The evolution of commercial human spaceflight – with Epsilon3


Episode 33 of the Space Industry podcast is a discussion with Laura Crabtree, CEO of satsearch member Epsilon3 on commercial human spaceflight.


Episode show notes

Epsilon3 is a US-based provider of mission and engineering operations software.

The team consists of engineering and design professionals from firms such as Northrop Grumman, Google, and SpaceX, with experience that includes first-hand operational management of sending American astronauts to the ISS. In the podcast we discuss:

  • Commercial drivers in the human spaceflight (HSF) sector,
  • The economic impacts of commercial providers on NASA’s future missions,
  • How the various proposed private space stations are contributing to HSF demand, and
  • Predictions on the evolution of the market in years to come

Epsilon3’s OS for Space Operations

The Epsilon3 OS for Space Operations is a web-based, electronic procedures solution for operators who need to create, process, and track complex procedures. It is designed to streamline communication and help operators to reduce errors through intelligent error checking and automation. It also enables users to increase performance over time with detailed metrics and reports.

Episode transcript

Please note that while we have endeavored to produce a transcript that matches the audio as closely as possible, there may be slight differences in the text below. If you would like anything in this transcript clarified, or have any other questions or comments, please contact us today.

Hywel: Hello everybody. I’m your host Hywel Curtis. And I’d like to welcome you to the space industry by satsearch, where we share stories about the companies taking us into orbit. In this podcast, we delve into the opinions and expertise of the people behind the commercial space organizations of today who could become the household names of tomorrow.

Before we get started with the episode. Remember, you can find out more information about the suppliers, products, and innovations that are mentioned in this discussion on the global marketplace for space at

Hello everybody. And welcome to today’s episode. I’m joined today by Laura Crabtree, CEO of Epsilon3. Epsilon3 is a California based developer of space missions and engineering software products.

Laura previously worked as a senior mission operations engineer at SpaceX, where she actually helped to train and fly the first commercial astronaut crew.

And that’s the topic that we’re going to be discussing today. We’re going to take a look at the evolution of commercial human spaceflight, and the outlook for the future in this area. Very interesting part of the industry. One that a lot of people are familiar with both inside and outside the industry. Of course.

Thank you very much for spending time with us today on the space industry podcast. Is there anything you’d like to add to that introduction?

Laura: That was a pretty great intro and thanks so much for having me.

Hywel: Okay, fantastic. Well you see several commercial ventures that are targeted human space flight in, in one way or another, as a vertical in the industry, these always gain a lot of attention and are always very interesting for people because they’re so easy to understand. And part of the dream that so many people have with related to space is to travel into that environment.

So what factors do you believe are driving this recent growth and interest? Why now?

Laura: Yeah, I think it, it started 12 years ago or so when we had the commercial cargo vehicles that were being developed and NASA started to be more comfortable and confident in the abilities of commercial providers to travel to the International Space Station.

So if you recall, Dragon was then being developed at that time, as well as the Cygnus vehicle. And previously these missions had only been performed by other countries, which was a diversion from where we were, I don’t know, 30 years ago.

And I think after that came the commercial crew contract and the only reason I, not the only reason, but the biggest reasons why we transitioned a commercial crew one, because we were dependent on the Russian Soyuz too, because we had, at that time, retired the space shuttle, and we needed to get into the abilities of commercial partnerships to take astronauts to the space station so that I guess set the stage.

And then now the field has opened up and I think there are many factors in why that is, but a couple key ones, one, the reusability of Falcon9, it’s just a workhorse. Its . . .  people have a lot of confidence in it, and this is something that the public really needs to be able to get behind the reusability and the comfort and the reliability of the rocket too. Obviously, accessibility is space is increasing and is potentially going to increase very soon with Starship coming online.

Obviously launch costs decreasing. This is something that’s been talked about a lot, so I won’t hammer that down. And then the last thing I think is people really want to get excited about something space is this unexplored frontier. The other unexplored frontier obviously is the oceans, but space is seen as something that’s unattainable and that ability for normal people to go into space is something that’s been talked about for years and years.

