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Ask HN: How would you bootstrap a space company?
123 points by markovian on Nov 25, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 149 comments
I am trying to find the ideal way to start a space business without immediately needing substantial financial resources.

Create a space industry giant from scratch with little external funding.

I've worked in aerospace and have been reading HN for over a decade.

Here's some adult advice, for both the OP and HN in general.

Space is a waste of time unless you're a government or a bored billionaire. Objects are too far, and lift is now a commodity.

(SpaceX will probably end up shutting down due to lack of lift demand, hence their polluting the sky with micro satellites now.)

So if you really want a career in space, go join an existing company or agency.

However, there's a lot of smaller aviation-related projects that are equally challenging, but more affordable.

Examples of recent remarkable aviation advances are:

- Robinson Helicopter (world's largest-volume mfg)

- Williams small jet engines (started in cruise missiles, now certified for civil use)

- uAvionix ADS-B tailBeacon (first affordable ADS-B transponder)

- Scaled Composites' projects. The whole reason Rutan used composites was to make wings 10x faster. You can do that too.

There's room for anybody (who wants to spend their savings) on:

- composite mfg. techniques

- applying the latest in electronics (without competing with Garmin)

- willing to navigate the FAA TSO process

- installing ADS-B. It's literally a gold rush until 2021.

- be like Mike Busch, the world's top aviation entrepreneurial mind:


> SpaceX will probably end up shutting down due to lack of lift demand...

The launch business is tiny compared to what's possible when you can do large volume industrial research and manufacturing in microgravity.

I take the approach that space right now is like the computer industry in the early 1970s. We're about to have our microprocessor moment with fully reusable rockets.

This means ridiculously cheap access to space which could yield entirely new industries in biotech, semiconductors and other areas of research we haven't even imagined.

We're only done the tiniest amount of research so far and have found put that you can grow much larger and purer crystals, antibiotics work in unpredicted ways and a hundred other examples of interesting areas of research.

If launch costs are commodity, then do something with all that capacity. Cisco may have struggled when computer server prices fell, but that made companies like Google and Facebook possible. We're now living in a world that benefits tremendously from one thing becoming a commodity.

The thing is even if SpaceX gets actually cost down to ridiculously low prices it's still going to be extremely expensive and very very hard. We have practically speaking no experience manufacturing in space, the only thing that's been made have been small test quantities of ZBLAN fiber and until we get asteroid mining and refining setup the extra cost of lifting all the raw materials is going to make manufacturing in space only viable for a few small things with high margins of return.

At least for semiconductors you won't have to haul up all that high vacuum equipment :)

You'd still need it LEO at 500km varies between 10-700 nPa and UHV is a max of 100 nPa. It's too variable an environment to really develop chips in due to space weather and the variability in the extreme thin reaches of the atmosphere in Earth orbit.

What could we be able to manufacture in space in the next 15/20 years in your opinion?

The only think I really know of is ZBLAN fiber because that has a definite benefit to space manufacture and a large profit margin to justify the lift costs of the base material. I think until we get space refining figured out it's going to be hard to manufacture anything because of the high lift costs. Modern manufacturing also depends on a large amount of equipment and chemicals that will have to be redesigned for zero-G [0] and whole supply chains of chemicals either lifted dry and recreated or created from scratch in space.

I think the first things we'll really make in space will be super structures and pressure vessels because those are the simplest things to make and the materials don't require a massive supply chain. We could even gain a lot just by lifting up generic stock from Earth (metal powders, sheet stock that could be formed into tubes, or just a lot of generic tube stock [1]) and learning how to assemble them via machine in space. It would let us build larger stations or telescopes than we could launch from the ground.

For example if we build a super structure in space we could launch a lot of large inflatable modules to fill it in with that would be mechanically simpler and lighter because they don't have to bear and transmit the thrust force just support their own mass under thrust.

[0] Which increases the amount of benefit needed to justify redesigning an entire chip fab for example to function in zero-G.

[1] Though lifting tubes has the problem that there's a lot of wasted space in a stack of tubes which is one of the problems we're trying to avoid by building vehicles in space to begin with.

imo the most lucrative thing to manufacture would be parts for larger orbital stations and for satellites/rockets. The most expensive part of space is getting there - if you could manufacture the payload (aka body of the rocket) in orbit, there would be no need for a stage 1 or 2.

> I've worked in aerospace and have been reading HN for over a decade.

> Here's some adult advice, for both the OP and HN in general.

> Space is a waste of time unless you're a government or a bored billionaire. Objects are too far, and lift is now a commodity.

> (SpaceX will probably end up shutting down due to lack of lift demand, hence their polluting the sky with micro satellites now.)

You are misidentifying the source of revenue. Space, like military equipment, is an incredible market for corporations equipped to operate in. There are huge government subsidies, private-public partnerships designed to assist research and development, there's an unsatiable market to offload excess production in (government demand), you get to profit off of commercial spin-off products. SpaceX is on the receiving end of all of this. Furthermore, the public does not care what it is that you are doing exactly. That's important because of all the tax money involved. The moment your enterprise has a significant impact on the public ordinary people will scrutinize it. That's bad for business. Even more so when your business depends the government which is somewhat accountable to the public.

>Space is a waste of time unless you're a government or a bored billionaire.

Unless you are 100% self sufficient, you rely on space to live. Freight logistics are reliant on space (GPS), farming (GPS optimized planting and harvesting), air travel (GPS), using your phone to get directions somewhere (GPS). Then all of the weather satellites, satellites are rapdily gaining use in archaeology revealing unknown sites far faster than boots on the ground can, etc etc so on and so forth.

Gobs and gobs of money are waiting to be made in space with current and future technology. Some quick near-future possibilities:

- Space tourism

- Seed vaults on the moon for companies and countries

- Archival data storage on the moon

- All matter of material sciences research and possibly production of materials with qualities that we can not replicate in an Earth-based production facility (think crystals and crystalline structures)

- Extremely isolated biological related experiments, such as genetic engineering, which could be be done in complete safety in a self-contained habitat remotely, with no chance of any of the material spreading outside of the lab unlike on earth

> Unless you are 100% self sufficient, you rely on space to live. Freight logistics are reliant on space (GPS), farming (GPS optimized planting and harvesting), air travel (GPS), using your phone to get directions somewhere (GPS).

