Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up.
On today’s episode, NY Times bestselling author Ashlee Vance joins me remotely to geek out over the new space race. I know I’m trying to not talk about Elon Musk so much (or honestly even think about him), but it’s totally impossible when it comes to rockets launching satellites into space. Elon’s also emblematic of the kind of leaders who get into this space, and Ashlee and I talk all about it in today’s episode.
Niki: Today's guest is Ashley Vance. Ashley, thank you for joining us remotely.
Ashlee: Thank you for having me.
Niki: So we are talking today, not about one of the things you're most known for, which is Elon Musk. You do not have to comment on this. I'm tired [chuckling] of being dominated by a petulant manchild [Ashlee: chuckles], but you have written a book on Elon Musk, literally called Elon Musk.
It's not what we're talking about today!
We're talking about your newest book, ‘When the Heavens Went On Sale’. So tell us a little bit just about the high level, what the point of this book is.
Ashlee: Yeah. Y'know, I, I think the title gets, it tries to get at it. I mean, people have, have taken a few cracks at commercial space over the decades, some of them not terribly successful. I think Elon and SpaceX are pretty successful. And then, y'know, it had sort of kicked off this renewed interest in commercial space that I, I covered this pretty extensively and just noticed after all these false starts, the last few years, this, it's just the heavens are on sale! This is a capitalist exercise now and, and this balance of power that's existed for so long with really just a handful of governments controlling most of what happens in space, I think, is, is over.
I don't know if it'll be over - you, y'know, the business cases on a lot of this stuff remains questionable and, and, and to be determined, but 100% we're about to find out if space can be a capitalist exercise or not.
Niki: Exactly! So, I wanna just frame up the thesis of the book, which is, it's a business book. It's talking about the business of space. It's not really talking about rockets, it's not really talking about, there's obviously the, the kind of [ironically] Jeffrey Bezos, Elon Musk competition for these extremely far-flung ideas of moon colonies, and getting to Mars, and private space travel.
But you're talking about, and what I thought was very interesting about this book is something most people never think about, which is right above our heads. We are being circled by a huge number of satellites and people don't think about it. They don't know about it. And you dig into how that evolved.
Ashlee: Yeah! I mean, I, y'know, I think stuff like Elon talking about going to Mars gets attention, and space tourism and, and all that stuff is, is fine and interesting on different levels.
It was just very clear to me. I think it's funny [laughs]. I think people tune into these SpaceX launches all the time and, and sometimes they're taking humans to the ISS, but most of the time, they're flying satellites. I don't even think, like, the average person on the street; they just see a rocket. I don't even think they know fully what it's doing.
And, and it was, as I covered this industry off and on in my day job for Business Week, it was just so obvious to me that the, the thing that's real now is sending up tons of satellites and exponentially more satellites than we've ever set up before.
And if you're interested in money and, and sort of power and what's actually going on, low Earth orbit is, is where all the action is.
And, and Elon again and SpaceX are dominant there, but it was, it was also amazing just as I went around the world. I mean this, this is a, there's tons of characters trying to take a crack at this, and this is a global race, and it's full of people, the likes of which we've just never seen before are not the stereotypical, y'know, “space people”: MIT, PhDs and, and governments and, and things like that.
Niki: Yeah, I think that's actually worth - so the subtitle of the book is about the “misfits and geniuses” racing to put space within reach.
But let's step back just a beat and talk about when we think about space, historically. We think about big government programs, Russia versus the US/ NASA. But once we retired this shuttle, that sort of ended, and I'm curious if you can just give a quick overview of that history and how we ended up in this place where it's It's privatized.
Ashlee: Yeah. It's funny, I mean, I stole an idea from this guy, Alex MacDonald, who's the chief economist for NASA, and I think it's pretty spot on. Y'know, if you go back far enough to, like, the 1910s and twenties, there were actual rocket startups in the United States, in Germany, and Russia.
And it, it looked like this very well could be a bunch of rich people had put money into telescopes previously. It was, it was kind of like the thing rich people did back then if they were vaguely into science and space. And, and those people started putting money into rockets and, and it looked like it might head that way, y'know?
