited about it and it really builds on what I’ve been working on for almost 20 years now.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Partnerships for any company, it’s an ongoing thing. It’s not a set it and forget it thing, these relationships you develop over time. How will Astra change? What capabilities or what things will need to grow or evolve at Astra to make all this work?

Chris Kemp: Well, you saw, we acquired a propulsion company, because we have access to space, we are in a unique position to develop the technologies that are needed in space.

If you see companies like SpaceX, bring (down) the cost per kilogram to put a lot of stuff in space, we’re equally focused on bringing the cost per launch down because as you bring the launch cost down you make it easier and easier to test and develop and iterate on space technologies. And then as you need to launch things at scale, you have things like the Starship that will allow the economics at scale, like a container ship or a freight train, to bring the cost of getting a lot of things into space down.

But you need FedEx trucks. You need the proverbial semi truck that pulls up to the container ship that can more cost effectively deliver a smaller amount of payload. And as we focus on that we’re going to see the ability to unlock all of the key core technology that you need to build new sensors, new radio technology, new satellites, much more rapidly in space.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Are there sort of block-and-tackle changes that other companies will need to be making so that they can prepare for this? To make sure that they are actually walking the walk when it comes to partnerships?

Chris Kemp: I think no company should try to do everything. And if you look at the best technology in the world to solve a particular problem and if you can integrate that through an API or through standards, into a product that you’re building, you’ll just have a better product and you won’t have to build and reinvent wheels here and there.

“No company should try to do everything.” ”

What’s been beautiful about the internet is the idea that you can build complex applications on top of services, microservices. We’ve seen this popularized with Amazon Web Services, the Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, if you need to recognize a face or do voice recognition or do text recognition, you don’t have to write that from scratch.

There are services that you can use that work incredibly well that you can subscribe to. Really what you’re doing is composing these services.

In space, you’ll see the same opportunity. So, instead of having to build a satellite from scratch, just like in the 1980s, you had to build a computer from scratch. That’s crazy. You know, building a satellite from scratch is even harder than building a computer from scratch and no one builds computers from scratch. And so, as we start to see companies the approaches that like Apple and Dell applied to the personal computer to satellites, you’re going to start to see lower cost, more capable satellites, and then you’ll be able to plug in things like plug-and-play cameras and sensors.

And then if you’re trying to solve a problem in space, you’re just focused on building the sensor and the software that’s important to your application, not building and operating a whole satellite and satellite constellation. I think it’ll be a massive step forward in increasing the velocity with which new innovation occurs in space.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You mentioned your background and all the things that you’ve built over the years. I want to mention your first business was a grocery shopping service for Kroger, which is fascinating. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you have changed as a leader since then?

Chris Kemp: OpenShop we called it. I think open is one of the themes there. We did OpenStack in the last company and I think really what we’re focused on now is OpenSpace, right? Instead of building closed and proprietary networks, building open standards and building on standards that support maybe like an internet in space, where satellites can talk to other satellites and you’re forming networks like you form on the internet where, you know, routers can talk to each other because of their underlying standards.

I think that’s the story arc that kind of runs through my career. I’m really excited to see what can happen when you, instead of having just a couple of small or large companies that attempt to really do everything for a government, when you have a competitive commercial sector where there’s cooperation and open standards that are driving a much more thriving and competitive economy in space.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You have been working in this space for a long time. Is there advice that you would’ve given to that young man running the OpenShop?

Chris Kemp: Yeah, I think that you know, I’ve had the opportunity to be a leader for a long time and what you learn as you build companies is just how important people are and the team is to the thing you’re building.

And when you’re building something as complex as a satellite constellation or a rocket or a launch system, it takes a lot of very smart people. And how you organize them – the company is there to really provide a platform for really smart people to build things. And then for the things that they’re building to be the right things, it requires a focus on your customers and it requires great product management, great systems engineering and alignment of teams of brilliant people always working on the right thing at the right time and having it always come together so that the overall system performs.

