Off Planet Research Makes a Landing at Port of Everett
An outer-space-fueled economy is on the horizon for the region
BY ELLEN HIATT
Space: It has filled the imaginations of children and driven the passions of men and women to explore the nether reaches of our universe as far as their mathematical equations, telescopes and rocket ships will take them.
It’s no secret that we are on the brink of an explosion of research and innovation around space travel and exploration.
In Snohomish County, that big bang of economic development has just been sparked with the introduction of three players, Blue Origin, Systima and Off Planet Research. The local economy could be seeing a shift from aerospace-dependent to outer-space-fueled.
In Everett, Off Planet Research (OPR) is a newcomer to the county. The company, launched in 2015, made the move from its original Lacey headquarters to the Port of Everett’s new Maritime, Exploration and Innovation Complex (MEIC) dedicated to the blue economies of ocean and space.
OPR helps companies test their technologies in conditions found on an extra-terrestrial body. They provide consulting as well as testing on equipment with ice and a simulated lunar regolith — ground up rocks and minerals in a composition similar to a lunar body’s sedimentary rocks above the planet’s bedrock.
OPR is working with the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County (EASC) to identify companies interested in transitioning their wares into space.
“New technology will be needed for agriculture, health care, human health systems, architecture, construction, roads and buildings,” Melissa Roth, OPR engineer and co-owner said.
Everything you might envision on a settlement in Antarctica, she said, would be needed in other planetary settlements.
“There are a lot of space companies that don’t yet know they’re space companies,” Roth said.
The company moved into the former Ameron pole facility, the Port’s new Center of Excellence and a blue economies catalyst. The site, expected to support five mid-sized businesses and add about 300 new on-site jobs, will support the Port’s aim to provide an accessible accelerator for startups.
“The MEIC presents a perfect opportunity to build on the efforts we have underway at our working waterfront in support of regional economic recovery and industry diversification,” Port of Everett CEO Lisa Lefeber explained. “Essentially, we are placing industries that are organically and authentically Snohomish County within a hub that is surrounded by a skilled and ready workforce to bring Everett into the next century of industry and innovation, leveraging new research and technologies.”
Terrie Battuello, EASC Vice President of Economic Development agrees that space has the potential to revitalize existing industries in the region.
“For me, personally, it’s exciting because both the maritime and aerospace industries have been around for a long time. They are being revitalized and re-energized by space and it’s a big opportunity for us in Snohomish County,” enthused Battuello.
THE FUTURE OF SPACE
The global space industry, valued today at nearly $428 billion, has set a feverish pace, uninterrupted for the past five years. By 2030, it’s expected to generate revenue of $1.4 trillion or more — more than triple the growth in a decade.
This skyrocketing growth is driven by science exploration, resource utilization and tourism, and fueled by wealthy private investors who see space as their next economic frontier. The entrance of digital technologies such as 3D printing, augmented reality and big data analytics, as well as the reduced costs to launch are spurring the growth of what was once a purely bureaucratic effort. It’s no small potatoes —revenue from satellites and hypersonic flight alone is expected to exceed $370 billion annually.
Washington State, with a lion’s share of aerospace talent and infrastructure at its core, is set to benefit. The Boeing Co. is integrating artificial intelligence and robotic systems to perform autonomous precision assembly and drones to conduct autonomous inspections, and partnering with Lockheed Martin for the United Launch Alliance, to produce the Vulcan Centaur rocket system, recently added to NASA’s line-up of launch vehicles.
Blue Origin’s maiden flight sent its founder, Jeff Bezos, and others into space, launching what some say is the dawn of an era of private spaceflight. Widely criticized as an ego-fueled venture, Bezos holds high hopes of moving heavy industry from the surface of earth and into space. There are also opportunities for the creation of clean energy by harnessing the power of the sun.
Snohomish County is benefitting: A Blue Origin affiliated company is set to build a 78,000 square foot building near Arlington Airport.
What they’re creating in it is a closely guarded secret.
“We’re really excited that Blue Origin is opening facilities in Snohomish County. They will help grow the area as a space hub,” Melissa Roth, OPR co-owner said. “Most people don’t think of Washington as a space hub. But we really have all the makings of one.”
BECOMING A SPACE COMPANY
Roth and company founder Vince Roux became interested in regolith simulant when they had their eye on the Google Lunar XPRIZE. But their initial research showed that the available simulants were older and degraded from repeated use.
“We decided that building the foundation would be a better idea before starting on the first or second floor,” Roth explained.
We started with understanding the natural formation processes of how regolith is made on the Moon and created a range of simulants that can be used for different types of testing.
This regolith is very different from the earth’s — more angular, sharp and abrasive. That abrasive nature can cause equipment failure if it’s not accounted for in a product design. Dozens of simulants are produced worldwide, every one with a different characteristic. They use their simulant both to test products of their own and to help others.
“Early on we wanted to tailor our products to meet the needs of our clients. Bring us your needs and we can work with those researchers and organizations to make a product, or we will produce it. There is a lot at stake,” Roux said. “We work with national and well known organizations and government agencies. Most of our clients are international and include NASA.”
Roth and Roux are optimistic that the rush to space will benefit humanity in the end. “There will be technological advances for sure: reducing waste, reutilizing waste, alternative power sources, environmental technologies that benefit some of the harsh environments on earth. You can see the business of space.” Those looking to capitalize on it, said Roth, will also benefit the rest of us.
“The technology for getting us into space is developed far enough where an argument can be made that we are doing it to benefit humanity, as well as to profit,” Roux said.
“My personal vision of space,” he added, “is it will provide an opportunity to make life better for every single person on earth.”