ispace Jenna Tiwana Interview: Lunar Exploration, M1 Mission and More

18th Mar 2024
ispace Jenna Tiwana Interview: Lunar Exploration, M1 Mission and More

Orbital Today was fortunate to catch up with Jenna Tiwana, Senior Business Development & Strategy Advisor at ispace, just before the beginning of the year. A lot has happened in the lunar segment of the space industry in a short time, but I think that what Jenna Tiwana says here is important for understanding the state of the drive for the Moon. Read on!

OT: ispace has been busy globally. What’s on the horizon for for ispace in Europe, and in the UK in particular?

Jenna Tiwana: We are headquartered in Japan but have entities in Luxembourg and in the US. But for the European side specifically, one of the things that we did was sign a Public Private Partnership agreement with the ESA and Ariane Group, and we see these pretty important relationships as a great baseline to underpin a lot more of the European activity that we want to see. Europe is unique in that it has national agencies, but it also has ESA, so we’re trying to work with all the different components of the European constellation to move forward and accelerate this progress.

You often see that in Europe people think the Moon is the next step. A lot of the rest of the world doesn’t think of it as a next step, it sees the Moon as the ‘now’ step. This is something in Europe that we are working on: accelerating the timeline, prioritizing the Moon, because the rest of the world is. So that’s a concrete example of the kinds of things that we’re doing in Europe, as well as working on the commercial side of things. In the UK specifically, we’re fortunate that the UK has a strong focus on the international, bilateral side of things, and a lot of the countries that are of high importance in this, namely the US and Japan, are places where ispace has a big presence.

We’re really leveraging the UK’s focus on this international bilateral framework to get ispace involved and partnered with UK companies that currently don’t have access to the Moon, or where these capabilities don’t exist in the UK. For example, the British Embassy in Tokyo recently visited our Tokyo office, and we showed them our mission control center. And it was great because they saw, practically where M1 operations took place, where Goonhilly Earth Station was connected to. We’re working with embassies, governments and the private sector to really make sure that in the UK we do things on a holistic level and that’s really what will enable countries like the UK to have a longer term presence, rather than just a one-off or short term presence.

Waking up the Lunar Economy

Regarding commercial partners, how aware are companies of the possibilities a lunar economy holds for them?

Jenna Tiwana: I think on that front, we work in two ways. One, we have a lot of people approach us who already have identified what they want to do on the Moon. But a lot of what we do is actually helping and working collaboratively with partners to understand what they can do on the Moon. And they don’t need to be super spacey. They don’t need to be super lunar.

I think a lot of companies have realized that even if it’s a material that they use in a non-space product or, testing facilities or even things like lunar insurance, there’s room for them. A lot of the things that people don’t really associate with the Moon, probably are going to have a role on the Moon if not in the short term, then definitely in the mid to long term. And so ispace is investing, and correctly so, I think, in a lot of energy to help people discover that if they have a product on Earth, it can have a place on the Moon.

It’s interesting in the UK because there is a lot of UK lunar activity already, actually. The UK is fantastic in terms of it having so many heritage institutions, it has some of the best institutions in the world. We’re very fortunate in that we have a lot of R&D heritage. And so actually there’s a lot of lunar progress. What we are trying to help the UK with and also, working very closely with the UK, is making sure that these have a clear route to the Moon and also a clear route to commercialization. ispace is really focused on it and its personally part of why I joined ispace, because ispace is really trying to do things commercially. We are trying to establish these commercial value chains on the Moon that will be sustainable. We aren’t going there for a short amount of time, only funded by government. And this is evidenced by the significant amount of private funding we raised before being listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. We believe that there is a business case for going to the Moon.

What we try to do, especially with UK companies, is figure out on the whole where we already have players doing things. So whether that be batteries or water splitting or electrolysis experiments, where do we have these going to the Moon already and therefore where do technologies that exist in Europe or in the UK slot into that value chain? What we want to do is not just send payloads as a one-off for the sake of sending them. We really want to say, “hey, your technology has this potential to satisfy this business case. By the way, we probably know your customer and we probably know your supplier. So let’s help enable that relationship, which means that you’re not going just for a one-off. We see this repeatable, sustainable business, and that’s what we try to work with companies to do. A lot of that actually exists in the UK, maybe not on the value chain level yet, but on the segments of the value chain. I see a lot of companies really innovating in the UK. It’s very exciting, really genuinely exciting.

OT: ispace already have some vital connections with UK companies.

Jenna Tiwana: Goonhilly, for one, really was pivotal in enabling our Mission One and we had a really positive and collaborative relationship with ESA and Goonhilly on our first mission. And we really do want to continue those kinds of relationships because they’re going to be non-negotiable. We absolutely need them going forward. So we’re really excited to continue working with the commercial and non-commercial players out there. I spoke to Ian, the CEO of Goonhilly, afterwards. He’s been a good friend of mine for a while. And it was clear that there was just this shared excitement of ispace’s M1 mission.