And then, we have these two World Wars and, obviously, World War II really kicks off this, this space race and this government-backed tradition where this becomes the story of nation states trying to show their, their technological and military might and, and we're sending humans to the moon. And so, you need big rockets, and nothing can fail. And, and this whole model just gets cemented in so many ways.
I mean, the rockets after the sixties and seventies hardly changed at all. The engines hardly changed. The, the computing hardware, the stuff we send up into space became very antiquated. There was just this reluctance to tinker with anything and have it go wrong.
And, y’know, it's only now finally that we're, we're kind of getting back to this, this spot where it's, it's not just governments. It's not even billionaires. It's venture capitalists all over the world [chuckling] that are pouring money into this, into this stuff. And, and now for the first time ever, we have, like I argue, Moore's Law coming to space.
I mean, most of these satellites were running on like 20, 30-year-old radios and telescopes. And, and there there was just such a reluctance to accept that, that consumer electronics had come so far that they could survive the rigors of space.
And so, this is what makes all this very exciting, is that, that there's this clean slate that's washed across the whole thing. With that, there's just all these new interesting players who can take a crack at this.
Niki: Okay. And even though I started this show by just trashing Elon Musk, [Ashlee: laughs] ‘Cause I'm really, I'm really mad about Twitter. [Ashlee: still laughing]
He has; SpaceX is an American phenomenon where, you said it sort of in passing, but just to put a finer point on it, that is how, for a while, [chuckling] Americans were getting to the International Space Station, like, we needed private funding [Ashlee: Still is!] Is it still?
Ashlee: It still is. Yeah. I mean, I mean, look, I mean, I have more issues [laughing]with you probably than, than even most, but y'know, there's no question SpaceX sort of like, fantastically is his most - [interrupt self] it should be his least successful highest risk company. It's his most successful, most stable company! That doesn't make much sense.
But I mean, I'm not a huge patriot, nationalistic kind of person. If you are, y'know, SpaceX is, is the ultimate American dream story. Like, immigrant comes to the United States and, in 20 years, builds the country's most successful, like, the US Aerospace program; the shuttle retired, it was just totally dominated by military contractors, like Boeing and Lockheed, that had very little motivation to do anything new, reduce costs. We were about to fall behind China in historic, alarming fashion, and this, this, this guy who wants to get to Mars somehow [laughing] has made -
Y'know, SpaceX is unquestionably the most successful rocket company, and now the largest satellite company on earth.Governments and other corporate rivals - they just have no competition. They're sort of running laps around everyone.
Niki: Okay. And for the record, I am a patriotic, nationalist,
Niki: Like, neoliberal, like, lunatic. So, I'm for it! [chuckling]
But I also think one thing I really wanna get into, you talked specifically about certain companies, and it was, it was again, Elon Musk and SpaceX that got that first private Falcon One into orbit in [questioningly] 2008? [Ashlee: Yep]
And then after that, it sort of broke up in this business model and, and I wanna eventually talk a little bit about the geopolitics of how private American, well maybe public or privately held American companies, have more things in space and maybe a stronger program than anyone but the Chinese government.
But before we get to that, let's just talk about after that successful orbit. You look at the companies and the founders that got into this space race.
Ashlee: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, y’know, the, even though Elon had a lot of money to fund SpaceX and then, and then had other investors, but like historically investing in space was just a horrible idea.
And, and I think it's still not, [chuckling] as I argue in the book, not, certainly not the most rational thing you could do, and probably not the best, outlay of your, your, your capital. But I think SpaceX's success made it sort of believable to other people that this was possible. And then, of course, you had this generation of engineers who, and, and entrepreneurs, who just see themselves as, well, “Maybe I can be the next Elon Musk.”
It becomes this, this, like, emotional kind of pursuit. And then, you have this weird thing that happened where, where all these VCs, this kind of FOMO. Like, “Oh, these guys have a rocket. I want a rocket. I, y'know, I want to be involved in this.”
Rocket companies historically make almost no money. It's a terrible business to be in, and yet [chuckling] everybody wanted to be invested in one. Y’know, there's people I write about in the book who, like, their rocket startup didn't even have really, like, anything different than the five before it and they were still getting funding. So, yeah, y’know, I just, I think it for, I think it just unlocked all of this latent potential and interest.
