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The Inventivity Pod
Space Pod: Made in Space
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Will factories in space enable us to become a “multi-planetary species?” Yes, according to Aaron Kemmer, founder of Made in Space. In 2014 the company’s Zero-G printer was launched from Cape Canaveral and went on to successfully print the first ever part manufactured in space. Kemmer talks about space manufacturing, a moon base, and a potential trip to Mars. 

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Will factories in space enable us to become a multi-planetary species. Welcome to Radio Cade . I’m your host Richard Miles today. We’ll be talking to Aaron Kemmer founder and chairman of Made in Space. Joining us from the Philippines. Welcome to Radio Cade Aaron.

Aaron Kemmer:

Thanks for having me, Richard. I appreciate it.

Richard Miles:

So before we get into the details of Made in Space, the company you founded, I got to ask why space is this something that fascinated you when you were a kid? Are you a science fiction fan or just something that sounded interesting?

Aaron Kemmer:

Yeah, really , really good question. I think ever since I was a little kid, I’ve definitely been fascinated with space. Like many kids. I wanted to be an astronaut. And I think when I was five years old, I would tell a lot of people this, but I was playing with a toy space shuttle and jumping up and down on my bed. It was stainless steel, like a little metal hot wheel, but a space shuttle. And I flew off the bed. Didn’t want to let go of my space shuttle. And it like slammed into my skull. And I still got a scar, like a little Harry Potter scar right in my forehead with the giant line down the middle. And that reminds me ever since then, I’ve wanted to go to space. I grew up in Florida. So watching space, shuttles launch, it was kind of inspiring to me growing up,

Richard Miles:

You founded, Made in Space in 2010. And I think by any measure, you had an extraordinary run in the early years, probably way more success than other startups do. So you founded the company in 2010, you created a 3D printing lab at NASA in 2011, you were awarded a grant to design a 3D printer for the international space station. And then that was launched. That mission was launched in September, 2014. And then a couple of months later in November, you successfully printed the first ever part manufactured in space. So that’s really a stunning record. Walk us through sort of the early months from the concept. When you came up with the idea of 3D printing as a viable concept that you wanted to work on to that moment in 2014, when you saw the part being printed in the space station, what was that like ? Let’s start with who came up with the idea and then how did it develop after that?

Aaron Kemmer:

Really great question. Early back in 2010, when we started the company, there, wasn’t a lot of space startups and we’re kind of seeing a renaissance now, which is super exciting, but there was companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, but the general mindset was the way you become a millionaire in the space industry is you start out as a billionaire. You know , you have to be a billionaire to even play the game. So I think from the beginning, we were always maybe cautiously optimistic, but realistic that, Hey, maybe this, we really hard to get a space startup can off the ground. I think the reason we had like a good run of success was we had amazing kind of team, good team of co-founders there’s four of us. And then also just our founding employees early on, who were passionate about the mission. For me, the journey and to starting Made in Space started personally when, when I did my own like deep dive exploration on where is humanity today and where are we going to be in like 500 years? And w hen I thought about what we would be in 500 years is really clear that we’re going to be like a spacefaring civilization b ar and we don’t kill ourselves or something like that 500 years, w e’ll probably be on the moon, Mars, many moons of Jupiter and beyond, and really throughout the whole solar system. And I looked back o nto l ike that would probably start to happen a lot more in my lifetime. And I really just wanted to kind of be a part of that. And then when I met my co-founders, we started to l ike, look at the problem of what is it going to take to really journey out into space and have humans live all throughout the solar system and through talking to astronauts and people w ho’ve been to the space station like D an B arry t hree-time a stronaut. It was clear that manufacturing is something that’s going to be required. When humans, people came to America to live, they didn’t bring their house and everything with them, they built that stuff there. They just b rought the tools. And so starting with 3D printing seemed like a natural choice through talking to people like Dan B arry, having a 3D printer on the space station. He was on a space station three times would be an immediate effective, helpful t his for the astronauts building tools and stuff for them there. So I was pretty clear that that’s a good place to start. And so we just pick that and started working on it, to be honest.

Richard Miles:

So I’ve got to mention it’s a little bit harder than just working idea and then calling up NASA, Hey , uh , my name’s Aaron , I’ve got a great idea. What do you think you obviously had some in some connection to NASA or what was that like getting your idea before the decision-makers there that eventually ended up on the space station?

