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Former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao talks global space aspirations

. 12 min read

We invited Dr. Leroy Chiao to join us on stage at ROBOTERRA's A.I.Kit conference in the spring of 2019 and shared his experience working in space, education, and tech startup. You can continue listening along to hear about Dr. Chiao’s insights in the global space.

Leroy Chiao is a former NASA astronaut and International Space Station commander. He works in business, consulting, executive coaching and space education. He is a professional international speaker, and a co-founder and the CEO of OneOrbit, providing keynotes and training to companies and schools. Chiao also holds appointments at Rice University and the Baylor College of Medicine and is an advisor to the Houston Association for Space and Science Education. He has worked in both government and commercial space programs and has held leadership positions in commercial ventures and NASA. He was the first LSU Raborn Distinguished Chair Professor. Chiao has extensive experience as a NASA Astronaut and prior to that, as a Research Engineer. Dr. Chiao is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member of the International Academy of Astronautics and the Committee of 100.

Source: Nara

Michael Kehoe: Welcome. Thank you for joining us today. I'm here with Dr. Chiao. A former astronaut and now, a public speaker and educator. I'm Mike. VP of business operations from OnePiece Work. We just wanted to talk with you a little bit to you about your experience with working in space, your experience in space education and then a little bit about space tech startup.

Dr. Leroy Chiao: Sure.

Michael: Because that's a really hot field right now.

Leroy: Absolutely.

Michael: Thanks for joining us.

Leroy: My pleasure.

Michael: I can't resist asking some questions about your experience in space. I know you speak to it a lot. What are some fun facts about daily life in the space station while you're up there?

Leroy: Of course, in the space station or any spacecraft, you're weightless. Everything's floating. You're floating. Everything that you pull out is going to float. Everything has to have a piece of velcro on it to either stick to a wall that has velcro on it or tucked under an elastic band.

Source: Fatherly.com 

It's interesting because it's easy to move large massive objects around as long as you move them slowly because there's no weight but on the other hand, the frustrating thing about space flight is how easy it is to lose things. Sometimes pretty big things get lost. Sometimes it takes you quite a while to find them. Sometimes you never find them.

Michael: Now that you are hypervigilant while you're up on the space station, are you super organized now that you're back here, just a normal life?

Leroy: I guess, I always was fairly organized, but even when you're pretty organized you can still lose things because even if you secured stuff, if somebody else goes by and brushes against it, it might knock it lose. Now, most of the time you can find things in the air filter, but like I said, sometimes things stay lost for a long time and sometimes forever. [laughs]

Source: BBC News

Michael: I can imagine. Just a recent current event I'd love to reference. There's a ton of excitement right now around this image of the black hole that was just released. There's hype cycles that come and go when there's something that reached the mass public related to space. What's a great way we can capitalize on the hype around this picture and use it to translate into real educational initiatives or getting more children involved in space tech?

Leroy: It's interesting because this is a real image of a black hole. It's not an artist conception or some artificial creation. If you look at it and you don't know what it is, it doesn't look that impressive, but if you know what it is and you explain to young people what they're looking at and they've learned a little bit about black holes and they know that there's such an intense gravity that not even light can escape and then they see this actual black hole literally, then it gets their imagination going. I think things like that, when we have stories like this, it's an opportunity to capitalize on it and inspire some kids with it.

Michael: It reminds me of what I've read about when some of the first images of Earth came out and how that spurred a lot of the--

Leroy: Sure.

Michael: I'm trying to remember the exact name of the movement but it was just like eco--

Leroy: Help save the earth.

Michael: Yes. Save the earth because then it's much more tangible.

Leroy: The first satellites that we launched that actually took images and send images back of our earth, I think you're right. It very much inspired things like that.

Michael: Can you tell us a little bit about your company One Orbit and how you can use that as a vehicle to sort of draw more students into learning about space tech?

Leroy: Absolutely. OneOrbit was created pretty recently about three and a half years ago. What we did, the co-founders and I, we formed a company that was already capitalized on some of the professional speaking I was doing, but then it brought in the education component as well. We have two sides of the company.

