Bay Area Aerospace Industry Tour 2022

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June 5th-7th 2022

Ten OSSTP Group undergraduate students and one post doc attended the 2022 Bay Area Aerospace Industry Tour with Prof. Whitney Lohmeyer. This four day trip began on June 5th, 2022, and consisted of two days packed full of tours.

This trip was made possible thanks to the generous funding of the Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC) Grant and to Olin College of Engineering, as well as all the individuals who gave their time and other resources – Laurie Yoler and Ben Lenail, Maryanna Saenko and Adam Lambert.

The itinerary of the first tour day included: 

  • Xona Space Systems with Brian Manning, CEO 

  • Maxar led by Chris Coker, 

  • Silicon Valley driving tour of Google and Steve Job’s Garage

  • Stanford’s Space Environment and Satellite Systems Lab with Dr. Lee  

  • Stanford’s Space Rendezvous Laboratory with Shane Lowe

  • Skylo with Parth Trivedi and the Skylo Team 

  • Dinner and Happy hour with industry leaders like: Natalya Bailey, Hemant Chaurasia, Mike Cassidy, Maureen Haverty, George Hansel

 

Whereas the itinerary for the second day included: 

  • San Francisco tour - Golden Gate Bridge and local picnic

  • Planet Labs led by Joe Mascaro - Director of Science Programs

  • Loft Orbital - Alex Greenberg, COO and co-founder

  • Olin Alumni Evening Event in downtown San Francisco

Students share their experiences and highlights below:

Kat Canavan

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As someone who has never been to California, let alone Silicon Valley and San Francisco, this incredible trip provided me with detailed and exciting insights into the satellite industry, as well as the tech industry and Silicon Valley culture as a whole. While I am familiar with the satellite industry as a result of my work with the lab, I was nonetheless surprised to see in person it’s dynamic nature. By design, we toured many companies of different sizes, cultures, and ages.

I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition between our first stop, Xona, a small and energetic start-up working on next-generation GPS, and our second stop, Maxar, where we toured a massive maze of buildings, including warehouse-sized cleanrooms with satellites as big as a school bus. While Xona gave me a similar feeling of springy excitement tangent to diving into an Olin class, Maxar’s tour gave me the same sense of awe as when I visited the Udvar Hazy museum as a kid and saw the Discovery space shuttle and astronaut space suits. Visiting Maxar was my first time in a positive-pressure clean room which was a really unique and exciting experience. We finished the evening with Skylo’s amazing demo of their game-changing satellite communications technology and a generously organized happy hour where we had the opportunity to chat with folks from all parts of the industry in a beautiful sunny, casual setting. This was probably the most impactful part of our trip as we got to share the research we’re embarking on for the summer and get excited, validating feedback from individuals well-versed in the industry, as well as learning about their backgrounds, experiences, and companies. It was here it really clicked for me how broad the satellite industry is and how many different aspects there are to specialize in. This was further exemplified the next day by Loft Orbital, whose entire business model is essentially a rideshare service for satellite payloads, making space much more accessible to those who don’t want to deal with the logistics of getting a satellite into space themselves. Still, some companies' products overlap, such as Planet Labs and Maxar with satellite imaging technology, and it was really interesting to learn about different approaches to the same broad goal, as well as seeing that companies with similar technologies can have very different cultures.

I want to thank all the companies and individuals who graciously hosted us and engaged in all of our questions. This trip was such an indescribably amazing opportunity in so many ways, from the novelty of my first plane ride, to bonding with other lab members, exploring the beautiful California landscape and culture, and being exposed first-hand to cutting-edge technology and fascinating people. I also want to express my deepest gratitude to Whitney Lohmeyer and Argyris Kriezis for not only organizing the trip and making it possible, but for making the experience so extraordinary.

Lillian Shoemaker

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The bay area trip gave me an amazing introduction into the real world of satellite development, both in the form of new startups and what many call the “dinosaurs” of the industry. While working with SWARM-EX (OSSTP’s NSF funded smallsat project) I had a general understanding of what I was working with and doing, but this trip truly opened my eyes to the amazing capabilities and skills that I am learning through SWARM-EX and OSSTP. I was also able to gain a better picture of what studies I could dedicate myself to for future job possibilities. Overall, each and every company taught me something new about the world of industry, satellites, and the world in general.

