With a skilled workforce and a long history in aerospace, Seattle is becoming the world’s gateway to the stars.Destination 2016: San Francisco
The Seattle skyline is dominated by the Space Needle, a futurist tower constructed for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, otherwise known as the Century 21 Exposition, after its general theme, the 21st century.
“We could, of course, set up the company anywhere in the world,” says Chris Lewicki, CEO of asteroid-mining startup Planetary Resources. “We very specifically chose Seattle.” The reasons? The city and its surrounding suburbs have a unique mix of resources that make it an ideal location for space startups. One of those resources—relatively cheap land and warehouse and hangar space—has been an attraction for the major legacy aerospace companies that have called Seattle home for many years. Boeing opened its very first factory here in 1916, and Aerojet, a major rocket-thruster manufacturer, has had a massive presence for many years as well. This aerospace talent is complemented by tech talent from companies that call the Seattle area home, including Microsoft and Amazon. And the University of Washington is working with Seattle officials to establish a dedicated aerospace institute in the city.
Seattle Skyline ©Getty Images; Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources ©Getty Images; Blue Origin launch ©Zuma Press/Newscom; Stratolaunch © Stratolaunch/Vulcan
The business community in Seattle understands the distinctive challenges of developing space technologies. “The companies that establish in San Francisco are focused on creating huge consumer markets and often need to do so in the space of just a few years,” Lewicki says. “That works well for the software ecosystem and apps and the online world. But exploring space is still in large part physical activity and has a timeline that might not be one, two, three years, but four, five, six years. Seattle is more conducive to something that has a long, consistent staying power.”
Commercial space startups are focused on several related missions: improving and expanding satellite infrastructure to monitor resources and activity on earth and eventually other bodies in the solar system like planets and asteroids; developing asteroid-mining technology; and developing technologies to carry out manufacturing activities in orbit using the resources from asteroids. The potential profits are staggering. Asterank, an online database that tracks and values more than 600,000 asteroids using data from the Minor Planet Center and NASA JPL, values many of the most cost-effective asteroids as high as $2.62 trillion each. More difficult-to-reach asteroids may have valuations of over $100 trillion.
The mineral composition of an asteroid dictates its value. Many are made up of rare-earth minerals, the raw materials of iPhones, computers, satellites and medical devices. Other asteroids are made out of different types of metals, which, using robotic processors, builders and 3D printers—a process known as in-space manufacturing (ISM)—can be turned into the superstructures and components of satellites and space stations. The last type of asteroid is basically made out of water, necessary for life, and the components of which—hydrogen and oxygen—are the basis of rocket fuel. These asteroids can be melted using mirrors and the light of the sun, purified and essentially turned into orbital gas stations for future trips in outer space. And now the framework exists for a market in asteroids: Last November, President Obama signed a new law allowing private citizens to “own, transport, use and sell” asteroids, putting into place the legal framework necessary for a space gold rush.
ISM, a major focus of Seattle-area startups such as Planetary Resources and Firmamentum, a space technology company, will change the way satellites are deployed long before anyone is actually mining an asteroid. One of the limiting factors for current satellite technology is the size of antennas and booms to support lenses, sensors and solar cells. Current technology requires that everything be assembled on the ground and folded up like origami to be sent into orbit. ISM “is a way to say, ‘OK, if we can load all of the raw materials that you need into one of these small satellites, then when it gets in orbit it builds itself into a larger satellite,’” says Dan Reuster, chief technical officer at Firmamentum. “You have the cost point of the small satellite with the capabilities of the large satellite.” Firmamentum—which is currently a business unit of R&D company Tethers Unlimited and is seeking around $20 million in funding to spin off as a separate company—has working prototypes of the technology needed for ISM, which they somewhat inelegantly called the “Trusselator.” Planetary Resources is working on a similar technology that it used earlier this year to 3D-print a small, geometric frame from the same kind of material as would be mined from an asteroid.
In terms of actually mining asteroids, the spacecraft being developed by Planetary Resources are meant to be used as a “flotilla,” says cofounder Peter Diamandis, who also created the XPrize. “We’ve structured our system in a way that allows subsystems and spacecraft to fail [and have the mission overall still be successful] because you’re sending multiple of them. It’s more akin to cloud computing than anything else.”
“The new space companies are really starting to recognize that [Seattle] is the next place to be,” says Jeff Matthews, director of venture strategy and research at the Space Frontier Foundation. “It’s got the right infrastructure. It’s got enough skilled labor… It’s also a lot cheaper to live and operate and execute than it is to be in San Francisco.”
Tethers Unlimited has been based in Seattle since its founding more than two decades ago. Major new space players include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s Vulcan. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has also opened a satellite-development division in Seattle.
