When you first think of ‘space’ you might think ‘rockets’? But rockets aren’t the only way of getting spacecraft (and even people) into orbit.
Spaceoneers spoke to Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales, CEO of Zero 2 Infinity, a Spanish space startup that is designing and operating high-altitude balloons to provide access to near-space and low Earth orbit using balloon spacecraft and balloon launchers.
Spaceoneers: First of all, what is your value proposition?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: At Zero 2 Infinity we want to enable others to do things above where planes fly. We know well how to do things up to where airplanes fly. Above that is still, in my opinion, an unsolved problem. We do fly some things up there but we want to make it easier and more economically sustainable and compatible with other activities. I believe there are a lot of solutions that can be implemented in or near-space. We haven’t got a grip of how we send things up there, so we think that’s a worthy goal and interesting challenge we are tackling.
We go step-by-step. The first step for us is to exit the dense layers of the atmosphere. There are several problems with going up to this altitude. The next is going up high enough, so that’s what we’re doing right now.
Spaceoneers: And you also plan to take people on flights?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: Right now, we don’t take people but we take things. There is a market for that. We are increasing capabilities to eventually take people and also send small satellites into orbit using a patented rocket that launches from the balloon. People of course will have to have some level of training, and the cabin will need to be pressurised just like an aeroplane (Bloon pod for people). Initially we will take professionals, then members of the public. So far there are only limited types of people who have seen the sky completely dark during the day with the curvature of the Earth. Those things we think are important and more people should enjoy that. Also, more activities should be done in that environment. What is limiting is access. Getting up there is far from a solved problem.
Spaceoneers: This would be just one pod or several? And where would they be launched from e.g. a spaceport?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: We are planning to have several locations. We think there is a market for that. We have to start somewhere. One of the things that is different about going up in a balloon is that you fly for a long time over a specific area. When you fly in orbit you travel very fast and you see many parts of the world very quickly. That is very different. Here you will be seeing the same thing. We think it makes sense for people to fly in different places, seeing different types of landscapes. There could be several bases that are compatible with air traffic, winds and logistics. In fact I just had a Skype with someone from a government that is interested for a base they own. There is a fair amount of interest to bring these amounts of activities.
Spaceoneers: How much would a ticket typically be to go on a flight?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: It’s a pretty standard package. There are two types of flights: on one hand, professionals who are more like astronauts, who will train, fly and do experiments. They will wear professional suits. That is very specific. On the other hand, the standard tourism flight that costs 110 000 EUR, which is the initial flight. We expect this will go up when we start operations and then go back down. The reason it will go up initially is there are a lot of people in a ‘wait and see’ mode; “oh, we’ll see if these guys make it. I’m not sure, maybe…”. Then when the first people go and enjoy it, they see that it is actually quite pleasant and nothing like going on a rocket, then we expect the demand to increase substantially. We will not be willing to scale our activities as fast as the demand, as that will be very tricky to do safely. As economies of scales decay and there is competition from others, the price may go down. Space transportation is perhaps the least commoditised space business there is. You can’t really compare or buy things anywhere. It’s not like buying a car to easily get the parts. This is still pretty exclusive.
Spaceoneers: Elon Musk was talking recently about sending several hundred people to Mars for ‘the price of a house’. That was about the same order of magnitude you are talking about. How many people would you fit in one of the pods?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: We would have four passengers, each with their own individual window, and two pilots. You see the difference is that we know the prices with the technologies and capabilities we have now, to make what we are doing a viable business. What Elon was showing was a vision of how, with a possible architecture, you could expand the mass in a sustainable way. He was trying to make the case that having humanity expand with a sustainable process to Mars is possible. He’s not crazy. I don’t think he was saying the first tickets would be 100 000 USD. But that’s what he thinks is the limit of extracting as much as possible from the technology and expectations, but that requires a significant amount of development. If I did that exercise for the Bloon, how much would I charge? Well, I think the biggest limiting factor for a company like ours, maybe not for Elon, is the ability to raise financing and more equity. You need to have an expansion plan and a business plan that minimises the amount of capital required. The more capital you bring in, the less you need to charge later as you develop a fancier system. The problem right now is not the price; the problem is the ability of solutions. You can’t really charge a lot more.
Spaceoneers: Do you foresee sending several hundred people at a time?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: Absolutely! I think the price is going to come down; it will go up and then come down quite a bit. Obviously it is much more feasible to reuse a balloon than reuse a giant first stage or to reuse a rocket like Blue Origin’s. It’s going to be much easier to reuse a balloon, which will bring a lower cost. But we are not promising reusing the balloon, only the capsule. Hopefully we can use it all many more times and this way we will improve the economies. Perhaps if we make the capsules larger we can make it more economically efficient over time, but for the moment, we want to start. That is the most important thing. I really would like to see something like what Elon Musk proposed happen in our lifetimes.
