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Bezos and Blue Origin
Jeff Bezos shows off the concept for Blue Origin’s launch system during a September news conference in Florida. Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is headquartered in Kent, Wash. (Blue Origin photo)

What is it about Seattle that’s led some folks to call it the “Silicon Valley of space,” and how far can space entrepreneurs go in the next 20 years? One of the panels at Friday’s Xconomy Seattle 2035 conference tackled those questions – and added a couple of shorter-term predictions as well.

Jason Andrews, the CEO of Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc., listed three reasons why Seattle is up there with Southern California, Silicon Valley, Texas and Florida’s Space Coast when it comes to commercial spaceflight.

First, there’s access to software developers: Space operations have become much more computerized, and that means space-minded entrepreneurs can draw upon the talent fostered by Microsoft, Amazon and other tech titans.

That was a big factor behind SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s decision to set up an engineering campus in Seattle. (“A lot of you guys don’t seem to want to move to L.A.,” he told his Seattle prospects during a January visit.) It’s also a factor behind the shift of Spaceflight’s HQ from Tukwila to Seattle’s Westlake Avenue. (Andrews joked that Musk “went a thousand miles … I went 15.”)

When it comes to engineering talent, the leading role that Boeing has played over the past 99 years has to count as a huge boost to Seattle’s stature in aerospace.

Second, there’s access to the experts on big data. The next generation of small satellites, including the constellation due to be put into orbit by Andrews’ BlackSky Global venture, will be sending down huge volumes of data. In BlackSky Global’s case, that takes the form of real-time, on-demand Earth imagery. For SpaceX, that could be global broadband Internet traffic. Whatever the application, big data and cloud computing are part of the equation, and Seattle currently has the edge.

Finally, there’s access to capital. Seattle investors have set the pace, led by such heavyweights as Jeff Bezos (with Blue Origin), Paul Allen (with Vulcan Aerospace), Bill Gates (an investor in the Kymeta satellite antenna venture) and Charles Simonyi (who’s been in orbit twice and has a stake in Redmond-based Planetary Resources).

Xconomy Seattle 2035 panel
Moderator Kraig Baker of Davis Wright Tremaine discusses Seattle’s role in space entrepreneurship with Spaceflight’s Jason Andrews, Joe Landon of the Space Angels Network and Kymeta’s Ryan Stevenson at the Xconomy Seattle 2035 conference on Friday. (Geekwire photo by Alan Boyle)

So what opportunities are opening up for space entrepreneurs? The panelists listed three big markets.

Broader, faster communication: Satellite systems already play a big part in connecting people around the planet, but the next generation of satellites could extend broadband data services to the “other 3 billion” people in the world (or is that 4.4 billion?) who don’t currently have such access. The satellites could be provided by SpaceX, or OneWeb, or some other global venture. Either way, Redmond-based Kymeta wants to furnish the antennas. “You’re going to start to see a dramatic shift in people’s view of how they use satellite communications,” said Ryan Stevenson, Kymeta’s vice president and chief scientist. He said Kymeta antennas could start hitting the market about 18 months from now.

Real-time Earth imaging: Within 18 months, BlackSky Global aims to set up a system that will let anyone with a smartphone order up a real-time picture of any place on Earth and have it “in 90 minutes for 90 dollars,” Andrews said. But satellite imagery isn’t just about snapping a picture of your backyard, or North Korea’s secret launch pad. Advanced remote sensing promises to help urban planners, government agencies and venture capitalists identify where the world’s next hot spots will be. “There a $100 billion market out there that’s basically untapped,” Andrews said.

Humans in space: Right now, only millionaires or billionaires have been able to buy trips into outer space – but if companies such as Kent-based Blue Origin, California-based Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are successful, the cost of space trips for tourists, researchers and entrepreneurs will drop to $250,000 or less within the next few years. By 2035, “I do think there will be a lot more people who have been to space,” said Joe Landon, chairman of the board for Space Angels Network.

Landon cautioned, however, that there are no guarantees. It’s been exactly a year since the catastrophic breakup of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo led to the first in-flight fatality of the commercial space race. This month also marked the anniversary of the blast that destroyed an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket as it was carrying payloads to the International Space Station (including a Planetary Resources mini-satellite). This June’s failure of a SpaceX station resupply mission only underlined the fact that lots can go wrong with rocketry.

The same goes for Seattle’s place on the space frontier. “I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that we’ll continue to be a leader,” Landon said. Unlike California or Florida, this region has no launch pads that can put payloads into space. And the recent workforce reductions at the Boeing Space Center in Kent illustrate how easily aerospace jobs can shift to different centers of gravity.

For decades, Seattle’s been known as “Jet City” – but as the region’s economy heads for new frontiers, there’s a need for new nicknames as well. Will those nicknames include Space City? Rocket City? Satellite City? We won’t have to wait until 2035 to find out.

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