The first company we visited was Xona, where they made an emphasis on how there is a difference between drive and passion. This was a concept that I had never contemplated before in my life. As they said, we should focus on our drive and work alongside that, for not only will it keep us going and inspired, but it may also open possibilities to new passions. Whereas if we only focus on our current passion, we may block out future possibilities in our lives.

The second company we visited was Maxar, which is what some consider a “dinosaur” in the industry. Yet just like an archeologist, the structure and pieces of this company absolutely fascinated me. The capabilities of what they can build and develop, the care they take to maintain professional grade products, and the overall atmosphere of professionalism gave me a sense of longing. Instead of feeling intimidated by what they were accomplishing, I found myself wanting to be a part of such grand achievements and process’. They showed me that I crave for a system of focus and dedication, which most commonly is made after years of trial and error. And now I am left to wonder if I want to be a part of such trials, or jump right into a sense of perfectionism.

We then took a break from visiting companies, and went to the Stanford campus. I have always found such intense curriculums and dedicated students both calming and frightening, for I find myself both equal in their drive, yet, with my current knowledge base, lacking in their capabilities. While there though, I heard multiple stories of failures, mishaps, and I even watched some of my own with a group of students trying to autonomously run a robot. It was a humbling experience where I felt a sense of equality with these students, for we are all working towards a similar goal and tripping on the same steps along the way. We are not alone, just at different stages of the path.

The third company we visited was Skylo, which absolutely blew me away with their immense progress in the few years in which their company has existed. Although they gave us amazing experiences throughout our visit, there were two things that they mentioned in rather fleeting sentences as they described their progress that gave insight to their past. Pivoting an idea and understanding your customer. Although this seems like general knowledge of any business, seeing first hand how such focus on these two things advanced their company amazed me, and I will forever keep note of them in everything I do.

The fourth company we visited was Planet, which was quite unlike the others we had visited. The main thing at this company that fascinated me was their 3U satellites, which is the size we are designing for SWARM-EX. It was amazing to see that even in such a small size satellites there are so many design differences that can occur due to the task in which the cubesat must accomplish. I found their deployable antennas fascinating, for the simplistic design has proven multiple times to work. Their hinge design was also rather interesting, for it reminded me of the ones that SWARM-EX is developing, but in a more sleek, compact design, obviously chosen after years of testing. They also had smaller scale ways to test the reliability of the satellites they build, much like Maxar, buch on a much smaller and more doable scale (as in even college students could build and develop their testing chambers). This company showed a sense of practicality and outward simplicity, proving that in order to have a company building, developing, and running, it doesn’t need to be an extreme high-tech facility such as we experienced at Maxar. Instead it needs to be a place filled with inspired and driven workers. I will also state that the work at Planet is in no way simplistic, but their outward presentation is so relaxed and functional you would believe it was.

The last company we visited was Loft Orbital, who has the slogan “space made easy” on their webpage, and after speaking with them I realize how true that statement really is. Their company’s focus on working for the customer was unbelievably amazing, most noticeably when they explained the risks they had to take in the early development of their company and failures they encountered. Even through all the difficult times that they encountered they never lost their focus on what is best for the customer, and due to that they now have a functional, reusable system that is not only making their company profitable, but also helping those around the world with getting their own personal systems into space.

By the end of the trip I felt accomplished in the information I gathered, the things I had learned, and the connections that I had made. It was an enjoyable time, and I was even able to get closer with members of the lab, which will make the upcoming working periods even more enjoyable. This was a new experience that went amazingly well from start to finish, and I know that I will look back at it fondly for the years to come. Thanks to everyone who made this trip possible, and I cannot wait to see what this lab does next.

Ben Eisenbruan

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The trip to the Bay Area with the OSSTP summer researchers was a wonderful opportunity for me to dive straight into the atmosphere of Silicon Valley and be able to get a glimpse into where the space industry is headed for the next decade. Our packed schedule, jumping from one company to another as we traversed from city to city, allowed me to absorb a comprehensive experience of the technology hub of the Bay Area and helped to display what it would look like to work and live in that environment. The trip itinerary was set up beautifully in order to offer us as much of the area as possible, while also showing as much contrast in companies and paths as possible. 

