Lex Fridman Podcast - #157 - Natalya Bailey Rocket Engines and Electric Spacecraft Propulsion

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The following is a conversation with Natalia Bailey,

a rocket scientist and spacecraft propulsion engineer

previously at MIT and now the founder and CTO

of Axion Systems,

specializing in efficient space propulsion engines

for satellites and spacecraft.

So these are not the engines that get us

from the ground on Earth out to space,

but rather the engines that move us around in space

once we get out there.

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As a side note, let me say something about Natalia’s story.

She has talked about how when she was young,

she would often look up at the stars

and dream of alien intelligences

that one day we could communicate with.

This moment of childlike cosmic curiosity

is at the core of my own interest in space

and extraterrestrial life and in general

in artificial intelligence, science, and engineering.

Amid the meetings and the papers and the career rat race

and all the awards,

let’s not let ourselves lose that childlike wonder.

Sadly, we’re on Earth for only a very short time,

so let’s have fun solving some of the biggest puzzles

in the universe while we’re here.

If you enjoy this thing, subscribe on YouTube,

review it on Apple Podcast, follow on Spotify,

support it on Patreon,

or connect with me on Twitter at Lex Friedman.

And now, here’s my conversation with Natalia Bailey.

You said that you spent your whole life dreaming about space

and also pondering the big existential question

of whether there is or isn’t intelligent life,

intelligent alien civilizations out there.

So what do you think?

Do you think there’s life out there?

Intelligent life?

Intelligent life, that’s trickier.

I think looking at the likelihood

of a self replicating organism

given how much time the universe has existed

and how many stars with planets,

I think it’s likely that there’s other life.

Intelligent life, I’m hopeful,

I’m a little discouraged that we haven’t yet been in touch.

As I’m hopeful.

Allegedly, I mean, it’s also.

In our dimensions and so on, yeah.

It’s also possible that they have been in touch

and we just haven’t, we’re too dumb to realize

they’re communicating with us.

In whichever, it’s the Carl Sagan idea

that they may be communicating at a time scale

that’s totally different.

Like their signals are in a totally different time scale

or in a totally different kind of medium of communication.

It could be our own, it could be the birth of human beings.

Whatever the magic that makes us who we are,

the collective intelligence thing,

that could be aliens themselves.

That could be the medium of communication.

Like the nature of our consciousness

and intelligence itself is the medium of communication.

And like being able to ask the questions themselves,

I’ve never thought of it that way.

Like actually, yeah, asking the question

whether aliens exist might be the very medium

by which they communicate.

It’s like they send questions.

So some of this like collective emergent behavior

is the signal.

Is the signal, yeah.


That’s interesting, yeah.

Because maybe that’s how we would communicate with,

if you think about it, if we were way, way, way smarter,

like a thousand years from now, we somehow survive,

like how would we actually communicate?

In a way that’s like, if we broadcast the signal,

and then it could somehow like percolate

throughout the universe,

like that signal having an impact on.


Multiverse, of course, that would have a signal,

an effect on the most possible,

the highest number of possible civilizations.

What would that signal be?

It might not be like sending a few

like stupid little hello world messages.

It might be something more impactful.

It’s almost like impactful in a way

where they don’t have to have the capability to hear it.

It like forces the message to have an impact.


My train of thought has never gone there,

but I like it.

And also somewhere in there,

I think it’s implied that something travels faster

than the speed of light, which I’m also really hopeful for.

Oh, you’re hopeful.

Are you excited by the possibility

that there’s intelligent life out there?

Sort of, you work on the engineering side of things.

It’s this very kind of focused pursuit

of moving things through space efficiently.

But if you zoom out,

one of the cool things that this enables us to do is find,

get even intelligent life,

just life on Mars or on Europa or something like that.

Does that excite you?

Does that scare you?

Oh, it’s very exciting.

I mean, it’s the whole reason I went into the field

I’m in is to contribute to building the body of knowledge

that we have as a species.

So very exciting.

Do you think there’s life on Mars?

Like no longer, well, already living,

but currently living, but also no longer living,

like that we might be able to find life,

as some people suspect, basic microbial life.

I’m not so sure about in our own solar system.

And I do think it might be hard to untangle

if we somehow contaminated other things as well.

So I’m not sure about this close to home.

That’d be really exciting.


Do you think about the Drake equation much of like?

That was what got me into all of this, yeah.

Yeah, because one of the questions is how hard is it

for life to start on a habitable planet?

Like if you have a lot of the basic conditions,

not exactly like Earth, but basic Earth like conditions,

how hard is it for life to start?

And if you find life on Mars or find life on Europa,

that means it’s way easier.

That’s a good thing to confirm

that if you have a habitable planet,

then there’s going to be life.

And that like immediately, that would be super exciting

because that means there’s like trillions of planets

with basic life out there.

Though of all the planets in our solar system,

Earth is clearly the most habitable.

So I would not be discouraged

if we didn’t find it on another planet in our solar system.

True, and again, that life could look very different.

It’s habitable for Earth like life,

but it could be totally different.

I still think that trees are quite possibly

more intelligent than humans,

but their intelligence is carried out over a time scale

that we’re just not able to appreciate.

Like they might be running

the entirety of human civilization,

and we’re just like too dumb to realize

that they’re the smart ones.

Maybe that’s the alien message.

It’s in the trees.

Yeah, it’s not in the monolith in the Utah desert.

It’s in the trees.

Right, yeah.

So let’s go to space exploration.

How do you think we would get humans to Mars?

I think SpaceX and Elon Musk will be the ones

that get the first human setting foot on Mars,

and probably not that long from now

from us having this conversation.

Maybe we’ll inflate his timeline a little bit,

but I tend to believe the goals he sets.

So I think that will happen relatively soon.

As far as when and what it will take

to get humans living there in a more permanent way,

I have a glib answer, which is when we can invent

a time machine to go back to the early Cold War,

and instead of uniting around sending people to the moon,

we pick Mars as the destination.

So really, I say that because there’s nothing

truly scientifically or technologically impossible

about doing that soon.

It’s more politically and financially,

and those are the obstacles, I think, to that.

Well, I wonder of when you colonize

with more than, I say, five people on Mars,

you have to start thinking about the kind of rules

you have on Mars, and just speaking of the Cold War,

who gets to own the land?

You know, you start planting flags,

and you start to make decisions.

And like SpaceX says, it’s probably a little bit trolly,

but they have this nice paragraph in their contracts

where it talks about that human governments on Earth

or Earth governments have no jurisdiction on Mars.

Like the rules, the Martians get to define their own rules.

It sounds very much like the founding fathers

for this country.

That’s the kind of language.

It’s interesting that that’s in there,

and it makes you think perhaps that needs to be leveraged.

Like you have to be very clever about leveraging that

to create a little bit of a Cold War feeling.

It seems like we humans need a little bit of a competition.

Do you think that’s necessary to succeed

and to get the necessary investment,

or can the pure pursuit of science be enough?

No, I think we’re seeing right now

the pure pursuit of science.

I mean, that results in pretty tiny budgets for exploration.

There has to be some disaster impending doom

to get us onto another planet in a permanent way.

I don’t know, financially, I just don’t know

if the private sector can support that,

but I don’t wish that there is some catastrophe

coming our way that spurs us to do that.

Yeah, I’m unsure what the business model is

for colonizing Mars.

Yeah, exactly.

Yeah, like there is for, we’ll talk about satellites.

There’s probably a lot of business models around satellites,

but there’s not enough short term business.

I guess that’s how business works.

Like you should have a path to making money

in like the next 10 years.

Well, and maybe even more broadly,

and looping back to something we said earlier,

I don’t know that getting humans off this planet

and spreading like bacteria

is what we’re supposed to be doing in the first place.

So maybe we can go, but should we?

And I’m probably an unusual person

for thinking that in my industry

because humans want to explore,

but I almost wonder, are we putting unnecessary obstacles?