Perhaps you don't recall, but we somehow managed to deliver freight, grow crops, fly planes and find our way to places long before GPS satellites were a thing.

Space-based systems may be a great convenience at times, but they're hardly essential to my life.

>Perhaps you don't recall, but we somehow managed to deliver freight, grow crops, fly planes and find our way to places long before GPS satellites were a thing.

Yes and if you are older than 30 you likely remember when everything said "4-6 weeks delivery" not "same day" or even "2-3 day delivery'. That's right, even in the 1990s if you ordered something 4-6 weeks was a perfectly acceptable (and realistic) delivery time frame.

You also had a fraction of the flights that you do now. GPS for aviation right out of the gate increases fuel efficiency of any given flight as well as safety.

GPS went fully operational in 1995, with 2 billion less mouths to feed as well. Take GPS away from farming and you'll plant less efficiently and crop losses will increase both of which will drive prices up. A lot of the larger farms actually heavily rely on automation, assisted by GPS, for both planting and harvesting.

This is a single technology using 24 satellites that is space-based, that has affected virtually every industry in the world.

Imagine what other space-based or space-derived technologies might one day exist. Imagine what amount of change they might make on civilization. Imagine what sort of profits they might generate.

Companies don't stop operations because they're too successful. It might be that demand for launch services won't rise with falling prices the way that SpaceX expects. That might mean they won't recoup the costs of developing the Starship and they go bankrupt. But space launch is still a $100s of billions a year industry and whoever is running SpaceX will still be making that, even if it's Elon's creditors after a bankruptcy.

This shows a complete lack of knowledge about how most industries evolved in the past. Every industry was in the phase you describe the space industry in.

History is full of example of industries where no-one could imagine the potential before it got really cheap. From mobile phones to cars. Once something gets cheap the opportunities explode. Which is SpaceX's plan.

At $20/kg a space hotel would be possible to build, even a moon hotel. I'd imagine at some point it becomes seriously viable as an alternative to a luxury holiday in the maldives. I for one am interested. Or - apparently much better repeaters can be built in 0g for fiber optic cables. Already there's talk of factories in space. Did you think of that one?

But it's almost silly to speculate because it's impossible to imagine the industries that will be created.

Exactly, you're not going to have the first mover advantage if you are waiting for someone to be ahead of you.

But if you are someone like lockhead you have money to wait for spacex to fizzle out, headhunt their talent, and outperform with your military industrial complex connections and 70 years of working in aerospace.

Yeah, just like Ford and GM waited out Tesla to fail... (and SpaceX is profitable as opposed to Tesla)

Tesla made a profit of $143 million in Q3 2019 on record deliveries


" lift is now a commodity ... SpaceX will probably end up shutting down"

I take this that the price of orbital launch is insignificant compared to the cost of preparing and operating the cargo.

Are there any signs that space born cargo with lower capex and opex (and hence whose operators would have higher price sensitivity) would arrive?

The cost of the payload is huge today because the launch is so expensive that you have to make the most of it. If it's $25/kg to low Earth orbit, you can afford to be a lot more experimental and take a lot more risks with your cargo.

One of the few sane comments in this post. Commenting to save, thanks.

> installing ADS-B.

Can you tell me a bit more about it?

Boo, this is unnecessarily negative. Here's some cool things that are happening in entrepreneurial space.

First, SpaceX is using its reusable launch capacity combined with the StarLink constellation to dramatically lower launch costs over the next decade. Here's a nice writeup on why StarLink is important (https://caseyhandmer.wordpress.com/2019/11/02/starlink-is-a-...). SpaceX is essentially using StarLink to 'soak up' all the extra, cheap launch capacity it will produce (demand generation) until the rest of the industry wakes up to this new reality. This will help SpaceX both produce fantastic profits to fund capital investments for space endeavors while also increasing the heavy launch capacity possible to space, vastly increasing commercial opportunities in the 2020s.

Another healthy space area has been nanosats and cubesats. Nanoracks (http://nanoracks.com/) has created a healthy business out of the ISS launching these, while Planet Labs (https://www.planet.com/) has created a near-earth observation constellation that is commercially doing well using these kinds of platforms. Small launch providers for nanosats and cubesats, as well as a healthy diverse ecosystem of hardware suppliers (https://blog.bliley.com/top-20-best-cubesat-satellite-manufa...), has made this an accessible area of space.

Space-based manufacturing has indeed been slower to launch. The Space Shuttle did pioneering work in showing that fiber-optic cables based on something called ZBLAN could be produced in orbit (https://upward.issnationallab.org/the-race-to-manufacture-zb...), and they are an ideal space-based manufacturing product: they are straightforward to produce in orbit, can fetch a very large price, and have a very small downmass back to earth. Made in Space has done recent pioneering work demonstrating producing ZBLAN in space (https://madeinspace.us/capabilities-and-technology/fiber-opt...). Here's a great list of other startup companies pushing forward with space based manufacturing: https://www.factoriesinspace.com/manufacturing-companies

One of the most exciting developments is Made in Space's Archinaut project (https://madeinspace.us/capabilities-and-technology/archinaut...), which promises IMHO to allow us to build complex structures in space from small-fairing rockets. Significantly, NASA recently gave a large grant to Made in Space for an Archinaut demonstrator mission in the near future (https://www.engineering.com/AdvancedManufacturing/ArticleID/...).

Not to be crass, but the last thing we need are cynical old economy space folks who have given up on moving space forward. There is a diverse, vibrant space economy under the surface if you know where to look; it's not Apollo or O'Neill cylinders (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O%27Neill_cylinder) in space but real companies that make real profit and move humanity forward have been quietly working behind the scenes the last two decades. Much of this is due to low-cost launch, more accessible satellite platforms like cube and nano-sats, and a NASA that is more inclined to be a market-enabler for space with programs like COTS (https://www.nasa.gov/commercial-orbital-transportation-servi...), CCDEV (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_Crew_Development), and more. Rome wasn't built in a day.

