Axiom Space VP Strategic Development Amir Blachman on Offering a Continuity of Competence That Business Can Work With

VP Strategic Development

Axiom Space VP Strategic Development Amir Blachman on Offering a Continuity of Competence That Business Can Work With

Leadership Monthly: You’ve an ambitious vision, to make living and working in space commonplace

Amir Blachman: I’ll start by talking about why Axiom Space was started. There are six markets for our first LEO platform. They are, national human-spaceflight programmes, so countries that want to send their astronauts to space. Then there’s space tourism, which speaks for itself. Next, on-orbit research, which is a continuation, and an expansion of the research that is taking place on the ISS. Then, you have on-orbit manufacturing, which really is in its infancy with companies like Made in Space, Tethers Unlimited, Techshot and Interlog who are learning how to manufacture in space. Actually, we’ve been doing that since the 50s, we’ve been learning how to deal with alloys and other items produced in space, but Made in Space has really created the first on-orbit manufacturing facilities so we’re talking about growing that capability.

The fifth market is space exploration support, and I’d like to talk with you about a concept that I call the infrastructure pyramid. Right now, the tip of space exploration is LEO, that’s where people go, but as that pyramid grows, and the tip is pushed out to the asteroids, the moon, and Mars, the base of this pyramid will grow its supporting infrastructure. Whether it’s ground networks or the industrial complexes that support all of the assets that we build for space, the first stop for people will be LEO. So, the ISS and soon Axiom Station, is where agencies and companies will go to train astronauts, test systems, and demonstrate the maturity of systems before putting them into mission and live critical situations further afield. For example, if there is a life-support system or human process that needs to be tested, or if you want to go asteroid mining, it’s very expensive to do that in GEO or further out, whereas it’s much safer and cheaper to do it in LEO.

The last market is advertising and sponsorships. Advertising, actually, includes two segments: commercial advertising and outreach. So, countries, as I mentioned in the first market, want to send astronauts to space. One of the most important elements of sending astronauts to space is the effect that has for the sponsoring country. That can range from inspiring STEM interests and education to stimulating interest in opportunities to innovate and grow the upstream industries that support space exploration. What it does for countries, especially oil producing countries or any commodity producing country, is that it gives them the ability to diversify their economy away from a reliance on their natural resources. So, advertising is not only about how a company communicates the value of a product, but rather how does it formulate a brand for a country to exult its spacefaring credentials, and develops the skills in its workforce that give it a competitive advantage among nations.

Leadership Monthly: With the recent news of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s blueprint for Saudi, that’s a very topical idea

Amir Blachman: Exactly, it’s true for Saudi Arabia and it’s true for many other countries, who would like to send astronauts to LEO. Even the ISS group countries, who have an excess capacity of astronauts, waiting to be part of a new mission. The problem is that there just isn’t enough capacity on the ISS. So, it stands to reason that we should be operating at capacity, from the very start.

So, the main reason for starting Axiom Space was to serve the growing LEO economy, to be a central hub of human spaceflight, and to support both the terrestrial needs served by what’s done with on-orbit research, and also what’s going to be done in deep space.

And, yes, the idea is to ultimately make living and working in space commonplace, so let me tell you about our immediate timeline. We will start sending our astronauts and space tourists to the ISS in 2019. We’re working on our first two missions right now. We already have partners for the missions and we’re talking with specific countries that want to send their astronauts as part of those missions. So, there are revenue drivers for us right off the bat because we start collecting revenue on these missions up to T minus 4 years, so ours is a business with early cash flow.

Leadership Monthly: It was quite a coup to get so many leaders in their fields on the project a such an early stage

Amir Blachman: Well, you get the crux of it, as Mike Suffredini and Dr. Kam Ghaffarian are two of the very few people out there that would be able to make this happen. So, as to the genesis of the team, let’s talk about these two people and how they started the company.

Mike Suffredini managed the ISS, as the NASA ISS programme manager from 2005 to 2010. And he had 20 years of human spaceflight experience leading up to that, and he’s been credited with having a key role in bringing the ISS countries together. He was the team manager of some of the most complex assembly missions and managed ISS’s transition from a research to commercial facility in the post-shuttle era. So, he has long standing relationships with all of the different agencies in the world and has the deepest understanding of what it takes to manage a station and who all the actors are that you need to take into consideration. He is one of the two cofounders.

The other co-founder is Dr. Kam Ghaffarian. Dr. Ghaffarian is the sole owner of Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT). SGT is a 2,600-person company that trains America’s astronauts and other countries’ astronauts, and they provide operations management for the ISS. Meaning that they provide services such as precision orbit determination, situational awareness, and mission planning. They’re also the company that maintains the EVA (spacewalk) suits, and they are an integral part of the staff at Houston mission control and at many of the space station’s supporting units around the country.

Mike and Kam have worked together for many years because of the nature of the work that they’ve done, and they recognised, a few years ago, that the ISS is scheduled to go away in 2024, and they said it’s time to start considering what comes next.

When you’ve got two people, of such calibre and recognition, running the company, it’s not about cold calling countries to build relationships towards getting astronauts to go to space, it’s about providing continuity to already existing relationships and already existing programmes for people to handover their missions and astronauts to two known quantities.