Like we’re very finicky biological things

in the way of some more robotic or more

silicon based exploration.

And yeah, do we need to colonize and spread?

I’m not sure.

What do you think is the role of AI in space?

Do you, in your work, again, we’ll talk about it,

but do you see more and more of the space vehicles,

spacecraft being run by artificial intelligence systems?

More than just like the flight control,

but like the management?

Yeah, I don’t have a lot of color to the dreams

I have about way in the future in AI,

but I do think that removing,

it’s hard for humans to even make a trip to Mars,

much less go anywhere farther than that.

And I think we’ll have more,

again, I’m probably unusual in having these thoughts,

but perhaps be able to generate more knowledge

and understand more if we stop trying to send humans

and instead, I don’t know if we’re talking about AI

in a truly artificial intelligence way

or AI as we kind of use it today,

but maybe sending a Petri dish or two of like stem cells

and some robotic handlers instead,

if we still need to send our DNA

because we’re really stuck on that,

but if not, maybe not even that Petri dish.

So I see, I think what I’m saying is,

I see a much bigger role in the future

of AI for space exploration.

It’s kind of sad to think that,

I mean, I’m sure we’ll eventually send a spacecraft

with efficient propulsion,

like some of the stuff you work on out

that travels just really far with some robots on it

and with some DNA in a Petri dish,

and then human civilization destroys itself,

and then there’ll just be this floating spacecraft

that eventually gets somewhere or not.

That’s a sad thought, like this lonely spacecraft

just kind of traveling through space

and humans are all dead.

Well, it depends on what the goal is, right?

Another way to look at it is we’ve preserved,

it’s like a little time capsule of knowledge, DNA,

that will outlive us.

Well, that’s beautiful.


It’s how I sleep at night.

So you also mentioned that you wanted to be an astronaut.


So even though you said you’re unusual

in thinking like, it’s nice here on Earth,

and then we might want to be sending robots up there,

you wanted to be a human that goes out there.

Would you like to one day travel to Mars?

You know, if it becomes sort of more open

to civilian travel and that kind of thing?

Like are you, like vacation wise,

like if we’re talking vacations,

would you like to vacation on Earth or vacation on Mars?

I wish that I had a better answer, but no.

I wanted to be an astronaut because I,

first of all, I like working in labs and doing experiments.

And I wanted to go to like the coolest lab, the ISS,

and do some experiments there.

That’s being decommissioned, which is sad,

but you know, there will be others, I’m sure.

The ISS is being decommissioned?

Yes, I think by 2025, it’s not going to be in use anymore.

But I think there are other,

there are private companies that are going to be putting up

stations and things.

So it’s primarily like a research lab, essentially.


A research lab in space, that’s a cool way to say it.

It’s like the coolest possible research lobby.

That’s where I wanted to go.

And now though, my risk profile has changed a little bit.

I have three little ones and I won’t be in the first

thousand people to go to Mars, let’s put it that way.

Yeah, Earth is kind of nice.

We have our troubles, but overall, it’s pretty nice.

Again, it’s the Netflix.

Okay, let’s talk rockets.

How does a rocket engine work or any kind of engine

that can get us to space or float around in space?

The basic principle is conservation of momentum.

So you throw stuff out the back of the engine

and that pushes the rocket and the spacecraft

in the other direction.

So there are two main types of rocket propulsion.

The one people are more familiar with is chemical

because it’s loud and there’s fire.

And that’s what’s used for launch and is more televised.

So in those types of systems, you usually have a fuel

on an oxidizer and they react and combust

and release stored chemical energy.

And that energy heats the resultant gas

and that’s funneled out the back through a nozzle,

directed out the back and then that momentum exchange

pushes the spacecraft forward.

Is there an interesting difference in liquid

and solid fuel in those contexts?

They’re both lumped in the same.

So chemical just means that the release of energy

from those bonds essentially.

So a solid fuel works the same way.

And the other main category is electric propulsion.

So instead of chemical energy,

you’re using electrical energy,

usually from batteries or solar panels.

And in this case, the stuff you’re pushing out the back

would be charged particles.

So instead of combustion and heat,

you end up with charged particles

and you force them out the back of the spacecraft

using either an electrostatic field or electromagnetic.

But it’s the same momentum exchange

and same idea stuff out the back

and everything else goes forward.

Cool, so those are the big two categories.

What’s the difference maybe in the challenges of each,

in the challenges of each, the use cases of each

and how they’re used today, the physics of each

and where they’re used, all that kind of stuff.

Anything interesting about the two categories

that distinguishes them?

Besides the chemical one being the big sexy flames.

Yeah, fire.

Fire, yeah.

Chemical is very well understood

in its simplest form, it’s like a firework.

So it’s been around since 400 BC or something like that.

So that even the big engines are quite well understood.

I think one of the last gaps there is probably

what exactly are the products of combustion?

Our modeling abilities kind of fall apart there

because it’s hot and gases are moving

and you end up kind of having to venture

into lots of different interdisciplinary fields of science

to try to solve that.

And that’s quite complex, but we have pretty good models

for some of the more like emergent behaviors

of that system anyways.

But that’s I think one of the last unsolved pieces.

And really the kind of what people care about there

is making it more fuel efficient.

So the chemical stuff, you can get a lot

of instantaneous thrusts, but it’s not very fuel efficient.

It’s much more fuel efficient to go

with the electric type of propulsion.

So that’s where people spend a lot of their time

is trying to make that more efficient in terms

of thrust per unit of fuel.

And then there’s always considerations

like heating and cooling.

It’s very hot, which is good if it heats the gases,

but bad if it melts the rocket and things like that.

So there’s always a lot of work on heating

and cooling and the engine cycles and things like that.

And then on electric propulsion,

I find it like much more refreshingly poorly understood.

Lots more mysteries.

Yeah, I think so.

One of the classes I took in college,

we spent 90% of the class on chemical propulsion

and then the last 10% on electric.

And the professor said like,

we only sort of understand how it works,

but it works kind of.

And it’s like, that’s interesting.

Yeah, and even an ion engine,

which is probably one of the most straightforward

because it’s just an electrostatic engine,

but it has this really awesome combination

of like quantum mechanics and material science

and fluid dynamics and electrostatics.

And it’s just very intriguing to me.

First of all, can you actually zoom out even more?

Like, cause you mentioned ion propulsion engine

is a subset of electric.

So like maybe, is there a categories of electric engines

and then we can zoom in on ion propulsion?

Yes, so sure.

There’s the two most kind of conventional types

that have been around since the sixties

are ion engines and hall thrusters.

And ion engines are a little bit simpler

because they don’t use a magnetic field

for generating thrust.

And then there are also some other types of plasma engines,

but that don’t fit into those two categories.

So just kind of other plasma,

like a VASMIR engine, which we could get into.

And then those are probably the main three categories

that would be fun to talk about.

Oh, and then of course, the category of engine

that I work on, which has a lot of similarities

to an ion engine, but could be considered its own class

called a colloid thruster.

Colloid, cool.

Okay, so what is an ion propulsion, I imagine?

Okay, so in an ion engine, you have an ionization chamber

and you inject the propellant into that chamber.

And this is usually a neutral gas like xenon or argon.

So you inject that into the chamber

and you also inject a stream of really high energy electrons

and everything’s just moving around very randomly in there.

And the whole goal is to have one of those electrons

collide with one of those neutral atoms

and turn it into an ion.

So kick off a secondary electron and now you have…




And now you have a charged xenon or argon ion

and more electrons and so on.

And then some fraction of those ions will happen

to make it to this downstream electric field

that we set up between two grids with holes in them.

And in terms of area, the same amount of those ions

also runs into the walls and lose their charge

and that’s where some of the inefficiencies come in.

But the very lucky few make it to the downstream

and the very lucky few make it to those holes in that grid

and there are two grids actually

and you apply a voltage differential between them

and that sets up an electric field.