I think that what is missing is more awareness among people, especially those who are highly influential, of the fact we are on a planet, sharing a common destiny, etc. When Elon talks about these kinds of things, people can think he’s a strange guy. I think one way to change that, to make these concepts appeal to more members of the public and more influential people is to have Bloon working. I went to the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland and there was only one astronaut among thousands of people discussing all sorts of things. But in my opinion what was missing was a truly global perspective. If all these people had experienced Earth from space at some point, just like they go kayaking somewhere or a museum, it would connect us more and solutions could be put into place. What is limiting right now is linked to the lack of spatial awareness of the public and influencers. For that, Bloon is creating this opportunity.
Spaceoneers: So what is your technology readiness level at the moment? Are you still going through designs and technical elements, or are you ready and building fully functional models?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: We have flown several test flights (see below).This is not the final size. In terms of Technological Readiness Level, all the parts have a very high TRL, but what has less is the combination. We don’t want to include any parts that require testing at a high altitude. Everything such as parachutes, life support systems, windows, crash pads, etc. are already mature and are flight-proven. It’s just the combination that’s new. I would say we are one of the companies that are closest to the final end product. That flight is at 32 km but we want to reach up to 36 km; so we are almost there!
Spaceoneers: How old is the company now? What were the biggest challenges to starting?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: We are 7 years old. The biggest challenges were finding investors. Now we have a healthy base of 35 of them from Hong Kong, France, Germany, Spain, some venture capital and an industrial investor as well. But finding investors has been relatively difficult. Nobody, when setting up a fund or invest some money, invests in space. There needs to be some education. It’s gotten better in the last few years with a few successes, since some people have made money on their investments in space. This is relatively new. But funding is the most difficult part. People who want to work in this are extremely talented, skilled and clever and maybe willing to make less money than they would elsewhere to work in these unique areas. Finding suppliers and customers was not so hard.
We have three main lines of business: the running business, elevating payloads; Bloon to send humans – initially professionals then later public, etc. then Bloostar. Bloostar is possibly the project that has the most business potential, at least in the medium term. This is a totally new way to launch satellites. It uses a balloon as a first stage and it has a rocket optimised for a vacuum launch outside of our Earth environment.
Spaceoneers: How does that work exactly?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: Launching from the Earth at sea level requires a rocket to have more features that make it more costly. Rockets need to look streamline, which can be difficult to control, among others. There are lots of difficulties. If you are already up in space, you can make your rocket look like a ball if you want. If you are already in a vacuum, you get the efficiency out of the ratio between pressure and pressure outside. Rather than increasing the pressure in my rocket, say to 300 bars (outside is 1 bar), you need a huge amount of investment to make a turbo pump that can do that. If you can reduce the exterior pressure to 1/300th of an atmosphere and in your rocket you have 1 atmosphere, you get the same ratio but of course for that you need to be almost outside. That is the beauty of the balloon. It’s not about saving propellant but having the freedom to design your rocket with the advantage of starting high in the atmosphere and not just at sea level. If it works well at sea level, it doesn’t work so well in space and vice versa. It’s very difficult to do the same thing with the same vehicle.
Spaceoneers: How did you get your first investors?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: I wish I understood the process better. We have a very diverse group of people who have invested. As soon as you spend some quality time with these people, explaining the data and what it is, why it is done this way, it turns out a lot of times it is introductions form existing investors. Speaking at conferences also helps. It’s very different than a software company and developing an app. There you have very clear phase A, phase B with clear milestones with what is expected at each step. For space access there isn’t such a process, so expectations are very different with different types of investors. Some of our investors were speaking with some of our sovereign wealth funds from countries where the whole deal is almost too small. It is good they are talking to us. But then you talk to VCs, they want to hear a clear focus; what you are working on now and how you intend to transition the business. It’s not obvious but often having people who studied at your same university or some link with you can help. I don’t think the investment decisions are independent of us. They are not super-rational. We are humans and we don’t make decisions in purely a rational way. There are often other factors, which are unknown.
Spaceoneers: What kinds of trends and technologies may affect your value proposition?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: We are very excited about exploring very low Earth orbit (vLEO) satellites. We have seen an explosion in the number of cubesats, both in terms of components and solar panels etc. What we are very excited about is: what if we can launch satellites that are not possible right now, like a dish or a surface that would enable different types of capabilities? Using the same components from the cubesats and putting them in a different form factor, having them fly at very low Earth orbit that is just 200 km could create more bandwidth, resolution, etc. We have no orbital debris concerns. This is a technology we would potentially like to service with Bloostar, launching these very thin satellites, which may even be very cheap to make.
Spaceoneers: What advice would you give to others?
Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales: Surround yourself with people who work as hard as you; that’s important! Don’t give up! Listen to your potential customers and what they think. Lots of people will tell you that it can’t be done but that’s just an opinion. I think it is very important to be persistent and believe in what you are doing, insist and get it out there. That’s perhaps very typical but I hope that’s some useful advice.
I think Europe can be the leader in new space, so there are lots of opportunities there for aspiring startups.