For young engineers, space had become really sad and like, y’know, there was no, like, 24-year-old coming outta colleges, like, “I'm dying to work at Boeing and, and, or even NASA,” y’know, maybe if you're doing something very specific that only NASA can do, but otherwise there were all these young kids who dreamed about space and now finally, “Okay, here we go! Now we have an opportunity to do it, too.”
Niki: Yeah, and you touched on something, so when I emailed you to see if you had come on this podcast, I mentioned that I have a personal interest in this. So, in 2007, I moved to Silicon Valley. My former spouse was, at the time, went to the GSB at Stanford Business School, and he was former Intel. He did reconnaissance work with satellites, and so, he's founded, co-founded, Skybox Imaging, which was a nanosatellite startup in my living room.
Niki: And so, I actually have a lot of familiarity with this space. And in the beginning of the book, I was sort of tickled to see Skybox mentioned because they were ultimately acquired by my employer, Google, and then sold to Planet Labs, which is one of the featured companies in your book.
So, at the time, to your point, these, his co-founders, they were business school students engineering backgrounds, had that passion for space. It's, like, the allure of space, and suddenly it looked like you could actually have a successful startup. But I remember them going up and down Sand Hill Road trying to explain like, “These are gonna be small satellites and [Ashlee: yeah] they're gonna take live images.”
And it's, it was highly leveraged. High, high risk. They had to launch out of former Soviet states, y'know, it was just, the stakes were super, super high. It's not an app, right? It's heavy, heavy hardware.
So, anyway, that's my personal connection to it. And when I saw the book, I'm like, “Oh my gosh! I actually know a lot about small satellites.”
Ashlee: No. And they, y'know, like, you mentioned, Planet Labs is, is one of these main characters in the book. But Skybox kind of came on the scene almost the exact same time and, and really those two companies are what generated my interest and, and sort of enduring interest in, in possibly even doing this as a book.
It was just kind of like a weird twist of fate that, that they both didn't make it separately. And I, and I could have spent many pages on, on Skybox. I just, I have a lot of characters in this book already [laughing] and had to, had to focus a little bit. But y'know, they, I think that founding team deserves as much credit as anyone for, for kicking this off.
Niki: Yeah, definitely. And I, so it was funny, not funny, “ha ha” but funny “Wow! Hard to believe.” After we had separated, I moved to DC and got, I was at Google, and I used to oversee anything that was sort of a government deal and I got a note, “Oh, we're acquiring Skybox [chuckling inaudible]for a huge amount of money.” [Ashlee: laughing] I thought, “Well, good for them!”
But this sort of leads to, you had said it's a long story, and it's not in the book, but there are two types of satellites that make money: imaging satellites and, like, the space internet, I've heard you call it. So, the kind of connectivity, and my hunch, [chuckling] nobody read me into this, but was that Google acquired a, a imaging satellite system and then really wanted connectivity cuz they were so focused at the time in worldwide access to the internet and then they ended up spinning it off and selling it to Planet [Labs] and. I'm not as curious about that as just explaining a quick story about Planet Labs, which is a very cool company.
Ashlee: Yeah, I mean, I could go on a whole tangent about Google's space aspirations, cuz it, it wanted to play in imaging and, and communications, but has sort of just become a passive investor.
But yeah, y'know, Planet Labs is just this incredible thing that people should know about. I mean, they, they've surrounded the Earth with, with about 250 satellites. Some of them are shoebox-sized, some of them are, like, mini-refrigerator size. Those are the old Skybox ones.
And, and, y’know, historically imaging satellites are, like, 500 million to a billion dollars is, like, the size of a school bus. It takes, like, six years to build them. They're supposed to stay in space for 20 years. They, they can only look at, really, where you tell them to look points of, of interest, so, so even massive governments like the US or China or Russia, y'know, they have a relatively limited number of these satellites.
You have to direct them to, to whatever you're trying to spy on. And, and Planet [Labs] came up with this idea, it's, it's much less espionage. You're not, like, seeing faces and stuff like that, but they've surrounded the planet with so many satellites that they can see everything that's happening across the entire land mass of the Earth.
