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,
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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, 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.
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, 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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
More like fun, playful, celebrity type.
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
So being able to think deeply, yeah.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So I’m pretty at peace with that as the meaning right now.
Makes sense to me.
While you work on spacecraft propulsion.
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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