Aaron Kemmer:

Yeah, half of me is like, yeah that kinda is what happened. We did kinda just call up NASA and say, here’s our idea now that wasn’t like, okay, well here’s a contract . Let’s go. It was a multi-year process where we were communicating with NASA. We were fortunate enough to know the director of NASA Ames through a program that we went to a Singularity University, which was at NASA Ames. And he offered us a kind of free lab at NASA Ames. They have a research park where companies can set up labs and it was almost like the startup story of you’re in your garage. But we were in a NASA Ames garage, just tinkering with 3D printers, learning how they work playing around what might or might not work in microgravity because essentially like our first year and then the second year, because of the work that we did the first year, we were able to get a unpaid NASA contract to fly on the vomit comet with the 3D printer. And so we had to front the money. We actually were able to get sponsorships through some corporations, as well as I put it a little bit of cash. And that second year with the main milestone was testing these 3D printers in microgravity . And then through that, we were able to get the third year, like a small SBIR, small business innovation research contract to actually start developing a concept for a 3D printer that would go to the space station. And then the fourth year, because we had that small contract, we were able to get the larger contracts, actually put a 3D printer on the space station, which ended up happening in the fourth year. So basically each year it was like one small milestone after another, that led to the big one actually kind of happening.

Richard Miles:

So for the wannabe startup CEOs , listening to the podcast, how much of this would you look back and say, well, actually that was a lucky break. And how much was result of following a plan that you already had a strategic plan? I mean, did you have step one, get the SBR grants step two and so on, or how much of this just sort of fell in your lap?

Aaron Kemmer:

Hmm. Such a great question. Definitely like I think with any success, very mixed. I think we did have good fortuitous timing right around when we started the company was when NASA started to push under the Obama administration, if a startup or a company can do it, let’s try to have a contract with them, particularly around like 2012. I remember when we were negotiating the contract, there was some people within NASA that kind of wanted them to do it all on themselves. Others were like, no, we’re going to start trying to enable startups now. And that was very lucky timing that if we would’ve started at 10 years earlier, it would have been a lot harder. I would add the other thing. It’s easy doing multiple startups right now. It’s like very easy to overestimate what you can get done in like one year. So, one of my favorite Bill Gates quotes, and I really believe it “You can overestimate we can get done in one year, but really underestimate what you can get done in like a decade” during those years, it just felt so slow. It’s like, Oh man, in 2010, all we ‘d d one is played with 3D printers in a g arage. 2011, all we’ve done is like flown on a few planes with some 3D printers on 2 012, all we ‘d d one is designed a 3D printer in C AD. If you go to each year, it seems a little bit like slow, but over time it leads to bigger and bigger things. And now we’re designing and building and it g oing to be very soon manufacturing, large parts of satellites in space. It took a decade of work and we’ve been working on that for de cades. Ma ke t he same thing, goes for like SpaceX. We often call them a success. But I think the biggest success is they’ve been able to have two decades straight of just working on an idea and it’ s ex citing things can kind of happen. Yeah.

Richard Miles:

Essentially for 2014, you just wanted to prove that you could print something, anything right in space. And now what, six years later you said you’re printing pretty large stuff. What is the immediate use of the technology that you have right now? And is there an upper limit to this? I mean, in theory, could you print almost anything that you wanted to, or that a , let’s say a moon base would need in space or is there some sort of limitation past which there has to be some sort of breakthrough at an engineering or physical level before you could print something or manufacture something there?

Aaron Kemmer:

Really good question. So the first printer was basic abs plastic. And then since then we’ve launched several others, which has more complex aerospace grade plastics with those printers. We’ve actually done several different things. What are some basic tools like we printed a basic plastic wrench or experiments or games, for astronauts or education. The students have done programs where they could digitally launch hardware to space. And generally it takes a couple years to design and launch something to the space station like we did when we did it in those first couple of years, it was actually considered really fast. I think we broke a lot of records, but now with the 3D printers up there, you can get stuff up there and days design apart and digitally launch it by printing it. We’re now working on metal manufacturing machines that aren’t necessarily 3D printers, but are combined additive and subtractive manufacturing. We’ve actually manufactured with lunar dirt or dust taking that lunar basically and making bricks or roads or landing pads or eventually houses, I definitely think is feasible today. Getting to the point where you have a machine in space that can make everything you’d ever want and you don’t need anything else, but just the raw material feasible in our lifetimes. Probably not right now, but feasible. I’d say within the next couple of decades, when it will become useful. Yeah.