And a charged particle in an electric field

creates a force.

And so those ions are accelerated out the back of the engine

and the reaction force is what pushes the spacecraft forward.

If you’re following along and tallying these charges,

now we’ve just sent a positive beam of ions

out the back of the spacecraft and for our purposes here,

the spacecraft is neutral.

So eventually those ions will come back

and hit the spacecraft because it’s a positive beam.

So you also have to have an external cathode producer

of electrons outside the engine

that pumps electrons into that beam and neutralizes that.

So now it’s net neutral everywhere

and it won’t come back to the spacecraft.

So that’s an ion engine.

What temperature are we talking about here?

So in terms of like the chemical based engines,

those are super hot.

You mentioned plasma here.

How hot does this thing get?

I mean, is that an interesting thing to talk about

in a sense that is that an interesting distinction

or is the heat, I mean, it’s all gonna be hot.

No, so it’s important especially

for some of these smaller satellites

people are into launching these days.

So it’s important because you have the plasma

but also those high energy electrons are hot

and if you have a lot of those that are going into the walls

you do have to care about the temperature.

So I’m having trouble remembering off the top of my head.

I think they’re at like a hundred electron volts

in terms of the electron energy

and then I’d have to remember how to convert that

into Kelvin.

Can you stick your hand in it?

Not move the temperature.

Not recommended, yeah.

So what’s a colloid engine?

So the same rocket people that came up with these ideas

for electric propulsion probably in the middle

of last century also realized that there’s one more place

to get charged particles from if you’re going

to be using electric propulsion.

So you can take a gas and you can ionize it

but there are also some liquids particularly ionic liquids

which is what we use that you also can use

as a source of ions and if you have ions

and you put them in a field you generate a force.

So they recognize that but part of being able

to leverage that technique is being able

to kind of manipulate those liquids on a scale

of nanometers or very few microns.

So the diameter of a human hair or something like that

and in the 50s there was no way to do that.

So they wrote about it in some books

and then it kind of died for a little bit

and then with silicon mems, computer processors

and when foundry started becoming more ubiquitous

and my advisor started at MIT kind of put those ideas

back together and was like, hey actually there’s now a way

to build this and bring this other technique to life.

And so the way that you actually get the ions

out of those liquids is you put the liquid

in again a strong electric field

and the electric field stresses the liquid

and you keep increasing the field

and eventually the liquid will assume a conical shape.

It’s when the electric field pressure that’s pulling on it

exactly balances the liquid’s own restoring force

which is its surface tension.

So you have this balance and the liquid assumes a cone

when it’s perfectly balanced like that

and at the tip of a cone the radius of curvature

goes to zero right at the tip

and the electric field right at the tip of a sharp object

would go to infinity because it goes as one over the radius

and one over the radius squared

and instead of the electric field going to infinity

and maybe like generating a wormhole or something,

a jet of ions instead starts issuing

from the tip of that liquid.

So the field becomes strong enough there

that you can pull ions out of the liquid.

What is the liquid?

We’re talking about, there’s a bunch of different ones.

You can do it with different types of liquids.

It depends on how easily you can free ions

from their neighbors and if it has enough surface tension

so that you can build up a high enough electric field

but what we use are called ionic liquids

and they’re really just positive.

They’re very similar to salts but they happen to be liquid

over a really wide range of temperatures.

This sounds like really cool.

Okay, so how big is the cone we’re talking about?

What’s the size of this cone that generates the ions?

So if you have a cone that’s emitting pure ions,

I can’t remember if it’s the radius or diameter

but that emission is happening from,

of that cone is something like 20 nanometers.

Oh, I was imagining something slightly bigger

but so like this is tiny, tiny.

Hence the only being able to do it recently.

Yeah, that’s right.

So this is all controlled by a computer, I guess.

Like, or like, how do you create a cone

that generates ions at a scale of nanometers exactly?

So the kind of main trick to making this work

is that physically we manufacture hundreds

or thousands of sharp structures and then supply the liquid

to the tips.

So that does a few things.

It makes sure that we know where the ion beams are forming.

So we can put holes in the grid above them

to let them actually leave instead of hitting, right?


But it also reduces the actual field we have,

the voltage we have to apply to create that field

because the field will be much stronger

if we can already give the liquid a tip to form on.

And those tips we form have radii of curvature

on the order of probably like single microns.

So we are working at a little bit larger scale

but once we create that support

and the electric field can be focused at that tip,

then the tiny little cone can form on top of that.

So wait, so there’s something in them,

there’s already like a hard material

that like gives you the base for the cone

and then you’re pouring like liquid over it,

whatever the heck. From the bottom, yeah.

It’s porous, so we actually supply it

from the back of the chip and then it wicks.

And then liquid forms on top on that structure.

And then you somehow make it like super sharp, the liquid,

so the ions can leave.

And then we’ve applied that field to get those ions

and that same field then accelerates them.

That’s awesome. And there’s like a bunch of these?

Yeah, I should have brought something.

So we…

You could just pretend that you have some nanometer cones

on a table here.

So actually, you know, kind of about this scale,

we build, we call them thruster chips

and it’s just a convenient form factor

and it’s a square centimeter.

And on each square centimeter today,

we have about 500 of the actual physical,

we call them emitters, those physical cones.

And we’re working on increasing that by a factor of four

in the coming months.

In size or in the density?

In number, in the density, the number of emitters

within the same square centimeter chip.

So that thing, cause I think I’ve seen pictures of you

with like a tiny thing in your hand.

That must be the…

Okay, so that’s an engine.

So that is kind of the ionization chamber

and thrust producing part of it.

What’s not shown, you know, in that picture

is the propellant tank.

So we can keep supplying more and more of the liquid

to those emission sites.

And then we also provide a power electronic system

that talks to the spacecraft

and turns our device on and off.

So that’s the colloid engine.

That’s the core of the colloid engine.

It’s, the way I’ve been talking about it,

it’s more of ion electrospray colloid

tends to mean like liquid droplets coming off of the jet.

But if you make smaller and smaller cones,

you get pure ions.

So we’re kind of like a subset of colloid, yes.

What aspects of this, you said that it’s been full

of mysteries from the physics perspective.

What aspects of this are understood

and what are still full of mystery?

Yeah, recently we’ve been understanding

the kind of instabilities and stable regimes of,

you know, how much liquid do you supply

and what field do you apply?

And why is it flickering on and off?

Or why does it have these weird behaviors?

So that’s, in the past just couple of years,

that’s become much more understood.

I think the two areas that come to mind

as far as not as well understood are

the boundary between, you know, you have,

we actually use kind of big molecular ions.

And if you’re looking at the molecular scale,

you have, you know, some ions that you’ve extracted

and they’re in this electric field.

One ion, you know, it’s a big molecule,

it’s getting energy from the electric field.

And some of that energy is going into the bonds

and making it vibrate and doing weird things to it.

Sometimes it breaks them apart.

And then zooming out to the whole beam,

the beam has some behaviors as this beam of ions.

And there’s a big gap between what are those,

how do you connect those?

And how do we understand that better

so that we can understand the beam performance

of the engine?

Is that a theory question or is it an engineering question?

Theory, definitely.

We’re, Axion is a startup and we’re more in the business

of building and testing and observing and characterizing.

And we’re not really diving much into that theory right now.

Okay, zooming out a little bit on the physics,

apologize for the way too big of a question,

but to you from either, you mentioned Axion is,

you know, more of sort of an engineering endeavor, right?

But from a perspective of physics in general,

science in general, or the side of engineering,

what do you think is the most, to you,

like beautiful and captivating

and inspiring idea in this space?

In this space, and then I’m gonna zoom out

a little bit more, but in this space,

I keep butting up against material science questions.