Every day, they take about 12 to 16 pictures of every spot. And so, y’know, I write about it in the book is, like, this real-time accounting system for human activity on Earth. So, what's happening with forests in the Amazon? Where is oil moving out of the Middle East? Y’know, how many cars are in a Walmart parking lot? What's happening with, like, refugees somewhere in, in, in, in Africa?
And you can; you just get this sense of truth through these images that used to be parceled out by governments that you had to like trust or not trust. And then, even then, the governments, like I said, had, had only this limited information.
So, it's, it's just like this whole new era of data, y'know, I think of it as, like, a Google search engine looking down at Earth.
Niki: And I, I like that you mentioned something, but I want to sort of go even more into depth. The idea that you can monitor for climate issues, I think for natural disasters, we're seeing in real-time what's happening. This kind of imagery is essential and important globally.
Ashlee: I think, I think people - I think this is the key to making so much of whatever we're trying to do with climate change work. Because y’know, like you said, first of all, the, you, these images, if there's a volcano erupting, something like that, I mean, you get a sense of the, the scale exactly what's happening. When a hurricane hits somewhere, you can see what areas are flooded.
But, but on the bigger picture, y'know, these satellites now, literally, can count every tree on Earth. They use AI to figure out what type of tree it is. So, they figure out it's biomass. Then they calculate exactly how much carbon dioxide it sucks down. They're looking over all these oil fields in, in Texas and Oklahoma. They can see methane leaks. They can see exactly how much methane is coming out, y'know?
So, I think if we're going to like put real metrics around things like carbon credits where you've bought some forest in South America and you have no idea if somebody's planting something there or not, or, or you're trying to tax a company for their toll on the environment. I just think these, these satellites are, like, our only hope of, of adding actual metrics around the stuff, and we're, like, not far off at all.
So Planet’s [Labs] already doing that now. There's specialized startups that are, like, just looking at things like methane and just looking at trees and making this their business.
Niki: Yeah, so I think it's a, that's the money maker, right? You can have hedge funds and investors who wanna count cars and parking lots, and then you can have companies who are potentially either voluntarily or gonna be forced to, y'know, be carbon neutral or report on their emissions. I think it's a great, it's a great and important business model.
So, there's imaging on one side, and then the other side is this space internet. [Ashlee: Yeah] So, this is like the StarLink kind of concept. [Ashlee: Yes] Which do you wanna talk about that as a business model?
Ashlee: Yeah! I mean, y'know, like we said, the rockets don't really make much money, but these satellites potentially do. And, and there's this huge race going on, which again, SpaceX is, is in the lead on to make this space internet. And this is really what's driving this exponential increase in the number of satellites.
So, until, like, 2020, we had about 2,500 satellites in low Earth orbit. Over just the last three years, that's tripled now to about 10,000, and it's set to go to [chuckling] about a hundred thousand or 200,000 because SpaceX wants to put up about 14,000 satellites.
OneWeb wants to do the same. Amazon is about to launch a fleet of, of 14,000. China's gonna wanna do the same thing every, y’know, anyone who can sort of afford this is gonna want to have a space internet system, which is essentially a telecom system that is not really bounded by geography. And it, more importantly, I think people have underestimated this, is that it will provide this, this always-on internet just kinda washing over the Earth.
And, and like, a lot of us think that's, like, not a big deal cuz we're, like, on the internet all the time, or you have your cell phone when you're traveling around. But, y’know, there's these huge gaps of, of all, all this stuff we've heard about for years, like, the internet of things, and, like, sensors on container ships, and in farms and, like, y’know, reporting, reporting about what's happening on Earth. This really depends on some sort of, always-on kind of fabric.
And so, I think people have underestimated this. To me, it's, like, so clearly, like 1996, we're laying fiber all over the world and building data centers. We're just building this new infrastructure in this computing shell around the Earth. And I think it's gonna change - I actually think, that's to your point where the money, I think that's where the money is going to be.
And, and so far, people are kind of focused on like, “Oh, I get internet at my vacation house in the woods.” But I think it's much, much, much bigger than that. When you have this like always-on fabric, things like self-driving cars, and drones, and what have you. It just, it changes everything.
