How to Extend Interplanetary Exploration with Gas Stations in Space

The new space startup refueling orbiting spacecraft.

GuideForce Orbit Fab Daniel Faber interview preview

Many space industry realities that exist today are barriers to taking the next ‘giant leap for mankind’. Neil Armstrong’s famous words inspired an entire generation of space-crazed young people many decades ago. Now, there’s a new generation of inspired new space leaders breaking down today’s barriers. One of the biggest gating factors to our exploring deeper into space may not be what you think. Did you know most satellites (like those used for weather, television and vital communications) cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and launch[1], yet only have a useful life of about 15 years? Did you know that their useful life is primarily limited by the amount of propellant (fuel) on board? [2]

Fueling the Space Industry

There’s a relatively recent entrant into the new space race, a company called Orbit Fab. They are taking us deeper into space and extending the lifetime of new spacecraft being launched. Plus, they are resupplying the International Space Station (ISS) with water, while testing out the technology needed for refueling in microgravity.[1] Orbit Fab’s mission is to enable unlimited mobility in space by introducing the ability to refuel on-orbit for satellites and spacecraft. Ultimately, this is reducing capital costs and allowing unprecedented business model flexibility.

Space Stations

Daniel Faber CEO Orbit Fab
Daniel Faber, CEO, Orbit Fab

Orbit Fab is developing technology to provide space-based gas stations for spacecraft. Today, many spacecrafts are launched knowing that their ultimate fate will be putting them into a graveyard orbit. This is where most old GEO satellites are put out to pasture after they go beyond their useful life. This also brings up the issue of space junk. But, that’s another story.

In-Orbit Refueling

The major barrier to extending the life of satellites is the limited amount of fuel they can have on-board when they are launched into space. During his presentation at TechCrunch Disrupt, Daniel Faber, the CEO of Orbit Fab, invited us to imagine what it would be like if we threw our cars away after using just one tank of gas. That is the reality for spacecraft today. If the satellites could be refueled while in-orbit, the useful life of the satellites could be extended. This translates into savings for operators through more revenue-generating service per satellite and less frequent need for expensive replacements.

A Costly Reality

Right now, decommissioned satellites represent over $100 billion in now useless assets. That’s nearly 200 satellites providing continued service if only there was a way to refuel them in space. Orbit Fab, headed by co-founders, Daniel Faber and Jeremy Schiel, is developing fueling ports that will make it possible to refuel spacecraft orbiting our planet. Recently, I sat down with Daniel Faber and he shared a number of lessons he has learned throughout his impressive 20-plus-year space industry and technology career.

Lesson 1 – The hardest times provide the biggest lessons

Learning never stops. At least, if you are lucky, it never stops. Some lessons are easier than others. Yet, it can be the hardest among them that have the greatest impact and provide the most valuable lessons that both life and business have to offer.

Challenges Inspire the Next Opportunity

“You simply cannot anticipate everything. This is especially true when you are doing work that happens 300 to 20,000 miles from Earth, in an environment that doesn’t follow the rules of gravity,” says Faber. “We are pushing boundaries. We are doing things that have never been done before. One of the biggest challenges I have faced in my career was while at a previous company. We wanted to buy a satellite but when it was launched the rocket had a small glitch and it ended up not having enough fuel to get into its designated orbit. This was not only a lesson in working in space, it also became the impetus for creating Orbit Fab. Had there been a way to refuel that satellite, it would not have represented a huge loss,” shares Faber.

Infographic in-orbit satellite refueling propellant

Lesson 2 – It’s not the tech that matters, it is the market

One of the biggest challenges for many engineering-led companies is moving from initial concept to commercial application, execution and deployment. There’s a delicate balance between sharing a vision and delivering upon that vision.

Vision, Engineering, Funding and Selling

“Having started my career on the engineering side, I had to learn that nothing happens unless you sell something,” explains Faber. “Vision, engineering, funding and selling are intricately intertwined. You cannot focus too much on the engineering and the technology. At the same time, you cannot oversell the vision. In the end, you need to know what you are delivering and sell it to the right market. You need to be really clear on who needs what you are offering. One important lesson I’ve seen play out within many startups is getting too focused on the long-term vision. You need to focus on what you deliver today.”