The city has become such a draw for new space companies that it’s hosting the annual Space Frontier Foundation conference this year—the first time it’s ever been held in Seattle. And the new space industry could be as transformative for Seattle’s economy as tech has been for San Francisco’s; every $1 spent on the space industry returns $6 to the local economy, according to Matthews.
Seattle hopes to dodge some of the problems, such as economic inequality and homelessness, often generated by economic booms. (Think San Francisco.) In 2014, Seattle became the first city in the nation to mandate a $15 per hour minimum wage. “We’re taking steps in our community to make sure that we don’t have massive, massive inequalities when it comes to wealth and income,” says Brian Surratt, director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development. “We don’t believe in this false binary that we have to sacrifice sustainable economic growth to make sure that folks across all social-economic lines can access this economy.”
“We’re having to deal with a lot of the issues that San Francisco found themselves looking at 10 years ago,” says Lindsey Engh, cofounder of Impact Hub Seattle, an incubator for businesses that address social problems. “We have a great example of what happens when things like housing and job inequality grew so quickly that there wasn’t a chance to make decisions about how to manage those big issues.”
Whether or not Seattle succeeds with its social goals, this new center for the space industry could transform humanity’s understanding of its place in the universe. “Whether it was the Silk Road in China or the early European explorers looking to the New World for gold and spices or American settlers looking to the West Coast, it’s been the search for resources that’s driven us to open frontiers,” Diamandis says. “So we’re playing with an old plan that has been successful many times before.”
This article originally appeared in the 2016 June/July issue of Worth.
A coworking space dedicated to nurturing and connecting social entrepreneurs in Seattle, the Impact Hub is also helping to host the Unlikely Allies: Future of Cities Festival in July. 220 Second Ave. S., firstname.lastname@example.org, 206.430.6007, impacthubseattle.com
The Pacific Northwest offshoot of the Keiretsu Forum, a coalition of angel investors based in San Francisco, this members-only group vets early-stage startups in need of funding and hosts events throughout the region. WRF Venture Center, 2815 Eastlake Ave. E., Suite 300, 206.529.3687, k4northwest.com
This year the Space Frontier Foundation is hosting its annual conference, NewSpace, in Seattle for the first time. The event, from June 21 to 23, convenes all of the most important players in the new space industry. 1415 Fifth Ave., Molly Zaslow, email@example.com, newspace.spacefrontier.org
A landmark building, this low-key but tasteful downtown boutique hotel offers a changing selection of art in the lobby, evening wine in the lobby, a lavish spa and a location near the waterfront and Pike Place Market. 1007 First Ave., 206.624.4844, alexishotel.com
A short walk from landmarks like the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, Hotel Andra is an ideally situated pet-friendly boutique hotel with a cozy Northwestern feel. 2000 Fourth Ave., firstname.lastname@example.org, 206.448.8600, rhotelandra.com
Conveniently set between Pike Place Market and the Seattle Art Museum, Hotel 1000 provides exceptionally well-designed and tech-enabled accommodations. 1000 First Ave., 206.957.1000, hotel1000seattle.com
Freshly remodeled, Inn at the Market is the only hotel in Pike Place Market, the center of downtown Seattle’s shopping and culinary scene. 86 Pine St., 206.443.3600, innatthemarket.com
A Seattle institution for decades, Canlis serves an inventive tasting menu in a space that exudes midcentury modern style. The dress code is formal and live piano provides the soundtrack. Reservations are recommended. 2576 Aurora Ave. N., 206.283.3313, email@example.com, canlis.com
With a single nightly seating for a nine-course dinner paired with wine, the Herbfarm is a commitment: Some diners opt to spend the night in on-site suites. The food takes on a Pacific Northwest character as it incorporates foraged herbs and local wild salmon. 14590 NE145th St., Woodinville, firstname.lastname@example.org, 425.485.5300, theherbfarm.com
Matt’s makes abundant use of the fresh produce available from Pike Place Market. The pan-fried cornmeal-crusted catfish sandwich is a lunch standard. 94 Pike St., Suite 32, 206.467.7909, mattsinthemarket.com
Set next to the Space Needleis the Chihuly Garden, Seattle artist Dale Chihuly’s permanent exhibition of his colorful glass sculptures. 305 Harrison St., email@example.com, 206.753.4940, chihulygardenandglass.com
The Pacific Northwest, including Seattle, is a mecca for outdoorsy types, who can visit wine country, hike the rainforests of Olympic National Park or go sea kayaking. The outfitters at Evergreen Escapes offer private tours to showcase the surrounding area. 2960 Fourth Ave. S., #115, 206.650.5795, evergreenescapes.com
Founded in 1907, Pike Place Market is the most popular tourist spot in Seattle, and despite its crowds it’s still worth visiting. One of the oldest farmers markets in the nation, it also offers a plethora of restaurants, shops and antique stores. . firstname.lastname@example.org, 206.682.7453, pikeplacemarket.org