First Mode celebrates first steps in space exploration – and looks ahead to the moon

One year after engineers from the Planetary Resources asteroid mining company peeled off to form their own employee-owned startup, known as First …
First Mode's Chris Voorhees
First Mode’s president and chief engineer, Chris Voorhees, shows off the employee-owned company’s digs near Seattle’s Pike Place Market. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

One year after engineers from the Planetary Resources asteroid mining company peeled off to form their own employee-owned startup, known as First Mode, they can point to the profitable work they’ve done on space missions that are heading for Mars and, yes, an asteroid.

But now they’re widening their focus to take in projects that are closer to home — including mining operations back here on Earth, and NASA’s Artemis effort to send astronauts to the moon’s surface by 2024.

“We’re growing our own infrastructure here,” Chris Voorhees, the company’s president and chief engineer, told GeekWire during a tour of First Mode’s office space in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, not far from Pike Place Market.

So far, First Mode has made a name for itself as a design and engineering consultancy, but now it’s putting the infrastructure in place to build hardware as well. Its in-house clean room bears testament to that ambition.

“We really like the idea of flight hardware getting delivered out of Pike Place Market,” Voorhees said. “We think that’s pretty cool.”

First Mode was founded last year amid the financial uncertainties and staff reductions that dogged Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources. Voorhees, a veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, served as Planetary Resources’ chief engineer. When Voorhees left that company, he joined forces with 10 other alumni to create First Mode (which was initially known as Synchronous). Meanwhile, Planetary Resources morphed into a blockchain venture called ConsenSys Space.

A group portrait shows some of First Mode’s employees with replicas of the “Star Wars” robots R2-D2 and C-3PO in their midst. (First Mode Photo)

In the months since its founding, First Mode has been involved in space projects including NASA’s 2020 Mars rover, the Psyche mission to a metal-rich asteroid beyond Mars’ orbit, and the Europa Clipper’s quest to get a closer look at an icy moon of Jupiter.

The company is picking up recognition: First Mode’s engineers recently won awards from JPL for their roles in designing and delivering the “surrogate rover” for the 2020 Mars mission.

It’s also picking up steam: The head count is currently at 22 full-time employees, up from 14 just a few months ago and shooting for about 30 by the end of the year, said Rhae Adams, another Planetary Resources alumnus who is First Mode’s vice president of strategy and business development.

Part of the reason for that expansion has to do with First Mode’s diversification. The company’s engineers aim to apply their experience in space applications to down-to-Earth challenges in the fields of mining, metal processing and medical devices, Voorhees said. It’s still too early to go into detail on those projects, but he and Adams acknowledged that the mining projects involve sites in Africa and Australia.

First Mode’s engineers include veterans from a wide variety of ventures, ranging from Boeing and Lockheed Martin to Tesla and Intel. The prospect of living in the Seattle area is a big draw for recruiting, Voorhees said. “All of our people are here, and most of our customers are not,” he observed.

So what’s next? “The part of the market that’s next is trying to find our place within the country’s lunar exploration interests,” Voorhees said.

First Mode’s office space includes a clean room for component assembly and testing. (First Mode Photo)

He’s particularly interested in the opportunities that NASA’s Artemis program may provide for new breeds of rovers and other mobile robotic platforms, plus technologies for resource discovery and utilization. Those technologies play to the strengths of a team that’s accumulated years of experience in developing NASA’s Mars rovers and getting ready to go prospecting for water ice on asteroids.

“We’re certainly not Blue Origin, and we’re not ever going to be,” Voorhees said. “We’re not Lockheed Martin. We’re probably not going to build a 5-metric-ton-capable lander in Pike Place Market. That’s probably not going to happen. But we have skill sets that, I think, become complementary with those groups.”

Adams noted that the King County Landmarks Commission just approved historical landmark status for the lunar rovers that were built by Boeing in the Seattle area a half-century ago.

