OffWorld jockeys with Space X, Virgin Galactic for spot in industrial space-tech market

Published on June 10, 2020

I remember watching the classic science fiction movie I, Robot back in 2004.

There was a scene in the movie that showed Will Smith’s character, Chicago police detective Del Spooner, entering a highway of self-driving cars. I remember thinking: “That will never happen. Why would anyone want self-driving cars?”

It wasn’t ten years later that I began hearing about all the major car companies investing in self-driving cars. Now UPS is already making test runs with 18-wheelers in the Southwest. Tesla and Uber are chomping at the bit to get started.

In ten years, science fiction has become science fact, and nobody batted an eye. Space travel is like that, too. There is big money in space travel and colonization. Even now, there are over 100,000 space industry jobs listed on Zip Recruiter. Companies like Space X, Virgin Galactic, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Viper Technology, Honeywell and hundreds of others are furiously trying to hire talent to fill positions. Within ten years, we’ll have near space hypersonic travel to any place in the world in a matter of a few hours, habitats will be constructed on the moon and the first humans will set foot on Mars. Just like self-driving cars, space travel is going to be a thing.

If You Build It…

One of my friends, Sal Gerardo, is on the leading edge of artificial intelligence (and I’ll write more about Sal later). Sal travels in some very cool circles, including the National Space Society. Recently, he introduced me to Alice Hoffman, who is the Construction & Infrastructure Lead at a company called OffWorld. They are developing a new generation of universal industrial robots to do the heavy lifting on Earth, the Moon, asteroids and Mars. This is a substantial company with a very interesting master plan, that culminates with off-world robots being able to manufacture the chip necessary to build other robots.

Imagine an army of self-replicating space robots that can build our habitats on Mars, reclaim water and produce oxygen. In the 1960s, Conrad (Connie) Hilton wanted to build a Hilton on the Moon someday. Want to vacation at the Lunar Hilton? How about the Mars Hilton near the Spaceport?

But back to OffWorld. They have put together an amazing team that collectively has launched dozens of satellites, built air-breathing rocket engines, built orbital spacecraft, built dozens of robots, run global technology companies and large infrastructure projects. Alice Hoffman is past president and a current director at the Space Society and also served as the project manager for the group that built the Ravens’ stadium in Baltimore. Like the rest of OffWorld’s team, she’s a perfect fit to make this happen.

Their long-term vision includes “a new generation of industrial robots as the key enabler of human expansion beyond our home planet.”

According to Hoffman: “Starting from scratch in a new place is hard. The first European settlements in North America were built on hard, life-shortening labor of volunteer or forced settlers. Starting from scratch on the Moon or Mars is a hundred times harder as neither of these places naturally sustains life as we know it. We believe the best way to reduce the extraordinary risks involved in establishing permanent and sustainable presence on other planetary surfaces is to have a local robotic workforce to do the heavy lifting: build landing pads, excavate underground habitats, extract water ice and materials, make drinkable water, breathable air and rocket propellant, manufacture basic structures and solar cells, produce electricity, and eventually replicate themselves. Over the next decades, we will need thousands of robots that could mine, manufacture and build on the Moon, asteroids and Mars.”

OffWorld is creating a whole new generation of industrial robots for use in space. Small and robust, they neatly pack into and survive launches on rockets. Solar electric, they use the one sustainable power source we can count on. Extremely adaptable, they function across a wide range of environments. Autonomous and fast learning, they get by without on-site humans to bail them out. Modular and reconfigurable, they re-use launch hardware.

OffWorld’s business plan is available and it is an interesting read. According to the plan, their first revenue-generating business on the Moon will be the extraction of water ice and supply of rocket propellant for use in Earth orbit by commercial space transportation companies and government space agencies. They’ll also provide basic construction services for any interested lunar missions.

Okay, so maybe I’m a Trek-addled science geek. But come on! This stuff is really happening. And unlike the 1960s, when our country’s exuberance and the desire to beat the Russians had us doling out our own cash to get to the Moon, this time it’s stockholder profit that’s fueling the investment and bringing us back to space. And while our nation’s enthusiasm may wax or wane depending on which way the wind blows, stockholder profit is forever.

Opportunity from industrial space exploration is truly the Wild, Wild West. Here are just a few of the areas where the next galactic fortunes will be made:

Near-earth transportation: There are still a few bugs to work out here, like how to manage the G forces and keep your passengers from experiencing bone-crushing re-entry, but these details will be worked out. New York to Hong Kong in 30 minutes? Count on it.

Space Tourism: The space tourism industry is being supported by the construction of spaceports. These include the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the Clinton-Sherman Industrial Airpark in Oklahoma, the amazing Spaceport America in New Mexico (which has an exclusive deal to launch Virgin Galactic’s space flights), and at least four others.

Zero Gravity Research: Zero gravity environments offer almost limitless possibilities for medical research. One example, Michael J Fox’s foundation partnered with the International Space Station to research a protein believed to be involved in Parkinson’s disease.

Satellite and Global Wi-Fi Access: SpaceX is one of at least two companies that plans to use space to offer Wi-Fi to the world. The program, known as Starlink, envisions an array of nearly 12,000 satellites circling Earth within six years, creating a worldwide Internet system. Just imagine if the entire world had free Internet access. Of course, Elon Musk hasn’t exactly said it will be free.

Mining and Materials Recovery: According to an article in Interesting Engineering magazine, “It is estimated that some asteroids could contain all the platinum obtained from landmines in all of history and have a market price of hundreds of billions of dollars. In fact, it is presumed that some contain iron, nickel or cobalt in sufficient quantity to cover the needs of the Earth for 3,000 years.”

Educating a New Generation for life in Space

In order to fill these jobs of the future, it is going to take a new kind of education. The old industrial model of education we have had for the last 150 years will need to be replaced with a more modern system of preparing our children to be critical thinkers and self-sustaining learners. Efforts are in place to modernize education using the same types of technology used by Amazon and Uber.

According to Leilani Cauthen, CEO of the Learning Counsel, “A design that starts with a student and interweaves quality experience, great projects, interactions with instructors, and social learning with other students is the probable winning formula to “set right” education for this century. It would be like Uber for on-demand learning crossed with an Amazon of-all-things-to-know, married to thrillingly Disneyland-like spaces. It would be awesome for students.”

These are exciting times. It seems like there is nothing we can’t do. Self-driving cars. Space tourism. Global Internet. Living on the Moon. Self-replicating robots. And a totally redesigned education system to keep the momentum going. So, what’s next? Science? Fiction? The lines are getting blurred. If you can dream it, you can live it.

Science fiction is now science fact. And the sky’s no longer the limit.

Charles Sosnik is a Columnist at Grit Daily. He is an education journalist and editor living in picturesque Gastonia, North Carolina. He is an education fellow at the EP3 Foundation and frequent writer and columnist for some of the most influential media in education including The Learning Counsel, NSBA Journal, EdNews Daily and edCircuit.

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