I will never forget the first two companies we toured and how starkly different they were. The first was Xona Space Systems, a startup company in San Mateo that was on a street of unmarked studio spaces. The exterior of the building was completely blended into the rest of the block. As we entered the door and were escorted up a carpeted staircase, we were met with the Xona office. It embodied everything I associated with a startup hussle: a fogged glass wall with “Xona Space Systems” engraved, wood flooring, and rooms cluttered with desks and tables sprawling with tools and personal items. However, the atmosphere and drive of everyone we met and spoke to helped me to understand the excitement that is growing in technology and satellites specifically in the last few years. The next company we visited was Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto. The instant we got to the set of buildings, I realized just how different these two were. Everything at Maxar was more institutional: a massive building complex, a dedicated security guard, and the largest manufacturing cleanroom I have ever seen. The vast differences between these two companies gave me great perspectives into the different avenues within Silicon Valley and the space industry and allowed me to think more about what kind of environment I would want to work in. 

In addition, I was able to contextualize my research in EPFD, satellite interference, and understand just how important it is to the industry as so many companies are pushing more and more satellites into orbit. It was an eye-opening experience to witness just how much exponential pressure there is to expand satellite launches and how few people are talking about some of the possible issues that plague such an increase of objects in orbit, both from a collision and an interference perspective. The trip helped to give me more encouragement that the research that we are working on is valuable and integral to the success of future space technology.

I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity that OSSTP and ARDC gave me to experience the ever-evolving space industry in Silicon Valley as well as visit California for the first time.

Meredith Alley

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Normally, when going on academic trips, I expect to kill a few hours at a museum, see a couple interesting buildings, eat nice food, and leave in roughly the same state I arrived - tired from travel and ready to get to sleep. This is definitely the state I landed in California in - a seven hour flight is no walk in the park, and I didn’t even have a window seat! After getting to sleep (in one of the nicest hotel rooms I’ve EVER slept in), I was ready to meet the Bay Area and maybe go to a couple museums or something. I was sorely mistaken about what ‘seeing industry’ meant, and hadn’t paid as much attention to the itinerary as I should have, because by the end of the two short days, I was absolutely wowed.

Xona was the first place we visited, and as someone who had never really encountered a startup in the flesh before, Xona was the perfect introduction to what to expect from the Bay Area. Not only was their team small and clever, they were also so friendly! We toured through their facility and people were stopping us to ask who we were and how we liked the building, it really made me feel like they were excited to have us there. Also, a bit of the presentation about the company’s proceedings went above my head, but the message that they were doing cutting-edge work behind a strong, financially viable idea was very apparent. Most importantly, at the end we got a gift bag with a SUPER nice mug!

At the next few stops, we got to see both MAXAR, a well-established satellite manufacturer, and Skylo, a comparatively much younger but still well-established startup. Skylo was much smaller, of course, and had only one building when we visited, but everything was very polished and well-presented. Everyone who was working that day came out to greet us, and there was clearly a lot of effort that went into every aspect of that workplace. On the other hand, MAXAR the industry giant had a seemingly infinite supply of people, a labyrinthine maze of hallways, and a clean room the size of my entire college. This is impressive in its own way, and not only made me think about working at a large v. small company after I graduate, but also new v. old. Innovation is exciting and sharp and well-dressed, while tradition is well-established and comfortable and has proven itself to be capable, repeatedly and reliably enough to be the giant that it is. Much to think about, considering I had only barely started to think about what I wanted to do after college before this!

The networking ‘happy hour’ event we attended was by far the most challenging part of the trip for me, but it was so informative about what the world of business actually looks like that it was my favorite part by far. I felt so overwhelmed by all of the people from different parts of “Industry” all meeting together, talking in field-specific jargon, and able to introduce themselves cleanly in a few sentences. I definitely stumbled over my words a couple times, but meeting so many interesting and capable people and working to blend in and prove myself as a possible peer was exhilarating and my favorite part of the trip!

Kate McCurley

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Our OSSTP group’s Aerospace Industry Tour to the Bay Area was an amazing way to kick off the summer research period. Having begun working with the lab only a week before departing for the trip, I had been just starting to learn about the work OSSTP does and what satellite technology entails, so having the opportunity to learn so much about these topics by interacting with professionals in the industry throughout this trip was amazing. The experiences I had on this trip also introduced me to what it might be like to work in the aerospace industry in the future and encouraged me to consider pursuing this as a career.

