We are seeing the rapid growth of the space industry, especially as it becomes more commercial with more businesses working with each other. And along with these changes are new sets of challenges we need to confront in the industry today. Here to take us to space and tell us more about it is István Lőrincz, the President of Morpheus Space. He joins this episode to share what keeps him up at night about the industry, both the good and the bad. He dives deep into sustainable growth and the transition he has observed from the legacy space to the NewSpace. István then peels the curtain to reveal what happens behind the scenes, particularly on regulations and risk management. From space garbage collecting to sustainability, István provides great insights that will have you reeling from the exciting things happening to us right now and in the future. Tune in to this conversation to not miss out!
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Moving The Space Industry Towards Sustainable Growth With István Lorincz
We have a real rocket scientist as a guest who’s also multilingual in English, German, Hungarian, Romanian, and Dutch. We’ve got the President of Morpheus Space. Welcome, István Lőrincz.
Thank you for having me, John and George.
It’s our pleasure.
We’re going to jump right in here. If cyber risk was a pizza, what’s the riskiest topping you’ve ever seen? What topping would you equate that to?
Let me expand on that. Maybe it’s not just a topping but an ingredient. Cybersecurity is more in the background like the flour. It’s a very important ingredient. Most people tend to not focus on that much but if you go to Italy and eat real pizza, that is one of the most important ingredients besides the tomato sauce. Flour would equate to the most important thing there in terms of that analogy.
We’re going all the way to the base ingredients, the flour, which is great.
That’s a good one.
Not many people make their homemade pizza dough anymore.
That’s the beauty of being a European. You know these things and people’s pain points.
In your role as President there at Morpheus Space, what keeps you up at night? What challenges are you seeing?
The most important thing that keeps me up at night is the growth of the space industry and the sustainable growth of the space industry. There is an emerging personality in the industry that we call NewSpace. That is a way of doing business differently as it was done before starting from the ’60s and so on that was very much agency-focused. Everything that was space was directed toward the state and government funds.
Now, that is changing. It becomes more commercial so that businesses work with each other. That’s how they try to make the bulk of their profits. That right there is a huge risk for everything. The industry players have a responsibility to make everything possible to make that sustainable. Right now, it is not sustainable. Everybody is thinking that it is but it is not. It’s still relying heavily on the government to help out. That needs to change over time gradually. That is what keeps me up at night.
The industry players have a responsibility to make everything possible to make that sustainable.
Tell me, what are some of your biggest challenges? I’m sure you’ve got to meet some regulatory requirements as you’re building out your business and working with the government. There are lots of regulatory requirements. What are those challenges that you see that you’re running into?
It would be what you said if I would be at a company that is what we call a legacy space company. If we would be focusing on directly working with government entities and providing capabilities or even working with so-called primes, that’s subcontract abilities. Examples would be Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and so forth. Everyone knows those big names but for us, it’s a bit different. We are trying to make it work in a way that a capitalistic system should work. We are trying to compete and make money through competition.
The biggest challenge is changing the status quo. Everybody is used to working in government-led environments. That means that, for example, if one company would like to buy a propulsion system, they would have to create a so-called RFP or a Request for Proposal. They would have to make it very fair and equal for all. That puts a lot of hurdles in place for the business that would like to do the best it can to become competitive. Those things should be thrown out whenever possible. I’m not saying that all the time but whenever possible, the business should be business.
Most people should understand that sometimes you can sit down at the coffee table and negotiate a very good deal without doing all that bureaucracy and being super fair to everyone. Connections, relationships, and the ability to negotiate get a much higher emphasis in this environment. That’s how you get to a very good and healthy capitalistic industry. That challenge right there is to make sure that the people who are coming out of legacy space and trying to do business in the NewSpace industry understand this. It’s important.
We’re creating NewSpace.
The degree of regulatory issues that exist in procurement is extensive. I understand how that could slow things down. Nevertheless, in the process of procurement, those steps have to be considered for equality in contract sharing. They call it pools of suppliers in those situations. Are you part of a pool where you’re experiencing that pain?
For a small piece of our business, yes. There are certain laws and regulations that even a purely commercial business in the space industry has to adhere to but the majority of the regulations that you would think of don’t apply to us. We don’t have to uphold certain standards. It’s up to the rigor of the customer to make sure that the supplier has those.
