Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources

30 May 2016

As President and CEO of Planetary Resources, Chris Lewicki is responsible for its strategic development of its mission and vision, engagement with customers and the scientific community, serves as technical compass, and leads day-to-day operations.

Chris was intimately involved with the lifecycle of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander. He was part of the system engineering development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and served on the teams for assembly, test and launch operations for these missions. He now applies this “know-how” in his work at Planetary Resources.

Spaceoneers spoke to Chris at the Space Forum in Luxembourg about how Planetary Resources got started, the challenges it faced and where it is heading today.

Spaceoneers: Tell us a bit about your company

Chris Lewicki: Planetary Resources is the asteroid mining company and we’re developing technology to expand humanity’s economic sphere of influence into the Solar System, using the resource of asteroids as a catalyst for that. Deploying technologies to manage and monitor resources will ultimately, of course, get them to asteroids but we’re starting in Earth’s orbit first, helping answer questions about our own planet along the way.

Spaceoneers: How did the idea for your business come about? What was the path?

Chris Lewicki: My co-founders, Peter Diamandis from the XPrize Foundation and Eric Anderson, who is well-known for his clients who buy a ticket to go into space; we’ve known each other for over twenty years. They were evaluating really, where was the next thing that is going to accelerate the development of space. The governments have done a wonderful job over 50 years, addressing hard challenges and making big strides forward. Technology, of course, has developed a lot as well. But government programmes aren’t going to really take off and change anything in any great way. So, we need an economic engine that can bring entrepreneurs to the challenge that can get investors excited about risking some capital to make money and ultimately identifying the valuable problems to solve, which is different than what the governments do. The governments find the interesting problems to solve. The entrepreneurs look at where you can do something that’s going to address a problem for someone. So whether it’s information about resources or the technology to develop the resources themselves, that’s really where the idea cane from and we’ve been pursuing it like a traditional mining company might do it, which is to find the right resources to start at, create the technology to understand them and of course, take the next step in actually extracting that.

Planetary Resources logo. Image credit: Planetary Resources
Planetary Resources logo. Image credit: Planetary Resources

Spaceoneers: How did you start? What did you do before you started your startup?

Chris Lewicki: I worked with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for about 10 years. I was a system engineer there and I had the great opportunity to serve as flight director for the Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rovers, and helped design, build launch and then ultimately land and drive those two rovers. Opportunity is still with us today. I got the opportunity to do it all again with the next mission, the Mars Phoenix lander, which dug up water ice above the arctic circle of Mars. In doing that I gained a great amount of experience in technology to explore other planets, explore the Solar System but also met a lot of very bright people who ultimately brought with me when we founded Planetary Resources. And we’re using that know-how from a government programme on how to solve these difficult problems but doing it in a way often the government can’t. I’d like to say, ‘when failure is not an option, success gets really expensive’. So we’re looking at things that maybe are a little more risky and where things maybe might not always work out but if they do it’s a tremendous breakthrough and an advance. We can use that, of course, to make a business opportunity from some of the progress we’re making.

Spaceoneers: What were the major challenges you had to overcome when starting up the company?

Chris Lewicki: The biggest challenge we faced was people recognising that it’s possible and that we know enough about space, we know enough about the asteroids themselves and that it is not only possible but it is inevitable this is the way it will develop. Of course, there are a lot of people who still don’t think this was going to happen soon but there are enough people who do. Those people are employees; they are our advisors and our investors. Increasingly so, they are our customers. This is how you start with a big idea and make progress on it one day at a time.

Spaceoneers: How do you go about getting your investors, customers and even your team together to work on something like asteroid mining?

Chris Lewicki: We’re very fortunate to be supported by some very well known and wealthy entrepreneurs who really provided that seed capital to let an audacious idea come into reality – so, people like Larry Page, Richard Branson, Charles Simonyi, Ross Perot Jr., kind of well-known successful folks and they really laid the groundwork for more traditional investors. Whether they are individual investors or institutional investors like large companies such as the Bechtel Corporation or 3D Systems, or the venture funds that are now invested in the company, including the OS Fund who is investing in companies that are redefining the operating system of their industry. It’s all about showing the plan and the long-term vision but also showing the steps of how you can get from here to there. And the flexibility to realise that you probably don’t have it all figured out and you’re going to learn things along the way, and you’ve got to be able to adapt.