So I, over the past 10 years,

I feel like every problem or interesting thing

I want to work on, if you dig deep enough,

you end up in material science land,

which I find kind of exciting

and it makes me want to dig in more there.

And I was just, you know, even for our technology,

when we have to move the propellant from the tank

to the tip of the emitters, we rely a lot on capillary action

and you’re getting into wetting and surface energies.

At a scale of like nano scale.

Yeah, I mean, it’s, if you look further, it’s quantum too,

but it all is, you know,

a capillary action at the quantum level.

Yeah, so I would, it all comes back to me to, you know,

material science, there’s so much we don’t understand

at these sizes and I find that inspiring and exciting.

And then more broadly, you know,

I remember when I learned that the same equation

that describes flow over an airfoil

is used to price options, the Black Scholes equation,

and it’s, you know, just a partial differential equation,

but that kind of connectedness of the universe,

you know, I don’t want to use options pricing

and the universe in the same, but you know what I mean,

this connectedness I find really magical.

Yeah, the patterns that mathematics reveals

seems to echo in a bunch of different places.


Yeah, there’s just weirdness.

It’s like, it really makes you think,

I think you’re definitely living in a simulation,

like whoever programmed it.

I like that that’s your conclusion.

Is using like shortcuts to program it,

like they didn’t, they’re just copying and pasting some codes

for the different parts.

Yeah, think of something new or just paste from over there.

They won’t notice.

My conclusion from that was I’m gonna go interview

for a finance job, so I had like a little detour.

That’s the backup option.

So in terms of using call it engines,

what’s an interesting difference between a propulsion

of a rocket from earth when you’re standing

on the ground to orbit and then the kind of propulsion

necessary for once you get out to orbit

or to like deep space to move around.

Yes, the reason you can’t use an engine like mine

to get off the ground is, the thrust it generates

is instantaneous thrust is very small,

but if you have the time and can accumulate

that acceleration, you can still reach speeds

that are very interesting for exploration

and even for missions with humans on them.

An interesting direction I think we need to go

as humans exploring space is the power supplies

for electric propulsion are limiting us

in that solar panels are really inefficient

and bulky and batteries.

I don’t know when anybody’s ever gonna improve

battery technology.

I know a lot of people that work on that.

And nuclear power, we could have a lot more powerful

electric propulsion system.

So they would be extremely fuel efficient,

but more instantaneous thrust to do more interesting

missions if we could start launching more nuclear systems.

So like something that’s powered, nuclear powered,

that’s the right way to say it.


But is in a small enough container that could be launched?

Yeah, so I mean, as a world we do launch spacecraft

with nuclear power systems on board,

but size is one consideration.

It hasn’t been a big focus.

So the reactors and the heaters and everything are bulky.

And so they’re really only suitable for some

of the much bigger interplanetary stuff.

So that’s one issue, but then it’s a whole like rat’s nest

of political stuff as well.

I heard, I think Elon described or somebody,

I think it was Elon that described the EV to all

like electrical, vertical takeoff and landing vehicles.

So basically saying rockets, obviously Elon is interested

in electric vehicles, right?

But he said that rockets can’t, in the near term,

it doesn’t make sense for them to be electrical.

What, do you see a world with the rockets that we use

to get into orbit are also electric based?

It’s possible, you can produce the thrust levels you need,

but you need this, a much bigger power supply.

And I think that would be nuclear.

And the only way people have been able to launch them at all

is that they’re in a 100 times redundancy safe mode

while they’re being launched and they’re not turned on

until they’re farther off.

So if you were to actually try to use it on launch,

I think a lot of people would still have an issue with that,

but someday.

It’s an interesting concept, nuclear.

It seems like people, like everybody that works

on nuclear power has shown how safe it is

as a source of energy.

And yet we are, seem to be, I mean, based on the history,

based on the excellent HBO series,

I’m Russian with a Chernobyl.

It seems like we have our risk estimation

about this particular power source is drastically inaccurate,

but that’s a fascinating idea that we would use nuclear

as a source for our vehicles and not just in outer space.

That’s cool.

I’m gonna have to look into that.

That’s super interesting.

Well, just last year, Trump eased up a little bit

on the regulations and NASA and hopefully others

are starting to pick up on the development.

So now is a good time to look into it

because there’s actually some movement.

Is that a hope for you to explore different energy sources

that the entirety of the vehicle uses something

like the entirety of the propulsion systems

for all aspects of the vehicle’s life travel

is the same or electric?

Is it possible for it to be the same?

Like the colloid engine being used for everything?

You could, and you would have to do it in the same way

we do different stages of rockets now

where once you’ve used up an engine or a stage,

you let it go because there’s really no point

in holding onto it.

So I wouldn’t necessarily want to use the same engine

for the whole thing, but the same technology

I think would be interesting.

Okay, so it’s possible.

All right, but in terms of.

Yeah, it comes down to the power source.

The power source, that’s really interesting.

But for the current power sources

and its current use cases, what’s the use case

for electric, like the colloid engine?

Can you talk about where they’re used today?

Sure, so chemical engines are still used quite a bit

once you’re in orbit, but that’s also

where you might choose instead to use an electric system

and what people do with them.

And this includes the ion engines and hall thrusters

and our engine is basically any maneuvering you need to do

once you’re dropped off.

Even if your only goal was to just stay in your orbit

and not move for the life of your mission,

you need propulsion to accomplish that

because the Earth’s gravity field changes

as you go around in orbit and pulls you

out of your little box.

There are other perturbations that can throw you off a bit.

And then most people want to do things

a little bit more interesting like maneuver

to avoid being hit by space debris

or perhaps lower their orbit to take a higher resolution

image of something and then return.

At the end of your mission, you’re supposed

to responsibly get rid of your satellite,

whether that’s burning it up, but if you’re in geo,

you want to push it higher into graveyard orbit.

What’s geo and what’s graveyard?

So low Earth orbit and then geosynchronous orbit

or geostationary orbit.

And there’s a graveyard?

Yeah, so those satellites are at like 40,000 kilometers.

So if they were to try to push their satellites

back down to burn up in the atmosphere,

they would need even more propulsion

than they’ve had for the whole lifetime of their mission.

So instead they push them higher

where it’ll take a million years

for it to naturally deorbit.

So we’re also cluttering that higher bit up as well,

but it’s not as pressing as Leo, which is low Earth orbit

where more of these commercial missions are going now.

Well, so how hard is the collision avoidance problem there?

You said some debris and stuff.

So like how much propulsion is needed?

Like how much is the life of a satellite

is just like a crap trying to avoid

like little things down there?

I think one of the recent rules of thumb I heard

was per year some of these small satellites

are doing like three collision avoidance maneuvers.

So that’s not, yeah, but it’s not zero.

And it takes a lot of planning and people on the ground

and none of that really, I don’t think right now

is autonomous.

Oh, that’s not good.

Yeah, and then we have a lot of folks

taking advantage of Moore’s law and cheaper spacecraft.

So they’re launching them up

without the ability to maneuver themselves.

And they’re like, well, I don’t know, just don’t hit me.

And three times a year that could become affordable

if it gets hit, maybe it won’t be damaged kind of thing,

that kind of logic.

Affordable in that instead of launching one satellite,

they’ll launch 20 small ones.

Yeah, so if one gets taken out, that’s okay.

But the problem is that one good sized satellite

getting hit, that’s like a ballistic event

that turns into 10,000 pieces of debris

that then are the things that go and hit the other satellites.


So do you see a world where, like in your sense,

in your own work and just in the space industry in general,

do you see the people moving towards bigger satellites

or smaller satellites?

Is there going to be a mix?

Like what’s, and what do we talk,

what does it mean for a satellite to be big and small?

What size are we talking about?

So big, the space industry prior to,

I don’t know, 1990, I guess the bulk of,

the majority of satellites were the size of a school bus

and cost a couple billion dollars.

And now our first launches were on satellites

the size of shoe boxes that were built

by high school students.

