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My Five Years in Space

I'm loving the resurgence of interest that Elon Musk is bringing about in space right now.  Two decades or so ago, I got to live out a childhood dream and work in the space industry.  As in satellites, ground control systems, and very large rockets powered by highly explosive materials.


I worked in the space business for a little over five years.  We saw rockets blow up on the launchpad (Apstar 2), fought pitched diplomatic battles over frequency allocations in Geneva, and witnessed the expansion of companies like PanAmSat, STAR TV, and Orbit Satellite Network (today OSN) from tiny, unprofitable operations to sprawling, international behemoths. 

One of the highlights was watching our WorldSpace Asia satellite get constructed - seven stories underground in a James Bond-style lair in rural Toulouse populated by golf-cart-driving technicians dressed in hairnets, face-masks and white lab coats.  Another was getting to decide whether we should use the Ariane 4 launcher... or the (then) up-and-coming Ariane 5 to blast it into geostationary orbit.  Yet another was hanging out with, and hearing stories from, veterans from the earliest Intelsat and Russian launches.

The experience was, if you'll pardon the pun, a blast.  I'd dreamt about working in the space industry since I was seven years old - and to actually get the chance to live that dream - and place my fingerprint inside a satellite that would later successfully launch on an Ariane 5 and place itself 40,000 kilometres above Hyderabad - was mind-blowing.  And the experience of working in a team that included the incredibly under-appreciated ex-Secretary general of the ITU, Dick Butler, Martine Rothblatt (one of the most amazing people I've ever met), Noah Samara (possibly one of the most charismatic entrepreneurs the African continent has produced), ex-PrimeStar Partners President John Cusick, and so many other talented people (special shoutout to my WorldSpace Asia Melbourne crew) was quite extraordinary for this young entrepreneur.  

Cusick, whom I reported to, was a particularly memorable mentor.  The Harvard graduate son of a New York butcher, US pistol-shooting champion, and ex-Vietnam War-era USAF Special Forces helicopter pilot was our global COO, and one of the founders of PrimeStar, the original direct-to-home satellite network.  At times he would notice the stars in my eyes and say things like "John, just remember that a satellite is nothing more than a 23,000 mile high radio antenna".  Or "John, satellites are like condos - your job is sell the units to the highest-quality renter before the thing flames out and becomes just another floating piece of junk".   Grounding stuff like that. 

Another one of my old boss's stories that stays with me is about the time that PrimeStar tested consumer subscription models for satellite TV, prior to launch, to figure out what they should put GE's marketing dollars behind (this being the invention of satellite TV, no one knew anything.)  So they created a few test cases to try out in the field.  The one to which they awarded the least chance of success was "Plan 9" - a model in which rural customers were expected to pay thousands of dollar up front and place massively ugly three meter diameter satellite dishes in their backyards, and hundreds of dollars more per year in subscriptions for phone-book sized channel guides and raw content feeds.

Plan 9 wasn't given a snowball's chance in Hell.  However, after the testing revealed it to be by far the number one revenue earner, it became core to PrimeStar's offering and future success.  Consumers.  Sometimes they will turn your business plan literally on its head.

So why am I reminiscing about my five years in the space business?  It's because for the second time in my life (the first time was touring Alcatel's underground manufacturing plant in Toulouse), I've seen something that matches the future that we've been promised in the more than fifty years of sci-fi movies produced since Kubrick's A Space Odyssey: the SpaceX launch, due to happen this coming Saturday. 

I don't know about you, but I am super-excited.  The scale, the audacity of vision, the quality of the scientific thought - and (finally!), the updating of capsule interior designs and spacesuit fashion, are finally delivering fact from fiction.  Watching the walk-through on the Dragon capsule, it's really possible to imagine the flight attendant from the shuttle on 2001 emerging in magnetic shoes, and her original outfit, holding a a tray of drinks.  And it's also possible, finally, to imagine that we might indeed be one step closer to Mars.  

One last comment - Elon Musk's insistence that the astronauts not wear mission patches (because they'll be doing the whole thing again next month/next year) - is proof that he really is a genius.  Nothing says "future" like turning something magical into something routine.

John Sharp

John is a serial entrepreneur and investor, and the Founding Partner of Hatcher+, a next-generation, data-driven venture firm that utilises a massive global database in combination with AI and machine learning-based technologies to identify early-stage opportunities in partnership with leading accelerators and investors worldwide.