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Stoke Space is Building 100% Reusable Rockets Designed to Fly Daily
We interview founder Andy Lapsa to go deep into commercializing space.
Andy Lapsa is obsessed with commercializing space. After building Apollo class rockets at Blue Origin, he founded Stoke Space with the mission of supporting the commercial satellite market.
I sat down with Andy to dive into the industry - from the post Apollo nadir to the rise of commercial contenders. Below is the video, followed by what I learned.
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Andy got started with a PhD in Aerospace Engineering, and then spent 10 years building rockets at Blue Origin. This culminated in building Apollo sized rockets, which is going to send very heavy loads to orbit and the moon.
Large rockets face a tradeoff with rapid reusability. Going to orbit means flying not up but over, and returning the vehicle means taking more fuel. This broadly means there is a gap in rocket designs, and Stoke wants to build 100% reusable rockets designed to fly daily. Servicing the satellite market isn’t the same as getting humans to orbit and beyond.
Launch costs used to dominate costs and building for space was very expensive. But now sensors and compute are cheaper, which makes the launch costs a higher share of total costs. This is pushing costs down, especially because private companies are meeting this shift in demand.
Timing is interesting. Could we have created this market after the moon landing? It would be possible, but the biggest cost would be the army of technical folks doing what is now done with CAD, computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis, etc.
The government that pushed Apollo still has a strong role. They should make space secure, both physical security and the law. The four pillars of growth are all moving to space: communication, transportation, energy production, and manufacturing. See this video with our interview with Varda cofounder Delian Asparouhov. NASA is also beyond our scientific research and exploration and should keep that important role.
If you don’t have the high ground, defense is very difficult, including here on earth. It’s hard to imagine the US military without communication, GPS, and surveillance, but that’s what will happen if an adversary can take out satellites. Symmetrically, we can dominate authoritarian powers like China and Russia if we have those offense and defense capabilities.
Venture Capital should understand that hardware takes longer to mature than software, but you need to back those companies because they interface with the world. That includes manufacturing, construction, logistics, energy, and farming.
We touched on motivation and hiring too. Andy naturally was drawn towards building things, especially explosive things. More recently, this turned into an obsession with commercial space, which is a building block of sustainable multi-planetary life. Examples of visionaries help inspire the next generation to try to change the world. Taking a chance on new talent helps propel people into their careers.
When hiring, it’s important to have clarity of vision in addition to technical skills. You need a mix of hunger and experience. When you have a solid foundation in your team, you have the support required to bring in people with less experience. Note that this applies for something as technically challenging as rocketry, but software scales to less experience better.
Remote work for hardware is difficult because at some point you need someone on the ground. Having a whiteboard to work through a problem also seems essential. Beyond that, a team needs a tight coupling between design and testing. It’s actually the most important part of moving fast.
You must test your designs before going so far in the wrong direction. There is actually a pejorative term in aerospace: “PowerPoint rockets” -- meaning designs that are very far from seeing the light of day.
Starship is an amazing recent example of being hardware rich, where there is a fast turnaround to test after a failure.
If you want to work at a company like Stoke, Andy has only one piece of advice: build. It’s important to get technical skills, but nothing will help more than trying to get something into the real world.
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