BTU #274 - Uber for small satellites (Spaceflight with Jeff Roberts)

Don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. But sometimes it does. Don’t let any feeling of inadequacy stop you from going after what you want.
— Jeff Roberts

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Why Listen:
Jeffrey works at a company that is the Uber for small satellites. This is an eye opening interview about the space industry, and why Veterans should consider a career in this rapidly expanding…space (had to go there). We talk about program management, about work life balance with a demand job, the reserves, and five kids. We talk about the Reserves and the pros and cons of remaining in the Reserves. And we go through a very detailed breakdown of the space industry.

About Jeffrey:
Jeffrey Roberts is a Mission Director at Spaceflight Industries, which enables timely and affordable access to space as well as capabilities to look at our planet in real time, in every spectrum. He started out at West Point, and served in the Army for 19 years, including deployments to Iraq & Afghanistan while on active duty, and most recently as an Infantry Battalion Commander in the Alaska Army National Guard. He has served as a Reservist and Guardsman, and holds a Masters of Science in Astronautical Engineering. He is married with 5 kids (4 of them are deployment babies!)"

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Selected Resources: 

Transcript & Time Stamps:


Joining me today from Hawaii is Jeff Roberts. Jeffrey Roberts is a Mission Director at Spaceflight Industries, which enables timely and affordable access to space as well as capabilities to look at our planet in real time, in every spectrum.

He started out at West Point, and served in the Army for 19 years, including deployments to Iraq & Afghanistan while on active duty, and most recently as an Infantry Battalion Commander in the Alaska Army National Guard. He has served as a Reservist and Guardsman, and holds a Master's of Science in Astronautical Engineering. He is married with 5 kids (4 of them are deployment babies).


What was your transition out of active duty like?

Getting out after eight years of active duty was a tough decision. I joined before 9/11 and after 9/11 the amount of deployments went way up. I didn’t like the idea of being deployed every other year. So it was really for family reasons that I left active duty. I then transitioned into the Reserves because I still loved the mission.

I also knew I wanted to pursue a Master’s in Aerospace Engineering which I was able to do after leaving active duty. When I left, I found a company called Alaska Aerospace where I was offered a job. So the transition wasn’t really too difficult. It kind of felt like I was on TDY. It felt like that for many years. I ended up working at Alaska Aerospace for eight years. Three years ago, I made the transition to Spaceflight Industries. I’m also a Space Operations Officer in the Reserves.


What drew you to this industry initially?

I’m very interested in sci-fi and space exploration. I wanted to be part of that. I believe that humanity’s future is in the stars. It’s really a privilege to be in this industry.

The space economy is in an infantile phase right now but it will be growing tremendously in the future.


How do you explain what you do for a living?

I say that my company is the Uber for small satellites. Small satellite companies that need to get a ride to space usually can’t afford to buy a multi-million dollar rocket.  We buy excess capacity on rockets. If a rocket can carry 1000 pounds to space, we will farm that amount out to various companies that need satellite services.

In my role as Mission Director, I work with the rocket providers to understand their readiness and schedule. I also work with customers to make sure their satellite is ready. We want to make sure customers have a good experience as they go through this process.

What we look for in our Mission Managers is a program manager with a technical background that is also good at working with people.


What advice would you give to someone that is interested in pursuing this career?

One thing I did was start subscribing to a couple industry periodicals -SpaceNews and Aviation Week & Space Technology. That will expose you to the business and operations within this industry.


How do you juggle all of your home and work responsibilities?

First of all, I have a really awesome wife. I have a big family and I like spending time with them. Sometimes balancing work and life can be tough but I’ve had great supervisors and support in this industry. Sometimes prior to a launch, you’re working 16 hour days for a couple months. But then once the launch goes off, you can take some time off to spend with your family.

I encourage people to look at their workload and consider priorities. A couple years ago, I had just started this job and was also in the Reserves. It was definitely a stressful time but there was a lot of good communication between my wife and I to make sure we were both on the same page.


What do you get out of continuing to be in the Reserves?

Being in the Reserves does take time away from my family and to some extent time away from my job as well. The benefit for me is that I love working with soldiers. It’s a privilege to develop soldiers and be able to work with them toward particular objectives.

