MARYSVILLE — In 2031, NASA plans to phase out the International Space Station and replace it with space stations operated by privately-owned companies.
A new Marysville company is planning for that day.
Gravitics, a well-funded startup, plans to build next-generation space modules to house travelers and researchers in low-Earth orbits, altitudes of 1,200 miles or less above the planet.
“You know those pre-fab houses that Home Depot builds? We’re building those for space,” said Mike DeRosa, the company’s co-founder and chief marketing officer.
Inside a 42,000-square-foot warehouse at the Cascade Industrial Center, Gravitics is designing its flagship product, Star Max, a space module that can operate alone or be linked to others.
Designers and engineers at computer desks are scattered throughout the building. The blue light of a welding rod flares and sparks fly as a welder works on a prototype.
“Building really big space structures is our thing,” De Rosa said. “We’re building a prototype now, and looking to launch in three years.”
In November, the startup received $20 million in venture capital to get off the ground, so to speak.
The experimental prototype, still under construction, is 25 feet in diameter. Completed, its aluminum hull will stretch 32 feet in length and provide roughly two boxcars or 14,000 cubic feet of space.
The company’s out-of-this-world design takes a cue from the International Space Station’s modules, which resemble cylinders but on a larger scale.
“One of these is half the volume of the International Space Station,” said Jiral Shah, vice president of business development.
A separate mock-up of the interior features padded walls and hand grips and railings.
It’s an example of how a module can be customized to fit a client’s intended use, Shah said.
All are built to withstand the impacts of space debris and tiny meteorites, “anything moving at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour,” Shah said.
(There are some 23,000 pieces of debris, larger than softballs, orbiting the Earth at that speed, fast enough to do damage to a spacecraft, according to NASA.)
Gravitics builds the modules, but it is not a launch provider. However, the company is developing an orbital propulsion system that will allow its modules to maneuver in space.
Gravitics hopes to partner with NASA or commercial space station operators such as Blue Origin, Axiom Space and Northrup Grumman, Shah told U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen and other visitors during a recent tour of the facility.
“Think of how Boeing builds airplanes but then sells them to Delta or United who are the operators, and they fly them,” Shah said.
The space economy is here
NASA hopes to turn the business of space station development and operation over to private investors.
“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth-orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance,” Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial space, said in a news release.
To speed the effort, the space agency is sharing information and data to help them “develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space,” McAlister said.
NASA envisions specialized space stations, the size of an apartment or townhome, circling the Earth in the next few years.
The transition has already begun.
In 2020, NASA selected a Houston firm, Axiom Space, to provide at least one commercial module to attach to the International Space Station, according to a NASA news release.
The space agency called the selection “a significant step toward enabling the development of independent commercial destinations.”
A year later, in 2021, Blue Origin received a $130 million NASA grant to design and develop space stations.
Founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2000, Blue Origin is based in Kent.
Together with Sierra Space, Blue Origin plans to build a privately-owned space station, dubbed Orbital Reef. They describe it as a low-orbit ”mixed-use business park” that can support up to 10 people.
The commercial space age has dawned, and now there’s a “rush to launch commercial outposts to low-orbit Earth,” Geekwire reported last year.
“Gravitics and its backers are betting on (that) rush,” Geekwire concluded.
In a report this year on the emerging space economy, Mike Bechtel, chief futurist and managing director of Deloitte Consulting, described the space industry as undergoing a renaissance.
“Space has never been more accessible, and the potential for breakthrough discoveries has never been greater. As exploration gives way to economics, it will be important for companies in all sectors — not just those traditionally associated with space — to begin planning for their role in what figures to be the ultimate emerging market,” Bechtel said in the report.
Washington’s space cluster
Washington has been a hub for the aviation industry for decades.
Now, the state’s space industry, a mix of new and existing businesses, is grabbing the spotlight.
Forbes has called the area the Silicon Valley for Space.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees NASA and the space industry, is encouraging the Department of Commerce and NASA to create a new space manufacturing institute here in the Pacific Northwest.
“The facts are clear, our space cluster is growing fast,” Cantwell said in a statement. “In 2022 the Puget Sound Regional Council released a report that showed the Washington space industry had more than doubled in four years to $4.6 billion and had 13,000 jobs,” Cantwell said.
More than 100 companies are considered part of the state’s space cluster, including Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, The Boeing Co., SpaceX and Spaceflight, according to the state Department of Commerce.
In 1964, NASA selected the airplane maker to build five lunar orbiters. Constructed in South Seattle, the unmanned orbiters eventually photographed 99% of the moon’s surface.
That same decade, Boeing partnered with McDonnell Douglas and North American Aviation to build NASA’s Saturn V rocket, which took astronauts to the moon.
In the early 1990s, Boeing served as the prime contractor for the International Space Station.
Now, the aerospace giant is developing Starliner, a spacecraft that’s designed to take people to and from the International Space Station and other low orbit destinations.
In Kent, Blue Origin is developing space stations.
At a Redmond facility, California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne manufactures 200 to 500 thrusters a year, from tiny rockets that keep satellites properly positioned to larger propulsion systems, according to the state Department of Commerce.
In Seattle and Redmond, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s California-based space exploration company, operates facilities that support the company’s Starlink satellites, which provide broadband internet.
Starfish Space, a Seattle startup, is developing a line of autonomous space vehicles, “space tugs” that can repair and service satellites.
Build them like battleships
Snohomish County can claim its fair share of the space sector.
Besides Boeing and other existing aerospace firms, the area has seen a small but significant influx of new companies.
SeaCast, a company associated with Blue Origin, recently opened an Arlington facility.
Off Planet Research, which creates simulated lunar soils, relocated from Lacey to the Port of Everett in 2021.
Gravitics, founded in Colorado, relocated to Washington and moved into the Marysville facility last December.
Gravitics considered several locations, Jeff Slostad, the company’s chief operating officer, told participants at a Marysville Business Summit earlier this year.
But the region’s skilled workforce, aerospace and maritime industries, and proximity to the Port of Everett won the day, Slostad said.
“One of the reasons we chose this area is the shipbuilding industry. We want to build these (modules) like they were battleships,” Slostad said.
Everett’s deep-water port was also key.
Shipping one of the company’s enormous modules is less challenging with the Port of Everett just 6 miles away, he said.
Like other companies and startups that have recently moved to the area — Helion Energy, ZapEnergy and Eviation Aircraft — Gravitics cited the region’s skilled workforce — accustomed to building big things — as a major draw.
“This was the best option,” Slostad said. “Though it didn’t hurt that I lived down in Lynnwood.”
Gravitics currently employs about 40 people, but it plans to ramp up to 150 to 200 people as it adds customers and contracts.
Its founders and team members include Bill Tandy, the former mission architect and chief engineer for Blue Origin’s space station, and Scott Macklin, former senior director of propulsion at Virgin Orbit.
Gravitics has plenty of competitors. Axiom and Northrup Grumman and others are also in the business of building space stations.
But Gravitics is betting that its experimental prototypes, innovations and high standards will win over potential customers.
“NASA said test to 22 pounds per square inch. We tested to 27 pounds per square inch. NASA said test to 6Gs, we tested to 7Gs. Whatever NASA says to do, we go one step further,” said Tandy, Gravitics’ chief engineer.
“We would love for our kids to be up there in the next-generation space stations,” Tandy said.