So that’s a very different,

to give you the two ends of the spectrum.

So big satellites will, I think they’re here to stay,

at least as far as I can see into the future

for things like broadcasting.

You want to be able to broadcast

to as many people as possible.

You also can’t just go to small satellites

and say Moore’s law for things like optics.

So if you have an aperture on your satellite,

that just, that doesn’t follow Moore’s law.

That’s different.

So it’s always going to be the size that it will be,

unless there’s some new physics that comes out

that I’m not aware of.

But if you need a resolution and you’re at an altitude,

that kind of sets your, the size of your telescope.

But because of Moore’s law,

we are able to do a lot more with smaller packages.

And with that comes more affordability

and opening up access to space to more and more people.

Well, what’s the smallest satellite you’ve seen go up there?

Like what are the smallest kind of, you said shoe boxes.

Yeah, so I think the smallest common form factor

can fit a softball inside.

So that’s 10 centimeters on each side.

But then there are some companies working on

fractions of that even.

And they’re doing things like IOT type application.

So it’s very low bandwidth type things,

but they’re finding some niches for those.

Do you mean like there’s a business,

there’s a thing to do with them?

Yes, either.

What do you do with a small satellite like that?

You can track a ship going across the ocean.

Like if you need to, if you’re just pinging something,

you can handle that amount of data

and those latencies and so on.

You have to have propulsion on that.

You have to have a little engine.

No, those are just letting fall out of the sky.

Okay, so what kind of satellite

would you equip a colloid engine on?

Anything that’s bigger than probably about 20 kilograms,

anything that needs to stay up for more than a year

or anything somebody spent more than like 100K to build

are kind of the ways I would think about it.

That’s a lot of use cases.

What’s a small sat?

Like what category?

Small sat is actually very big.

I think it’s like 700 kilograms,

or I keep hitting my microphone,

maybe 1,000 kilograms down to 200 kilograms.

People have their own kind of definitions

of how they break them up,

but small sat is still quite large.

And then it’s kind of also applied as a blanket term

for anything that’s not a school bus size satellite.

So we need to get our jargon straight in the industry.

So do you see a possible future where,

you know, there’s a few thousand satellites up there now,

a couple of thousand of them functioning.

Do you see a future where there’s like millions

of satellites up in orbit?

Or forget millions, tens of thousands,

which just seems like where the natural trajectory

of the way things are going now is going.

Tens of thousands, yes.

The two buckets of applications,

one is imaging and the other is communication.

So imaging, I think that will plateau

because one satellite or one constellation

can take an image or a video

and sell it to, you know, infinity customers.

But if you’re providing communications

like broadband internet or satellite cell

or something like that, satellite phone,

you know, you’re limited by your transponders and so on.

So to serve more people, you actually need more satellites

and perhaps at the rate, you know, our data consumption

and things are going these days.

Yeah, I can see tens of thousands of satellites.

Can I ask you a ridiculous question?


So I’ve recently watched this documentary on Netflix

about flat earthers, you know,

the people that believe in a flat earth.

As somebody who develops propulsion systems

for satellites and for spacecraft,

what’s, do you use the most convincing evidence

that the earth is round?

Probably some of the photos taken from the moon.

Photos from the moon?

Okay, so it’s not from the satellite space.

Yeah, I think seeing that perspective,

maybe I’m just, I’m answering too personally

because I really love those photos.

Because they’re beautiful, yeah.

I really like the ones that show the moon

and the lunar lander and they’re taken

a little bit farther back.

So you see earth and first you’re like, wow, that’s tiny

and we’re insignificant and that’s kind of sad.

But then you see this really cool thing

that we landed on another planetary body

and you’re like, oh, okay.

Can you actually see earth?

I don’t know if I remember this.

Yeah, I’ll send you that picture.

Because I love the pictures or videos

of just earth from orbit and so on.

Right, yeah.

Just like those, that’s really beautiful.

That’s like a perspective shifter.

That’s the pale blue dot, right?

It probably appears tiny.

Yeah, and just that juxtaposition of the insignificance,

but we built this, really cool thing.

And I just love that, yeah.

Oh, that’d be cool.

I can’t, I personally love the idea

of humans stepping on Mars.

I’m such a sucker for the romantic notion of that

and being able to take pictures from Mars next.

So you would go?

I, yeah, I would be, what did you say?

You said you wouldn’t be the first one.

Not in the first 1,000.

1,000, which it’s funny because to me,

that’s brave to be in the first million.

I think when the Declaration of Independence

was signed in the United States,

that was like two million people.

So I would like to show up

when they’re signing those documents.


So maybe the two million.

Oh, that’s an interesting way to think about it.

Because like then we’re like participating

in citizenry and defining the direction.

So it’s not the technical risk.

You just don’t wanna show up somewhere

that’s like America before.

Yeah, because I, from a psychological perspective,

it’s just gonna be a stressful mess

as people have studied, right?

It’s like, it’s people, most likely the process

of colonization like looks like basically a prison.

Like you’re in a very tight and closed space with people.

And it’s just a really stressful environment.

How do you select the kind of people that will go

and then there’ll be drama.

There’s always drama.

And I just wanna show up when there’s some rules.

But I mean, you know, it depends.

So I’m not worried about the health

and the technical difficulties.

I’m more worried about the psychological difficulties.

And also just not being able to tweet.

Like what are you gonna, how are you talking?

There’s no Netflix.

So yeah, maybe not in the first million,

but the first 100,000.

It’s exciting to define the direction of a new,

like how often do we not just have a revolution

to redefine our government,

as smaller countries are still doing to this day,

but literally start over from scratch.

There’s just our financial system.

It could be like based on cryptocurrency,

you could think about like how democracy,

we have now the technology that can enable pure democracy,

for example, if we choose to do that,

as opposed to representative democracy,

all those kinds of things.

So we talked about two different forms of propulsion,

which are super exciting.

So the chemical based, that’s doing pretty well.

And then the electric based is,

are there types of propulsion

that might sound like science fiction right now,

but are actually within the reach of science

in the next 10, 20, 30, 50 years

that you kind of think about,

or maybe even within the space of even just like,

like even ION engines,

is there like breakthroughs that might 10 X the thing,

like really improve it?

So, you know, the real game changer

would be propellantless propulsion.

And so every couple of years you see a new,

now a startup or a researcher comes up with some contraption

for producing thrust that didn’t require,

you know, we’ve been talking about conservation of momentum,

mass times velocity out the back,

mass times velocity forward.

Yes, exactly.

And you have to, you know, carry that up with you

or find it on an asteroid or harvest it from somewhere

if you didn’t bring it with you.

So not having to do that would be, you know,

one of the ultimate game changers.

And I, you know, unless there are new types of physics,

I don’t know how we do it,

but it comes up often, so it’s something I do think about.

And, you know, the one,

I think it’s called the Casimir effect.

If you can, if you have two plates

and the space between them is on the order of these,

like the wavelength of these ephemeral vacuum particles

that pop into and out of existence or something.

I may be confusing multiple types of propellantless forces,

but that could be real

and could be something that we use eventually.

What would be the power source?

Yeah, the most recent engine like this

that was just debunked this year, I think,

in March or something was called the M drive.

And supposedly you used a power source,

so, you know, batteries or solar panels

to generate microwaves into this resonant cavity.

And people claimed it produced thrust.

So they went straight from this really loose concept

to building a device and testing it.

And they said, we’ve measured thrust

and sure on their thrust balance, they saw thrust

and different researchers built it and tested it

and got the same measurements.

And so it was looking actually pretty good.

No one could explain how it worked,

but what they said was that this inside the cavity,

the microwaves themselves didn’t change,

but the speed of light changed inside the cavity.

So relative to that, you know,

their momentum was conserved.

And I don’t, you know, whatever.