Niki: Yeah! And I mean, even at a human level. If you're in a fishing village in Alaska, or you're somewhere in Africa, or you're, they're never gonna build. Nobody's ever gonna build connectivity out to there. It makes no financial sense. But if you can just flip it on from low Earth orbit, you expand people who have access to the internet.
Although we'll have to all stop faking, like, “We can't get on the internet.” [chuckling]
Ashlee: Yeah. I mean, that's, that's a huge downside [chuckling], is that, y'know, even when you're on Mount Everest, maybe they already have internet there now. [chuckling] I, y'know, you will never escape it after the next couple years. I mean, you, you'll just forever be on the internet.
But you're totally right! I, I sort of skipped a couple steps ahead, like, like, half the world's population cannot get high-speed internet, and, and you, there's just a mountain of evidence that the second high-speed internet reaches a country, y’know, education levels go up, economic opportunity goes up drastically.
I always think of somewhere like Cuba, which still just doesn't have a fiber optic cable touching it, y’know? And, and the whole country would, would sort of change if, if, if they, if we could get that worked out politically. So, y’know, it's a big deal.
Niki: And actually, that is a really interesting point that brings up another theme that this raises, which is governments and nation-states are losing the ability to control things.
Like, the reason there's no fiber optic cable to Cuba is obvious. We're not gonna allow it, but they don't have to necessarily go] through the US government. I mean, admittedly, US companies may not be able to help them, but if you've got, y’know, if it's cheap to put up a small satellite with these, y’know, off-the-shelf electronics, somebody's gonna be able to bring connectivity to Cuba.
Ashlee: Yeah, [chuckling] I mean the whole world order's about to be shook up in a lot of ways, I think.
You've had all these countries. I always, I go immediately to the war in Ukraine where you had, like, Russia, y'know, it is just up there is one of the top two space superpowers of all time and, and totally had space, like, turned against it.
The second, even before it started to go into Ukraine, it was, like, Planet Labs and Maxar; all their images showed the Russian troops amassing on the border of Ukraine. While, while Putin was saying he wasn't gonna attack, y'know? And then, the second they moved in, same satellite, saw all the Russian troop movements.
Like, all those pictures we had of, of the Russian convoys stalled out on these, these freeways. These, y'know, it was just so embarrassing to, to the Russians. You just have these images on the front page of all these papers, and then they naturally went in to try to take out the communication system in Ukraine.
And then, it turned out SpaceX had shipped all these Starlink antennas, which they still rely on now. And, and, y’know, it's incredible! Like, this is a country - Ukraine did have like a long space history, but, certainly, that was many years ago and, and had not been like investing in its like space infrastructure, and then it just totally relied on the private sector.
And then, you had, like, these weird things where, like, Elon [laughing] became this, like, nation-state, y'know, for a while he, he wanted to, like, turn off the internet in Ukraine because it seems like SpaceX was kinda, like, donating a lot of the stuff and it was expensive, but, y'know, if the US government wanted to replicate what SpaceX was doing, they could not do it because SpaceX has thousands of these satellites. The US government has, like, a handful and has no space internet ability at all.
So, I think we're in this, this really interesting era where, where, like, things that we've sorta this balance of power, things we've taken for granted start to, to go away.
Even on the imaging stuff, while it's not traditionally used for really hardcore espionage. Y’know, as long as you're not, like, in the Axis of Evil, you can tap into planet's service and see what's happening in your country now for a pretty relatively low cost.
And so you don't, y’know, if you're, I don't know, Bolivia, you don't have to send up ten imaging satellites of your own anymore.
Niki: Right! It levels of playing field for [Ashlee: Yeah] countries who are able to see it. And something just to bring up, you brought up Russia and I think that there's a lot of sort of dunking on NASA and about why they, y'know, they have a handful of satellites and then you have Elon Musk and Starlink have all of these satellites, but at the end of the day, NASA's funded by taxpayers and are taxpayers willing to pay for something incredibly expensive, that they blow up all the time?