Whenever they feel comfortable that the supplier has those things and can maintain quality, or they are responsible enough to be transparent and so forth, then those regulations can be thrown out because, at the end of the day, every single regulation leads to higher costs. Some regulations are so ridiculously strict that they constitute 90% of the price to go through all the qualifications that you need for an electronics board, for example. It’s ridiculous. That is the primary thing that motivated this new form of the space industry to get rid of those and make them cheaper.
That makes a lot of sense. For those of you that aren’t super familiar with procurement, contracts, and those sorts of things, they do have a way to make the sales process for the vendor as well as the supply process for the buyer a little bit more painful but those things are there for specific reasons in what we refer to as commoditized markets. You are not in the commoditized market. There’s a lot of innovation and next-generation space. Would you call it NewSpace?
We are transparent. I’m not saying that these regulations are dumb or useless. They are very useful because when you’re handling public money or taxpayer money, you want to make sure that money is optimally utilized and is not wasted. Naturally, the want of minimizing risk becomes important. You minimize risk by imposing these regulations so that you make sure that the piece of equipment that you purchase with taxpayer money will work in space even though we all know it’s super risky. In businesses, there is a financial trade-off. If it means that I can get a certain piece of equipment for a fraction of the legacy space cost but it would lead me to accept 30% failures, it might become more profitable in the long run. That’s something that legacy space cannot do.
There’s also the issue of privatization that comes into play. Not a lot of people understand that the procurement process is designed for what we call risk transfer for the buyer to understand what risks they might be taking. Even if you have zero regulations at all, larger companies will do some escalation to a risk transfer group. That’s what you’re talking about here. We’re not talking about no regulations at all. We’re talking about the risk management side of the business being able to conduct business with others. Naturally, there are things that no business wants in a conclusion of what is an investment into space. There are some things that are common sense, I imagine.
In the area that you work in specifically, I imagine that every organization that’s working in space has a certain application. If you’re trying to sustain life while somebody is in space, there’s probably going to be more regulation there but what is your application specifically? What do you think is the risk that would end up at a risk transfer department?
That’s a very good lead-in to what we do. It has to do a lot with risk, especially future risk. Our company provides solutions for satellite mobility in orbit. We produce an electric propulsion system that is highly efficient in terms of power consumption and fuel consumption. It’s small and compact. It can cater to the new segment of nanosatellites that is an exponentially growing segment in this industry and all sorts of software solutions that make it easy, for example, for newcomers in the industry who want to make sure that they can command their satellites and move their satellites in a safe way.
The question is, “Why do you want to move your satellite in the first place?” Once you put it into orbit, it circles around the Earth, and then it’s all fine. You look at the Earth or communicate with the Earth, and it’s fine. It’s not as simple as that because even though space is huge and your satellites are small, there are certain important highways. There are certain orbits that are very popular. A lot of satellites get punched in there. Whenever orbits cross, satellite flight paths cross. Conjunctions can happen.
The uncertainty bubbles of where the satellites are can overlap. That results in a potential collision. Whenever that happens, you would want to mitigate that enormous risk because if a collision would happen, it would not just mean that you lose your satellite and the satellite of someone else, which can equate to millions or even hundreds of millions depending on how big the satellite is but it could lead to a natural disaster. After the collision when the satellites break apart, all those pieces become a big cloud of problems. They can generate more collisions and so forth.
If you reach a certain critical density around these orbits, a Kessler syndrome can appear, which is an avalanche of collisions. That can lead to, for example, us not being able to use a layer of an orbit at all. That would be detrimental to all of humanity because space has become an infrastructure now. Most people don’t realize how many important little things rely on services that come from space. That’s how we try to mitigate that risk by making sure that satellites can avoid these collisions but this is the negative of the risk mitigation part.
On the other hand, we also provide more flexibility for businesses and satellite operators to make their set of satellites or constellations more effective and more profitable and optimize them to be where they need to be to provide a service. For example, if they suddenly have to look at Paris for some reason or some large agricultural field more often than they would be able to, they can move their satellites a little bit left and right and then improve these observing events.