It’s very interesting when you look at a system like a rocket, because every single piece has to perform or the whole thing doesn’t work. And there are very few problems like that. If a piece of software in a web application doesn’t work, it might break one version, you know, a little piece of the page might not work correctly, but in a rocket, if a little piece breaks it’s a pretty spectacular failure mode.

We’re really trying to bring the same kinds of distributed systems thinking to space that we’ve seen on the internet, where no one satellite matters anymore, no one launch matters anymore. It’s about the economics of the constellation. And so, if you can make a rocket that isn’t 100% reliable but is maybe 95% reliable at a 10x lower cost, you can launch 10 times more rockets you know, for a 5% reliability hit.

So that makes sense every single time, as long as you’re not flying a person on the rocket or putting a billion-dollar satellite in the rocket. Just like a Google data center can fail and you won’t even notice the Gmail is down, we’re thinking of satellite constellations as highly resilient distributed systems where it really doesn’t matter if a particular satellite or launch doesn’t work anymore.

“We’re thinking of satellite constellations as highly resilient distributed systems where it really doesn’t matter if a particular satellite or launch doesn’t work anymore.” ”— Chris Kemp, CEO, Astra

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there a habit that you’ve built that you wouldn’t be able to work without?

Chris Kemp: I think that there’s a level of rigour that is properly tuned to the system that you’re building and the challenge is: it’s very easy to make something that targets 100% reliability. You just spend a tremendous amount of money testing everything, and x-raying every weld and inspecting everything.

And that’s a great way to make a very costly, human-rated system, like an aircraft or something. If you’re building space tech, and you’re never putting people on a rocket, you’re primarily focused on the economics of a service where you’re operating at scale. It’s a very different calculus. And I think that builds a different kind of company with a different kind of culture focused on scale. It’s a different thing to build.

And I think that that’s where Astra is really trying to differentiate itself — is bringing what you know, Apple and Google and Microsoft have done with tech, into the space industry. And that’s why we’re in Silicon Valley. That’s why we built the company in the Bay Area — so we can bring incredibly talented executives and engineers from places like Apple and Tesla and Google Microsoft in the company, which we’ve done.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What’s your daily routine?

Chris Kemp: I wake up at about 6:30 in the morning, after just two hours of sleep – just kidding – and I tend to, you know, do a bit of exercising, get into the office pretty early. I’m there until about 7:00 PM. And then I try to allocate the rest of my time to my wife and my dogs and my family. And then you know get to sleep, typically too late, and then do it all over again. I try to take weekends and spend time with family and friends.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What do you guys do on the weekend?

Chris Kemp: We travel a lot. You know, we’re here. We try to balance, being at home and being with family with traveling and getting out. A lot of our friends have distributed themselves around the world as a result of COVID.

Astra did not. We used this to really focus the company. We build everything at the factory. So, a lot of our company is focused on designing and manufacturing, all the components in our systems. And so, raw materials come in one door rockets, go out the other door. And that’s a very hands-on thing.

And so, as a company you know, like Amazon and Whole Foods and perhaps Tesla, we had all of our employees just work throughout the pandemic. As a critical national security company, we just had to focus and had to continue to build. And I think that that really kept the culture of the company together.

And we haven’t gone through this whiplash that a lot of companies have seen where everybody was all distributed around the world and they’ve had to kind of collect everyone back again at the office. We never left.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Do you have children?

Chris Kemp: I have one son. His name is Johnny. He’s amazing.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What advice will you give him, you know, career advice about sort of navigating this, these new frontiers this new world? What advice will you give him?

Chris Kemp: You know, he’s really excited about mathematics right now. He’s an incredible chess player. He’s brilliant. I encourage him to finish what he starts, work hard and just enjoy learning as much as possible. If you’re always motivated to be curious and to learn there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.

I think where you run into problems in life is if you just take things for granted and you accept things, versus really, deeply try to understand things. And that opens doors.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there a book that you recommend?