> (SpaceX will probably end up shutting down due to lack of lift demand, hence their polluting the sky with micro satellites now.)

I guess morale is low at Arianespace these days ;)

Why would it? Ariane 5 is still doing reasonably good and Ariane 6 seems promising too. SpaceX needs a ton of launches to make reusable rockets financially feasible so.

It was kind of a joke but come on, Arianespace's leaders have been pretty salty about SpaceX in public so clearly there is some jealousy. And as I understand it most of the oldspace launch providers aren't significantly cheaper than SpaceX even if latter operate their rockets in expendable mode.

True that! The one thing that really sets SpaceX and Ariane Space apart if development. Less the capabilities but more the amount of politics and red tape. In that area SpaceX has a clear advantage.

I really wish Arianespace were smashing it like SpaceX. No doubt they have great engineers, if they could just be let off the leash a little.

Don't we need a bunch of "bad" investments to get the space tech to move forward faster?

Like, maybe this guy will convince a bunch of "fools" to invest, and in his path to failure, he'll find some more efficient way to... something.

Or are you saying, even if everything was efficient, there are things you can't fix, like how far away valuable stuff is, that makes it all pretty pointless?

Start by assuming SpaceX will be successful with Starship and Starlink. That means they drop launch costs to $20/kg at scale, find themselves with NASA-level funding from Starlink subscriptions, and start building permanent installations on Mars and the Moon.

Figure out something they're going to need for those. Musk has said they're relying on other companies to provide the infrastructure to actually live on Mars. Be one of those companies. If it's something modest but really useful, you don't have to be a big company at first.

Or, recognize that everybody's building lightweight, expensive, super reliable satellites because launch is expensive. Figure out how to build the cheapest possible satellites instead. Your financial constraints will give you a different mindset than people with serious resources.

That statement about the funding received by SpaceX via Starlink is a revelation to me. I hadn't thought that particular thing through.

According to a very cursory search, SpaceX's revenue in 2018 was around $2B. NASA's budget in 2018 was around $20B.

A tenfold increase in money flowing through a company would bring its own challenges, but assuming SpaceX navigates those OK then they'll be able to fund massive projects.

I wonder what the space exploration landscape would look like if all that happens? Would NASA focus on probes and research, launched from SpaceX vehicles? Thus leaving the launch business to SpaceX, who could concentrate on throwing as many humans out of the gravity well as possible?

Would $20B/year allow SpaceX to build bases on the Moon and Mars? I wonder if SpaceX would get into the asteroid mining business, mostly to prevent having to heavy lift quite so much stuff from the bottom of Earth's gravity well.

Exciting times! Hopefully this all happens in the next 40 years or so, I'm 45 now and would love to see humanity step out of the cradle for good.

NASA has a few trajectories, IMHO.

One they can become the "FCC/FAA of space". The last A is "Administration" of course. This should not be considered depressing, as the scientists and engineers currently on the front line of NASA discoveries are already often associated with other institutions and could easily follow the trend.

Two, they can become the science arm or funding agency for space-related science. This is very close to their actual role. You don't see a ton of commercial submersible traffic, for example, and Earth should definitely be considered fully commercialized and infastructure-supported, and yet NASA still funds, designs, and operates missions for Earth science. So, there's no reason to think that NASA will somehow fade into the background for good. As I've often said, if someone "solves" launch and "solves" telcom over interplanetary distances and "solves" transport of humans and "solves" logistics at a dozen AU, then NASA can finally focus on just instruments, experiments, and science. It's like you've been building your own car and highway and computer every time you want to go to work, and someone comes along with commercial versions. You are more productive.

The third trajectory is liquidation. NASA can become a funding agency like DARPA or NSF, leaning on their past glory to inspire a new generation with fancy-titled grant calls for science experiments at scale.

I personally believe it's a convex combination, and my favorite weights are about 1/5, 3/5, 1/5, meaning they'll focus mostly on deployment of science instruments supported by commercially-designed platforms, technology, etc, and release calls and grants to other institutions to propose science experiments and develop non-profitable technologies that industry will necessarily ignore.

Coincidentally, this is about how they operate on Earth.

The first one would be very weird considering there is also ESA, JAXA, etc. in the game. The world is not regulated by the US. Focusing on research seems to more likely.

This is a little strange to say, given there's things like the FCC in every country as well. There's also corresponding international organizations, but the FCC is the US's version.

NASA could also contribute a lot towards habitat technology. SpaceX is purposely leaving that to others, and NASA has done a lot of work in the area already.

Plus they do some work on advanced propulsion for deep space, including fission and fusion rockets.

>Would $20B/year allow SpaceX to build bases on the Moon and Mars?

I don't see why not.

>That makes the total Apollo Program cost $163 billion inflation adjusted to 2008. [1]

Zubrin said in 2012 that if given to NASA Mars Direct would cost 30-50 billion but a private company could do it for around 5bn. That's for 6 manned flights to Mars over 10 years. Let's be overly paranoid and make some much broader assumptions.

If SpaceX could spend 40 billion over 10 year sand six 6 manned flights, and 6 supply flights via ITS/BFR/Starship /Muskship/whatever it's going by at the time of this comment you could absolutely build a decent semi-permanent structure as well as test, on Mars, creating in-situ building materials.

If you found a viable way to make structural bricks from regolith, you could develop automated earth moving machinery that could be updated and 'controlled' (not unlike a rover) to just churn out bricks between missions which could be used for bunker/vault construction to act as surface shielding and for just acting as a barrier for limiting exposure to dust storms as well.


Take the moon, the moon would be much cheaper to build a semi-permanent/permanent base on. First, supplying it with materials is going to be cheaper and quicker, communication delays are going to incredibly smaller which means higher bandwidth. Transit times are orders of magnitude shorter so you can adapt structures/hardware with more generations and modify more on the fly.

