How I found my purpose in the space industry

A bit more of a philosophical post this time, but first a promotion: Exodus is running a Space Commerce Hackathon on December 12th-13th, and we’re reaching out to adults, uni age and older to form teams and work on solutions to some interesting space problems, and pitch them for a chance at some great prizes.

You can register to attend the Pitch Night on the evening of Tuesday December 13th, (Humanitix Event Page).

“There are no right answers to wrong questions.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

When I graduated high school, I chose to study science instead of a music, because “I knew too many poor, dissatisfied musicians.” The punchline to this joke is that once I had spent over a decade as a medical scientist and completed my PhD in Immunology, I left research science to become an entrepreneur because I now knew just as many poor, dissatisfied scientists.

Becoming an entrepreneur was the first time I’d been able to take full advantage of the skillsets I’d developed in both fields. In my understanding, the primary skill of a successful career scientist is the implementation of a specific strategy of questioning and results analysis, otherwise known as the scientific method. The primary skill of a successful professional in the arts is the implementation of the creative process (a cycle of recombining and paring back raw materials, iterating towards to a specific, novel purpose). In my mind however, the distinguishing requirement of being an entrepreneur is the ongoing practice of both modes of thinking. They are especially powerful when combined with the ongoing practice required of business owners: an intense focus on providing value to the paying customer, by falling in love with customer problems, not your own solutions.

The downside of going into the business world after over a decade in each of these other fields, was being hyper aware of the pressure to prioritise the inherently reductive financial metric of Return on Investment or ROI, because it’s so much more difficult to measure the intangible value that comes from purely scientific or artistic pursuits. Just this week, I found myself having to clarify what I meant when I said I feel wealthy as a result of my artistic and scientific experience. This experiential wealth doesn’t necessarily pay my power bills or fund my next international trip, but it adds richness to my life nonetheless.

In as much I think I have a handle on what it means to talk about (life) purpose, I can only conceive of it in terms of this more intangible wealth: I think it’s what you are achieving when you are in the habit of completing tasks that yield impactful results (whether or not there are financial metrics to capture that impact), in areas where only someone with your experience (from working in fields whose primary purpose is generating these intangible benefits) could do it.

One key perspective I’ve gained since joining the startup ecosystem was as a result of meeting a number of inspiring not-for-profit organisations (I previously hadn’t had much experience with this sector). Just as with scientists who are aiming to achieve some fundamental understanding of nature, or artists who are aiming to create some new form of self expression, these not-for-profit organisations exist to create a social good, while also lacking an explicitly financial ROI. All three groups are comparable in that they face this conundrum with trying to quantify the intangible value produced in a world where the dollar is king, yet the not-for-profits tend to be different in that they face hard financial realities that are much more like startups: They may not be for-profit, but they had better at least generate enough revenue to cover their costs or else they won’t be around for very long.

The problem I saw within the arts and science sector, but couldn’t articulate until I was outside of them, was that the deeply institutionalised funding model has led to multiple layers of arbitrators between the people spending the funds, and the original funding source (often the taxpayer). This has meant that as public-sector funding has dried up in recent decades, the professional scientists and artists on the front lines have often not known where to start when it comes to replacing those funds, and have been competing over an ever-smaller pool of grant funding. The high ideal of not being motivated by money, has led to a generation of scientific or artistic professionals who (mostly) lack knowledge around what the private sector requires in order to raise any money, whilst most investors who are aware of and motivated by these more intangible benefits, at least want to see scientific or artists’ organisations find a way to cost-neutral status, as is the case with sustainable not-for-profits.

So, having crossed the chasm from academia to industry, I think it is useful for me to communicate what I’ve observed back to the academics who may be on the edge of making the leap. Moving to industry does not mean giving up on the pursuits that yield more intangible value, but it does mean at least doing the work of a not-for profit to show cost-neutrality. The compromises this will mean to your work will vary from field to field (and some things obviously cannot be funded this way for reasons intrinsic to that field of endeavour), but at this point – given the amount of time I know people are spending on grant writing – I think the time spent exploring a more private sector-focussed, patronage model of funding, may compare favourably.