Chris Kemp: Let’s see… Recently, one of the ones that I’ve enjoyed from a business perspective, more or less anything Peter Drucker’s written. He’s kind of known as the father of management. I’ve really been inspired by him.

I think you know, anything that really helps us deeply understand our own psychology is also important. If you’re really able to motivate yourself, and particularly to focus on hard and interesting things and remain curious and also be happy. Even when things don’t work out, when you fail. I teach a class at Stanford on failure in their graduate school business. That’s something that I’m grateful for because it keeps the importance of failing greatly and learning from your failure in my constant attention. And we fail a lot and a lot of times we try to hide it or we don’t acknowledge it. And then we don’t learn as much as we could from failure. So, I think that’s an important one.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What’s a failure that you’re grateful for?

Chris Kemp: I would say the first failure we celebrated as a success. We started our company in a garage at the end of 2016 and within 18 months we had flown a rocket. We knew at the time it would fly for probably less than 60 seconds, but we flew it anyway, knowing that it would fail during the flight, just so that we could collect data and learn, maybe there’s something else that we didn’t know.

We know that that won’t work 60 seconds in, or less. And we did learn so much more. And then we repeated that, and we were actually able to reach space and put payloads in orbit years faster than any company in history, as a result of this ability to embrace learning, really, through what others might see as failure.

I’m grateful that my co-founder and our entire team accepted a couple of failures on the way to success, but we’re embracing that.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: And was there a moment in that where you sort of hit a wall, but you overcame it?

Chris Kemp: There was a moment where we were a couple of years in, this was in the beginning of 2020. We were about to go out, raise capital and we had a valve fail and we lost a rocket right before a launch. And actually not only we lost the rocket, we lost the launcher that launched the rocket.

And then the next week the pandemic hit and everybody was asked to go home. This was a moment for the company where everything counted. And so, we had to pare down the company to just the critical people that we needed so we could buy ourselves lots of runway.

And within a year, we were on track to go public. We had demonstrated that we could get to orbit with the rocket. And the team absolutely persevered through it and succeeded. I think it’s all how you react to these things, and it made us stronger. And you know what came out of that was people that were really committed to the mission, that were really critical to our success. Then we built the company around that.

So, as we were able to raise more capital, it was that core group of people that persevered and succeeded that we built the company around. Had we not had that, we would’ve had a larger group of people, that, you know, are all great and we’re sorry we couldn’t have them throughout the entire pandemic, but we were really forced to cut everything but the absolute critical core people, and then build the company around that.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You mentioned that how you react to change is usually the most critical. Is there a trait that you were able to deploy that you depended on during that time that you wouldn’t have been able to sort of survive or navigate without?

Chris Kemp: I think you have to put the mission and the company first. I think that when you create a company you’re creating a living entity, like an organ of society. And you have to think about — more than your needs, more than anyone’s needs on the team — what does this thing need to survive? You have to make a lot of difficult decisions when you’re building a company, because a lot of times what the company needs isn’t what you want, or isn’t what your vision for things are.

And so, I think by really trying to understand what makes the company successful and what are the things that we need to see and doing whatever is necessary to kind of care and feed for it as it grows is the lesson there.

People really are everything. And if you’re doing this right, you should have people that are truly inspired by your mission, that are working on teams that are very connected to the piece of the puzzle that they’re solving. And they need to understand how their work contributes to the success of the overall organization.

If leadership is just finding amazing people using every tool at your disposal to amplify and incentivize their strengths, mitigate their weaknesses and then direct all of their passion and their energy at a really important problem.

We like to think that improving life on Earth from space is literally the most important thing that you can do as an engineer, and it inspires everyone to come in and want to wake up every morning and work on the mission. And you know, there are other things that inspire people, doctors are inspired for reasons that are important to them. Engineers at Astra are inspired to create a healthier, more connected planet and you know, nothing is a more powerful motivator, than that mission. And then I just try to get out of people’s way and make sure that we remove impediments and the rest of the company’s there to support them and we’re building the right thing for our customers.

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