I think that what I learned most from on this trip was being able to see the differences between the different companies we visited. The first company we saw, Xona Space Systems, was a small start up with a focus on creating a better alternative to the GPS systems we all use today. While there, we had the opportunity to speak with the CEO as well as several engineers on the team, which was an amazing way to learn more about the company. I was especially intrigued about what it was like to be at a startup, particularly within the aerospace industry, and was able to ask questions to learn more about the environment. I found that I really enjoyed the feel of Xona, and it made me think that I would be interested in working in a similar start up.

Later that first day we visited Maxar, which was another exciting opportunity to learn more about current satellite technology as well as the work environment of different companies. It was definitely a big contrast to the experience I had at Xona that morning. What amazed me about Maxar was seeing just how many different projects they were working on, and I was amazed by the sheer size of these projects and workspace. 

A highlight of the trip for me was seeing the Stanford research labs. While I have before considered the possibility of going to graduate school after graduating from Olin, I’ve never known much about what that experience might be like or considered it in comparison to going directly into working in industry. The image on the left shows myself and other members of our research group looking at impact testing of different materials in the first Stanford lab we visited. Overall, I am so grateful for the opportunity to have gone on such an amazing trip that taught me so much about the aerospace industry. It was a great way to kick off the summer research period, and I’m even more excited for the work our group will be doing this summer.

Katie Fleming

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The lab’s Bay Area trip was a unique opportunity to see how the satellite industry has been evolving since the space race. From established legacy players like Maxar to fledgling startups like Xona, we were able to get insights on the cultures and mindsets of companies at every stage of the startup to titan of industry life cycle. There were some things that all of these companies shared: identifying different niches in their market, adapting their product or service to specifically address the consumer’s demands, and the same altruistic vision of making the world a better place. More than any of the technology, I loved how excited every person we met was about the benevolent aspect of their job. It was interesting to compare the range of environments that fostered this attitude. Elements like formality (filling the spectrum between sharp suits to shorts and flip-flops), office space (covering everything between a house zoned for both residential and commercial space to a full-sized campus), and ethics (falling in shades from rigid policies to being mission agnostic) were incredibly varying. This trip really allowed me to compare what aspects of each visit clicked with me the most and start envisioning myself in the field.

Meeting and talking to industry professionals was by far the most impactful part of the trip for me. As someone with relatively little experience with the satellite industry, start ups, or networking, it was exciting to explore their intersection and meet so many passionate individuals who were enthusiastic about sharing their experiences with us. Despite the jetlag setting in, the networking event was arguably the most informative part of the trip for me. Being in a one on one environment allowed me to ask questions that helped me get a better understanding of what kinds of people work in this space. I loved getting the chance to learn about the diversity of professions and paths within the industry. It was even interesting to sit back and watch how these people interacted with their peers. 

Overall, the trip was packed with opportunities to explore the satellite industry. I really appreciate how everyone responsible for planning the trip made sure to give us the opportunity to dive deep into a diversity of careers and environments. It was an incredibly inspiring experience that has really solidified my interest in the field. On another note, this was also a great time to bond with the team outside the lab. Getting to know my teammates more personally has made me even more excited to work with them!

Albert Manrique

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The Bay Area trip with OSSTP was an eye opening experience to the world of satellite industry. From new start-ups to long standing giants of the industry, it gave me a insightful view into the different ways that we can impact the world through the use of the skills we are learning and research that we are doing in the lab. This trip has taken what was previously just an abstract list of names and callsigns on a spreadsheet and showed me the people that our work impacts in a very real way. Furthermore, thanks to this beautifully executed trip, I have a clearer lens through which to focus my efforts and a better idea of what I could do beyond Olin.

One of the biggest differences that I saw throughout our trip was the range of company sizes. When visiting Xona Space Systems, it was immediately apparent how driven everyone was and how friendly the atmosphere was within the startup. After learning how they were creating new alternatives to the GPS system, I was amazed at how a new company could change what I previously thought was a technology that wouldn’t be surpassed. Later that day we visited Maxar which was also an incredible opportunity to learn what type of work was being done at a larger company that has been around for a long time. It was certainly a sharp contrast with Xona and the other smaller startups we visited in the atmosphere and range of products that were being developed. It was incredible being in the only clean room I’ve ever been in and seeing five satellites lined up being all worked on at the same time. 

