Startups

With the growth of space technology, a community of startups is blasting off here on Earth

United Space Structures' Zig Leszczynski and Foundation for the Future's Tim Chrisman joined us on the Technical.ly public Slack for a conversation about the future of space technology, and the industry clustering in the DMV.

Falls Church-based United Space Structures has plans for infrastructure on the moon.

(Image via Flickr user mmirrorless, used under a Creative Commons license)

Former CIA intelligence officer-turned-entrepreneur Tim Chrisman started an org because he wanted to fill a gap in long-term infrastructure projects for space. But it was the incredible amount of potential in the wide-open beyond that really pulled him in.

“Ultimately I came to the space sector because it was something that seemed super interesting, and a place where I could write my destiny because of how much opportunity there is,” Chrisman, founder of Merrifield, Virginia-based Foundation for the Future (F4F) told Technical.ly. The organization focuses on financing, workforce development, infrastructure and policy for space travel and development.

When it comes to entrepreneurship in the DMV, space is gaining an even bigger focus than ever before, with startups launching to meet the current (and future) demands. To help break down what’s behind this growth, Chrisman and Zig Leszczynski, the new CEO of Falls Church, Virginia-based United Space Structures (USS) ¬†joined Technical.ly for an AMA on the Technical.ly public Slack channel recently on the future of space technology.

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Think space travel, and typically the government agency NASA comes to mind. But as technology advances open up more possibility of humans traveling to space more frequently, there’s an emerging community of companies and organizations taking a private sector approach, as well. Leszczynski, whose company is working on infrastructure builds using AI, robotics and data tech for eventual habitation on the moon, said the industry possibilities are quite literally endless.

“If we are looking at adapting and scaling business from the Earth to the Moon, Mars and beyond, then by definition there is almost an infinite amount of opportunity,” Leszczynski said.

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Leszczynski has been working in the space sector since 1995, but it remains a relatively new industry. However, 2021 was a banner year for space tech startups, with numerous company launches. That will mean new opportunities for folks to apply skills to the mission. Up until recently, Chrisman said, the sector has been dominated by engineers, scientists and astronauts. As it expands, though, he sees a growing need for a wide range of skills, from welding to sociology to even bartending.

As the industry grows, so, too, has its local presence. USS and F4F are both located in Northern Virginia, and Leszczynski said that many of USS’s future partners and customers are located in the area, as well. Plus, they said, there’s plenty of tech innovation, related industries like defense, access to capital and, most importantly, talent (In one example, Raytheon Intelligence and Space announced last month that it would be hiring 400 technologists in NoVa).

“A space cluster doesn’t need to be near where something will launch to space,” Chrisman said. “It needs to be near talent.”

"A space cluster doesn't need to be near where something will launch to space. It needs to be near talent."
Tim Chrisman, Foundation for the Future

Once they’ve located the talent, space-focused companies will be building in a myriad of technology disciplines. Leszczynski said AI is one of the top needs when it comes to space tech. It can offer increased autonomy in builds and operations, as well as help to make sense of the oodles of data from space systems. There is also a need for AI to build self-driving satellites to help out with these builds, especially considering the time delays of communications between operations on the moon and those back home on Earth.

“AI and autonomy make it possible to operate large [satellite] constellations with only a fraction of the cost as only a few years ago,” Leszczynski said. “That makes it possible to bring more space capabilities to people on Earth for less cost — a win for everyone.”

The leaders believe these space builds are closer to completion than one might think. Chrisman believes there will be millions of jobs in the space sector within a decade, and corporate entities like Amazon stores making appearances in space by the end of the 2030s. For USS, Leszczynski projects ramping up testing in the next two to three years, including a few prototype launches to the moon, and the start to its first major facility, housing 100 people sustainably, in the early 2030s.

“We have a very positive outlook that space will provide a creative venue for the human mind,” Leszczynski said.

That applies to technology, as well. Tools that are developed for space could have uses on Earth, as the requirement to develop for the harsh environment of space can lead to innovation. After all, there’s plenty of technology we use today that was initially developed for space exploration.

"We have a very positive outlook that space will provide a creative venue for the human mind."
Zig Leszczynski, United Space Structures

“Most everything in the space sector either is being developed for down here or can be adapted to down here,” Chrisman said, adding that there might be potential to open up new technologies for existing markets on the ground.

But the space sector is at a point in development where the entrepreneurs believe the foundational technology required for establishing a wider human presence in space is in place.

“We don’t need to develop warp speed or time travel to go to space,” Leszczynski agreed. “We have what we need. It’s a matter of investing into the adaptation, which can be challenging, but is not too steep a hill to climb.”

And, because we’re true investigative journalists, we asked one last really important question: What’s your favorite space-themed TV show or movie? For Chrisman, it’s Amazon Prime original The Expanse, and for Leszczynski, it’s the sci-fi classic Star Wars. And when it comes to space storytelling, he said what is developed might not be so different from what’s dreamed up on the screen.

“A lot of our fans want to see that reality come to life,” Leszczynski said. “In fact, it is not as far as they may think…”

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