“We’d like to think we could carry on the legacy of Seattle with mobile platforms on the moon … even if we start a little smaller than that,” Adams said. “It doesn’t have to have an astronaut riding on the back, but that’s certainly where we’re most excited about going. There are not too many vehicles driving around on other planets right now, and we’re lucky enough to have a good team that knows how to build them.”

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50 Years After Moon Landing, Billionaires Back Grandiose Visions for Space

Billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have even more grandiose visions for the future involving large-scale human colonies on Mars and in space.

Fifty years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon, a new era of space exploration and possibly even colonization is dawning.

China is planning to send astronauts to the moon by 2035. President Donald Trump wants Americans back on the moon by 2024 as a precursor to establishing a permanent moon base and sending astronauts to Mars.

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Billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have even more grandiose visions for the future involving large-scale human colonies on Mars and in space.

Just what could human exploration of space look like over the next 50 years?

“You kind of have these two billionaires with their very competing visions for how space exploration is going to play out,” said Mark Subbarao, director of the Space Visualization Laboratory at the Adler Planetarium. “Jeff Bezos just had this big event a month or two ago where they are pushing this vision for space exploration in terms of these very large artificial satellites called O’Neill Cylinders or O’Neill Worlds.”

An artist’s concept of an O’Neill cylinder. (Courtesy Blue Origin)An artist’s concept of an O’Neill cylinder. (Courtesy Blue Origin)

Long a staple of science fiction, the Amazon billionaire recently unveiled his vision for a future in space that would feature enormous artificial worlds that could be home to hundreds of thousands of people.

Meanwhile, Musk famously said that he would “like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”

Musk’s SpaceX already has designs for a reusable rocket that he hopes will one day transport as many as 100 people at a time to a permanent colony on Mars.

But while Musk and Bezos’ ultimate visions for a human future in space could take decades or even centuries to achieve, plans to establish a permanent presence on the moon are achievable with current technology and sufficient financial backing.

“Things like a moon colony are well within the scale of the fortunes of the people that are talking about it – especially people like Bezos,” said Subbarao. “I think the estimates are anything from $20 billion to $40 billion dollars to build a moon colony.”

One aspect of space travel in which there have been substantial advances is in the quest to develop truly reusable and economic space vehicles.

“That’s where they’ve made a lot of progress and that would be a huge thing in terms of getting the cost of space travel down,” said Subbarao.

But while the cost may be coming down – making long-term missions more viable – NASA and others are still trying to understand what those missions might do to the astronauts on board.

Suzanne Bell is a psychology professor at DePaul University where she studies industrial and organizational psychology. NASA is currently funding Bell to study team composition and dynamics to help guide them when choosing crews for extended space missions, such as its plan to send humans to Mars in the next decade.

According to Bell, the most immediate physical risk to astronauts on long missions is exposure to solar radiation. But assuming astronauts can be shielded from that, the next challenge is understanding what extended missions away from Earth could do to an astronaut’s psyche.

“There are some very serious psychological challenges as we go into deep space for longer durations of time,” said Bell. “Can people live and work together well during periods of extreme isolation for an extended duration in a very confined setting?”

Bell says that NASA is currently making plans for a manned mission to Mars that would involve a crew of four and take up to three years. She notes that as astronauts travel further into space, real-time communication will loved ones becomes impossible.

“One of the things people have been researching is the impact on mental health and whether or not it can lead to things like depression,” said Bell. “It’s a very isolating experience.”

Ultimately, future space exploration may sideline humans altogether in favor of intelligent machines.

And when you start to contemplate the timescales involved in interstellar exploration that could take thousands of years, the case for robotic rather than human exploration only gets stronger. Robots don’t get bored or depressed.

“We got a lot of science out of the Apollo astronauts – we are still learning things from the moon rocks – but dollar for dollar we get way more science out of robotic exploration,” said Subbarao.