First step I'd just live on the craft for short periods before returning. Get some sort of regolith-moving machinery and simply create some flat areas and/or trenches. Try and process the regolith into bricks again with automated machinery, using the long lunar days for the energy to process the regolith and shutting down for the long lunar night. Then you just build vaults from the bricks, pop in something along the lines of the Bigelow inflatable modules that are then protected by the vaults for the first semi-permanent structures and work on a more rugged construction as you collect lots of data and experience.

While you're doing all of that you're working on energy storage for getting through the long lunar nights and building out your PV array for the long lunar day.

The expensive part is going to be the development of the machinery (including the rocket and manned spacecraft). If they lifted a tunnel boring machine in pieces and developed some sort of earth/regolith-moving space-CAT and a brick manufacturing operation (collect regolith, sort the smallest particle size stuff out for smelting/compaction/some sort of 'concrete' use) and start making rubble piles of larger rocks that could possibly be used via traditional stone carving/masonry techniques and you can get into the construction and material business too and hire that all out to companies/countries to create another revenue stream not to mention license any technologies developed to traditional companies like Caterpillar for use developing their own Mars/Moon machinery.


You'd also send a lot of satellites to Mars and the Moon for use as communication relays, really you could even put some in various positions between the Earth and Martian orbits so that you have relays for when the sun is between them and to also keep your bandwidth up with the power demands of any given satellite down and you could rent usage on the network out to whoever.

You could also sell excess power to anyone that lands near your site(s):

"We will have this much power available during this time period during our brick-oven maintenance, pricing is at x per kWh"

Hey Bob, SpaceX has decent rates starting in a few hours, we could go ahead run an extra cycle of thing with our widget or top off the batteries in everything so we can run 2 more days of projects before night. What's the budget looking like for this cycle?


I think once you have the rockets, even 2 billion a year lets you start to do a lot of tinkering, especially if you start with the moon.

[1] https://christopherrcooper.com/blog/apollo-program-cost-retu...

"That means they drop launch costs to $20/kg at scale..."

Yeah, probably not in your lifetime, buddy: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/background/facts/...

"NASA’s goal is to reduce the cost of getting to space to hundreds of dollars per pound within 25 years and tens of dollars per pound within 40 years."

Starting a business based on that _now_ seems to be a bit... premature :)

"...start building permanent installations on Mars and the Moon."

Not in this century, unless there is a very high incentive for doing so (think: WW3 or something equally disruptive).

That's NASA's goal. SpaceX has historically been much more ambitious than NASA: https://www.inverse.com/article/60712-spacex-starship-elon-m...

(($2M/launch) / (100 Mg / launch) = $20/kg

Now obviously those are aspirational numbers; Starship is too early in its development cycle for anyone to be making truly accurate cost projections. Furthermore the cost per launch to SpaceX isn't necessarily the same as what they'll actually be charging their customers. But even if Elon's guess is off by an order of magnitude, it'll still be way cheaper than "hundreds of dollars per pound", and it'll happen much sooner than "25 years".

Also, that NASA article is from 2010: https://web.archive.org/web/20101013052045/https://www.nasa....

I have to imagine that with the advent of reusable launch vehicles, even NASA has to be a bit more optimistic about future launch costs now than they were 9 years ago.

To be fair, people have been saying "not possible in our lifetime" to a lot of things that SpaceX has done or is doing.

While I'm not convinced it will happen in the timeframes they are shooting for, I'm also not convinced it won't.

NASA's big project for launch is a disposable rocket using Space Shuttle technology. It will cost at least a billion dollars per launch.

SpaceX's project is a fully reusable rocket, with rapid turnaround because it uses methane fuel in the world's first clean-burning full-flow engine. They expect to be able to launch three times per day. On top of that the rocket is built of cheap stainless steel instead of carbon fiber.

With that amount of reuse, each launch basically pays for fuel and ground support, each of which costs about a million dollars per launch. Given their payload of at least 100 tonnes, that's $20/kg. They've already done a single-engine hop test, and hope to reach orbit within six months.

Here's a great video on what makes the new SpaceX engine revolutionary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbH1ZDImaI8

Put a Raspberry Pi into a heavy shielding box, use air horn for a thruster.

Somehow I don't think the delta-v quite works with that setup

Living on Mars is a pipe dream without figuring out how to re-create Earth's geomagnetic field and extend it around human buildings.

Radiation on Mars is about the same as background radiation in Ramsar, Iran. Residents there have normal lifespans and cancer rates.


This is great article, thanks for sharing! It seems we figured out for most of the things how to manage radiation living on Mars.

I think more importantly: civilisation on Mars is a pipe dream without figuring out a significant motivation to live on Mars.

Mars is an inhospitable place, but technology allows us to live in inhospitable places.

In many ways, I expect Mars is like Antarctica. Once the initial romanticism of pioneering fades, it will have only very niche attractiveness for specific scientific causes. It used to be a popular idea that technological advancement would see us populating Antarctica and underground / undersea environments, yet despite that being possible with modern technology (e.g. nuclear powered greenhouses), we've not justified the endeavour.

Antarctica's lack of a population and its niche attractiveness has more to do with the fact that all the countries with any sort of territorial claim to it have signed treaties substantially restricting any use of Antarctic resources (including the land thereof) for anything other than science.

On that note, though, if we want to learn how to colonize the Moon and Mars and beyond, Antarctica is closer to home and less extreme; it could be a valuable place for "baby step" colony proofs-of-concept.

The most practical idea I've heard is to create a giant magnetic shield and put it at the L1 Lagrange point between Mars & the sun. [1]

[1] https://phys.org/news/2017-03-nasa-magnetic-shield-mars-atmo...

I guess that depends on what end effect of the magnetic field we are trying to replicate.

If it's protection from radiation, then we have multiple avenues of research and action. We can use particular materials in our domed cities, we can build underground, and we could bioengineer plants and ourselves to better cope with radiation damage. We could even create a huge solar array or nuclear reactor in space and create enough of a magnetic field to deflect solar and extrasolar radiation. It's a difficult problem, for sure, but not an impossible one.

If it's depletion of the Martian atmosphere, then once we've added a whole bunch of material to it, the depletion happens over millions of years. So there's not a huge effect even in the 1000s of years timescale.

The idea of terraforming Mars seems increasingly quaint given how hard it's been for us to keep the Earth comfortable for humans.