In the back of my mind, as you’re talking, the parallel that I’m seeing is garbage in the ocean that floats around. Eventually, it causes a problem somewhere. When you talk about the collision avalanche or the domino effect supposedly, do you think in the future we will have space garbage collectors for that specific situation or maybe even an IT guy that’s always in a space center that can go around from satellite to satellite as a service to service those satellites as a private industry, which maybe is where companies that are privatized like SpaceX might be going?
That answer is a definite yes. You might be surprised how near in the future that might be. There are already a handful of companies that are focusing solely on providing a service in orbit or de-orbiting their costs. That’s collecting garbage and burning it up on re-entry. I don’t think SpaceX will move into that segment. Maybe if they see a need for themselves.
That’s how SpaceX acts. It always has been an island in the industry. They are catering first toward themselves. If something overflows, then you can take advantage of that but these new companies that focus on providing this service are about five-ish years out. There are already companies that have proven the concept of, for example, capturing a target in orbit and moving it somewhere else or de-orbiting it. Even refueling has been done.
There is even a company called Orbit Fab that produces gas stations in space. Their main idea is to build up the underlying infrastructure for the creation of permanent human jobs in space. For that, you need fuel. That’s the first step that humanity needs to achieve. Bringing up big tanks that store fuel and then the capability to transport that fuel to where it’s needed is the first stage in this expansion of humanity into space.
I’ve seen some great graphics that showed all of the satellites that are orbiting the Earth. If you ever get interested, check that out, George. If you haven’t seen that, it’s pretty amazing to see.
I know what site you’re talking about. It has a representation of all of the human-made material floating around in orbit, or at least trackable.
Many of them are not trackable. Anything less than a centimeter is almost impossible to track with current means.
At the speeds, it’s traveling. At the end of another satellite, there’s a piece of debris that size.
Sometimes maybe human life can get into serious danger. There have been multiple occasions where the crew of the ISS had to man their emergency evacuation solutions. There are pods there that can immediately bring them back to Earth because of certain predicted potential collisions with the space station. That happens very often now.
We are litterbugs.
We are but even though we are litterbugs and we tend to not care about our environment until the point where we endanger it, in space, we show a different trend because the actors in the space industry need to have a tendency to be able to project out into the far future because things are very slow. A lot of effort needs to be put in to change anything up there. We are now being proactive in creating capabilities that will secure a sustainable presence in space. That gives me a lot of hope and positivity around it.
I wonder. In the back of my mind, there’s this thinking that maybe we can use magnetism to push debris out of orbit but then I realize how heavy that spacecraft would be.
That is not a bad idea. I cannot speak to it because it’s very out-there and new, and I’m behind NDAs left and right but there is a big problem of capturing other targets in orbit without creating other pieces of debris. If you have a different satellite in orbit, those satellites are fragile. If you, for example, launch a harpoon at them or anything that would be very kinetic, you would generate more debris, and you don’t want that. Those pieces usually tumble in the weirdest way. How do you approach them and slow down the tumbling without touching them? That could be done by electromagnetism. You’re saying magnets are heavy but you can have electromagnets up there that are not that heavy.
I knew more about space than I thought I did.
George is solving problems.
To some degree, I thought about this topic a lot mainly because I’ve worked with folks at JPL and Berkeley Lab before regarding communications in space. Delay tolerance is what we call it because, in the good old internet, there’s this thing called latency. There’s too much latency. That packet is going to get dropped when it goes from location A to location B unless you have a line of sight, laser, or something of that nature. The thinking was, “How do you make sure that line of sight stays consistent? What about all the debris?” We have had conversations about debris and how that impacts the communications between even materials that go to Mars. It’s an 8 to 15-minute delay depending upon where you are in orbit.
Debris does not create any communication issues because it’s not like it’s a cloud up there. When it comes to lasers and optical communication, the biggest challenge is the cloud. That blocks the laser beam but otherwise, with radio signals and how normally they communicate, it’s all free to everyone. The biggest hurdle there is getting your frequency approved and then flying over the ground station.
