OT Interviews: Joshua Western, Space Forge CEO & Co-founder25th May 2023
Space Forge have made a series of ground-breaking announcements lately. Some feature new technology, such as the company’s advanced heat shield, called Pridwen. Others focus on the company’s expansion into Australia and its partnership with Southern Launch. OT had the pleasure of asking Space Forge CEO and Co-founder Joshua Western about recent developments and how the industry is moving.
Space Forge in Australia
OT: The MoU with Southern Launch gets things moving for Space Forge, but what do you have to do on the ground to actually make it happen in Australia for you?
Joshua Western: It will probably require the setting up of a subsidiary at some point to be able to transfer the knowledge and the intellectual property of what we do into it. Which, to be honest, is quite exciting, both as a fan of Australia and as a fan of rugby.
Southern Launch have already put into place already the infrastructure and the ability to access the range, to be allowed to use it for launch and re-entries. So this means that we have a return site established in the southern hemisphere, which I think makes us the first commercial company with return locations in both hemispheres.
Then, with what we return to that particular range, it does not make much sense to return that satellite all the way back to the UK for refurbishment and then relaunch from either the UK or elsewhere. So, provided the Australian market takes off the way we think it will, we will probably establish a return, refurbishment, and relaunch loop out of Australia.
OT: Do you need to really do much as far as the physical infrastructure for being able to reload the machine there?
Joshua Western: Like a typical clean room? You almost have a succession of clean rooms where they start off incredibly dirty, where you pick it up from the very dusty outback and then you move it back into progressively cleaner ones, understand what parts you’re going to be recycling and disposing of, which parts are fine to be used again, or refurbished. It goes back into a space clean room and then it looks like any other satellite preparing for launch.
OT: So there’s not anything really dramatic that has to be built? It’s a series of clean rooms, pretty much an industry standard thing and so it’s actually fairly cut and dry already, in relative terms.
Life Sciences processing in Space
Joshua Western: So it’s why we really consider ourselves to be an advanced materials company with a space edge. And we’re fortunate that most advanced materials need very similar looking labs and clean rooms compared to the space industry.
That changes if you’re doing something like biological or life sciences: very different handling procedures. Often, you’re trying to achieve the exact opposite in terms of pressure for a clean room and those sorts of things. So if we’re handling life science customers, that does require a different kind of operation.
OT: And so that would be something a little bit further down the road then, probably.
Joshua Western: South Australia has a really good life science hub around Adelaide. It’s got a lot of researchers there that do a lot of agriculture research in space, so we’d probably be asking to work with them for those sorts of areas rather than trying to build that because it’s just far away from what we know.
OT: So if somebody has a has an idea for a space distillery, maybe later.
Joshua Western: I’ll still fly the distillery with great joy. But when it comes to returning to Australia, with the Border Force and the way that they approach crops and everything else, it’s already not an area I want to get involved in right now.
OT: You’ve mentioned that you see the Australian market taking off. Do you also see people from Asia and Oceania making use of this? Do you see things coming from Malaysia, Singapore, Japan?
Joshua Western: We actually already have a customer from Japan who do some very cool life science stuff, but in a closed environment, which makes it very easy to work with, and Singapore as well. The UK has incredibly strong relations with Singapore, it’s a huge R&D hub, really good both in terms of semiconductor and satellite engineering. And you also have the massive free port operation which can always assist when trying to get space goods around. I think also of great benefit is that the opening up of a return site in Australia means that you can deliver payloads and research to those customers much more quickly than you could if you were in Europe or North America.
OT: At first do you see this more as building up in Australia and then building out, or since you already have a client in Japan, do you really see that being as the main client stream at the moment? Where is it going to come from first?
Joshua Western: I would say that the immediate revenue is probably outside Australia just because we already have those research customers that can take benefit. Still, in the short term, there are strong domestic markets in Australia which can really take benefits from the materials that we’re looking to produce in space and then also take advantage of just being able to leverage our platforms as a research capability. And that’s both in a civil and a defense use case with the way that Australia has really refreshed its position and its narrative around the industries that it needs to have and is looking to build out to secure its future.
OT: When you talk about the Australian operation, if you’re talking to the Australians themselves or to those outside the country, is there much of a change in the way that you that you’re talking with them? Is there any difference in emphasis or what they’re looking for?