I think it makes far more sense to work on geo-engineering solutions to climate change first - it's also more likely to have a viable business model, on the assumption that the people will eventually demand action rather than applaud their leaders for pulling out of the Paris Accord.

I think pretty much all of the tech applicable to terraforming Mars could also be useful for reducing Earth's CO2 levels, no? Maybe let the problems on Earth guide development and drive funding, and pivot to Mars once it's clear success is being had on Earth.

Look for some NASA/US Gov RFPs and open contracts for some low level manufacturing/sub-contractor work on their space missions(or sub contract work from prime contractors). Get the necessary certifications. When you do win bids, hire the right people, then provide the services, and money starts coming in. I'm sure there is a banker or financial institution out there that'll hand out funding to someone that actually holds a contract to NASA or a big defense contractor.

There are a lot of companies that set up shop right next to Boeing, and simply provide services to them. Probably all the other big aerospace companies, too. That sounds like a great way to get your foot in the door.

It's actually one of the best solutions proposed here.

As someone who works for a space company that was effectively bootstrapped, there are 2 ways I've seen to do it.

1. Government Contracts - this is what my company did. Ground demonstrations to parabola tests to ISS payloads. It's a long hard road and has a lot of NASA bureaucracy, but we just won our first 100MM$ contract and only did one raise 7 years after the company was founded.

2. Build something a big Aerospace company needs - there's a lot of this these days. Company's like Gomspace are building tools for cubesats with minimal startup costs. This is the more independent route, but comes with the challenges of convincing a risk averse industry to use something that hasn't been tested in the correct environment.

I've kicked this about in my head also, because what geek wouldn't love to do it? I've come to the conclusion though that unless one is already a business and engineering genius with the luck of the gods, it's a ridiculous dream. With that said, a chap called (Sir) Martin Sweeting started Surrey Satellites in the 80s which went on to revolutionise the satellite industry and was sold partially to SpaceX, and then fully to ESA, so it is possible, but he was already a PhD-level scientist/engineer working in the field. Anyway here's a few ideas:

1. You could look at novel launch methods, i.e. centrifugal, rockoon, light-gas space-gun. On the latter Gerald Bull did reach space but needed a truly enormous gun

2. ...but imagine the know-how and resources required to develop a whole system like above that can get something to orbit. And quite apart from building the thing, how are you going to test it without become a lawyer to get the necessary approvals? So perhaps concentrate on one aspect of an example above that is transferrable to other industries. But even then to investigate materials that perform well at high temperatures, for example, it would help to already be a world-leading materials scientist, wouldn't it?

3. Fabrics. Looking at the latest NASA space suit I refuse to believe there isn't scope for improvement, and apart from that I suspect there'll be all kinds of novel fabric requirements. Again you might well find what you develop can be sold for earth-bound use

4. IP. Could you take an ARM-like approach and be merely an IP licenser? You could for example design modular launch systems and let others build them

I'd sat that you need to start small if you don't want to take on a bunch of investment money. A lot of magazine articles make it sound like anyone with $25k can get a cubesat launched, but it is clearly not that simple.

Martin Platt and the AmbaSat project have given me some insight on how much work it takes just to design and get approval for really simple satellites. They post regular updates to their Kickstarter page. I think you can see the updates even if you aren't a backer: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ambasat/ambasat-1-an-ed....

Perhaps you should get in touch with some space industry insiders that know the regulatory environment and know what rules can be broken and what can't. Then also get in touch with people that have worked on space equipment before, because space is a complicated domain.

1. Use Deep RL to predict stable 3D protein structures that would not normally occur in Nature

2. Simulate gravitational dynamics to winnow down candidate crystals that cannot be synthesized in terrestrial conditions because they would collapse under their own weight

3. Find novel applications for those proteins such as DNA data storage and computation

4. Design a prototype microgravity factory that operates at scale and exploits rapidly falling launch costs

5. Convince Big Pharma to invest using the rationale that space is the next big profit driver

Best of Luck ;)

I always wonder if hackernews knows the difference between research and development. When it comes to biology, I feel like there is a real hubris fuled by fantasy headlines.

I hate to point this out, but:

Find novel applications for those proteins such as DNA data storage and computation

There's no reason to do step 2 you can do this. Ignore the microgravity requirement and make more profit by finding ones that can work in normal gravity.

Each one of those steps is a billion dollar company.

Sounds like a 5 billion dollar company in the making then! :)

Thanks, very interesting. Could you develop steps 2 and 4?

Wait, which step is profit? Or is that step 0?

Some feedback for HN: repeating the story of PayPal/Amazon and saying "you just need lots of money" isn't an answer here. That's exactly what the author put in the question, they know.

Explaining _why_ the question is flawed may be a good answer, but otherwise think about the question and if you don't have a good answer, don't answer.

Millionaires play golf. Billionaires play space.

Step 1. Make billions in something (not space) Step 2. Turn billions into millions with space

Isn’t spacex profitable? Starlink sounds like how someone would go about becoming a multi billionaire.

It may be profitable now, but don't forget that SpaceX has been going for 17 years, has raised well over a billion in VC funding to date, and Elon has put more than $100m of his own money in.

SpaceX is in absolutely no way whatsoever a company that Elon bootstrapped.

Read this article and tell me this company was not bootstrapped by Elon. [0] Just because they went on to raise huge amounts of VC money doesn't mean anything. He was the one who took all that risk and nearly went bankrupt, not the VC's that now are about to reap the rewards. This is not to knock the VC money, those guys are awesome for believing in the mission.

[0] https://www.wired.com/2007/05/ff-space-musk

SpaceX received billions of VC money on top of government contracts while Ariane and Co. got government contracts and government funding. So no, SpaceX is not bootstrapped. We also don't know for sure as SpaceX is privately held and not publishing financial reports. The one leak back up to 2017 wasn't that stellar.

1. Find a way to return cubesats from orbit

2. Sell your system to anyone who wants to do science where the payload has to come back, but can't get onto the ISS / wants to experiment in open vacuum not a station.

