Space is growing and to make it successful in the Pacific Northwest, we need everyone, especially those who never knew they could be a part.
By Michael Doyle, co-founder and president, Space Northwest
It started with a tweet.
It was spring of 2015 when I saw the tweet from NASA that changed my life.
“Want to change the universe? Form a team. Pick a challenge. Innovate! @SpaceApps April 10-12”
At the time I was a software development manager on Wall Street in New York City, enjoying my career, but feeling a strange longing for something…more. Space had been an interest from childhood and all through my college career, but I had put it aside, thinking I didn’t fit in, that there was no place for me.
But the tweet said something different. NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge was calling everyone—around the world, all skills, and all backgrounds. The hackathon was an intense weekend-long event where teams created technology solutions to NASA-issued challenges. Anyone could join the movement to improve life on Earth and our future in space through the use of space data. At my wife’s encouragement, I canceled my commitment for that weekend and went.
The experience was beyond what I could have anticipated. At the 2015 Space Apps NYC event, I learned about the incredible developments in space commercialization, met an astronaut and was surrounded by kindred souls. We were all excited by technology and space and where the two were taking us. I emerged knowing what had been missing and where I wanted to go.
That led me to the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace Conference in Seattle in 2016. Seeing the amazing space community here, I packed up the family and moved across the country to be closer to it. In October of that year, I took the International Space University (ISU) Executive Space Course, held at the Museum of Flight in Tukwila, which further connected me to the amazing individuals and companies that make up the regional space scene.
Where are the space people?
Once in Seattle, I was sure to register for Space Apps 2017. I had high hopes for the event, but did not see the space community represented. I saw talent from Seattle’s software and startup scene who wanted to find their connection to space. When I asked where are the space people, the local lead organizer said vaguely, “They are out there.” When I talked to my space connections, they had never heard of Space Apps. I resolved to fix that and took lead in 2018.
Early on, I involved Sean McClinton from Space Entrepreneurs Seattle, to help engage the community. From 2018 to 2019, NASA Space Apps Seattle grew with strong involvement from both the space and tech community. Our sponsors, partners, volunteers and judges came from Amazon Web Services, Ansys, BlackSky, Blue Origin, First Mode, LeoStella, Lockheed Martin, MXTreality, RBC Signals, The Space Frontier Foundation and Xplore. We had Korean astronaut, Soyeon Yi, as a keynote speaker as well.
In 2019, in answer to the question of how do we help teams commercialize their Space Apps projects, we ran Seattle’s first Techstars Startup Weekend focused on space. Like Space Apps, Startup Weekend is also an intense weekend-long event where the focus is on building the skills for launching a startup and the product is a business. James Burk of the Mars Society joined the effort in 2020, leading Space Apps through the pandemic years and helping launch the Space Data Hackers monthly meetup in 2021. And in 2022, James, Sean and I brought all our programs under one non-profit organization: Space Northwest.
In December 2022, Space Northwest led Seattle’s second Techstars Startup Weekend, which was a success across the board. We saw a mixing of engineers, entrepreneurs, software people and designers. Roughly 60 percent knew space, some having experience at Blue Origin, SpaceX, Boeing or other aerospace and manufacturing. The other 40 percent were engaged with space for the first time. We saw the building of skills, the birth of innovation but more importantly, the creating of community. Of the seven teams that made it through the weekend, there were three companies in the process of exploration two months later, an impressive result for this kind of event.
I started on this journey because I wanted to spread the amazing experience I’d had that began with Space Apps in 2015. I wanted people who love space and didn’t know they could be a part of it, to join the mission. For some, it could be just for the fun of a weekend. For others, it could be a turning point in their lives—and maybe bringing their talent into space endeavors could be a turning point for a lot more. I wanted to break down the silos between Seattle’s space, startup and tech communities, let the reactants mix and see what would happen.
I’ve been amazed when I tell people about this passion of mine, how many of them say they too have always been fascinated by space. They might be lawyers or CPAs or software engineers or data scientists. Some might have an aerospace background they put to the side but never stopped looking at the stars. Some aren’t going to make the big leap. But some will and if we show them the way, what could happen? What innovation awaits, what benefits will we see for how we care for our planet and journey beyond it?
Opening the doors to space.
Answering these questions is core to the Space Northwest mission. The work of our future in space is growing rapidly and the needs outstrip the supply of workers. We need to continue to break down the silos, remove the barriers, and let those who didn’t realize they could be a part know there is a place for them.
That means investing in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), elevating underrepresented groups and underserved communities. This is foundational. The space opportunity is one that should leave out no one, particularly those who have been left out of other economic booms.
It means workforce development, training the people who want to join the ranks of space. It means increasing and improving STEM education. It means supporting all roles in the space economy: machinists, welders and other trade workers as well as engineers, researchers and other professionals. It means educating and supporting entrepreneurs and innovators whose initiative can make transformative change.
Finally, it means getting the word out across the country and around the world that the Pacific Northwest is a great place for space. I was lucky that I came here and observed firsthand. I want others who haven’t been here to know and to join us.
Humanity is going to space. We need the best from all of us for that journey. The question is: are you looking for space people beyond where you think you’ll find them? Are you pulling down barriers and breaking down silos? There’s tremendous power unlocked when someone who thought they didn’t have a place finally finds it.