And so when we flew SpaceX when we flew Doug and Bob in 2020, we all knew what happened in 2020. I had hundreds and hundreds of people coming up to me that I knew and telling me that was the highest high point of 2020, because if you recall, it was March of 2020 when we all went into lockdown. And then we flew Doug and Bob in May. Everybody needed something to get behind. And this was something that they got really excited about. And I think it came at the right time for everyone to watch and feel the excitement around something new happening in a world that was so closed.

And then you see that happen. And then later now with Inspiration4 people are seeing it becoming more available and they’re actually thinking, Hey, I could potentially realize my dreams. And then you saw Virgin and Blue Origin launch within weeks of one another. So now people even are more excited about it because they know that there are potentially other providers that can get them to the edge of space or to space.

And so I think those are the factors that kind of get people really excited and get more companies building in that arena.

Hywel: Absolutely. Yeah. Obviously in space flight. There’s always been a latent reservoir of fanatics and fascination from people which is just something that’s waiting for companies to, to try and tap.

And as you’ve laid out there, there’s a series of really large-scale technological achievements that have enabled this and factors. So that’s great. Thank you.

You mentioned by name the commercial crew program, which is a relatively new approach for NASA relative to NASA’s timeline. NASA is now fully supporting this initiative, but what differences do you see that there are in the use of commercial astronauts versus NASA astronauts? And are there any advantages to the taxpayer by NASA taking a certain approach over another, which is always a factor in these conversations?

Laura: Yeah. So I think to set the stage for this, I think about it as commercial astronauts, some, so someone who’s paying to go to space. I don’t like to use the word tourist because a lot of these people are performing experimentation.

They have actual, real needs that, that they are performing in space. And so like with the Inspiration4 crew, they were doing a lot of the medical experimentation and there are with the Axiom astronauts. They are actually performing some work in space as well. So I think of it as commercial. Yes. That could be partial to a tourism as well.

And then I think of it as career astronauts. So you’ve got NASA, ESA, JAXA and Roscosmos who are the main players in there. And then obviously you have the Chinese, but I’m going to focus on the international space station partnership, because those are the people that I know. And so those are astronauts who are career astronauts.

They are selected from a pool of actual thousands and thousands of people and go through training. Those are two types of astronauts. And I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both, depending on what your end goal is.

So a little background on the commercial crew program, this was specifically designed for career astronauts to be flown to the space station on commercially developed, built and flown vehicles.

And we talked about it being built out of the retirement of the space shuttle. Right now, there are two vehicles, the SpaceX Dragon, and the Boeing Starliner. The SpaceX Dragon, as everybody knows, started flying 2020, and then the Starliner has yet to fly, but is expected to fly this year. And I’m super excited for that.

For the training time, we talk a little bit about kind of the flights and how expensive they are, but I think it goes back to. When you’re paying for something, whether it be from the government or from personal, it starts at the moment you pay and it keeps going. So for commercial astronauts, the training time should be near zero.

They should be trained on exactly what their mission is. As we spoke about the Inspiration4 astronauts, I suspect that training was more than zero. I saw on Instagram and all other social media that they did have a lot of training. They did perform new things. And then with the next commercial crew, that’s going to fly on Dragon.

They are going to be performing new things. So I suspect that these commercial astronauts on Dragon are going to lay the groundwork for the future so that we can get the training time down to near zero. So a lot of the lore of space I think, is in the training and the preparation. And so I can’t actually, if I was paying as a commercial astronaut, I would want the training.

And so that actually probably increases the price a little bit because it’s fun. You get to do a zero G training. You get to do a High-G training, you get to do all sorts of fun things in the simulator. Those are things I’d want to do, but theoretically, the training time could be like weeks maybe. And then for career astronauts, I’m sure there’s multiple years of training that are required to get to the space station.

And then even after you start training as an astronaut candidate, there are even six to nine months more after you’re selected for a mission. So that alone would reduce the cost. And then you look at the government paying for something, paying for a Soyuz versus paying for Dragon. The price is a lot different.