3. Find goods that can only be manufactured in micro-g which are profitable at tiny scale, make them with your returnable cube sats. Made in Space, FOMS, etc are trying to do this but you could iterate faster/cheaper on cubes than mucking with ISS bureaucracy.

The window to do this is small and might not exist though. Eventually private stations will likely be the better option.

> 2. Sell your system to anyone who wants to do science where the payload has to come back, but can't get onto the ISS / wants to experiment in open vacuum not a station.

Probably a tiny market there's already the exposed facility on Kibo [0] on the ISS that can take a lot of experiments.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kibo_(ISS_module)#Exposed_faci...

I have thought of this my whole life. Well, since I was 12 years old, so 48 years anyway. I would develop small reaction engines for orbital maneuvering. Make them lightweight and inexpensive and infinitely customizable. Sell them to every rocket company and satellite producer. Make a whole family from hypergolic to plasma to ion thrust. Be really good at it. Establish a 100% reliability record.

But, how to bootstrap that? Perhaps write the software for some other reaction engine company? Or create a simulator for orbital maneuvering?

1. Find life outside the solar system.

2. Send message to them via the Sun.

3. Aliens receive message, determine Earth's location and send invading fleet to conquer the planet.

4. Discover the fleet via Hubble telescope and warn humanity.

5. World focuses attention on humanity's survival and diverts funds to spaceship manufacturing and jump starts the next phase of technological innovations.


450. Profit.

> World focuses attention on humanity's survival

We can't focus on global warming. Would we actually focus on an impending asteroid collision, or an incoming alien invasion?

I think anything that is a danger to Earth that is not human caused would receive more attention.

I see what you did there...

Could you share why bootstrapping this business is attractive?

I’ve bootstrapped many companies, but I did so because the situation seemed to warrant it (capital requirements, perceived market size, achievable short-term revenue, etc.).

If you’re absolutely dead-set on both space and bootstrapping, I’d start by consulting in that field. Get paid while you spot a problem and build a team to moonlight on it.

By "bootstrap" I mean a way of self-financing part of the activities, finding a source of income quickly rather than relying solely on fundraising.

Raising money is not a problem, but I don't see myself getting involved in creating a business that requires billions and billions of dollars in financing before generating a single cent.

There are quite a few examples of space companies that meet that definition, have you looked at them?

It would be helpful if you named them

Develop useful tech for cubesats. Build a demo/prototype hardware box and go to a space conference after contacting people in the industry beforehand. Get an "in" with a small startup and work with them to build it on a satellite. Through a partnership with them find others, become a satellite builder. Get experience using the launch market and begin to learn about rockets. At that point, my knowledge runs out - but I think you'll need a few hundred million if you want to have a go at developing a rocket yourself, so that's how big your cubesat / satellite company will have to be.

Figure out a way to make LOX cheaper than anyone else on an industrial scale. I bet LOX production is a pretty sleepy business with few competitors. Use the money selling LOX to bootstrap the space business.

Now that's an interesting idea. Granted I have no idea how competitive/costly this market it, but I didn't think LOX was that expensive to begin with in comparison to other costs in aerospace.

per Musk fuel/oxidizer costs make up the bulk of launch expense. If you could save launch providers 2% on LOX with equal service they'd buy it in a heart beat. It's like going to the next gas station to save $0.10/gallon gas. Granted your competition may just say, "ok now we'll sell at a 5% discount". Of course the devil is in the details, it may take hundreds of thousands of dollars in permits to transport it. Maybe you could invent a popup LOX processor like those popup concrete factories near big construction projects. That would be pretty cool.

Not all companies can be bootstrapped, and even more shouldnt be. How would you bootstrap an oil refinery or a floating casino? I mean, maybe you could, but why not just become a person capable of taking the shortest route to your goal?

Often, the reason you cant bootstrap companies is because opportunities are time-sensitive and your competition isnt bootstrapping. Imagine trying to bootstrap an Uber competitor in Uber's market at the same time as Uber. Even if somehow you could in the absence of Uber, Uber would destroy you.

Start a transformative web-commerce company, then transform it into the premier cloud-hosting company. Sell some shares. Pay a lot of good people to help you.

Seriously. Bezos is the only major player to be playing only with his own money. I think everyone else (SpaceX, ULA, Virgin, etc.) all have substantial external investment.

Space is expensive to get to. In general, you're going to need to pool a lot of capital and human effort.

If starting small is a goal, finding great Cubesat applications seems like a good place to start (but you'll need enough money to get to orbit). It looks like there is a lot of competition, though.

The "spaceness," of the business needs definition. Maybe you build drones to defend asteroid mining claims and equipment, stealth communications for space prospecting, cryptographically sovereign networks for space supply chains, low gravity weapons and anti-piracy defences, solar sails, a navigation scheme and commercial beacon network, etc.

The nearest term use case for commercial space tech is going to be regulatory arbitrage, so if you can deliver content and secure a physical space jurisdiction for a legal system, it will be the new off shore.

In short, infrastructure. Where would you start?

Infrastructure doesn't cover it. Without a way to defend it, there will be no investment, so crypto and directed energy defences. Payments, identity, etc. Same as earth.

It's space. Kinetic weapons will be just enough; one needs to make the shooting mechanism reliable in space.

You... don’t? There is a reason that Elon etc are the ones with bootstrapped space companies and very few others.

SpaceX has raised $3.2B in funding[0]... they are far from bootstrapped.

[0] https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/space-exploration-te...

They're not bootstrapped NOW. Say that in 2007 when they had the falcon 1. Obviously, they've gone on to raise money after showing that they can get into LEO.

Learn how to use mission planning software, for instance:


with this you can help people spin tales of space project such as: "to build a sunshade, is it worth mining the moon?" Does it make sense to build the "Lunar Gateway?" Could lunar oxygen be delivered to LEO and HEO in order to retank SpaceX Starships?

Pick up the tools to answer questions like that.

Also learn to use formal specification tools like TLA+. Space companies will probably not use software without correctness guarantees. Especially if your software was verified by only a small number of people, it is likely to have bugs.