That’s the grandiose vision of SpaceX. They want to provide non-stop coverage over the majority of the surface of the planet with a low enough latency so that eSports can be enabled. They say 100 milliseconds, 120 milliseconds, or something like that, which is a ginormous amount in eSports but when it comes to the internet in space, that is a disruption. They demonstrated that, and it’s remarkable.
There are all kinds of geeking-out opportunities here but that very concept of using magnets seems to make sense. That’s the very first thing that came to mind for me because the reality is with any propulsion system that you use, you come up with some creative ideas. It’s space. Whatever you’re expelling is going to go that way.
Tell us a little bit about what Morpheus Space does.
We produce electric propulsion systems that use metal as a propellant. I can show you here a mock-up of one of our thrusters that is meant for a satellite that’s about 50 kilograms. This is a mock-up. It contains individual thrusters that are called MultiFEEP. Those holes here are the nozzles for the propellant that leaves the system that generates the thrust. Each individual nozzle can be throttled. That also provides the operator with a high precision of control of the thrust vector so that they have some freedom of rotating the thrust vector. That’s very important because you need that to be as precise as possible to mitigate losses.
Besides that, it’s not as easy as turning it on and off. You need to know exactly when to turn it on and in what direction to point it to get your satellite where you need it to be. In space, the dynamics or physics is a lot more complicated than on the ground. You point your car toward where you want to go, press the acceleration, and get there. That’s not how it works in space. You need to plan ahead and do complicated computational tasks that then result in you knowing where and when to turn on your thrusters.
Those things we also provide. On top of that, we also provide autonomy. An autopilot can be embedded into the satellite which is then integrated with the propulsion system. There, the operator can define the ideal trajectory of the satellite, how they envision it, and how they would like it with a certain precision or tolerance. The autopilot then takes care of commanding or suggesting commands to the propulsion system and the satellite.
With that, we make it a lot more efficient to operate entire constellations and dynamics in orbit. That’s what we do, but our mission is to make sure that the industry continues its growth and becomes sustainable. It’s the NewSpace part. With that, this is our first baby step as a startup to get into a position where we are a central pillar of the space industry. That will take a lot of effort and time to get there. We know that, but grandiose visions need also a lot of energy, execution, and time.
What events can somebody find out more about the industry and the company?
It’s still very legacy-based. Whatever happens in the space industry is very enclosed in a bubble and rarely spears out to the greater public because, let’s be honest, space professionals suck at marketing. That’s also what we try to change to make it easy to digest for the average Joe so that they understand the importance of what we do and why it is important that satellites up there have the ability to move around and so forth and also make it exciting again.
You remember back in the ’60s during the Apollo program how inspiring space was. If you asked a little kid, “What do you want to be?” you got the response of an astronaut or a rocket scientist very often. Nowadays, not so much. That’s all because of this bubbling and being all secretive and enclosed. That needs to change. We are trying to change that.
Getting back to your question, what types of events are important? There are conferences and expos that we attend as industry professionals. They are not for the general public but you can attend launches that are being published by, for example, SpaceX or other launch providers. Rocket Lab is one but they are a little bit more difficult to find and get close to. SpaceX is a sight to see. If you look that up and go to a launch event, that can be a family experience. Other than that, try to follow your industry professionals and leaders that might provide some inspiration. Through that, you get closer to the bubble and then get brought in. That’s how it works.
Let me ask you this. You’re looking at the future. You’re seeing that there are lots of possibilities moving forward. Is there something specific that excites you about the future?
When it comes to the space industry or the future world?
In the future world, is there something specific?
A lot of things excite me about the future. One is the merging of a few very new technologies. One is AI. The other is quantum computation and the human-technology interface through direct contact with the brain. If you bring all of those together, you get to a point where you can imagine a future that is not individualistic that much anymore. You can have AI-supporting governance. You can have great minds that lead our nations connected directly to the sources of information through these interfaces so that the decisions that they make are supported by facts and not just through the filter of the whole chain of people that bring those pieces of information to the decision makers and so forth.
All those things will lead to an exponentially accelerating prosperous world. That excites me a lot. The most inspiring work of sci-fi in my life is Star Trek. That showed a very altruistic future of humanity that got way past money, personal greed, and all the negative things. Everything that drove humanity was experiences, exploration, and growth overall.
I’m glad you said Star Trek, not Star Wars.