But finally someone, I think at NASA built the device,

tested it, got the same thrust, then unhooked it,

flipped it backwards and turned it on,

but got the same thrust in the same direction again.

And so they’re like, this is just an interaction

with the test setup or, you know,

some of the chamber or something like that.

So forwarded again, but, you know,

it would be so wonderful for everybody

if we could figure out how to do it, but I don’t know.

That’s an interesting twist on it

because that’s more about efficient travel,

long distance travel, right?

That’s not necessarily about speed.

That’s more about enabling like,

let’s hook that up to the nuclear power supply.

There you go.


But still in terms of speed, in terms of trying to,

so there’s recently, already I think been debunked

or close to being debunked, but the signal,

a weird signal from our nearby friends,

nearby exoplanets from Proxima Centauri,

a signal that’s 4.2 light years away.

So, you know, the thought is it’d be kind of cool

if there’s life out there, alien life,

but it’d be really cool if it could fly out there and check.

And so what kind of propulsion,

and do you think about what kind of propulsion

will allow us to travel close to the speed of light

or, you know, half the speed of light,

all those kinds of things that would allow us

to get to Proxima Centauri and have reasonable,

in a lifetime?

You know, there’s the project Breakthrough Starshot.


That’s looking at sending those tiny little chip sets.

They’re like accelerating really fast.

Yeah, using a laser, so launching them

and then while they’re still relatively close to the earth,

you know, blasting them with some,

I forget what, even what power level you needed

to accelerate them fast enough to get there in 20 years.

Super crazy sounding,

but a lot of people say that’s a legitimate,

like it’s crazy sounding, but it can actually pull it off.

Yeah, I love that project

because there are a lot of different aspects.

You know, there’s the laser,

there’s how do you then get enough power

when you’re there to send a signal back.

No part of that project is possible right now,

but I think it’s really exciting.

But do you see like human, like a spacecraft

with a human on it, so it’s like a heavy one,

being like us inventing new propulsion systems entirely.

Like, do you ever see that on the radar

of propulsion systems like that

or are they completely out there in the impossible?

Well, we’re going to quickly leave the realm

of what I can describe with any credibility,

but I think because of special relativity,

if we try to accelerate some mass

close to the speed of light, it becomes infinitely heavy

and then we just don’t,

we’d have to like harness a lot of suns to do that.

Or, you know, it’s just that math doesn’t quite work out,

but, you know, in my child’s, my childlike heart,

I believe that, you know, we’re missing something,

whether it’s, you know, dark matter or other dimensions.

And if you can just have some anti matter

and a black hole and then ride that around

and somehow, you know, turn that into some.

Mess with gravity somehow.

Yeah, I feel like we’re missing lots of things

in this puzzle and that, you know.

I want to heart that puzzle.

Yeah, right.

I can speak with confidence as a descendant of apes

that we don’t know what the hell we’re doing.


So there’s, we’re like really confident,

like physicists are really confident

that we’ve like got most of the picture down,

but it feels like, oh boy,

it feels like that we might not even be getting started

on some of the essential things

that would allow us to engineer systems

that would allow us to travel to space much, much faster.

Yeah, and there’s even things

that are much more commonplace that we can’t explain,

but we’ve started to take for granted,

like quantum tunneling, you know,

just things like, oh, the electron was here

with this energy and now it’s here with this energy

and it’s just tunneling.

But so, you know, we’re missing a lot of the picture.

So yeah, I don’t know, to, you know,

use your same question from earlier,

I don’t know if you and I will see it,

but yeah, someday.

You’re the cofounder of,

just like we’ve been talking about, Axion Systems.

It’s a, would you say a space propulsion company?


Broadly speaking.

So how do you, big question,

how do you build a rocket company

from like a propulsion company from one person,

from two people to 10 people plus,

and actually, you know, take it to a successful product?

Yeah, well, I think the early stage is quite,

I’m not supposed to use the word easy

when you work in rocket science,

but straightforward when you’re working on something,

you know, sexy, like an ion engine,

it’s more straightforward to raise money

and get people to come work for you

because the vision’s really exciting.

And actually that’s something I would say

is very important throughout,

is a really exciting vision

because when everything, you know, goes to crap,

you need that to get people

getting themselves out of bed in the morning

and thinking of the higher purpose there.

And, you know, another thing along the way

that I think is key in building any company

is the right early employees

that also have their own networks

and can bring in a lot of people

that, you know, really make the whole greater

than just the sum of the early team.

How do you build that?

Like, how do you find people?

It’s like asking, like, how do you make friends?

But is there, is it luck?

Is there a system?

Like how, in terms of the people you’ve connected with,

the people you built the company with,

is there some thread, some commonality,

some pattern that you find to be,

to hold for what makes a great team?

I think, you know, personally,

a thread for me has been my network

and being able to draw on that a lot,

but also giving back to it as much as possible

in like an unsolicited sort of way,

like making connections between people

that, you know, maybe didn’t ask,

but that I think could be really fruitful.

And even, you know, weirder than that

is just really getting, you know,

having weird, uncomfortable conversations

with people like at a conference

and getting over the small talk quickly

and getting to know them quickly

and having a relationship that stands out

and then being able to call on them later because of that.

And I think that’s been because I’m introverted

and I, you know, want to poke my eyes out

instead of go and do small talk.

And so I huddle in a corner with one person

and, you know, we talk about aliens or things like that.

And so, you know, that’s all to say that,

you know, having a strong network,

I think is really important, but a genuine one.

And let’s see, other ways to build a rocket company,

kind of making sure you’re paying attention

to the sweeping trends of the industry

so everybody just cares about cost

and being able to get out ahead of that

and even more than we ever thought we’d need to

as far as what we needed to price our systems at.

You know, people for,

since the start of the US space industry,

they’ve been paying 20, 25 million in adjusted dollars

for an ion engine.

And seeing that now people are going to want to pay 10K

for an ion engine and just staying out ahead of that

and those kinds of things.

So, you know, being out in the industry

and talking to as many people as possible.

So there’s a drive.

I mean, I suppose SpaceX really pushed that.

Frustrating for me.

So SpaceX really pushed this,

the application of, I guess, capitalism

of driving the price down,

of basically forcing people to ask the question,

can this be done cheaper?

This can lead to like big problems, I would say,

in the following sense.

I see this in the car industry, for example,

that people have,

it’s such a small margin for profit.

Like they’ve driven the cost of everything down so much

that there’s literally no room for innovation

for taking risks.

So like cars, which is funny

because not until Tesla, really,

which is one of the, in a long, long time,

one of the first successful new car companies

that’s constantly innovating,

every other car company is really pouring

in terms of their technological innovation.

They innovate on design and style and so on,

that people fall in love with the look and so on,

but it’s not really innovation.

In terms of the technology in it,

it’s really boringly the same thing,

and they’re really afraid of taking risks.

And that’s a big problem for rocket space, too,

is like if you’re cutting out costs,

you can’t afford to innovate, to try out new things,

and that’s definitely true with ion engines, right?

So how do you compete in this space?

Do you, by the way, see SpaceX as a competitor?

And what do you say in general

about the competition in this space?

Is it really difficult as a business to compete here?

No, I don’t see SpaceX as a competitor,

and I see them as one day, not too long from now,

a customer, hopefully.

I mean, to compete against that,

I think you just have to do things in an unconventional way.

So bringing silicon MEMS manufacturing

to propulsion, NASA doesn’t make ion engines

using a batch mass producible technique.

They have one guy that’s been making their ion engines

for 20 years bespoke pieces of jewelry.

So bringing things to what you’re trying to innovate

to make them, in our case, more cost effective

was really key.

I like the idea of somebody putting out ion engines

on like Etsy.

Yeah, my advisor at MIT would,

the thruster chip I was holding up,

he would wear one as a lapel pin.

But in general, just on the topic of SpaceX,

2020 has seen some difficult things

for human civilization.