Richard Miles:

Let’s get in the realm of speculation here. Now there’s a lot of enthusiasm right now because it’s success of things like Blue Origins and the SpaceX and other companies in this renaissance of space exploration. And from my very limited reading of what’s going on right now, it seems like maybe there were three strategic goals that I see bandied about. One of the main efforts is to actually make things in space that are g onna improve life here on earth. Something like a improved GPS systems or solar r ays that are g oing t o beam energy back to earth, that sort of stuff essentially doing in space stuff that will help us out on earth. Then a second one, not mutually exclusive s eems to be like, we want to go back to the moon. We want to establish a moon base. And on the moon base, we’re going to learn, we’re going to do research. We’re going to figure out how to actually sustain life on another planetary piece of earth. Right? And then the third one is sort of the most futuristic, right. Is l ike, wow, we’re going to build a moon base so we can go to Mars. So based on the experience that you’ve had over the last decade or so one, is that an accurate description of what you think the industry public private is heading towards one of those three goals? And then what is the realistic probability that for instance, we’re going to see a moon base in the next 10 years.

Aaron Kemmer:

Really, really great, great description, Richard, on, I think the multiple aspects people are working on in space, I’ll start with the middle one. I’ve always been like a moon first guy for people in t he space industry. There’s often a debate. Now the m oon i s not really valuable. It doesn’t have an atmosphere it’s you never want to settle millions of people t here. Mar, we can terraform eventually and turn it into our second kind of earth. A nd which I agree. Mars is really, really exciting. And if you go into the future a few thousand years, probably definitely within the next 10,000 years, we’ll have a second or a foreign that we don’t blow ourselves up or something, but the mo on j ust ad d s o much value and it s p roximity of being able to iterate the technologies for whether it’s la unch t echnologies or like the SpaceX and Blue Origin rockets th at t h ey’re b uilding today, like St arship o r landing technologies or the technologies that Made in Space is building to sustain to build off the land. And so I definitely think that the moon allows us to kind of iterate and give us kind of speed to test things out. Th en i t kind of ties in a little bit into the first one. So one of the big reasons I t h ink SpaceX decided to do Starlink one is as a big business Starlinks the ir in ternet that kind of helps humans down here in ea rth, internet from space. But the other reason is because they have Sta rlink, i t gives them a real reason to launch a lot of rockets. By launching more rockets, you get to test out the technology more and iterate and kind of improve and faster iterations. Again is im portant for a t e chnology to drop costs, which for people like me and you to go to space, Richard, we’re going to need to see a couple orders of magnitude cost dro pped in there. So the internet in space communications in sp ace, a hundred billion dollar market today, things like satellite radio GPS, et cetera. I think we’ll continue to see that expand where more and more space is, i s helping people down here on ea rth. Especially the further out tha t we go. Eventually we’ll be mining asteroids for raw materials and not needing to do large scale industrialization down here on earth within the environment.

Richard Miles:

Very interesting to me, because I think the last few nights I’ve been watching the Netflix series on the challenge. I don’t know if you’ve seen that at all, but it’s a four part series and it talks about the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. But what’s really interesting. It gives background where the space program was by the mid eighties. And one of the interesting points i t makes is that the public by and large was almost bored because they got so used to seeing the space shuttle go up and the space shuttle come back and it didn’t have the same sort of g lamor of say the Apollo program o f, of launching and putting people on the moon. So that one of the reasons why challenger disaster happened is because NA SA w as under so much pressure to show results. But then another part of the show talks about the results we re a ctually kind of thin in terms of what they’re able to accomplish on th e s pace shuttle missions. I mean, th ey’re a ble to do research and so on. So from a pu blic p erspective, you face a real conundrum with the space program is th at p art of this is y ou have to get people excited about it in almost a romantic way, right? Like the idea of exploration of doing things that no one has ever done before being first, right? Be cause t hat really gets people motivated. But on the other hand, you’ve got this real practical need to demonstrate results, right? To justify all the millions and billions of dollars that are going into this putting people’s lives at risk and so on. So how do you see that part of it, t he public relations, but also sor t of the popular view of space exploration playing out. Have you seen any indications that what we’re seeing now is more than just a nerdy engineer thing where we just love watching rockets land in the middle of the ocean on a little platform? Is that it, or do you think there’s a broader base of public support for the whole concept of really making a serious effort to build the infrastructure, to build the industry like what you’re doing? Right. So you’re creating now, not just three or four ginormous companies run by billionaires, but a whole ecosystem of hundreds of suppliers and companies that are all producing parts of the space program in an open market. They’re all not just working for NASA, but they’re working various competitors. So I know it’s a big unwieldy question with a lot of parts in it, but rea lly be fa s cinated be c ause yo u really joined or you st arted your company, right. As you said, jus t pi vot moment where all of a sudden people rea lized li ke, wow, the private sector can really contribute here in a way that just wasn’t possible even 20 years ago.