Leadership Monthly: So, Axiom Space offers a continuity of competence that business can work with

Amir Blachman: Yes, and to strengthen your point even further, Mike, before he was the ISS programme director, was the head of the ISS business office, so he understands the economics of this really well, including the makeup of ISS’s annual maintenance budget of $4.5bn, $3bn of which comes from NASA’s.

I must mention our heads of engineering, Stephen Altemus and Mike Baine. Steve was Chief Engineer of NASA Johnson, and he and Mike worked together on many amazing programmes. Their experience also includes senior management of the Challenger disaster, the parts reconstruction, and analysis. So, you can imagine how that experience orients them toward safety and secure systems.

Our head of operations and training is Brent Jett, who was up on the shuttle four times as pilot in command and ran NASA astronaut training both at the Gagarin Centre in Russia and at NASA Johnson.

Michael López-Alegría is our head of business development, and he holds the American record for the number and hours of spacewalks. He was also the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. He was also the Commander of International Space Station Expedition 14.

So, when our team gets together in a room, and we talk about module design, training processes, the locations of where things need to be done terrestrially, the sequence of delivery of materials and payments, the depth of knowledge in the room is so deep that topics are brought up that I believe only they could think of due to their level of expertise.

It’s not a simple business in terms of execution, but it’s a simple business in terms of the concept: people buy tickets to go to space, tourists, governments or researchers and we have a margin on that ticket. But execution, that’s complex and that’s where the team shines.

Leadership Monthly: Is the team confident that Axiom Space is going to supply this demand for continuity?

Amir Blachman: I think it starts with an analysis of what state the ISS is in, physically, at the moment. It’s made up of components, that for the most part, have a 30-year lifespan, and those components range from those that went up in 1998 to those that have been brought up year on year since. The earliest parts of the ISS will end their service in 2018 and will ceased to be used or will require a significant modification. Because of the maintenance cost of the aging components, it likely would not make sense for a commercial endeavour to ‘take over’ ISS.

Periodically, the media throws around the idea that someone might take over the ISS but it just doesn’t make commercial sense or have any sort of financial driver in it. When you have something that costs $4.5bn per year to maintain and we at Axiom Space are talking about building an entire station, including launch for just over almost two orders of magnitude less than what ISS was built for it just doesn’t make sense to continue operating the existing station.

ISS is a highly capable multiuse platform, and there are elements of it that were designed by necessity, for example some of the parts of the ISS were placed on its exterior to maximise its interior volume and allow certain activities to take place. We can now bring some of these elements our station because of miniaturisation of technology and other reasons. This will allow us to perform maintenance activities without doing as many EVAs. And that’s important, because EVAs take hundreds of hours to plan, dozens of hours to carry out, and are, well, just expensive. So just learning from the ISS about what could be brought inside plays into reduces the operating costs.

Leadership Monthly: We’ve talked about continuity of service, what will be physically different in your first Axiom Space station?

Amir Blachman: Where flight heritage is critical, we’re using technology that’s been in space for 17 years. Whether it’s the welds that hold the station together or it’s body, we’re not testing new technologies. That’s one of the reasons we chose Thales Alenia Space to build the modules. They build almost half the habitable volume of ISS and are experienced and tooled to build similar modules for Axiom Space. So, where it counts, such as modules or critical life-support systems, it will be industry-trusted technology.

Where we will have new technologies is internally such as the user interfaces, internet access, creature comforts. There are all sorts of things that we’re building into the first station that don’t exist on ISS. What’s new will be about productivity and comfort. The other thing we’re doing is the employment of terrestrial standards and this is novel in space. So, whether it’s a DOT or SAE standard, there’s a lot of things we take for granted in our daily lives that you really need expertise to understand how it can be deployed safely in space. For example, if you want to bring your laptop to the station, can you bring the laptop you bought online, do you need to modify it, how will you need to modify it, what’s its lifespan? You need the cross-discipline thinking of an experienced team of experts to answer these questions safely and cost-effectively.

Leadership Monthly: Let’s talk about you personally, you’ve a great view of the market from Space Angels, and could have chosen any number of teams to join, why Axiom Space?

Amir Blachman: I had a desire to go back to the operators’ side. But, I always said, I’d only return if an opportunity presented itself with some certain criteria. First of all, it really has to be venture that’s big enough to move the needle at a global level. I’ve seen many space start-ups with fantastic teams and solid business plans, and I’ve invested in some of them as an MD at Space Angels, but I’ve been looking for something, though, that truly benefits humanity such as bringing humanity together, much like how the ISS helped bring down the post-cold war era walls and also benefits humanity in terms of improving the quality of life on earth. There’s a lot learned about ISS in the areas of medicine, materials science, physics, agriculture, manufacturing that is applicable and deployable in large scale to markets across the globe. Three, I would only join a team of people who had deep and unique experience in their area of operation. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see innovation, but on the commercial front more than on the technological front.