I don’t know the exact price, but it does save the taxpayer dollars. A lot of money. To do this commercially versus to do it via the government. So I’d say the commercial crew program alone has saved a lot of money over the government on the government side, and then it will continue to do, because now that’s already been developed and it’s successful.

We can continue to save the taxpayer dollars, I think. Yeah. That’s that was a long-winded answer. Sorry.

Hywel: That makes a lot of sense. And yeah, I liked the, like the distinction you’ve made with. Talking about commercial astronauts versus tourists. I’ve I agree with you. And I’ve also found it very difficult to label someone taking such a risk in one of the very first machine.

Even if we’re talking to the first hundred missions, it’s still a huge risk. There are still all sorts of things that could go terribly wrong. It’s very hard to label that tourist.

Laura: Because I was so close to it. If I had paid for a flight on Dragon, I wouldn’t consider myself a tourist. And I don’t think we should be considering them tourists either. So commercial astronauts is better.

Hywel: Yeah. Fantastic. So a lot of the potential demand, or at least the potential demand that’s discussed in the industry when it comes to human space flight is said sometimes to be driven by sub-orbital and private space stations. Do you believe there’s going to be some sort of consolidation within this area?

Most people likely to choose private space stations because they can spend more time on orbit. For example, you see each of these as independent verticals that will have their own lines of business and perhaps even round trips of the moon.

Laura: I’m hoping for all of this to happen. I’m not necessarily banking on it, but my sincere hope is that we see suborbital flights, orbital flights that are a couple of days, a couple of space stations where you can go for a couple of months and, or you can take a trip to the moon.

The thing that I think will be the hardest is actually building the space stations because you need to get very large payloads in orbit. And that in and of itself is going to take time because it takes many launches to get there. There are a lot of companies, and I think everybody would be probably surprised to know that there are probably 7 to 10 companies building private space stations or targeting building private space stations.

A lot of people have heard about Axiom. A lot of people have heard about Orbital Reef. And so I think that there are at least seven or eight others that are building also. So I think I can’t predict what’s going to happen because this is the kind of thing where you’re actually creating a market that doesn’t exist.

And so that’s a really exciting piece is that we’ve seen the creation of the Inspiration4 mission and the creation of the commercial partnership that people have with SpaceX.

So Axiom, and then what the other commercial missions. And then we’ve also seen the ISS taking a few commercial astronauts, not very many, and I think. It might be on the order of five or six, and now there’s going to be the first full private mission to the space station coming up in the next month or so. So that in and of itself is creating a new market that I think in the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see how that unfolds. And I’m super excited about it.

Hywel: You’re absolutely right. It is creating a new market because this is about human travel. You can’t travel to somewhere without the destination existing. So we need to build those destinations first when we talk about space stations.

Yeah. It is really interesting, but of course a market that does already exists, which space companies have discussed at least space access, which is the Intercontinental travel market.

So, SpaceX has presented this vision of intercontinental travel using rockets, which is very interesting. I think, do you believe this is a segment that’s going to mature, that could potentially mature as the reliability of reusable rockets keeps increasing. Do you think this market could open up further beyond just the tourism aspect? I’ve heard discussions of cargo. And is this something that you could see happen?

Laura: Yeah. I’ve actually talked to an entity of the government that is focused on the cargo from point-to-point on earth with reusable rockets. So there’s that piece. I don’t know yet if the rocket point to point is going to be the next vertical, because I’ve seen a lot of building in hypersonics and supersonics.

So I believe that’s going to open a quick point-to-point travel because there are companies like Venus Aerospace, Boom Supersonic, and Hermeus, just to name a few that are developing hypersonics and supersonics.

So I think that’s going to reduce travel time and open up sort of point to point travel in, on the, the world stage. So right now we can’t go faster than 0.89, Mach 0.89, a for commercial travel. And so since the Concorde retired, those speeds of greater than Mach 2.0, haven’t been matched.

And so a couple of these companies are getting to the place where I think it’s going to be really exciting to see what the market looks like for travel in the next 10 years. Have you heard of those, all of those companies?

Hywel: No. No, I wasn’t familiar with those. Obviously heard some of the concepts, but no.