And it’s been a lot of, first of all, it’s an election year,

there’s been a lot of drama and division about that.

There’s been riots of all different reasons,

racial division, there’s been obviously a virus

that’s testing the very fabric of our society.

But there’s been really, for me at least,

super positive things, inspiring things,

which is SpaceX and NASA doing the first commercial

human flight, launching humans to space

and did it twice successfully.

What is that, did you get to watch that launch?

Did you, what does it make you feel?

Do you think this is first days

for a new era of space exploration?

Yeah, I did watch it.

We played it outside on a big screen at our place.

And I was a little, they kept saying Bob and Doug,

Bob and Doug, and astronauts usually are treated

with a little bit more fanfare.

So it felt very casual, but maybe that was a good,

a good thing, like this is the era

of commercial crewed missions.

It was a little bit more, what is it?

What’s his name?

Chris Hadfield, like playing guitar.


It’s more, it’s a different flavor to it of.

Yeah, exactly.

More like fun, playful, celebrity type.

Yes, exactly.

Astronaut versus the aura of the magical

sort of heroic element of the single human

representing us in space.

Yes, I think that’s all for the better though.

It’s so cool that it’s such a commonplace thing

now that we send.

I can’t believe that sometimes I’ll have to,

you don’t even realize that astronauts are coming

and going all the time, splashing back down.

And it’s just so common now,

but that’s quite magical, I think.

So yes, we did watch that.

I love, love, love that we finally have that capability

again to send people to the space station.

And it’s just really exciting to see the private sector

stepping up to fill in where the government

has pulled back in the US.

And I think pulled back way too soon

as far as exploration and science goes.

Probably pulled back at the right time

for commercial things and getting that started.

But I’m really happy that it’s even possible

to do that with private money and companies.

Do you like the kind of the model of competition

of NASA funding?

I guess that’s how it works,

is like they’re providing quite a bit of money

from the government and then private companies compete

to be the delivery vehicles for whichever

the government missions, like NASA missions.

Yes, I think for this type of mission

is a little bit kind of straddles commercial and science.

So I think it’s good, but I do in general feel

like we’ve pulled back too much on NASA’s role

in the science and exploration part.

And I think our pace is too slow there,

for my liking, I suppose.

What do you mean?

Okay, so did you have, I mean, on the cost thing,

do you feel like NASA was a little too bureaucratic

in a sense, like too slow, too heavy cost wise

in their effort, like when they were running things

purely without any commercial involvement?

So I suppose it’s more that I just want

the government to fund.

I see, yeah.

And maybe NASA’s not the best organization

to do it rapidly.

But I think that, again, depending on the goals,

we’re just kind of at the very starting point

of space exploration and science and understanding.

So we should be spending more money there and not less.

And other countries are starting to spend more and more,

and I think we’ll fall behind because of that.

So you have quite a bit of experience, first of all,

starting a company yourself, but also I saw,

maybe you can correct me, but you have quite a bit

of knowledge of just in general the startup experience

of building companies that you’ve interacted with people.

Is there advice that you can give to somebody,

to a founder or cofounder who wants to launch

and grow a new company and do something big and impactful

in this world?

Yes, I would say, like I mentioned earlier,

but make sure the vision is something that will get you

out of bed in the morning and that you can rally

other people around you to achieve.

Because I see a lot of folks that sort of cared

about something or saw a window of opportunity

to do something, and startups are hard,

and more often than not, just being opportunistic

isn’t going to be enough to make it through

all the really crappy things that are going to happen.

So the vision just helps you psychologically

to carry through the hardships,

for you and the team.

Yeah, you and the team, yeah, exactly.

To kind of younger people interested in getting

into entrepreneurship, I would say stay as close

to first principles and fundamentals as you can

for as long as you can, because really understanding

the problems, if it’s something scientific

or hardware related, or even if it’s not,

but having a deep understanding of the problem

and the customers and what people care about

and how to move something forward is more important

than taking all of the entrepreneurship classes

in undergrad.

So being able to think deeply, yeah.

Yeah, exactly.

Yeah, have you been surprised about how much pivoting

is involved, basically rethinking what you thought

initially would be the right direction to go?

Or is there, if you think deeply enough,

that you can stick in the same direction for long enough?

So our guiding star hasn’t changed at all,

so that’s been pretty consistent,

but within that, we flip flop on so many things

all the time, and to give you one example,

it’s do you stop and build a first product

that’s well suited to maybe a smaller,

less exciting segment of the market,

or do you stay head down and focus on the big swing

and trying to hit it out of the park right away?

And we’ve flip flopped between that,

and there’s not a blanket answer,

and there are a lot of factors, but that’s a hard one.

And I think one other piece for the aspiring founder,

spending a lot of time and effort on the culture

and people piece is so important

and is always an afterthought and something

that I haven’t really seen the founders or executives

or executives at companies purposefully carve out time

and acknowledge that, yes, this is going to take

a lot of my time and resources,

but you see them after the fact trying to repair

the bro culture or whatever else is broken at the company.

And I think that it’s starting to change,

but just to be aware of it from the beginning is important.

Right, I guess it should be part of the vision

of what kind of place you want to create,

or what kind of human beings.

Yeah, exactly, you can’t wait five, 10 years

and then just slap an HR person onto trying to fix it.

It has to be thoughtful from the beginning.

Yeah, don’t get me started on HR people.

Don’t leave HR to HR people, but I’ll just leave it at that.

You didn’t say that, I said it, okay.

Yeah, HR’s actual HR is really important,

is so important, culture is so important.

And then I also was surprised, I thought you could say,

here will be our culture and our values,

and that it was kind of distinct from who I

and my co founder were as people,

and I was like, no, that’s not how that works.

We just kind of ooze out our behaviors

and then the company grows around that.

So you have to do a lot of introspection and self work

to not end up with a shitty culture.

It’s kind of a, it’s a relationship,

but it’s supposed to be a relationship with two people,

it’s a relationship with many people.


And you communicate so much indirectly by who you are.

You have to be, you have to live it, yeah.

As somebody, I think about this a lot

because generally I’m full of love

and all those kinds of things,

but I also get really passionate

and when I see somebody in the context of work, especially,

when I see somebody who I know can do a much better job

and they don’t do a great job, I can lose my shit

in a way that’s like Steve Jobsian.

And you have to think about exactly the right way

to lose your shit if you’re going to, or if at all.

You have to really think through that

because it sends a big signal.

You know, sometimes it’s okay, like if you do it deliberately,

like if you’re going to do it deliberately,

if you’re going to say like,

I’m going to be the kind of person that allows this

and pays the cost of it,

but you can’t just think it’s not gonna have a cost.

Yes, this was like the first thing I worked on

with my leadership coach was how not to just snap at people

when they were being an idiot.

And first I got really good at apologizing.

That was the first step because it was going to take longer

to fix the behavior.

And then she, I’m actually a lot better at it now

and it started with things.

She’s like, every time you walk through a doorway,

think, you know, calm and take breaths before responding.

And there were all sorts of these little things we did

and it was mostly just changing the habit.

Yeah, oh boy, it’s a long road.

Okay, so people love it and we talk about books.

Is there books, maybe three or so technical fiction,

philosophical that had an impact on your life

and you might recommend and for each,

is there an idea or so that you take away from it?

Yes, so I’ve been a voracious reader all my life

and I’m always reading like three or four or five books

at a time and now I use Audible a lot too

and you know, podcasts and things like that.

So I think the first one that stands out to me is 10,

it’s a novel, Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald.

And I read it when I was much younger

but I went back and read it recently and it’s not that good.

So I’m not sure why it has like such an important place

in my literary history but I love Fitzgerald as an author

because he’s very like flowery prose

that I can just picture what he’s saying

but he does it in such a creative way.

I remember that one in particular

because I read a ton as a kid too

but it kind of set me, it was like the beginning of my adult

reading life and getting into classics

and I kind of, I do feel like they seem intimidating maybe

and then I realized that they’re all just like love stories.