No one has suggested this so far, strangely enough: start with content. Aim to become the place for excellent news, interviews, videos, etc. about anything space related. Or, go a fictional route - if George Lucas / Lucas Films wanted to get into actual, real space travel or space products, he's in an excellent position to do so. The brand is related and they've got billions to spend. I would bet that this happens sometime in the next ±100 years - imagine Disney having a Star Wars theme park in space. And you certainly don't need to be as successful as Lucas to build a fictional brand around space - even a smaller company could make space products if it has an audience.

How to start from scratch: build up an audience, relationships with industry members, and an overall familiarity with the marketplace and potential opportunities. Develop a product, sell it to your audience, hire smart people, rinse and repeat. Your starting costs are basically zero, assuming you know how to write/create content.

I like this. There are over 100 rocket companies. You could become an industry analyst and publish about them. Or become the Walt Mossberg of space. Eventually host a conference everyone has to exhibit at.

It's been said "rocket science is not rocket science".

Elon Musk put reportedly 90 millions his own dollars into Falcon-1. So it was enough a decade ago to spend $90 millions for Kwajalein launch pad, 5 units of Falcon-1, design, transportation, operations.

Should we assume that today that ought to be cheaper - especially if we find a cheaper launch pad and be more lucky with at least first launch? Rocket Lab isn't that successful with it, but shouldn't it be possible at all? A recent new Japanese launcher was lighter than 3 tons.

Now there are more modest companies, which don't put payloads to orbit, yet still qualify as "space business". I'd recall Altius Space Machines and Masten Space. You can add parts manufacturers for cubesats - parts like star trackers reaction wheels, RCSes, communications... They usually start with way less than tens of million dollars.

Why a particular approach should cost a lot? Kistler Aerospace found that buying components for orbital launchers on the market is too expensive to survive, but may be there are other ways?

NOTE: The below suggestion is assuming Starship pans out and launch costs drop dramatically.

The way I see it, there are 3 (overlapping?) ways of making money in space:

1) put something up there (like a satellite) 2) take something down (asteroid mining, space based manufacturing, etc) 3) do something in space you can only do there

Here's an idea that falls into category 3 that I've been kicking around - space based entertainment. Maybe design a new sport that's only playable in space (or start with a currently popular one and extend it with space-only dynamics).

You would definitely need some significant capital and it'll be several years before you could actually put some athletes in space. But assuming launch costs are cheap enough and human transport is reliable, I don't think it would require speculative new technologies. Possibly the biggest technical gap would be in building large enough structures for the sport. The work of Bigelow Areospace or Nanoracks seems to be going in the right direction.

You may want to look at Red Bull Air Race. It also was an extremely expensive novelty sport and they shut it down after a few years.

The enemy's gate is down.

Exactly. I think Ender's Game is what got me thinking along these lines.

Governments with space programmes will fund lots of research-type projects as well as purchase goods and services they actually use.

But if you'd best pick something you can do for the million or two they might give you like niche software or analysing EO data or space imagery or lightweight materials rather than hope to launch a cubesat constellation or get to Mars.

Realistically you don’t, but...

You’re definitely not building hardware without much money. Maybe you can build software? Spend a lot of time talking to companies that already operate in the space industry, find some unmet software need that you can somehow build a software solution for (better than the thousands of other software engineers who have already worked in the field for decades) and sell it to them.

For instance, maybe you figure out a better way to write satellite management software. And then you sell that for a while (tricky, you’ve got very few possible customers and they’re all quite capable of copying what you’ve done if it’s so great) and eventually you get to the point where you start launching your own satellites.

I’m not saying there’s a reasonable business model in there; but if there’s a reasonable business model somewhere it’s likely to look something like that.

Move to Glasgow (like Spire did). It's got a bunch of companies making cube sats & cube sat software & satellite data analysis.

Clyde Space will sell the bits to make a cubesat or even build it for you. https://www.aac-clyde.space/

Alba Orbital do the same thing at a smaller (& cheaper form factor): http://www.albaorbital.com/

Add a sensor that you can sell the data from. Make a deal to sell the data. Use the money / guarantee of the deal to raise money to fund the satellite development and launch.

Here's some different resources that might help you tap into the entrepreneurial space community as well as help get you bootstrap, seed funding for your space business:

- The New Space Conference (https://spacefrontier.org/newspace2019/), which alternates between being based in the Bay Area and Seattle. This conference is a great, accessible way to find out what is going on with startup companies attempting to do interesting things in space.

- The NASA Ames Space Portal (https://www.nasa.gov/ames/partnerships/spaceportal) - A group based at NASA Ames field center in Mountain View that pursues public/private partnerships between NASA and the private sector.

- NASA Frontier Development Lab (FDL) (https://frontierdevelopmentlab.org/) - A two month "research sprint" that takes place in the summer time in Mountain View, bridging machine learning and space science & exploration, as well as the public and private sectors.

- NASA SBIR grants (https://sbir.nasa.gov/) - a great program that helps seed small businesses and solo inventors with seed grants for promising entrepreneurial programs that might help NASA and the general space economy

- NASA NSPIRES (https://nspires.nasaprs.com/external/) - NASA portal page to find out calls for contributors, that also have funding, that can help you get plugged into the space community and also get seed funding.

- NASA Centennial Challenges (https://www.nasa.gov/open/centennial-challenges.html) - X-Prize like competitions that will pay out if you meet their guidelines and win in a particular area, like the Regolith Excavation Challenge which has been held several times, where the team who can best move simulated lunar soil in an automated way wins. The last winning team got 500k, for example, which is a nice purse to help bootstrap a space venture.

- NASA Advanced Innovative Concepts (NIAC) (https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/index.html) - Award program that funds very far-reaching, innovative space programs. These are always incredibly cool programs; here's the awarded NIAC grants for 2019 for example (https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-invests-in-18-potent...)

- Luxembourg Space Agency (https://space-agency.public.lu/en.html) - Luxembourg is a leader in private, mining oriented operations in space, and acts as an angel and seed investor in many, small early entrepreneurial space startups

If you have more questions feel free to reach out to me on twitter at @bradneuberg

Wow! I've been watching various SBIRs this year with a buddy, but have never heard of some of these programs. Muchas gracias!

