For years, Rick Tumlinson has started speeches with the same four words. A cofounder of the Space Frontier Foundation, he has long taken on the role of an evangelist, preaching the gospel of space commercialization to anyone who would listen. Standing at a podium, often with a pirate flag draped over it, he would begin his speeches with his distinctive message. “Welcome to the revolution.”
When the Space Frontier Foundation was established in 1988, its message was, in many respects, revolutionary, calling for greater commercial activity in space and less government interference in efforts to promote that. For much of its early history, it butted heads with NASA on topics ranging from the development of low-cost reusable launch vehicles to commercialization of the International Space Station.
For example, in the late 1990s the Foundation — their preferred shorter name, versus the acronym SFF — promoted a concept called “Alpha Town” for making greater commercial use of the station. Among its central tenets were handing over transportation to and from the station, once completed, to commercial companies, and use of commercial modules for any future expansion of the station.
“In effect they will be hanging a sign on the docking hatch stating this new place in the sky is open for business,” Tumlinson said of Alpha Town in testimony before a House committee in 1997.
That revolutionary message of 20 years ago is starting to look a lot like reality today. Take, as an example, the latest Space Symposium, the annual conference run by that other foundation, the Space Foundation. Long dominated by military and civil government space programs, commercial space is taking on a bigger presence there. At this year’s event, the biggest draw was not Charlie Bolden or Gen. John Hyten or even Buzz Aldrin, but instead Jeff Bezos, who packed the main hall to discuss his space venture, Blue Origin.
The Space Symposium also hosted a press conference where Bigelow Aerospace — whose expandable BEAM module was just delivered to the ISS by SpaceX’s commercial Dragon capsule — announced plans to launch its first commercial space station module on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5. The company’s president, Robert Bigelow, added he was in discussions with NASA about installing the module on the ISS for use by both the space agency and as a “timeshare” for commercial customers — something right out of the Space Frontier Foundation’s Alpha Town concept from two decades ago.
All this commercial activity, and greater acceptance of it by government, prompts a question: what do you do after you win a revolution?
For the Foundation, it means changing its strategy. A new generation of leadership at the organization, including some not yet born when it was created 28 years ago, is shifting its direction from advocating for space commercialization to supporting the companies that advocacy has helped establish.
“Our founders and my predecessors had been advocating for the idea of a commercial space industry as a solution to sustainable human settlement,” said Hannah Kerner, the Foundation’s 23-year-old executive director, in a recent interview.
Kerner is part of that new generation of leadership, currently working on her doctorate in exploration systems design at Arizona State University. Before that, she worked for one of the new generation of space startups, Planet Labs.
Advocating for the concept of a commercial space industry is no longer needed, she claimed. “We have a commercial space economy now, but it’s a very fragile one,” she said. “Now we’re moving from advocating for its existence to creating efforts that are specifically directed at cultivating this industry and growing it to be self-sustaining.”
With commercial ventures blossoming, the Foundation wants to help nurture those startups. For example, in the past the organization has supported business plan competitions with cash prizes for space startups, but their influence, she said, was limited. “You’re really not engaging with those companies a lot beyond the competition day,” she said.
The Foundation is replacing those business plan competitions with a new initiative called NewSpace Venture Labs. That will serve as a “virtual accelerator” to help support space startups in the early phases, similar to business accelerators for other technology companies that have become commonplace in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
“It’s designed to help them get though this rocky stage between deciding you’re going to take that step to form the company and actually raising money and hiring people,” Kerner said. “We can really serve a need to strengthen them in that early stage.”
Another new initiative will help connect startups with potential investors. The organization is establishing a “venture concierge service” that will distribute information about space startups to investors who sign up for the service. That service will debut at the organization’s annual conference, NewSpace 2016, in June in Seattle.
That service will include setting up meetings between companies and investors at the conference. “That will make sure investors maximize the opportunities available at the conference,” she said.
The organization is embarking on these projects in an effort to build up a support structure for space companies like those that exist for other technology startups. “We are modeling this effort on what happens in the tech industry,” Kerner said. “If you’re a budding tech company, there are a lot of resources for you in any stage of the game. That doesn’t really exist in space.”
She added that the Foundation is trying to avoid a possible perception issue about space, given the attention that people like Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk have attracted with their space ventures. “We’re in danger of people seeing it as a new hobby for billionaires,” she said. “That’s not what it’s about, or what it should be about. It’s about creating a better life for humans on our planet, and other planets.”
The Foundation isn’t giving up the advocacy effort that marked much of its early history, but will be refocusing them. That means, she said, more targeted projects on issues affecting space ventures.
These changes also don’t mean that the Space Frontier Foundation is abandoning its original vision of expanding human presence beyond Earth, just that it’s putting a greater emphasis on how to implement it.
“Our vision and commitment to opening the space frontier to human settlement remains the same. This is not changing,” Kerner said.
That’s a revolution that is still in progress.
“We’re in danger of people seeing it as a new hobby for billionaires,” she said. “That’s not what it’s about, or what it should be about. It’s about creating a better life for humans on our planet, and other planets.”
– Hannah Kerner