I think technically, it was important from me to join a team that has been there done that. That way execution risk is reduced and then what it comes down to is just having a business model that is both crystal clear, simple and answers a latent demand. There are not many readily-apparent opportunities like that. I looked at more than 500 companies before coming across the few that shone brightest.

When I talked with Mike Suffredini (we actually met on the conference circuit at the ISS R&D conference a few years ago) and we started to dig into this thing from his side, he asked me a lot about how some of the investment elements work, in terms of aerospace investing, and I asked him, and was enthralled to hear his visions of how human spaceflight would evolve.

We talked sporadically for about a year before the Axiom Space formally came up, and ultimately, I felt like this was an opportunity that built on my combination of start-up growth experience, finance and investment. If I was to combine my experience and skill set with all these other criteria that presented themselves it really was the most exciting opportunity that I came across in my career. More important than anything, because of the team and the vision, it’s an opportunity that I would be excited to spend the rest of my life doing – and that’s a rare find.

There are a few other areas in aerospace that answer my criteria closely, the application of multilayer data combining terrestrial drones’ and satellites’ data into improving the way that many industries from agriculture to outdoor advertising operate. I think that there are some other large-scale opportunities, this just happens to be one that I bought into very powerfully because of the size of the market and capability of the team.

Leadership Monthly: It’s quite moving emotionally, what you’re doing, and set to achieve at Axiom Space

Amir Blachman: Thanks, I share the sentiment. I want to share something with you that I think will really get you excited, and something that I know will move you as it moved me. One of the things I didn’t talk about in what attracted me to Axiom Space, is the privilege of getting to work with my heroes. I grew up building models of rockets, aeroplanes, and helicopters. Later on, I served in the Air Force as a volunteer for three years and then flew as a private pilot. I drink up every bit of space information out there, when you see my office there are posters of rockets everywhere, and I try to get involved in business plan competitions to see what the future has in store. I go out and speak to the next generation, the folks at SEDS and engineering or business school students who want to get into aerospace. There’s just so much excitement about space.

All of the people that I get to work with now on a daily basis, the programme managers, the Shuttle Commanders, the ISS Expedition Commanders, the astronauts and specialists, the engineers…these are people whom to me in the past, were in some far off inaccessible Olympus, and now I get to work with them on a daily basis.

It’s funny, we’ve got these amazing people on our team, and I’ll get a text message from one of them or email or call, and we’ll get into talking about something to do with finance or planning or customer progress or supply chain and it seems like a mundane coworking conversation. But it isn’t at all – not for me. I’ve gone from watching Cosmos, The Right Stuff, 2010 A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, Contact and now my job is to support relationships with country customers, to raise funding for buying rockets and space station modules and it’s actually real. Most recently I’ve been watching Seth Macfarlane’s “Orville”, which I love. As I see the ‘Union’s’ (aka, ‘The Federation’ in Star Trek) stations I think about who funded that darned thing, despite knowing it’s fiction. My work today is like watching in first-person any of the millions of movies that you where people from around the world come together to do something extraordinary. It really is very motivating.

I just heard from Richard Milford at Virgin Orbit that they held a career day, a few weeks ago, and had something like 6000 applicants for 100 jobs. That’s not a surprise. This is a fascinating industry that speaks to a very core personal thing that everybody can understand. You know it sounds like a cliché to say, but who doesn’t feel a sense of awe looking up at the night’s sky?

Leadership Monthly: When you achieve your first set of goals at Axiom Space, you’re going to potentially remove the term for astronaut from all of our vernaculars

Amir Blachman: You know, by the way, I’ve never thought about what you’ve just said, when do we make the transition from terms like astronaut and tourist to just person, person in space, and that’s going to be something that’s not too far into future. I think it’s like you said, it’s going to be a cultural paradigm shift, where it’s no longer something else, it just happens to be you’ve got somebody in the US right now and you’ve got somebody in Europe right now. They’re not different people, it’s just as a person here and a person there. I’m really looking forward to when that happens with space – when human life in space becomes, as Mike Suffredini has termed it, “commonplace”.

Leadership Monthly: Pop culture is quite fickle do you worry about grabbing its attention too early and then losing it before Axiom Space is a reality

Amir Blachman: I’m sure that there will be many people from pop culture that will tune people in to the new reality of living and working in space and will turn on the aspirations of our youth. These are the people we will be targeting to bring to the station. Pop culture currently has a fascination with the materialist dream, but this is cyclical, and it’s exciting to offer people an alternative, more important dream.

You know, I started telling you about our timeline, sending up our first tourists and astronauts to the ISS, when our first modules will be up on the ISS, and how we will continue building our station out through to the time of the ISS’s retirement, when we will separate off from it and operate our independent station. While that is happening, all sorts of good stuff will be happening in suborbital flights with what Blue Origin and Virgin are building. There seems to be enough seeds that have been sown right now, that we don’t really have to worry about mass attention waning because there is enough going on that will generate those big attention-grabbing milestones, even if we stop seeing this trend of movies like Gravity and Interstellar, I think that in a few years when we see human spaceflight numbers start to grow significantly, that popular attention, which may have momentarily waned, and I’m not saying that it would, but if it does, we will grab it back quickly.