Yeah, there's alot of niche programs that can provide nice amounts of seed space capital without being a billionaire, it's just they are fairly in the weeds and a bit hidden.

Bootstrapping is a marathon, not a sprint. Bootstrapping is kind of like stacking bricks, except you mught be making each brick too.

Sometimes you have to build the first thing to get to the second thing.

Before developing hardware, I'd see if there's a lucrative software based problem in this area that could be bootstrapped to generate revenue to fund the next project.

In a way SpaceX is doing their equivalent of this by building Starlink to generate ongoing monthly revenue that conceivably could be directed elsewhere.

I have this mental model that I borrowed from the space industry. Just like how SSTO (Single-stage to orbit) is extraordinarily hard, although not impossible, I've always held the opinion that bootstrapping a startup in hard tech is similarly hard but not quite impossible.

An less riskier approach IMO, would be the multi-stage approach, by solving a series of less capital intensive problems and progressively solving harder and harder problems while accumulating capital for the ultimate goal.

Build software that improves some clunky or inefficient process common in the space industry, then sell it to the space industry. Voila, you now run a bootstrapped space company :)

Unless you're bringing a big industry name with you as cofounder, it's simply not possible.

Just to get certified to do any work as a subcontractor would be in the $XXX,XXX range.

Space based solar like CassioPeia is an interesting format. Designed in a way that you can start with a smaller scale model to prove the concept and then work upwards.

Find country that need (but does not have yet) ICBM capabilities and pitch them that you can build rocket for them. They will provide all funding you will ever need.

that's a great way to end up dead by the countries who do not wish said country to have an ICBM.

or, more likely, to end up dead by said country once they realize you have no idea what you're doing

First, start something massive and unrelated to space, like a paypal. Then ride your dividends straight into your burn rate, securing idealistic investor money to go into the furnace along the way.

Seriously, that’s the playbook for what you suggest. The only playbook. Anything else in these threads is going to be baseless presumption; if it were as the commenters said, they’d themselves be doing it and not sharing it online.

If you really want to bootstrap it, start with toy/hobby rockets and drones and slowly work up. Alter the services you offer as you go eg: aerial photography, weather monitoring, engines etc etc till eventually you're launching small sattelites and stuff

It's the kind of thing that'd probably take decades before you were realistically even beginning to look at space though

the amateur rocketry crowd has had large solid rocket motors for a while now but bi-propellent motors (event the most simple designs) are very very rare. If you could design one in the N impulse range and price it at < $2500 they'd sell like hot cakes. Then you could scale up the design to a bit more powerful and sell it to universities at around 10k a pop. The service contract to keep them running would be worth a lot o f money too. Eventually, you'd be able to sell a Karman line capable kit and that would sell like hotcakes to both the amateur rocketry and university crowd.

There's a group on youtube working on nitrous oxide/methanol engine for hobbyists now. I think they're headed in the right direction although I would have done the combustion chamber differently. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEkE_gf1VxBngLugexHz2KQ

I went to a Elon Musk's talk. He said he wouldn't have started spacex and tesla if he hadn't had the initial capital he gained through paypal.

I want to start a robotics company and I guess I would start by selling robotic toys and kits.

Start and then sell a financial services company. Then build the space company.

You could look at developing something that would make being in space more habitable for humans. Better spacesuits, better equipment. Maybe something in the cryostasis..eh..space?

Why not wait until people are out there already and sell shovels

1. It may take many years before significant number of people are out there.

2. What kind of equipment or services would these "shovels" be? Is there any kind of equipment used in space that could be produced by a bootstrapped company that doesn't have billions of dollars in funding? Why would a new company in this business succeed when competing against established companies that already have experience producing such equipment?

Start a non-space company, grow wildly successful, and use the substantial financial resources from that to fund your space company. Space is a capital-intensive industry. You cannot compete with those who can leapfrog you with one investment round or bond issue.

Presuming you don't want to do that, or to become a primary launch provider, start by networking with people already in the industry. Move to space hot spots like Cape Canaveral, Huntsville, Houston, or Los Angeles, and start stalking insiders.

There's a reason most of these comments are saying this is impossible.

First you need some actual technical knowledge, like PhD level knowledge of some slightly innovative new space tech. I like to think one of the big boys in space money will be asteroid mining. So present a detailed and well researched pitch to some investor about how you would go about using a company to RnD this endeavour. Hopefully, they give you a lot of money.

But you said you want little external funding, so, yeah, not going to happen.

Define space company. You want to launch things? Hitch a ride on OP (other people's) rockets?

If anyone tries this, drop me an email. I’d love to get involved in any capacity.

Me, too! I'd love to help.

1. Partner with Elon Musk 2. Use partner's capital and experience 3. Profit

How do you make money with Satellites?

All of the data that you sell. E.g. Planet provides complete Earth coverage approx every 24h. Hyperspectral imagery, tracking ships/planes with specialised receivers, monitoring other space assets, running weather services, etc. That data is all worth HUGE amounts of money to the right people.

Start an e-commerce company from the scratch, grow it, make it automated, then use revenue to bootstrap your space company.

How about a logistics company ?

Yeah, any scalable profitable company would do. I just have practical experience with exponential growth from automated e-commerce, but see no reason why that couldn't work for logistics or some other type as well.


For what purpose?


Rich hobbyists - like the businesses that specialize in model trains

Satellites on a chip.

It will be hard to get approval for that to launch (at least from the US). In order to be tracked to ensure the safety of future launches objects need to be much larger than a single chip. Smaller than that the tracking techniques used have trouble tracking the vehicles.

Huh, that's interesting, can you elaborate?

What are the minimum size requirements? Are they multidimensional?

At least 10cm in any dimension (i.e. a 10cm diameter sphere, or a 10cm x 10cm x 10cm cube).


I think they want things to be at least 10cm in all dimensions I don't have original sources though it was a while ago. Found this article.


How does anybody bootstrap anything these days? Marketing and kickstarter!

Given marketing encompasses ‘only building things people want’ this actually isn’t too far off base.

1. Make a PayPal 2. Space time

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