One side is the corporate keynotes and workshops and business topics like leadership, how to combat complacency, how to use innovation and technology and thinking in your business. Then the passion comes from the education side because all the co-founders have pretty young kids. When we started, they were all under 10 years old. We were all very interested and passionate about education.

My partner, my business partners, a professional educator, she taught middle school science for 10 years in the classroom. We've created these programs that use the draw of space flight to get kids hooked in and interested to get them thinking. Our whole thing, we've got keynotes for them. I talk about my journey and my experiences on how I got to where I got and talk about the importance of not only doing well on school and having a dream, but also having the courage to follow that dream, to take that path, take those risks to do the things you can to take care of your health.

I say that's the recipe for success, whether you want to be an astronaut or anything else. Just do the best you can in school and do what you can to take care of your health and have that positive attitude and be willing to take some risk. We have these astronaut camps, we call them camps or hands-on activities for kids of all ages. In fact, we run them sometimes with students, their parents, and their grandparents. We'll talk about some of the very fascinating missions that have occurred pretty recently in space, and some of the amazing discoveries, get them thinking, and then we transition into a hands-on activity, a design challenge or maybe a STEAM project. That's kind of what we've been doing. I'm really interested with this conference to see how A.I. might affect education in the future. Of course, it already has. Technology has affected education quite a bit, but A.I. I think has the potential to really move it to that next level.

Michael: Yes. Going back to the role model example about getting kids inspired for STEAM education, I think that's a big part. I previously worked in a company that did computer science education. If you look at getting more diversity, people from different backgrounds to go into it, if they see someone more like them, and they can kind of latch on to that and say, "Oh, it's not kind of this foreign concept," or people have self-reinforcing, like, "I'm not good at something, therefore I can't do it." I really appreciate that you're going to be a role model for that.

Source: Space Foundation

Leroy: That is important. One of the things I do talk to the kids about the students, I say, "Hey, I was just like you. Everybody in this room has some smarts. The difference was the hard work." Because things didn't come easily to me. I didn't get straight As, and certainly in university, I was working really hard, and sometimes, I was getting Cs, for the first time in my life. I said, "Don't think that I was just this brilliant guy that got straight As without even trying."

Michael: They just see the highlight reel at the end.

Leroy: Right. My point to them is, "Hey, you really should go after that dream. It's important to be realistic. There're no guarantees in life, but if you don't try, you're never going to get there."

Source: Disney Junior

Michael: Now I'm going to shift over to a couple questions about sort of space tech startups. Just to start off, kind of looking at the whole field of space tech, what are a couple of startups you're really excited about right now?

Leroy: Of course, SpaceX, and Blue Origin. They have really did some amazing things, and so has Virgin for that matter, but Virgin right now, they're suborbital, so they're really going after the tourism and maybe a little bit of a research market, but the the orbital stuff, the stuff that SpaceX is doing, the fact that they just yesterday launched their Falcon Heavy and its first commercial mission and recovered all three core boosters successfully for refurbishment, they are already disrupting the launch industry by bringing prices down pretty dramatically. That's very exciting.

Source: SPACENEWS

Blue Origin, they want to build infrastructure around the Earth and the Moon. It's kind of a field of dreams. Let's build it, and they will come. I know that Jeff Bezos said he wants to move the industry off the earth into space to give us more living room here on the earth. I don't know the details about his business plan, but obviously, a smart guy and successful guy. I'm not going to doubt him. Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. He wants to live in Mars. He says he wants to die on Mars, just not on impact. [laughter]

Michael: At least get to check it out for a few minutes.

Leroy: Right. He's building his new spacecraft and his new booster. It's an interesting and exciting concept of having a fully reusable spacecraft system that can go to another planet, and then once he's on Mars, the idea is that the gravity, of course, is just a little over one third that of the earth, his concept is the spacecraft without its booster that gets it away from the Earth, will be able to be refueled and come back to Earth as well. Really exciting stuff going on. These companies have the benefit of having the agility to respond quickly.