Laura: Yeah. So Boom is targeting Mach 1.7 in 2029. Hermes is working towards Mach 5 hypersonic. And then Venus is targeting Mach n9 hypersonic, which would get you from San Francisco to Tokyo in an hour, which is pretty amazing.

So these are going to be smaller aircraft, but I think that the point-to-point travel is going to be smaller in the number of people that can fly. I think the point-to-point travel is probably going to be opened up by those before it is opened up by rocket point-to-point travel just based on safety and reusability, but I could be wrong.

Hywel: Okay. Interesting. Thank you. I guess I, your predictions for that aspect of the market in the next five to 10 years, what else do you think we could see on the horizon in the next five years? Say with regards to human space flight.

Laura: I’m really hoping that we can get back to the Moon with Artemis. I think that is going to open up a market that has been dormant for a very long time, and hopefully we can learn how to exist in an environment like the Moon to enable us for future deep space travel, which I really want to see in my lifetime. And I, 100% believe it’s possible. And I would like to see it in my lifetime and my children’s lifetime.

See somebody getting to another planet or going through deep space travel and understanding what that does to the human body and the human psyche. I don’t know that’s going to happen in the next five years, but I hope so. At least to the moon, I hope that people are able to, on a regular basis to fly to the edge of space and pass the Karman line with different types of flights.

So we already talked about the orbital flights. We talked about Dragon and we talked about Starship. We talked about the Boeing Starliner, but then there are other vehicles that can get you to a hundred thousand kilometers. So we haven’t talked about the balloons yet. So there’s a couple of different balloons being developed, one being World View Enterprises.

So they’re going to take you to the edge of space on a balloons. This is not a high G environment. So if you can’t, if you can’t take a High G environment, you can’t go to space, but you could get to the edge of space, see the curvature of the earth and really appreciate this beautiful earth we live on.

So I think that is well within our reach in the next five years. And then seeing more regularly. Of New Shepard and Virgin Galactic space planes. I’m hoping that we can get to that kind of reuse and more frequent flights of those so that we can make it more accessible to people.

And then I think, I really think we’re going to be able to see rapid reuse of vehicles. Whereas Dragon is concerned if you need to reuse Dragon. It does take a lot of refurbishment to reuse, and I’m hoping that we can get to the more rapid reuse in the next 5 years to make it more easy to turn around another flight. So those, I think those are my, within the next 5 years, things that I would hope to happen.

And then I think there’s going to be a lot of infrastructure that probably needs to be built to make sure those things happen. From earth observation, communications, and then from the Moon communication standpoint, there isn’t a lot of infrastructure there on the Moon. So hopefully we can see some Moon communications platform accelerated to support Artemis in the near future.

So a lot of the things!

Hywel: Fantastic, the number of organizations and companies that you’ve mentioned there just illustrates how potentially large this market is today.

The 7 to 10 companies building private space stations, the, all of the names you mentioned offering flights in space in some form or other in different ways. And the intercontinental travel, I think. Yeah, just illustrative of how much is going on.

Laura: I think it’s also really telling that large corporations, very old aerospace corporations are looking to build private space stations as well as 10 percent currently 10% startups. And they both have a really good chance of succeeding.

And I’m really excited to see which one comes out on top or which the three to five come out on top because I’ll probably sign up to go to one of them as soon as I can.

Hywel: Oh, fantastic. Laura. I think that was really useful. I think we will have taught the space industry community a lot about what is going on in human space flight today and look at the potential for what we could be seeing tomorrow very soon. Yeah. I’d like to thank you very much for spending time with us and for sharing all your insight.

Laura: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Hywel: Great. Thank you. And to all our listeners out there, you can find out more about, about Laura and Epsilon3 on the company’s website and on the satsearch platform. And we’d be more than happy to help facilitate any questions, you might have any communications with the company you might have.

And yeah, I guess have a think about yourself as to whether you would book a flight on one of these trips, if it was possible there. Thank you very much.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Space industry by satsearch. I hope you enjoy today’s story about one of the companies taking us into orbit. We’ll be back soon with more in-depth behind the scenes insights from private space businesses.

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