That's, like, sort of in space it's not unusual [chcuckling] for stuff to go super wrong, y'know? [Ashlee: Yeah] I'm not sure there's a lot of taxpayer willingness to fund it. So, in some ways, venture capitalists and billionaires, who right now have a PR problem, but they are subsidizing things that we do want Americans to have access to and that I just don't think our government, because our citizens are just probably not gonna fund that right now.
Ashlee: Yeah. I mean, when I step back and just look at all kinds of things, self-driving cars, just, the rise of, of alternative energy, [sighs] even like AI, y’know, we have to face the reality that these billionaires and these giant corporations are doing things that, that, like, you might have expected to be, like, nationwide government-type infrastructure programs in the past.
And I, I don't think we have, like, the willingness, like you talked about, or really sort of the, efficiency and, and clarity of thought anymore [chuckling] to, like, pull some of these things off. And so, then you end up in a situation where it's on some levels fantastic that some capitalists built this stuff, but then, y’know, you're at the mercy of, of the capitalist.
Like it, y'know, if the US government today wanted to be, like, the, to the extent we wanna be, like, an AI leader ahead of China, we are completely beholden to Google, and Microsoft, and OpenAI, and their vast data centers. Y’know, it used to be the case that, like, the US government had the biggest supercomputers and could do work that, like, no corporation could match, but that day passed about 25 years ago.
Niki: Yeah! And the companies are not really, I mean, they're based in America, but they're global companies, so you don't end up with the same incentives.
Ashlee: Yeah. And, and yeah, and the motivations of the CEOs, y’know, they fluctuate. [laughing]
Niki: Exactly! And it's so personality-driven, which is actually a good segue into the book.
So, there are a lot [chcukling] of personalities in this book, and I, I guess if we start at Falcon One, but to where we are today, the type of individual in this space and the folks you talk to, I don't wanna give everything away in the book, but if there's even one character you could describe, but the, the type of person who's in this space right now working on space [chuckling].
Ashlee: Yeah! I, y'know, I kind of start the book with Planet [Labs] because I think it sort of represented some of this idealism and sort of the familiar place that some of these space things came from. Just kind of, young kids who were working at NASA who just wanted to see what they could do with satellites. The next main character in the book is this guy Peter Beck, who's his New Zealander, who starts Rocket Lab, which is really like the second coming of, of SpaceX.
And, and y’know, I always thought of his story as, like, the, the engineer's kind of hero's journey. He's a guy; he didn't go to college. He's in a country in the middle of nowhere with no space program, and he's built this serious, y’know, it's, like, SpaceX and Rocket Lab, and that's kind of, that's kind of it.
And, and then, y'know, I, I sort of set the book up to be, like, a bit of a things, the further you go, like, like, things get a little bit crazier and, we move a little bit farther away from, from, like, our traditional thoughts of who gets into space and why.
And, and I tried to make it quite clear that yes, I mean, some of these people are all motivated by different things and that this looks much more like a business than we're used to - I, I laugh cuz I think like every space movie you've ever seen, is, like, a hero, it's like, [in movie voice] “Our best pilot is facing off against this horrible situation and only, like, his courage and bravery will solve it while he's aided by, like, 10,000 of our smartest engineers in this room.”
Ashlee: Y’know, this, this is [Niki: Turing and mission control, right?]
Ashlee: This is like not what space looks like anymore. [chuckling] I mean, y'know, it is, it's just, it's, it is, like I, it's the wild west and, and people are, are driven by greed and money and, and yes, I mean a lot of, it's still aspirational, but all the rest of this stuff is there.
Niki: Okay, so you actually just said something, [Ashlee: chuckling] I was gonna end with this, but I'm actually, if you don't mind, I'm gonna read this from your book right now. [Ashlee: Please do, please do!] I just was, like, cheering when I read this sentence. So you're describing sort of the people in this space, which is what the book's gonna address.
And you say, [reading] “You shouldn't ask too many questions. Think about consequences too long, or let reality interfere with your hopes and dreams. After all, this is space. It's best to just say, ‘Fuck it, let's do this thing. Because we kind of have to.’”
Ashlee: Y'know, and I think that [still laughing] I think that's true. I mean, I think it explains a lot of, like, it is still kind of aspirational, and space still comes with all this mythology and these, this, like, centuries of gazing up and, and y'know, I think that's all, like, somewhere in the heart of this, but now it's, it is, it's a, it's a business.