He was telling me how it felt being in the room at GES. I was telling him how it felt being in our operations room. It’s this magic that is created between partners on missions like this that I think we just want more of it, more of the magic and hype we can create around the Moon. And I think we really do feel that it’s great.

How government can help

OT: Where do you see government agencies as leading this stage of lunar development instead of commercial organizations?

Jenna Tiwana: I think the real need is now for comms and Nav, and the UK government focus coupled with that such as ESA and NASA, is giving the industry a very clear signal that there is a demand for this. That’s great for us because then, that’s what you need in Space, you need to have that pull to stand up a solution. Nav is one of the things that will need to be stood up to enable this future cislunar ecosystem that ispace envisions. Given our core is transportation, we recognize that the needs of a future lunar economy, they will evolve in time.

OT: I get the feeling that there is an Earthside lunar community developing. Would you say that’s accurate across this part of the industry?

Jenna Tiwana: We really are one of the most international players on this front and so we actually work extremely closely together with other companies. Of course, there are limitations, especially around governments and restrictions. So we have to have some firewalls in place. But on the whole, we work extremely closely with each other. I think, Space does feel like a really big family. It’s a great, great energy, and the common thing that unites us is that we really do have a shared passion for what we’re doing.

And, hats off to our CEO, Hakamada-san, that his vision is our path. It’s what’s underpinned all of that. I think it’s very rare that you go to a company and everyone has a very clear image and drive inside of what they’re doing. Whether you are an engineer in Japan or a business person in Europe or in mission control in the US, it’s powerful that you can come together and work towards the same thing and you’re putting the same amount of energy towards the exact same vision.

Space is super diverse, so not just in the three geographies, but for example, the Europe entity has around 30 people and has around 20 to 25 nationalities. Because of that we work very closely, not only on our technical expertise, but also on our cultural expertise.

ispace want to go as humanity to the Moon, not just a country, not just a nation and so working with people from Australia, from Bolivia, from Japan, from all these countries that have come together towards this vision, you can really learn a lot if you’re going to approach an agency or a government from that country, about how to approach them, what their priorities are, what their strengths are, and leverage that. So on the business side, it’s really important that when I’m approaching a new agency, for example, I’ve tried to do as much as I can about understanding the culture, what they pride themselves on as an industry in their country and we work together very closely on that. The company is super connected. I speak to my Japanese and US colleagues at least a couple of times a week. We also get together and ispace is a very global community. With all these conferences that we have, we really try to have equal representation from our entities there, too. If you ever see ispace at a conference, you will see people from every entity for sure.

The day after M1

OT: The day after M1 impacted, you had to talk with clients. What was that like?

Jenna Tiwana: I had Monday morning meetings with customers and you have to own it. Part of what gave us the strength and the confidence was how our team handled it. So that scene at the end where all of our CXOs that were present came together. The company that was present came together and gave a bow. For me, that was so powerful, I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud to be part of ispace, actually, than that moment. And that says a lot, because the pride I felt as an employee wasn’t dependent on the success or the failure of the mission. It was dependent on how we as a company handled it and how we portrayed ourselves to the world. Speaking to those customers on that Monday morning afterwards, I thought that if Hakamada-san can face the world, I can face my customer. So it really is a leadership by example. But you do get the questions we did get. We did get asked how we’re feeling.

But actually we got such an influx of positive messages and support from customers, competitors, partners, agencies. It really was an overwhelming support. I think I’m very close friends with a lot of our mission operations team and quite honestly, some of them afterwards were distraught. They were broken. They felt like it was their baby. They’ve checked on it every day like it’s their baby. And I think the support from the world really helped them get through it.

In the end, it wasn’t as hard of a conversation as I was expecting. People know space is hard. People know that what we were doing was extremely risky. At the time, we basically went from thinking we should do a lander to being in lunar orbit in about six years, all privately funded. That’s unheard of in the space industry. I think people really recognize that getting to lunar orbit is such a triumph with a team that’s never done this before. That’s learning as we go.

When we were speaking to customers before M1, we had no experience. Now we’re speaking to customers with that experience under our belts. So irrespective of whether it landed or not, people have more confidence in us.

And so it was very positive and people think that now we’ve launched something, they see us as a real space company. And we’re pretty confident that we’ve learned solidly from the first mission, and we’re doing what we can to make the second one successful. So it was pretty surprisingly positive. I was worried about it, but it was positive.

Note: Thank you, Jenna Tiwana, for taking the time to speak with us!

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