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Pence reaffirms administration support for “moon-first” strategy

He singled out SpaceX, the California rocket company founded by Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Despite appearances and a presidential tweet suggesting otherwise, the United States is “100%” committed to sending astronauts back to the moon in 2024 and establishing a long-term, sustainable presence there as a stepping stone to eventual piloted flights to Mars, Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview for CBS News’ “The Takeout.”

He also said the administration strongly supports continued development of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift booster, built by Boeing and managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and the Lockheed Martin-built Orion crew capsule that will carry astronauts to the moon.

NASA hopes to launch the first unpiloted test flight of an SLS rocket and an Orion capsule in 2021, years later than originally planned. While Pence said the Trump administration remains committed to the huge rocket’s development, he warned the government will turn to other providers if NASA’s “traditional” contractors cannot deliver.

With a recently completed Orion spacecraft as a backdrop, Vice President Mike Pence, left, discusses the Trump administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon by 2024 with CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center. Miles Doran/CBS News

The SLS “is behind schedule, and it’s over budget,” Pence said in an interview Saturday with CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett. “But the truth is that since the start of the Space Launch System program, many administrations have underfunded it, have (not given) it the attention that it deserves.

“This administration will not make that mistake. We’re committed to the work being done in Huntsville with the Space Launch System.”

But, he added, “if we can’t get there on the platforms that we’re building today, the rockets we’re building today, we’re going to get there by any means necessary. Because the president really does believe that American leadership in human space exploration is essential.”

He singled out SpaceX, the California rocket company founded by Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Blue Origin is testing a sub-orbital spacecraft that can carry researchers, science instruments and space tourists on brief flights to the lower fringes of space and is designing more powerful heavy lift rockets that will be built at a sprawling manufacturing facility just outside the Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX already launches supplies to the International Space Station — its 18th resupply flight is scheduled for takeoff Wednesday — and is developing a piloted Crew Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts to and from the lab complex. SpaceX also launches Falcon Heavy boosters and is developing an even more powerful rocket called “Starship.”

In a recent interview with TIME Magazine’s Jeff Kluger on “CBS Sunday Morning,” Musk claimed SpaceX could reach the moon in just two years with an unpiloted mission and “maybe within a year or two of that we could be sending crew. I would say four years at the outside.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on the next giant leap for mankind

While NASA and, for now, the Trump administration are committed to the SLS for government moon missions, “we’re going to continue to lean on” SpaceX and Blue Origin, Pence said. “We’re going to continue to look to them to give us alternatives to … provide American leadership in human space exploration.”

In the meantime, despite speculation to the contrary, the vice president said the Trump administration is firmly committed to sending astronauts back to the moon within five years as part of NASA’s newly named Artemis program.

“That’s 100% correct,” Pence told Garrett, sitting a few feet away from a recently completed Orion capsule at the Kennedy Space Center. “We understand, when we go to Mars — and Americans are going to Mars — that we’re going to have to have developed new technologies, new equipment and gain new experience that we can only gain on the moon.

“And the president fully endorses that. It’s one of the reasons why we set the goal that we’re going to return American astronauts to the moon in the next five years and then go on to Mars.”

Asked if astronauts might walk on the red planet in his lifetime, Pence said “most certainly.”

“I don’t think there’s any question whatsoever that we’ll be at Mars well within our lifetime. But it all begins with the stepping stone of getting back to the moon, developing the new technologies and developing the new methods for long-term human presence on another planet.”

But the moon is the near-term goal.

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence welcome Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, center, to the Oval Office to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. Shealah Craighead/White House

On at least two occasions earlier this year, Mr. Trump appeared to question the wisdom of a return to the moon, repeatedly asking why NASA can’t develop a direct-to-Mars approach.

The back-to-the-moon objective was written into Space Policy Directive No. 1, which was signed by the president during a White House ceremony on Dec. 11, 2017.

“The directive I’m signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” the president said. “It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use.