Niki: Yeah. And actually, one thing about the business and, and I think we can't talk about a space business without discussing it, is you have these weird dunks happening like Russia shooting its own dumb satellite and then creating a ton of debris. So, when you talk about how many satellites they're exponentially expanding, right? The number of them, and already there are many more overhead than the average person thinks about.
Space is big, but it's not that big. [Ashlee: chuckles] And when you blow stuff up and it starts, well, maybe you can just explain it better than I'm doing.
Ashlee: Well, y'know, yes. So, we're moving to this new era. We, we don't, like, you said, space is big and I think people sometimes underestimate how big it is.
But, already look, I mean, we had, like, 2,500 objects up there and, and things collided, stuff hits the International Space Station all the time. They have, like, little shields up there. Y’know, and, and there's this thing called the Kessler Syndrome, which is, like, the nightmare scenario where you have a satellite crash into probably another satellite and, and y’know, these things break apart into thousands of pieces, all of which are then traveling, like, at incredible speeds and, and you get this cascading effect.
And once, if that does happen, I mean, it's kind of all over, like, lower Earth orbit would be unusable for a very long time unless somebody figured something pretty clever out to clean it up. And, and not only would that, like, wreck all this new stuff we've been talking about, but things like GPS, which is, like, this glue that holds the modern world together, that would be over, y'know, and along with, with all kinds of communications and, and things we take for granted.
And, I, clearly these companies are motivated not to let this happen because it would wreck everything they've been investing in and trying to achieve. I write about, at the end of this book, this company, LeoLabs, that is, like, a air traffic control for this modern system. And so, yes, people are aware of this, but humans, you may know [both chuckling] do not have, like, the best track record when it comes to, like, a new territory that needs to be conquered quickly to and, like, seize [Niki: Totally!] for the most profitable, winner take all kind of scenario.
And so, we've already seen, like, the first illegal satellite launches where, where a startup snuck some tiny satellites onto an Indian rocket, even though the US government told them not to. SpaceX, people give a hard time because they're, there's arguments that can be made that they're not really deorbiting all these satellites they're putting up in, in the most transparent and, like, safe way.
And I don't know if you also know this, but Elon has a tendency to be, like, [laughing] cavalier with some, some things!
Niki: Let us not forget 4/20, the launch [Ashlee: laughing] he did, that went horribly- because it was hilarious and went, went very poorly.
Ashlee: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, y’know, there's, there's reason, and I think Russia is just, like, the, you called it out. I mean, people should stop and think about this for a second.
So, Russia shot a missile into its own satellite simply to, like, remind [chuckles] everybody that it could, and if you're asking, like, why they did that, it's because their space program is, is crumbling.
Like, SpaceX, before the war in Ukraine had started, was taking all their business. I mean, you used to use Soyuz rockets. Everybody did to get their satellites in orbit. It was the most consistent, cheapest rocket there was. SpaceX flies more often, is cheaper now and, and, then because of the war in Ukraine, nobody wants to do business with the Russians, and their space program was just rife with corruption and was kind of crumbling on its own.
And so, and they have no, they have no rocket or satellite startups at all. So, y'know, if you're in that position and space is, like, not, y'know, that is something that's, like, woven into that country's national pride. I mean, like, very seriously, this is, like, not some passing thing. I mean, this will hurt!
And, and so, y'know, they, they probably don't care if the rest of us have a space internet! [laughing]
Niki: I mean, clearly! And not, not constructive to, to blow something up and then you have a zillion pieces of their stuff hitting really essential stuff. But yeah, why would they care?
And I think that's the fascinating thing to keep an eye on, especially a lot of our audience is Washington, but it's an unregulated space. You have a small startup that is, is working on air traffic control, not a, not a world government. You do have coalitions of governments thinking about space junk and, and how they register, y'know, deorbiting and making sure a lot of these satellites are intended to be disposable, but, ideally, they should come back and burn up. They shouldn't just be up there indefinitely.
And I think this is a really interesting area to think about, which is: no government owns space. How could; and private companies don't want a bunch of trash in space, it's, but it's not in their interest. And yet they all are racing for money, which money, and new frontiers, and digging for gold is not exactly what we're known for doing the most responsibly as humans.