I’ve also had opportunities in the Reserves that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I made contacts in the Reserve that eventually led me to my position with Spaceflight.


What would make someone an appealing hire in this industry?

For much of my time in the Guard or Reserve, I was doing it because I loved it not necessarily because there was a strong connection with my full-time work. Now, I’m a Reservist with the Space Forces, that has a much more direct connection to my job.

Even if you have a degree in an unrelated field and you want to get into the space industry, there’s an opportunity for you. You could work on business development, work with different organization, even work on space law. The President of Spaceflight is a lawyer by trade. He got into the space industry about 10 years ago and is now completely disrupting this field. So regardless of your background, there is a place for you in this community.

There’s so much growth in the commercial space sector in the United States. There are projections that the commercial space industry will soon experience tremendous growth. There are so many small companies out there with very interesting business concepts in this space.


Spaceflight Industry operates something called Black Sky. What is that?

Black Sky is our sister company. They are on the forefront on remote observations of the Earth. They build satellites that image the earth within 1 millimeter of resolution. Back Sky uses algorithms that take information from open source platforms to develop their operations.

It has been used for many amazing projects including helping to relocate refugees. An organization used satellite images from Black Sky to establish a safe route for refugees to escape a war-torn region.


What are the key areas within this industry?

The first area is the transportation piece - the rockets that get our satellites into space. There are many launch vehicle providers with many new companies emerging.

Then there are the hardware builders - people who build sensors, thrusters, spacecraft busses.  

There are also people that have applications in space. There are things they want to do in space and they will provide other companies to provide the right hardware to achieve their objectives.

There are also various facets of logistics and operations that are needed in this industry.


How would someone know if this industry is right for them?

I would encourage people to learn as much as possible about the industry. NASA Spaceflight is a website I would recommend.

A lot of it is just jumping in the industry. You learn by getting into the industry and doing it.

People with operational experience are particularly well suited for this industry. There’s a lot of chaos in the space industry right now. It’s one reason I thrive here. There’s constant change and variability that keeps things interesting. If you’re looking for a lot of predictability or to do the same thing every day this is probably not for you.


Spaceflight recently launched Falcon 9 with 64 satellites. Can you tell us more about that launch?

The concept was to have a dedicated spaceflight mission. Spaceflight owned the rocket and then we put as many customers as we could on the rocket. There were about 15 micro-satellites. Those are satellites about the size of a mini-fridge. We also had much smaller satellites as well. There were 53 different customers on this mission. We had to get them all ready at the same time and get them to the same location. It was record breaking in that nobody has launched this many satellites on a single rocket before. It really opened the door to space access for many companies. Many of the customers were launching their first satellite into space.


What does the lead up to that look like?

It was a three year preparation phase. I took over the mission for the final year and a half. The last 60 days was the heavy hitting part. We spent a lot of time at our Auburn, WA integration facility. We worked on many of the products there and shipped them down to Vandenburgh to continue working. Before launching, you really need to make sure everything is just right. If that means pushing back the launch a couple days to make sure everything is ready, that’s okay.

For the Falcon 9 launch, the value of the rocket and satellites was about $225 million total. There are consequences if things don’t go well but I try to keep it in perspective by reminding myself that there will be no loss of life even if things don’t go perfectly.


What is your view of space tourism?

It’s just around the corner. My company doesn’t deal with human space flight - but Virgin Galactic is one that does. SpaceX had a successful test of their crewed space capsule. NASA Is also working on their Orion capsule designed to take humans to the moon. Robert Bigelow has plans to build hotels in space. All of this is just around the corner.  


Do you have any book recommendations?

The Martian was a great book. The technology mentioned was spot on.

Any book about the Apollo astronauts is usually an amazing reading.

I’m also a big fan of David Weber. He writes great stories that makes you think about what is possible in the future.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

For people interested in this field, don’t be afraid to pursue it. Don't let feelings of inadequacy stop you from achieving what you want. The first job I took in this industry was not my dream job. But it was a great experience that eventually allowed me to get into what I was more interested in.

I loved working at Alaska Aerospace but three years ago they were having a lull in launches. I looked up some old friends on LinkedIn and reached out to them. One of them had recently started working at Spaceflight. Through him I was able to get a job here as well.