“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and, perhaps, someday to many worlds beyond.”

NASA then began designing a mission architecture that would put astronauts back on the moon in the 2028 timeframe. But earlier this year, on March 27, Pence announced that NASA was being directed to move the landing up to 2024, a decision he said came directly from the president.

“At the direction of the president of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Pence said. “The first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.”

On May 13, the administration asked Congress for an additional $1.6 billion for NASA’s fiscal 2020 budget to help keep the SLS program on track and to begin initial work on a new moon lander. Then, on June 7, Mr. Trump shocked the space community with a tweet that raised questions about his support for the moon-first initiative.

“For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago,” the president tweeted. “They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!”

This past Friday, the president again questioned the moon-first strategy. During a White House event to mark the Apollo 11 anniversary, Mr. Trump raised the topic several times in a photo-op chat with Pence, moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 crewmate Mike Collins, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and others.

An artist’s impression of a Space Launch System rocket on the pad awaiting a flight to the moon. NASA

“To get to Mars, you have to land on the moon, they say,” the president said. “Any way of going directly without landing on the moon?” he asked. “Is that a possibility?”

Bridenstine, repeating the views of many within NASA, answered that the moon offers a relatively nearby proving ground to test the hardware and techniques necessary for much longer Mars missions. The recent discovery of ice in permanently shadowed craters at the moon’s south pole also promises a potentially useful source of water, air and rocket propellant, all of which would be critical to a Mars voyage.

Mr. Trump asked Collins his opinion, and the Apollo 11 veteran said he favors a direct-to-Mars approach.

“You like it direct? It seems to me Mars direct,” Trump said. “Who knows better than these people? I mean, they’ve been doing this stuff for a long time.” Turning to Bridenstine, he again asked, “What about the concept of Mars direct?” The NASA administrator again explained why the agency believes the moon is the better near-term target.

Pence laughed at suggestions the president was opposed to NASA’s current strategy. He said Saturday the president’s comments and questions did not reflect a disagreement about U.S. national space policy and the directive to put astronauts back on the moon before considering flights to Mars.

“What the American people saw is the president I serve with every day,” Pence said. “He always wants to go farther, faster, sooner. And so, asking the tough questions, with the experts in the room, having Buzz Aldrin standing there, having Mike Collins standing there, getting their opinions, that’s just how President Trump operates.”

He said “the only person that’s more impatient about our space program than the vice president is the president. … He wants to send America on an unalterable trajectory to put astronauts on Mars. And we all understand that to do that, first, we’ve got to have American rockets going up from American soil. And literally, within the next year, we’ll have American astronauts going back into space from right here in the U.S.A.

“Then, it’s to the moon, where we establish a presence. This time, Major, when we go to the moon, we’re not going to visit. We’re going to stay. We’re going to develop resources. We’re going to develop new methods, new technology. And then it’s on from the moon to Mars.”

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Space leaders recall how the Apollo Moon landing gave them inspiration

… with them, that has messages from about 70 different countries that they sent to the Moon,” says Tanya Harrison, Planetary Scientist at Planet Labs.

It’s one of the most important moments in the history of humanity, an achievement that continues to inspire today.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon 50 years ago, the planet was in awe, including those who’d go on to lead Europe’s space sector.

“At that time I was 15 years old and we had a TV, and I was sitting there the whole night,” remembers Jan Wörner, Director General of the European Space Agency. “And I was so excited afterwards that I did not go to bed afterwards, so I stayed the whole night.”

“I’m so old that I remember the Moon landings, I remember watching it on a big black and white television in the school hall as a kid,” says David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration a the European Space Agency. “And that inspiration, that time of technological challenge, there was the first flight of Concorde, there was so much going on, it really excited me personally.”