My highlight of the trip was seeing Planet Labs and the fantastic work that they were doing. I was able to talk to the Director of Science Programs, Joe Mascaro and I was able to see the incredible impact that they have in detecting deforestation and plant health. Having studied marine science in high school I was enthralled with the work being done at Planet Labs as it was a unique focus on sustainability and satellite development.

I am incredibly thankful to OSSTP and ARDC for the opportunity that was provided to get an insightful view into this amazing field.

Andrew Phillips

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Prior to this trip, I had never visited the Bay Area. I had always heard it was a famous technological hub, but I did not have any further context to the area, so it remained as a vague image in my head. This lab trip gave me a great introduction to both the area and the tech world that I am very appreciative of. I knew I wanted to work in the tech space after graduating, but I never thought much about where I would prefer beyond name recognition and salary. However, this trip gave me a lot more to think about.

Our first stop on the trip was Xona Space Systems, a company focused on providing alternative services to traditional GPS. As we spent time talking to the CEO, I found myself really enjoying the smaller, more personal environment of the company. Everyone there was excited to talk with us, sharing their experiences and answering any questions they could. I learned a lot about what it was like to work at a start-up company and how it grows and develops over time. They shared that starting a company from the ground up can be intimidating at first, as it can feel like a competition with industry titans. However, a small company also means you have a lot more ownership in the products created, as you inevitably become more involved in more steps of the project. Overall, I really enjoyed the overview of the company, and could definitely see myself working at a similar start-up.

On the other end of company size, our next visit was to Maxar, a well established company in the aerospace field. We specifically visited one of their manufacturing plants in Palo Alto. As we toured the clean room production floors, I found myself amazed time and time again by the scale of each project. From massive testing chambers to satellites the size of a school bus, Maxar represented everything I imagined from a titan of the industry. I also enjoyed seeing their mission control rooms, as they reminded me of the eventual goal of sending each of these huge satellites to space.

Overall, I am very glad I was able to go on this trip. I had a great introduction to the Bay Area and gained a little more perspective on the tech companies that inhabit it. It was also a fantastic lab bonding experience, and I am excited to continue my research for the rest of the summer!

Phillip Post

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I think the space industry is one of the most misunderstood. I had always assumed it was little more than a few huge players that manufacture their own satellites, launch them on their own rockets, and use them for only direct to consumer television or internet. Traveling to the bay area with the OSSTP group highlighted how this could not be further from the truth. From this trip, I learned that the space industry is incredibly multifaceted, touching almost every other field imaginable. I have always wanted to pursue a career where I do not have to stay in the lane dictated by my major. One where I could have engaging talks with others from a broad array of backgrounds to further my own work. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this is the norm in all of the companies we visited and not the exception. I think two of the visits that best highlighted this were to Skylo and Planet.

At Skylo, I was, of course, very impressed by how far they had come in using existing technology to facilitate communication through current satellite constellations all the while requiring no ardeus modifications, but my personal highlight was when I talked to their head legal counsel Priya Venkat. Through our OSSTP FCC Datascrapers team, I spend a lot of time reading and reviewing FCC legal filings, so it was eye opening to me to speak to someone who actually writes and consults for them. Priya was an absolute joy to speak to, highlighting all of the legal and ethical work they have to do in addition to any engineering. It really made me realize that rockets and satellites were just the tip of what this industry has to offer and made me think how I could also bridge all of these multidisciplinary gaps.

I was pleasantly surprised again during our trip to Planet as we were immediately greeted by Joe Mascaro who had the amazing job title of space ecologist. Joe had explained to us how photo imagery taken by Planet could be used for everything from biodiversity analysis to even measuring how climate change affects when certain species of plants bloom. Again, I was blown away by how varied the space industry actually is. Any of my preconceived notions were thrown out of the window. We nerded out over papers that had used planets images to study their local environments like never before. The ability of space to touch on so many fields amazed me and motivated me to find how we could continue to do the same in OSSTP.