Yeah, isn’t everything a love story?

Yeah, it’s really.

At the bottom.

Even, you know, I don’t know.

I was surprised that even like a lot of the Russian authors,

you know, they’re all just love stories.

We’re humans are pretty simple.

There’s not much to worry, there’s not much to work with.

So I think maybe that was it.

It made like that whole world less intimidating to me

and cemented my love for reading.

People should have just approached the classics

like there’s probably a love story in here.

Chick flicks, yeah.

So somehow it boils down to a chick flick.

So just relax and enjoy the ride.

And then.

So what else?

Changing gears quite a bit.

The Beginning of Infinity, do you know it?

By David Deutsch.

So he’s a physicist at Cambridge or Oxford.

And so I was introduced like more formally

to a lot of the ideas, like a lot of the things

we’ve talked about, he has a lot more like formalism

and physics rigor around.

And so I got introduced to, you know, more like jargon

of how to think about some of these ideas,

you know, like memes and, you know, DNA as ultimate meme,

the concept of infinity and objective beauty.

But he has a really strong grounding in physics.

And then.

There’s a rigorous way of talking about these like big.


So that was very mind opening to me to read that.

But it also, I think it’s probably part of why

I ended up marrying my husband is related to that book.

And then I’ve had some other really great connections

with people because I had read it and so had they.

I like how you turned that, even that book

into a love story.

I did, oh no.


No, it’s good, it’s good.

Your robot has a heart.


And okay, the third series is, it’s just, it’s Harry Potter.

Of course, which somehow connects to,

I haven’t read Harry Potter.

I’m really sorry.

Oh no.

Forgive me, forgive me.

But I’ve read Tolkien, but just Harry Potter,

just haven’t gotten to it.

But your company name is somehow I think

connected to Harry Potter, right?


I think I heard this.

My, I always feel like I have to justify my fandom.

The first three books came out when I was 10.

So I went along this journey with Harry, age wise.

And I read them all like nine or 10 times, all seven books.

And I think anything that just keeps you reading

is what’s important.

And I have lulls where I don’t feel like reading anything.

So I’ll reread a Harry Potter or a trashy detective novel

or something, and I don’t really care.

And that’s why I mentioned Harry Potter

because whatever just keeps me reading,

I think is important.

And it was a big part of my life growing up.

And then yes, Axion, the official story of the naming

of the company is that Axion is like a concatenation

of accelerate and ion.

But it actually came from accio, the summoning charm.

And then we just added an N and it was perfect.

What’s the summoning charm?

It’s one of the spells in Harry Potter.

Yeah, probably most notably Harry uses it

to summon his broomstick out of his dorm room

when he’s battling a dragon somewhere else.

So he says the spell and the broomstick comes to him.

So summoning in that way.

Okay, there we go.

This is brilliant.

So the big thing is that it’s something

that you’ve carry with, it’s like your safe place

you return to something like the Harry Potter.

That, I reread them still, whatever keeps me reading

I think is the most important thing.

Okay, I got it.

So I’m actually the same way in terms of the habit of it.

It’s important to just keep reading.

But I have found myself struggling a little bit too

because I listen to a lot of audio books now.

I’ve struggled to then switch back to reading seriously.

It’s just I read so many papers,

I read so many other things.

It feels like if I’m gonna sit down

and have the time to actually focus on the reading

I should be reading like blog posts or papers

or more condensed kind of things.

But there’s a huge value to just reading long form still.

Yeah, and my husband was never that into fiction

but then someone told him or he heard,

you learn a lot of empathy through reading fiction.

So you could think of it that way.

Well, yeah, that’s kind of what, yeah, yeah.

And it’s also fiction is a nice,

unlike not less so with nonfiction is a chance to travel.

I see it as kind of traveling.

As you go to this other world and it’s nice

because it’s like much more efficient.

You don’t have to get on a plane,

and you get to meet all kinds of new people.

It’s like people say they love traveling

and I say I love traveling too.

I just, yeah, read fiction.

I told my three year old that that was why we read so much

because we see the places in our mind

and I’m like, it’s basically like we’re watching a movie.

That’s how it feels.

And she’s like, I prefer watching Frozen with popcorn,

was her response that.

Okay, well, you’re three.

That’s a good point.

But yeah, there’s some power to the imagination, right?

That’s not just like watching a movie

because something about our imagination

because it’s the words in the world that’s painted

somehow mixing in with our own understanding

of our own hopes and dreams, our fears.

It like mixes up in there

and the way we can build up that world from just the page.

Yeah, you’re really creating the world

just with the prompts from the book, right?

Yeah, that’s different than watching a movie.

Yeah, which is why it hurts sometimes

to watch the movie version

and then you’re like, that’s not at all how I imagined it.

Well, we kind of brought this up in terms of

depending on what the goals are.

Let me ask the big, you’re friends with Manolis,

he’s obsessed with this question.

So let me ask the big ridiculous question

about the meaning of life.

Do you ever think about this one?

Do you ever ponder the reason we’re here?

Descends as the vapes on this spinning ball

in the middle of nowhere?

Yeah, I don’t think one ends up

in the field of space propulsion

without thinking of these existential questions.

Yeah, all the time.

Or builds a business.

Yeah, I know, right?

Yeah, we’ve touched on a lot of the different pieces

of this, I think.

So I have a bunch of thoughts.

I do think that the goal isn’t,

the meaning isn’t anymore just to be like a Petri dish

of bacteria that reproduces

and where survival and reproduction are the main objectives.

And maybe it’s because now we’re able to answer these,

ask those questions.

That’s maybe the turning point.

And instead, I think it’s really the pursuit

and generation of knowledge.

And so if we’re taken out by an asteroid or something,

I think that it will have been a meaningful endeavor

if somehow our knowledge about the universe

is preserved somehow and the next civilization

isn’t starting over again.

So that’s, I always, yeah, I resonate with that.

I always loved the mission of Google from the early days

of making the world’s sort of information

and knowledge searchable.

I always loved that idea.

I always loved, I was donated as people should to Wikipedia.

I just love Wikipedia.

I feel like it’s the, that’s one of the greatest

accomplishments of just a humanity of us together,

especially Wikipedia and this opens like

in this open community way,

putting together different knowledge is like,

on everything we’ve talked about today,

I’m sure there’s a Wikipedia page about ion engines

and I’m sure it’s pretty good.

Like, it’s, I don’t know, that’s incredible.

And obviously that can be preserved pretty efficiently,

at least Wikipedia.

I don’t know, you’ll be like, human civilization

is all like burning up in flames

as there’s this one USB drive slowly traveling out.

Yeah, I know, exactly.

With Wikipedia on it.


That’s on, from the beginning of our chat,

that one lonely spacecraft.

It just needs Wikipedia.

And then it will have been a civilization well spent.

So pushing that knowledge along.


Through like one little discovery at a time

is one of, is a core aspect to the meaning of it all.

Yes, and I also, I haven’t yet figured out

what the connection, you know, an explanation

I’m happy with yet for how it’s connected,

but evolving beyond just the survival piece too,

I think like we touched on the emotional aspect,

something in there about cooperation and, you know, love.

And so I, in my day to day that just boils down to,

you know, the pursuit of knowledge

or improving the human condition and being kind.

Love and knowledge.

Yeah, exactly.

So I’m pretty at peace with that as the meaning right now.

Makes sense to me.

While you work on spacecraft propulsion.

Yes, exactly.

Like literal rocket science.

Natalia, this is an amazing conversation.

You work on such an exciting engineering field.

And I think this is like what 20th, 21st century

will be remembered for is space exploration.

So this is super exciting space that you’re working on.

So, and thank you so much

for spending your time with me today.

Thanks for having me.

This was fun.

Thanks for listening to this conversation

with Natalia Bailey.

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