Interview with the CEO of Varda Space, Will Bruey
The business of manufacturing in space
For SpaceDotBiz this week, I interviewed the CEO and co-founder of Varda Space Industries, Will Bruey. Since its founding three years ago, Varda has raised $53M in capital from private investors including Khosla Ventures and Founders Fund. Just today Varda announced a $60M contract with the US Air Force and NASA. Will's career has straddled the worlds of aerospace engineering and corporate finance, having spent about six years in hardware development and spacecraft operations at SpaceX, as well as three years in global equities technology at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Will Bruey (right) with Varda co-founder Delian Asparouhov (left). Source: varda.com
In late 2020 Will co-founded Varda, alongside Delian Asparouhov and Daniel Marshall, a company whose mission is "building in space for life on earth". Varda is developing an in-space manufacturing platform to offer customers the opportunity to produce products on orbit, without the effects of gravity. Varda is aiming to launch its first demonstration spacecraft in June of 2023 aboard a SpaceX rideshare Transporter 8 mission.
Now let's dive into the conversation!
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As you consider different products to offer through in-space manufacturing, how do you decide on where to begin? There's a lot of excitement and discussion about what can be enabled through in-space manufacturing, so how do you determine which materials or products you'd like to first produce in zero gravity?
Essentially we begin by looking at what research has been done on the International Space Station. Our company's thesis is hell-bent on engineering and less so on science, or I should say on reducing scientific risk. We're more about reducing the execution and the engineering risk. So there's been a ton of experiments on the International Space Station. Everything from fiber optics to pharmaceuticals to semiconductors. We look at those and see which ones make the best fit or which ones would lead to significant revenue for our first products. A lot goes into those considerations including size of the market, customer education, cost, etc. It's an analysis of if we can engineer it in space and is the value of that product in the realm of economically feasible for producing in space. What is economically feasible also changes as launch costs change, but that's essentially the thinking.
On your website, Varda describes its initial spacecraft as having three critical components, the satellite bus, the payload factory module, and the re-entry capsule. Do you down the road see yourselves offering the actual spacecraft itself as a product, either as a whole or in individual components?
Yes absolutely. Not too much more to elaborate there other than "definitely yes." I think one thing that is of particular note about our spacecraft as a reentry vehicle is that it is complementary to the down mass solutions that exist today. So if you think of other reentering spacecraft like the X-37, Soyuz, and Dragon, they are all multi-fault tolerant vehicles. Two of them are human-rated large spacecraft. Not everything that comes from space back to earth requires that level of sophistication, size, cost, or redundancy.
We're plugging a hole in the market on the demand for down mass that doesn't require that level of complexity or cost. We purposely complement those services and are differentiated. Instead of large, we're small. Instead of being expensive, we're cheap. Instead of being highly multi-fault tolerant, we try to be smart about where we need redundancy and keep things simple. So beyond our in-space manufactured products, I think our spacecraft will be a nice addition to the commercial market for down mass.
Rendering of Varda payload factory module and reentry capsule attached to satellite bus. Source: varda.com
One thing I'm excited to ask about is that for your first mission, you're using a Rocket Lab photon for your spacecraft bus and it's launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission. I think that's interesting because you're bringing together two organizations that otherwise wouldn't typically collaborate. What were the challenges or opportunities of bringing together teams from two of the world's most successful space companies to work on a single mission?
It is really exciting and neat to have brought together two large commercial players in the industry. The challenges aren't that bad. Most of it came down to writing the statements of work and figuring out which parts of the process were owned by Varda, Rocket Lab, or SpaceX. Essentially, where the liability is for every part of the process.
At the end of the day, Falcon 9 is the best launch provider for our company and the Photon bus is the best bus platform for our use case. So it's neat for one mission to highlight so many of the key factors that enable Varda to succeed. Five years ago Photon didn't really exist and rideshares were rare. Both of those innovations create the opportunity for Varda to build on top of them. It's cool to be able to see launch slowly becoming commoditized and spacecraft slowly becoming commoditized. It gives us a fighting shot at creating something new at top of that.
As commercial space stations are introduced in the future and there's more real estate available in space, how do you think about potentially leveraging existing real estate access versus having to do the whole thing end-to-end yourself?
For the International Space Station, in order to berth or dock with it you have to go through what they call the keep-out sphere. In order to cross that boundary, you essentially need to be highly fault-tolerant to avoid accidentally crashing into the space station. As a result, propulsion systems become safety-critical because all of a sudden one thing goes wrong and a thruster propels your spacecraft into a collision trajectory with the space station.
For commercial space stations, it's still TBD what those requirements will look like because some space stations will be automated while others will have humans on board. The regulations or requirements for engaging with that commercial space station will drive a lot of the operations surrounding docking with it. So, before those get defined it's a little bit TBD about how much involvement or I should say like how quickly or interested Varda would be in those kinds of partnerships.