Ashlee: Yeah. [laughing] I think we kind of have a pretty good idea, likely, where this ends up. Y'know, like, LeoLabs - Yeah, it's fascinating. I mean, this is like a 50-person outfit that kind of, just because we're lucky that they were on top of this and saw an opportunity arrive.
Governments can, the US, y’know, has the ability to track objects in space. I would argue that these regimes were so outdated and, and it used to be the regular cadence for rocket launches for even the best space programs was, like, one rocket a month. If you did 12 in a year, y’know, you were doing great.
SpaceX is almost up to one a day. Rocket Lab's getting pretty close to, like, one a week and then soon more than that. It's like you want regulation on some of this, but it is not clear to me at all that these regulators are prepared for, like, what is happening or know how to handle it. And the rule usually is there's a lot of regulation around rockets since they're so close to ICBMs and, like, “Are they safe to fly? Where are you gonna fly it?”
There's some regulation around your satellite, especially a communications one, shouldn't interfere with somebody else's. But really the rule is like once you get the satellite up there, there's, there's kind of like, that's it, you, you get to do pretty much what you want. I think New Zealand is the only country I know of that even has laws in place to make sure you deorbit your satellite in some kind of safe manner. So it is, it's a, it's, like [chuckling]
Niki: Classic New Zealand to be super polite about space!
Ashlee: I was, like, really impressed with that! Plus, y'know, they had no space program before Rocket Lab came along.
One of my favorite things is they're, like, okay, so Peter Beck comes to the Prime Minister, who I interviewed. He was like in shorts.
We were having brunch, he offered to, like, pick me up at my house to take me to brunch and, and he is like, “Yeah, y'know, Peter came to me, he is, like, I wanna do rockets, and it's, like, y'know, ‘I'm like, man, we only have like a couple boats and one pretty crappy tank. Like, do we wanna get into this?’ And he's like, ‘How would we even do the legislation around this? And. And Peter's like, ‘Well, we just, we'll take, like, the] NASA, y'know, documentation and the, the FAA documentation [Niki: chuckles] and then we'll just, y'know, rip off, like, the 75% of, like, the bureaucratic crap that we don't need, and then we'll just, like, use that.’”
That's kind of pretty much what they did. And then they, yeah, and then, like, you said, they added their little nice New Zealand twist.
Niki: They’re so nice!
Niki: Well, I think that's a good place to end. It's a, it's a business book, but it's a very readable book and you talk a lot about the personalities, which are fascinating.
We'll put a link so people can buy it in the show notes, but I know you're traveling, you do a lot of different things. You're a, a busy person, and I'm, I'm really grateful that you took the time to come on and, and talk about this.
Ashlee: Oh, thank you so much.
Can I plug one last thing? [chcukling] [Niki: Do it! Do plug it!] Coming like in September.
So, I make a, a travel television show called Hello World and we have a whole new season coming on Bloomberg and YouTube in September. We got ten new episodes. I just got back from Nigeria filming that. And anyway, that one's near and dear to my heart. [Niki: Yes!] If people wanna check that out too!
Niki: We will, we will drop in a Hello World link.
We'll drop in a link to buy this book. I have an independent bookseller I send people to, although, y'know, Amazon's fine. They're gonna launch 14,000 satellites. [Ashlee: laughs] So, we can support indie booksellers. [Ashlee: Absolutely!]
And, and we'll, let people find you on Twitter and other places, too. But I, I'm, I'm really thankful that you took the time.
Ashlee: It's my pleasure. And thanks so much for having me!
Niki: We’re almost 60 episodes into Tech’ed Up and this was the first one with no edits. Don’t let anybody tell you that podcasting is easy - it’s actually really hard to get the hang of. And I’m grateful to our guests, listeners, and Selçuk, our producer, for his patience [chuckling] as I learn the ropes.
On the next episode, Paul Rosenzweig, former official of the Department of Homeland Security, joins me in the studio to talk cyber security, homeland intelligence, and how we can mitigate risks to the United States. It sounds grim, but it’s actually a fun conversation, so be sure to tune in.