To be clear, Exodus Space Systems is a for-profit company, because it will take significant funds to make the kind of impacts that we are aiming towards. Space offers a literally endless array of possibilities for both for-profit manufacturing and not-for-profit research of intangible benefits. The reason I bring up not-for-profits at all is that this was how I came to the understanding that there can be a place on that continuum (between not-for-profit, and profit maximised) where Exodus can be both a profitable company, and also one that delivers the kind of intangible benefits that will make our work truly meaningful.

Why space though? Why not any other entrepreneurial pursuit? And “why follow the eccentric billionaires with their pet projects when there are so many problems that need solving right here on Earth?”

Space has two unique factors going for it that appeal to me, quite apart from what I think is a primal need of humanity to explore the unknown. The first appeals to my creative way of thinking, in that space is an almost entirely new environment for humanity to be working in. Above, I wrote that the creative process is about iterating towards a specific, novel purpose. Given that a major form of resistance that creatives meet is the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset, space neatly sidesteps that resistance because it is still a very new environment. There’s almost no aspect of space technology that suffers from the institutional closed-mindedness you might find in other industries, and so as long as you respect the laws of physics, the opportunities to create truly new innovations in space are endless.

The second factor appeals to my scientific way of thinking, in that space is literally removed from the world, and from the interference of everyday life, which allows us to perform experiments in a truly independent manner. While any scientific experiments in space have to contend with the harsh environment of space, that environment is largely constant and predictable, and able to be fully isolated from physical, biological or social factors that could lead to compromises in similar experiments done on Earth.

If we take the important question of the multiple sustainability challenges right here on Earth, I think that space technology is so important precisely because it gives us the opportunity to conduct the work which will address those challenges in a creative and independent way, in a setting where the only passing grade is 100%.

Even now, Earth observation by orbiting satellites has led to a paradigm shift in how we monitor environmental change around the world. Greenhouse gas and aerosol emission, land-use changes like deforestation, and the expanding practice of super-trawlers harvesting the world’s deep ocean fisheries, are just three issues which would be almost impossible to measure comprehensively or objectively without space technology.

Deep space exploration by both robotic and crewed spacecraft will only accelerate the progression of these types of impactful solutions, because the journey to the Moon, Mars or asteroids will inevitably require the development of new technology which will contribute to our sustainability efforts worldwide. Consider one technology on NASA’s roadmap: a fully closed-loop Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS). Just as the need to recycle urine for drinking water on the Space Shuttle led to reverse osmosis systems which now provide clean water for millions around the world, the development of efficient carbon capture systems for longer duration spaceflight offers the prospect of new techniques that will be scalable for industrial climate change mitigation. The use-cases for these solutions might be present in Earth-based settings, but it will never as essential as it is in space, where these technologies are on the critical path.

What about food production for astronauts on these long-duration missions? Will the creation of low-maintenance food crops suited for spaceflight also help to lower fertiliser or water consumption by those crops on Earth? Will techniques to better preserve foodstuffs for astronaut consumption mean less food wastage, and therefore less need to continuously expand new food resources to feed a growing population?

The challenges are immense, but hopefully you can tell that I’m pretty excited about the potential of space technology to address them, and that the space industry has an especially powerful incentive to solve those problems.

I also feel fortunate that I now have a much better understanding of the process of trying to raise private funds, and of the people from whom I’ll be raising those funds. The net effect is that I still consider myself an artist and a scientist at my core, but I’m more optimistic than ever that being an entrepreneur enables better control of how to fund those pursuits.

All of this makes me feel like I’ve found a path to working on a business will not only have a positive ROI, but also have real impacts in progressing sustainable solutions. It provides a platform for the scientific and artistic endeavours that will yield these more intangible benefits, and having a business that successfully walks this line is something where someone with my skillsets has a good chance of being successful. The fact I get to fulfil a lifelong dream to work in the space industry is a bonus on top, and if that’s not finding my life’s purpose, I’m not sure what is.

Published by mikelepage

CEO and Design Lead for Exodus Space Systems

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