Is there a reason why everybody laughs at me when I say Battlestar Galactica?
Battlestar Galactica is a true piece of treasure that should be treated as such. To this day, you cannot refute that it is not a recall of history.
How did you get here? What steps did somebody take to become a rocket scientist and fluent in five languages? What gets you there?
The short answer is passion. Relentless pursuit of my passions is the vision of the future that I would like to live in. Doing everything that I can also excites me, which is then aerospace, space in general, and exploration. I never veered away from that passion. I always stay true to it. That led me down paths that allowed me to do what I’m doing now. Being less cryptic and more tangible in my answer, I studied a lot. I come out of academia. That piece of my life is also very inspiring to me and was a doorway to get to where I can have a meaningful impact on the present life of people and the industry.
You need to be aware of the problems. You need to be aware of how things work in life to be able to step into an enclosed environment like the space industry. If you’re asking me what should someone do if they want to start their careers or contribute to the space industry, nowadays, I would not do the same thing I did back then because the environment has changed, luckily. It’s a lot easier to get in now. What you do is go to the universities. You don’t need to do engineering but you do need a higher form of education to be taken seriously at the beginning to start the conversation.
It is not something that you necessarily need but people are people. They are judgy. You need to get past that initial judgment to be taken seriously. If you find another way, do it another way. It’s not everybody’s soup but once you get there, then you network, try to find ways to get close to the people who are already in there, and make sure that those people want to spend time with you somehow. They want to talk with you. They want to understand how you think. You inspire them somehow or you change their minds in a certain way. That’s the best way to get in.
You touched on it but if you could go back in time and then give your younger self some advice, what would that be?
Trust the way. That’s it. I would not give myself any advice that would change my actions. I would give myself advice that would change my anxiety and improve my confidence over certain decisions but I would not change anything.
What do you do outside of work?
Is there such a thing? I am a founder of a startup. There is no outside of work. You’re trying to connect everything you try to do in every minute of productivity somehow to the growth of the company. Even when it comes to downtime and recreation or entertainment, I find ways to connect it with some aspect of the business. I’m lucky enough to focus on the business development part of our company.
It’s part of my job to spend time with other professionals and make sure that meaningful relationships are built and maintained. That provides a lot of opportunities to find environments where you can relax and have fun. Rarely, I would like it to be more often but that provides some of that. Other than that, I do games. I do watch all sorts of movies, read, and do all those things that most people my age do.
How can somebody find you?
The easiest way to find me is on LinkedIn. You can find Morpheus Space on LinkedIn. Through that, you can find my profile because you will not remember how to spell my name. You can also find me on Twitter. My handle is @IstvanSpace.
István, thank you very much. I appreciate your time on this. It has been educational. It’s always great learning about space, exploration, and all the things that are happening there.
We both appreciate it. Thank you so much, István. We have a lot of things in common more so than otherwise. It was a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much for having me, George and John. Thank you for connecting with me, especially on our facial hair.
We’ve got all representations, a single mustache, a goatee, and a full beard. We talked about making a barbershop triplet. I’m not sure anybody would come to that. To our audience, thank you for reading. If you’ve learned something or laughed, tell somebody about the show. We appreciate it. This has been another great episode. Thank you very much. See you next time.
About Istvan Lőrincz
István holds several degrees from the top tech universities in Europe. His academic path led him to conduct research and lectures on space systems engineering, astrodynamics, and quantum physics. During his scientific activities, he founded several companies, including Morpheus Space, a satellite mobility company based in Los Angeles.
In February 2019, Morpheus Space made history by activating the first electric propulsion system made for nanosatellites in space. In June 2020, the propulsion system also successfully executed the first-ever collision avoidance maneuver performed by such a small satellite, ultimately preventing a disaster in orbit. In mid-2021, Istvan disrupted the space industry again by closing the first-ever hardware-as-a-service contract, putting the company on track for exponential success and leading to a sold-out production line. Now the team at Morpheus is busy creating the first mass-manufacturing site for satellite subsystems in Germany.
*Today, István is leading Morpheus’ efforts by forming strategic partnerships and introducing a suite of mobility solutions to further disrupt the industry by creating a global space traffic management system.”