Spaceoneers: Who and what were your influences to become a space entrepreneur?

Chris Lewicki: Well, my cofounders, Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson have several times over established businesses, created activities and gotten other entrepreneurs to start companies in things that everyone knew was never going to work. You’d never be able to get a private company that can put a person into space and return him in a week, and get him above 100km. You’ll never be able to convince the FAA that you can fly a 737 and do zero-gravity parabolas. But of course, those are two companies that exist today. A private person will never be able to go to the International Space Station. Realising that if you set your mind to it, truly anything that is not prevented by the laws of physics is possible. Eric and Peter are both my inspiration in doing that. I would say also my inspiration is a lot of people you have never heard of who are passionate about this industry or are passionate about the opportunity and have dedicated their lives. In some cases it’s decades, in some cases it’s multiple tries at a startup. Even if the last one didn’t work, they are still eager about trying out the new idea. I saw that when I was working at NASA and I wanted to be part of that. I am happy to be doing that with the team at Planetary Resources.

Spaceoneers: The timescales are so grand, how do you keep motivated to keep behind the idea?

Chris Lewicki: We’ve had a lot of milestones and progress along the way. We’ve actually already delivered two satellites. One of them made it into space, the other one famously blew up on the launch pad but we were able to quickly rebuild it. And we have more technology and more satellites that are to be launched just a few months from now. So understanding it is a very long-term development plan. But we have progress that we are making every day and every week, every month, every year towards that and we get to do this everyday. We report to work in the morning at an asteroid mining company and we get to help create the future.

Spaceoneers: What technologies and trends do you think will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next years?

Chris Lewicki: The technologies that I think are going to drive innovation in this industry are in a couple of different areas: the increasing availability of the access to space and its cost going down. Both those things are very helpful in accelerating innovation and iteration. I think a lot of what we are seeing in other industries in miniaturisation of electronics, in automation and algorithms, machine learning and even technology you might find in a self-driving car, actually, is about solving a lot of problems that you’re going to have to solve when you are ten minutes away at the speed of light, at an asteroid 150 million km away. Those are all going to be critical in terms of a localised artificial intelligence and autonomy that can allow this to be a 50-person project rather than a 5000-person project. It’s really the technology today that makes that possible; with our small team with 50 engineers and scientists in Planetary Resources we can do what it used to take a division of a government just a few decades ago. And that technology has allowed us to make the progress we have made already.

Spaceoneers: What important advice would you give to others who are interested in starting their own space startup?

Chris Lewicki: That you can make a difference. Even a single person can promote an idea. It’s really about having an idea and being passionately committed to it, and also being open to changing your mind and your plan when new information comes out. At Planetary Resources we don’t have all the answers but we’re curious and we find ways to inform our opportunities and we update our plans when we learn new things. I would also say it’s very important from an investor standpoint, from a technology standpoint to find a path that doesn’t depend on eternally getting a grant from the government or an investment. The quickest path to revenue that you can find – this is advice for any entrepreneur, not just space – find a problem that is not being well-served by the market and solve that. Understand how by solving that problem can take you to the next step.

Spaceoneers: What makes you a spaceoneer?

Chris Lewicki: Ten years ago, or even five years ago if you would have asked anyone on the planet about asteroid mining or how soon it’s going to happen, and if it’s possible I think most people would say you’re completely crazy. ‘My grandchildren won’t see that happen’. Today we have hardware in space; we have multiple companies pursuing this opportunity. We have laws in the United States that have been passed to help support the founding of the industry. More and more people are seeing it is possible and inevitable, maybe very risky but I am happy we are doing our part in creating an industry that is going to involve support a number of different companies, a number of different governments no doubt and even industries that are outside of space that will help support this. I am as proud of what we’ve done so far at Planetary Resources as all the hardware I have helped put on Mars. I am really looking forward to what’s going to happen in the next couple of years.