With regards to the reentry capsule Varda is developing, we're super excited about being part of the development of commercial space stations. However, the opportunities that we have in the near term are driving the majority of our engineering decisions compared to those longer-term opportunities. We aren't taking commercial space stations in the near term into our calculus for our technical roadmap because they're a little bit far out at the moment. But that being said as it gets closer, I mean we're a company full of space enthusiasts with a reentry capsule. I can't imagine us not getting involved in some way. Even if it's for something as simple as trash disposal, we'll be happy to build garbage trucks for the space economy.
Rendering of Varda payload factory module and reentry capsule returning through Earth's atmosphere. Source: varda.com
While some space companies have already had to address scaling pains around increasing launch operations, Varda may be the first to be looking to push the boundaries of scaling high rates of commercial reentry operations. Are there any challenges you see ahead of you as you find infrastructure or spaceport capacity that can meet your needs for re-entry operations and frequencies?
That's a long-term challenge in the industry. Right now for the first four missions, we're landing in the Utah test and training range, which is a military base in Utah. That site is great because it's got enough space for our dispersions, so it gives us a really wide area where the spacecraft can come down. As we continue to improve our dispersions, create more accurate reentry, and increase our cadence, we will no longer need that huge swath of land inside a government base. Nor will that base be interested in being our routine landing spot. So in the coming years, I think the industry is going to need more private providers offering reentry locations at scale. That's something that would not only benefit us but the industry more broadly.
I find it exciting how emphatic you've been in saying explicitly that Varda’s customers don't care where your products are coming from or that they're manufactured in space, they just want a higher quality product and that's what you're focusing on offering. So to that end, what efforts are you doing to make sure that your products integrate seamlessly into the existing customer supply chains?
Oh, it's by far the most fun and exciting challenge on the business side of Varda. At the end of the day, the value prop that we are offering our customers is not space access. It's the unique influence on chemical systems that microgravity provides. Quite frankly, our customers would be much happier if we just designed an anti-gravity box in the back of the lab.
For chemists and designers of chemical systems, there are a lot of knobs you can turn on the ground to influence the outcome of your chemistry. Everything from temperature to the actual ingredients, or how fast you stir the thing. So the analogy I use with folks who aren't technical is, I say it's kind of like a kitchen. You've got all these knobs on the oven and the stove. We come in and we basically offer one more knob, one more dimension that you can now control to influence your chemical system. That dimension is gravity.
It's kind of like saying to a chef, "Hey I don't know if you ever realized this, but if you turned off gravity while you were baking muffins you would have a whole different shape. The whole muffin could be the muffin top rather than just one side." The chef might be like "Hmm, our customers tell us that muffin tops are their favorite part of the muffin."
Now if we could just turn off gravity in the chef's oven in their home kitchen down on Earth, that would be their preference. Sadly, Einstein has put the "kibosh" on an anti-gravity machine on Earth. But if we say, "Well, we'll take your muffin batter and it'll be more expensive cause we're gonna take it all the way to space, bake the muffins, and then when we bring them back. But on the upside you'll be the only chef in the entire world that makes entirely muffin top muffins." That's a much different conversation than just "Do you want to manufacture your product in space." I don't know how I got on that muffin rant, but hopefully, that somewhat answered your question.
It does. I think the analogy of microgravity being just another knob you can turn is helpful.
Exactly, it allows us to engage with customers on their terms. We can go to customers and say "hey, we can turn off gravity", but they don't care. But to stretch the chef analogy further, if we can say "we can allow you to scale up production on the best-selling part of your product" then they're interested.
Looking at previous attempts at manufacturing in space that have been slower to scale, what do you see as key factors that enable Varda to tackle that market more effectively?
A primary factor is commercial independence and not having to use the ISS. It goes back to that "keep-out sphere" we were talking about. If we're trying to make a manufacturing assembly line and we're already pushing the cost barrier because we got to go to space, the last thing we need to do to the assembly line is put humans in a multibillion-dollar piece of machinery, right in the middle of it all. You can't scale that. The distinguishing feature of Varda is that we are commercially independent, so we don't have to go to the space station and we go up on commercial launches that can launch once a week or more. We have our own reentry solutions, so we don't have to wait two months for the next Dragon return and hope there's payload space on board. We don't have to deal with any of that. Rocket Lab and SpaceX are our two biggest vendors and there's no government involvement in that line of business whatsoever yet.
Bruey (second from left) alongside one of the company's first spacecraft being manufactured in their facility in El Segundo, CA. Source: varda.com
My last question is, what are you most excited about for the future of the space industry?
This is obviously a selfish answer, but I am most excited about going camping in some remote area and looking up and gazing at the stars by the campfire and seeing one or two streaks of our capsules coming back in with customer products inside. I'm looking forward to that being just a routine part of the economy.
In the future, I really think that space will feel more like the ocean to our kids and grandkids. The reason for that is, if you think about people in non-coastal areas, they feel like oil rigs are way closer to them than the cosmos. But that's not true. Space is actually pretty close, just 100 miles away or so. But people feel like the oil rig is closer because it's part of the routine economy. So from one perspective, I think success in the space economy will actually bring space closer to us, rather than us into the stars, at least in our lifetimes.
That's a wrap, thanks for reading!
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Feb 28, 2023