Apollo-era control room restored

To celebrate the anniversary, NASA has restored the old control room from which the Apollo-era flight directors oversaw the mission. It’s a place of pilgrimage for their successors:

“When I was selected as a flight director, that’s where I went,” says Holly Ridings, Chief Flight Director at Nasa. “So this was years ago, when I first became a flight director and not the Chief. I drove up to the Johnson Space Centre and just sat in the room and thought about the enormous responsibility of carrying on the legacy that they started.”

“We stand in their shade”

Apollo also continues to inspire the younger generation who worked on current NASA missions to Mars:

“To me my favourite part of the Apollo 11 mission is the goodwill disk that they brought with them, that has messages from about 70 different countries that they sent to the Moon,” says Tanya Harrison, Planetary Scientist at Planet Labs. “This could have been an entirely American, patriotic event – you know, ‘we’re better than Russia kind of thing’ – Instead they took the opportunity to bring all these messages of peace with them to the Moon.”

For the astronauts of today who launch to the ISS, Apollo 11 remains on a pedestal.

“I don’t know if we are really following in the footsteps of the first explorers,” says Luca Parmitano, astronaut at the European Space Agency. “What they did was incredibly unique and incredibly brave. Maybe we stand in their shade. But what we can hope is that we can honour their courage and contribute to space exploration.”

50 years later, the archive film is blurry, the historical achievements are sharply in focus.

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2019-2024 Space Mining Market | Top Industries with Market Growth Rate, Industry Size, Share …

Bradford Space Group; Planetary Resources; Moon Express; Ispace; Asteroid Mining Corporation Limited; Shackleton Energy Company (SEC) …
  • This report studies the global Space Mining market size, industry status and forecast, competition landscape and growth opportunity.

    For More Information or Query or Customization Before Buying, Visit at @

    Key Market Trends:

    Government Initiatives to Help the Growth of the Market

    Government initiatives are currently helping the growth of the market. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, enacted by the United States in 2015, had encouraged private companies to undertake mining work beyond Earth. Additionally, the Luxembourg space mining law, which is passed as part of the SpaceResources initiative in 2017, aims to relax restrictions on private companies’ mining operations beyond Earth. Such initiatives have been the key driving factors for the market. After the Luxembourg initiative, more global powers were involved in Luxembourg’s space mining framework. In March 2019, Luxembourg held talks with Russia over a new treaty for the space mining. Thus, the space mining industry is expected to attract more enthusiastic countries in the future, due to the government initiatives.

    North America is Expected to Hold the Largest Market Share in the Forecast Period

    North America is expected to be the dominant market for space mining in the years to come. Currently, the United States is investing huge amounts in the space mining industry. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx traveled to a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu and may bring a small sample back to Earth for study. The mission was launched in September 2016. After traveling through space for more than 2 years, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived in December 2018 at its destination, asteroid Bennu. As planned, the spacecraft is expected to return a sample to Earth in 2023. Additionally, in October 2018, Deltion Innovations, a Canadian company focused on developing mining technologies and robotics for the resource sector, and announced its partnership with Moon Express, the first American private space exploration firm to have been granted government permission to travel beyond Earth’s orbit. The companies may work together for collecting, processing, storing, and using materials found in celestial bodies. Such developments are expected to drive the growth of the market in the region during the forecast period.

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    Target Audience of Space Mining Market:

    • Manufacturer / Potential Investors
    • Traders, Distributors, Wholesalers, Retailers, Importers and Exporters.
    • Association and government bodies.

    Key Reasons to Space Mining Market Report:

    • Analyzing various perspectives of the Space Mining market with the help of Porter’s five forces analysis
    • The End User that is expected to dominate the Space Mining market is analyzed in detail
    • The regions which are expected to witness fastest growth during the forecast period are analyzed and estimated for growth of Space Mining market.
    • Identify the latest developments, market shares and strategies employed by the major market players.
    • Regional analysis of Space Mining market studied, during the forecast period
    • The segments that are expected to dominate the Space Mining market studied.

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