Aaron Kemmer:

Yeah. It’s great. Merging essentially your Silicon Valley move fast mindset with a generally kind of slow moving industry in terms of public support. I mean, I’m definitely speculating here, Richard, but I do think it’s important to think a little bit more longer term than a single or dual election cycles for this. I think there’s obvious benefits to a nation going into space in terms of like defense and military reasons, you know, space is kind of the high ground. So to speak from a defense kind of standpoint, I think that that’s kind of important to the nation, but I think the much broader scope of building out the future for humanity and technologies , you build out in space, help people down here on earth. A lot like GPS is a great example. I mean , most people use GPS every day or at least every week. Another example you can have offshoot technologies, like did we develop a lot of technology and Made in Space that actually would be great. And we have helped people down here on earth through partnerships with like Lowe’s for instance. And it kind of in the past more larger scale things people know about is like memory foam that was kind of designed for the space station. And now it’s down here on earth and people’s like mattresses, right? Comfortable. I think like there’s a great opportunity here. And I applaud the public industry for supporting and thinking ahead, and that those that do. I travel all around the world a lot, normally not doing that now, but everywhere I go, no matter what country, I always spot people with like NASA t-shirts on. I think the reason that is, is because NASA and the work they’re doing and now private industry SpaceX, Blue Origin is just very inspiring. It shows that there’s not really a limit to humanity’s imagination going and landing on the moon when computers were basically the size of the Cade Museum is pretty cool to kind of think about thinking about like a future where like when you look up in the sky and you see a little twinkle on the moon and that twinkle is though city that’s kind of on there and it’s showing that we can expand and help and become a multi-planetary species. It’s really exciting kind of future. When I think about it and something that I’m just glad to be helping out and be a part of in some way,

Richard Miles:

Last question, I’m sure you’ve probably been asked at least once, if five years from now NASA or a private company says, Hey, we need to build a big 3D printing factory on the moon and we really need people know what they’re doing and you’re offered the chance to go for a couple of years or even six months. Would you go?

Aaron Kemmer:

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, very scary and dangerous being attached to a rocket as an astronaut and launching, I mean, you’re watching the Challenger series . So , you know, it’s a very risky job, but given the opportunity, no doubt. I wanted to go to space my whole life. And I really hope that maybe it will happen in five years, but hopefully within the next 30 I’ll get an opportunity to go. Any people who have been to space made astronauts, you look down at earth and you see that there’s no fake lines in the sand that that’s all made up by humans and they get what they call the overview effect. And you realize that we’re all like one group humans and can add more empathy for others and understanding t his fake division that we all l ike create, call it fake, but it’s real, but it’s created by us. That overview effect i s really exciting. And I think the more we go to space, it’d be cool to have people experience that.

Richard Miles:

Looking forward to doing a podcast with you on the moon in five or 10 years, if you can go to the moon and do a podcast on the moon, Aaron , thank you for joining us. You’ve had a phenomenal line of success with Made in Space and whatever you’re continuing to do now in that arena, I’m sure we’ll probably be successful. You join the renaissance at a very opportune time, but really look forward to seeing you succeed and thank you very much for being on Radio Cade.

Aaron Kemmer:

Thank you, Richard. Yeah. And I’m looking forward to visiting the lunar Cade Museum in a couple of decades, Cade Museum 2.0 on the moon.

Richard Miles:

As we can build it with 3D parts for cheap we’re in.

Aaron Kemmer:

Alright we’ll help you with that.

Richard Miles:

Look forward to that very much, Aaron, thank you .

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida . Richard Miles is the podcast host and Ellie Thom coordinates inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak . The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinists Jacob Lawson.

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