They're very much run by their founders. So, they can make decisions quickly, as opposed to NASA. Unfortunately, NASA is not the agency it was when it was created back in the late '50s that got us to the moon in just under 11 years, but NASA is, of course, still relevant. There's still a lot of expertise at NASA.

My hope is that there will be synergy in these government commercial co-operations that we've seen between these companies and NASA will expand to include maybe a joint venture to go to Mars and explore other places like that.

Michael: I think you have a really unique perspective between the US and China, and that you speak Chinese, you've also visited and worked with Chinese space agencies. What do you see are a couple startups that excite you in the private space sector in China? Could you talk about any differences between the private space sector between the two countries?

Leroy: Yes.

Leroy: I got to know the the folks in the Chinese space program in 2006. I was the first American to be invited to visit their Space Center outside of Beijing or in Beijing. Although I've never formally worked with them because I'm prohibited by U.S. law [chuckles] for working with any foreigners frankly without a license. I've gotten to build those relationships, met their astronauts and gotten to look at their space industry.

Source: Sohu

They are definitely up and coming, they're committed, they're very long-term vision people and culture, government. They've steadily increased their capabilities, they've launched of course astronauts into space. They've launched two small space modules, I would hesitate to call them full-blown Space Stations, but they've flown several missions to those including missions of about 30 days in duration.

Next year they'll begin building their own space station and it's going to be international in the sense that there are a lot of countries talking to them about not only cooperating in research but sending their own astronauts to the Chinese Space Station.

China recently announced plans to go send their astronauts to the moon sometime near the end of the 2030's, which was not a surprise, those of us in the business knew that was an open secret. It's pretty exciting what they are doing. As far as the commercial space efforts in China, I'm really fascinated about that because it's still hard for me to imagine that the Chinese government will allow that because--

Michael: That's what I wanted to ask around is the relationship between public and private is so different in China compared to the U.S.

Leroy: Absolutely. For example, U.S. law, of course we have these U.S. startups in space but still you need a launch license from the FAA, from the government and no matter where you launch from, you might think, "Well, if I launch a rocket off South America, then I don't need to pay attention in the U.S." That's not true. If you are a U.S. citizen and you're a U.S. company, you have to have a U.S. launch license. The reason is the U.S. feels it will be liable if your rocket crashes and takes out a village or a city. They're going to certify that you are safe to fly before they allow you to go fly as a U.S. company or a U.S. citizen. Very interesting dynamic. So, the Chinese, I'm a little bit surprised that they allow that because they're generally speaking much more restricted.

I don't know a lot about the Chinese startups. I know that there was at least one Chinese startup that tried to launch a rocket, solid field rocket, I believe. It wasn't successful. It did get off the launchpad, but it didn't make it into space. That's interesting that they're starting to do that. I know there are a number of smaller companies in China and around the world trying to build Nanosats, CubeSats and-

Michael: Like Planet Labs kind of style.

Leroy: Planet Labs kind of thing. Everybody is trying to do worldwide internet now. It's not just Elon Musk and now Jeff Bezos. There're some big players like Airbus and of course, Google and Facebook, are looking at ways to have global coverage. Pretty interesting stuff in the commercial sector around the world even in places like China where I never imagined they would be allowed.

Michael: Because what I'm seeing in the private sector depending on how much leeway the government gives there is, prices will go down if there are more international competitors. There's a friend of mine co-founded Astronauts which is a satellite company startup out of San Francisco. If launch prices hadn't come down, they're launching about dishwasher-size satellites for global internet.

Their first contract is to bring internet to rural parts of Alaska, but if the private sector hadn't brought the launch prices down-- I'm just thinking depending on how much leeway the private companies in China get, you get that increased competition. We've seen what that did for solar. When solar panels came down now all kinds of possibilities opened up due to that international competition.

Leroy: Absolutely. Yes.


Update: According to a recent article on TechCrunch, Dr. Chiao's dream for co-operations between private companies and NASA have became a reality. NASA has selected 13 companies to partner with on 19 new specific technology projects to help reach the Moon and Mars including SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Lockheed.

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