Return To Sender

Last week, we celebrated 66 years of humans launching into space, which has brought great value to our lives here on Earth. We have benefited from instant and inexpensive satellite communications, satellite imagery of both the cosmos and Earth, and incredible science, astrophysics and astronomy missions, like NASA’s Osiris Rex, to tell us how our planet began and thus further understand our human origins. In total, there has been 16,000 metric tons of mass sent to space, but only 200 tons have ever returned. It is truly a one-way, and very expensive street. 

The key challenge that we face is that we are still operating every satellite mission essentially the same way we did with Sputnik. We build and operate for a single use, send that one satellite to space at a very high cost, and then wait for it to become trash within a few years of being in space. Furthermore, most satellites are bespoke - requiring a new engineering process to build, fly and operate them again.

Looking back over these last six decades, we can learn from the development of the first reusable spacecraft, the US Space Shuttle in the 1980’s, and trips to the ISS, offering Earth return but at high cost, even if you can get a ride. The entire Space Shuttle program cost $192 billion in 2010 U.S. dollars - an average of $1.43 billion for each of the 134 missions over the life of the program. The ISS is the only means today of operating on orbit with Earth return, but at a cost of $120,000/per kg and sometimes a wait of more than five years.  Our goal should be simple: frequently launch and return satellites at low cost, refurbish them and reuse our space assets instead of throwing them away.

It wasn’t until SpaceX successfully lowered the cost to space by 10 fold with their Falcon 9 rocket landing and refurbishment program, that we began to look at reusability as a true economic paradigm shift. To date, SpaceX has saved the American taxpayer in excess of $40 billion dollars, in just 12 years of operating partially reusable rockets.

Earth Return is one of the most important innovations to optimize our investments in space and expand our knowledge from those missions to create a truly sustainable planet. So what do we need to do to successfully make this a reality? Very simply, launch low-cost satellites to space, protect those satellites as they reenter the atmosphere, pinpoint the reentry landing, safely recover the satellite at a landing complex, rapidly process payloads and refurbish the satellite - both on land and at sea, and anywhere in the world.

Here is our plan:

Collaborate early and consistently with all stakeholders and regulators. Outpost has been working with NASA, the Air Force and the FAA since we started. The heat shield technology has been fully flight-tested through various NASA orbital flights since the mid-2010s. Additionally, we have tested our paraglider system in compliance with FAA regulations in over fifty flight tests, which included weather balloon test flights above 20 km of altitude and have a similar flight profile to our paraglider system, which deploys at 30 km. With more than a year to go until our first return mission, we are working closely with the FAA to obtain a re-entry license.

Nail the Landing with controlled reentry - on land or at sea - anywhere in the world. Many companies pursuing Earth return use capsules combined with a parachute system for reentry. My co-founder, Mike Vergalla, a world-class paraglider and engineer, and I have designed a robotic paraglider system, which has a proven landing capability within five meters. To safeguard the returning payload, we leverage NASA’s heat shield technology which deploys on orbit and protects the payload as it reenters the atmosphere.

Earth Return is a market multiplier. For the past 5 years, more satellites have been launched since the beginning of the space age in the 1950s. But even though 80% of the cost of a satellite has a 20-year mission life, they typically fly for five years or less before being decommissioned and burning up in space. This is a lot of money left on the table. The trend in space commerce today is to transition from a single large satellite to the deployment of constellations of numerous small satellites. Our goal is to make that simple for our customers by launching a satellite to space, swap it out with a decommissioned one, return it to Earth in the same mission, and refurbish that satellite for relaunch.  We attract customers with shorter mission durations at lower costs combined with the highest safety/lowest risks. Missions can be as short as 90 minutes, from launch to landing which opens the door for our Ferry satellite to do many new types of missions never possible before. 

At Outpost we see a future where space is a gateway to a more resilient Earth. To get there we need to start operating our space missions more sustainably. This starts with making the single-use satellite a thing of the past by making it reusable. The Earth return technology in development at Outpost does just that, but also ensures that the return lane from space is opened—something that must happen for true access to space to exist.

                                                                     Jason Dunn, Founder and CEO of Outpost