The Australian Space Strategy is incredibly coherent. It’s got a why, a how and a what for every objective it’s got funding against every objective. To an industry that’s really blossoming, that data is incredibly useful …Joshua Western
Joshua Western: Maybe the main difference is there’s a really big focus on building in Australia for Australia that comes across quite strongly and I think it’s a real sense of pride with Australia. I certainly noticed that when I was out there earlier this year at the Avalon Airshow. The number of things with the ‘Made in Australia’ sticker on it was impressive.
I think that was on a lot more things than it was when I was last in Australia, which was pre-pandemic. And I think as well, they are equally very cognizant that they can’t achieve everything by themselves and that they will have to choose things to go after. And you could probably look to the Australian car industry, to them not making cars anymore, as a good example of them choosing to not do a certain thing.
But I think that within space, the Australian Space Strategy is incredibly coherent. It’s got a why, a how and a what for every objective, it’s got funding against every objective. To an industry that’s really blossoming, that data is incredibly useful, because then those companies that are there already know how to work and grow within that ecosystem. And then, to us coming in from the outside, it tells us what can we can bring into that, how we can support the companies already there and and help to bake a bigger pie rather than try and take a slice of it.
Forge Star 1A
OT: Regarding Forge Star 1A, or the lessons learned from constructing the device that was on the Virgin Orbit launcher. Can you talk a little bit about changes? What lessons were learned?
Joshua Western: The lessons we really needed to learn we learnt in building the Zero. There aren’t many companies, even globally, which can say they’ve designed, built and qualified a satellite in five months. So we are familiar with working at pace. We understand a lot of the challenges that just crop up in a satellite’s development.
Regarding the 1-A, it is about ten times the mass of Forge Star Zero. So it’s much more capable. It will also be a demonstration of our re-entry approach and our in-space manufacturing technology. It’s gone beyond the CubeSat form factor now, and its masses are in the tens of kilograms. There are a couple of CubeSat architecture type things around it, but to be honest, that was only because they fit. If they didn’t, we probably would have had to have qualified a brand new space structure as well.
And that mission is really not far away at all from having its build completed.
OT: What kind of what kind of issues did you run into when you were scaling like that? What are some things that you’ve had to actually scratch your head over?
No shortage of talent
Joshua Western: People is a big one. When we signed up to do Forge Star Zero, we were 18, 20 people. We’re now 57, and in March 2020, we were two people in a garage. So we’ve gone through some really quite insane growth.
And then things with the pandemic and the chip shortages have been really interesting. You know, we qualified automotive parts into space rated parts, because they were plentiful and affordable. All the space parts were gone, and equally, to be honest, space qualifying an automotive part which costs £4 is cheaper than buying the space qualified part. That’s £400 for a simple switch.
So we’ve done a lot of that. And, I think the thing that’s really served us is we haven’t been afraid to hire outside of the space industry to build our satellites.
Coming from what I would describe as traditional or classical space – wouldn’t dream of saying old – there is a tendency, because your customer is traditionally government, where things take a long time, to be slow. Things have to be qualified to the nth degree because you’re building an asset for a national customer that needs to last 15 years in space. Whereas instead, our electronics team come from building synthesizers, robotic prosthetics, and the semiconductor industry. We’ve hired people who’ve worked on cars, nice cars like sports cars, or through to nuclear submarines, and everything else. And actually, there are so many lessons learned in those industries that can apply to the space industry that I think they have actually really accelerated our satellite development.
OT: There seems to be a refrain from some corners that there’s never-ending skills shortage in the space industry.
Joshua Western: Well, I think the reason you hear companies complain about skill shortages in the industry is because they don’t cast their net wide enough. Their job application starts with something like, “Senior Space Systems Engineer. Must have 20 years in the space industry on Systems.”
We can teach you to be a great engineer. We can’t teach you to be a nice person.Joshua Western
That’s just not very many people. Whereas actually, our approach at Space Forge is, “we can teach you to be a great engineer. We can’t teach you to be a nice person.” So we look for nice people who we think will work well with our team first and then work out how can we either translate the engineering expertise they already have into what we’re doing or how do we bring them up on the learning curve.
So when space companies are telling us that they’ve got 50 jobs open and only three people have applied in a whole year, we’re scratching our heads because for our latest role for a manufacturing engineer, we had 142 people apply for one post, and I think that was over three weeks. It’s not a problem we recognize, but I think it’s not a problem because the way that we approach it has made it unnecessary.
Thank you, Joshua Western!
Orbital Today would like to thank Joshua Western for taking the time to speak with us. We look forward to catching up with you again! Thank you, Joshua Western!