Lesson 3 – Sometimes your market isn’t the one you expect

Orbit Fab's network of propellant depots in Earth orbit
An illustration of Orbit Fab’s network of propellant depots in Earth orbit.

There’s nothing more valuable than getting feedback from the people within the organizations you are planning to target as your first customers. Many times, you go in with assumptions. And, sometimes, you are surprised when you realize that what you thought was the ideal product and the ideal market, isn’t the best place to start after all.

Shifting Gears

“Many organizations are investing in space tugs to move spacecraft around in space. They are being used for inspection, repair and refueling, but the question remained on how the tugs themselves would be refueled. The space tug organizations are our customers. We extend the usable life of the tugs,” explains Faber.

Unexpected Opportunities

“When we first got our pre-seed funding, we made a decision to focus on commercial customers. We spent 9 months working with commercial space tug providers. Then, we went to a conference primarily attended by government organizations. We were surprised at the strong response we received. NASA and DoD have a big interest in Orbit Fab and what we are seeking to do. We pivoted most of our efforts away from a commercial market focus to being focused on government organizations which has resulted in winning several important contracts,” says Faber.

Lesson 4 – Take on the risks, but manage them carefully

When you are launching a new technology and doing something that has never been done before, you need to have the confidence to take on the risk. It’s good to have a fallback plan in case things don’t go as planned.

The Countdown is On

“The first in-space, live test of our technology was with NASA and the International Space Station (ISS). We only had a sketch on a napkin when we wrote our 2-page application to the ISS National Laboratory, but they were really great and they offered us a flight! In four months, starting from that napkin sketch, we had to be ready to use our solution to become the first private company to resupply the ISS with water. I remember going into a meeting with NASA. There were three of us and about 30 people from NASA. We were two weeks away from building this and it was the first time most of the NASA team had heard about it,” recalls Faber.

Orbit Fab refueling technology being tested on the International Space Station
Orbit Fab refueling technology being tested on the International Space Station.

Going for It

“Thankfully, I had worked on a dozen satellite launches, our lead engineer had built five space station payloads and my co-founder, Jeremy, had a superpower of working with bureaucracy. We took a lot of programmatic risks to make this happen. We knew if things didn’t work out, we would need to move to a later launch.

Take on the Risk

At the same time, we were aiming to meet funding milestones and gain credibility with both our investors and NASA. NASA only agreed because we stepped up and took on all the risk. We knew we might need to step back. Yet, we had confidence we could make it happen given the experience of our team, and we paid a lot of attention to managing all the risks. After many late nights and unnatural acts to make it possible, we became the first private company to resupply the ISS. This gave proof that our solution works in a real-world environment. We definitely broke speed records,” says Faber.

Learning by Doing

“We learned a lot in taking the payload to the ISS and transferring fluid in zero gravity. We had done analysis, simulations, lab tests and slosh dynamics in chambers, but there’s no substitute for the ISS proof of concept. Now, we are expecting to be doing our first in-orbit fueling within the next 12 months. We have a lot of work to do and this is an exciting time for the entire Orbit Fab team,” shares Faber. 

Satellite refueling port RAFTI or the Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface
RAFTI or the Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface, is Orbit Fab’s first product, and is already shipping to customers. As the fueling port for satellites, it is the key to enabling the in-space refueling capability. Developed in collaboration with 30 companies and organizations, it is quickly being adopted as the common refueling interface for the industry.

Let’s review the lessons Daniel Faber, the CEO of Orbit Fab, shared with us.

  1. The hardest times provide the biggest lessons
  2. It’s not the tech that matters, it is the market
  3. Sometimes your market isn’t the one you expect
  4. Take on the risks, but manage them carefully

Closing Thought

“We are always looking for partners and folks we can help out that are interested in where the space industry is going. We need to bring on some key resources in the coming months,” concludes Faber.

To learn more about Orbit Fab and keep up on their development and growth, visit https://www.orbitfab.space.

Checkout another story in the Executive Spotlight series and learn about a new space startup that is making powerful space-based computing at the edge of space.

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[1] https://globalcomsatphone.com/costs/

[2] https://www.satellitetoday.com/telecom/2012/03/01/satellite-life-extension-the-technology-and-the-economics/

[1] https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/18/orbit-fab-becomes-first-startup-to-supply-water-to-iss-paving-the-way-for-satellite-refueling/