MSUA Member Interview | Brian Barnett, Founder & CEO, Solstar Space
Today I’m pleased to share a recent interview with new MSUA Member, Brian Barnett of Solstar Space Co. I first met Brian Barnett over a decade ago while I was working at Vizada and Brian was a channel partner promoting L-band services along with a tailored mix of value-adds. A lot has happened since then for Brian and the satellite and space industries. Today, Brian is Founder and CEO of a new space-based company offering a whole new form of satellite mobility service – WiFi to travelers in space. What’s more, Solstar Space Co. is looking for a new breed of channel to partner on delivering this unique new capability. Read this week’s interview and learn more.
Catherine: Brian, Solstar Space announced big news this year about a whole new form of satellite mobility innovation. Please detail your offering and describe the market and users you are and plan to serve?
Brian: Thanks Catherine for the kind introduction and opportunity to talk about Solstar™ Space Company. On April 29th, 2018, Solstar demonstrated the first commercial WiFi and internet service on a spacecraft. To prove our internet connection and hotspot was up and running, we posted the first ever commercial tweet from space on that day. We flew our Schmitt Space Communicator on Blue Origin’s New Shephard rocket--Jeff Bezos’ rocket company. We successfully flew a second time on July 18th, 2018. On that flight, we demonstrated an uninterrupted satellite/internet connection from the launch pad, on the way up to space, in space, and all the way down to landing back on Earth. We volunteered to be on this second flight because we were able to test our services under the most extreme conditions possible, as the Blue Origin crew capsule was jettisoned from the main rocket to test the crew escape system.
Catherine: How did your innovation, WiFi in Space, and Solstar Space Co. come about?
Brian: I started working on this idea over a decade ago with our co-founders. I had started Satwest in 1999 as a dealer and service provider for the MSS industry, and Solstar Energy Devices in 2004 to provide portable solar chargers for satphones and Inmarsat BGAN terminals. Satwest began specializing in providing MSS to commercial and government aircraft beginning in the mid-2000s. Before starting my companies, I worked at NASA as an aerospacetechnologist. At NASA, I was responsible for payload integration of numerous experiments that flew on the Space Shuttle and SpaceLab, which was a precursor to the International Space Station (ISS). I worked in astronaut crew training at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and Johnson Space Center in Houston.
I started wondering if we could use the same commercial MSS satellites in LEO and GEO that we use for land-based and aircraft applications, on spacecraft as well. We won a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA in 2013, and in November of that year, we had to chance to prove our idea/technology in space when we sent the first commercial text messages from the ground to a rocket carrying our first prototype payload communicator flying at Mach 4 about 72 miles above New Mexico. It was launched from Spaceport America. Our goal on that first flight was to see if we could use commercial satellites flying 17,000 miles an hour in LEO in one direction, while our rocket was flying in another direction at 3000 miles per hour to see if it would even work. And it did. So, then I began spending about 50% of my time on building this technology and started Solstar Space Co. in 2017.
Catherine: Who are your customers for and what applications or use cases are they using this capability for?
Brian: Our first biggest customer will be NASA and space researchers on the ground that want to interact with their experiments in space. Currently there is no way to do that conveniently and on a 24/7 basis----that is the problem Solstar is solving. We think it should be just as easy to communicate with something or someone in space as it is to print something out on your wireless printer across the office, or using your cell phone to call someone in space. And vice versa, people in space could call someone on the ground or get on-line using our service. Currently there are only government satellites and systems that are not accessible to ordinary people or researchers. So Solstar is helping to build a space wide web using entirely commercial satellites and infrastructure.
Catherine: What is your long-term vision for Solstar Space and this unique service offering and what role to you see your company playing in the evolving space-based commercial market?
Brian: When we had our successful flight in April 2018, there was a European newsletter that called us the first internet service provider in space. So that is what we are and want to continue to be. Billions of dollars of private investment and by billionaires has been injected into developing commercial space transportation infrastructure over the past decade. We believe communications is the next main piece that needs to develop to propel all kinds of new applications and innovations for other commercial space entrepreneurs. We believe Solstar Space Co. is the first to start putting a Space Wide Web in place.
Catherine: I understand you have some additional new news from the Smithsonian. Are you willing to share this with Mobility News readers?
Brian: Yes! We are thrilled to announce that our Schmitt Space Communicator has been accepted to be displayed at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum. This really makes me happy and I think shows how historic a feat it was to make the first commercial WiFi and tweet from space happen. Young people especially love what we did.
Catherine: What are the challenges in delivering a wireless connectivity to space?
Brian: It’s just hard! Piecing together all the parts like figuring out which satellites to use for which spacecraft flying in a particular orbit, launched from a particular place. Having to gain the trust of NASA to work with commercial communications companies. NASA’s official policy is to handover more “routine” operations in LEO to the commercial sector. And their own TDRS (Tracking & Data Relay System) infrastructure is aging and is not going to be replaced according to the government. NASA says they want to use commercial satellites, but that process takes time. And everything has to be so safe and secure because by the very nature of space travel, and especially with humans on board, safety and security is obviously of supreme importance.
Catherine: So, you mentioned wanting to build out your distribution network. What kind of channel partners are you looking for and how extensive of a network are you seeking to develop?
Brian: Solstar focuses on providing the WiFi, internet connections and hardware, and we let our customers or distribution partners decide what they want to do with that. It’s kind of like the Amazon model in that we will provide the infrastructure for other companies to make money. So currently our customers are companies that want to do something in space and they want to use our hardware and services. They then sell their services to their customers. We will sell direct to a lot of our customers in the beginning but are open to talking to other partners that want to distribute some form of value-added service in a specific channel and bring business to the table. We hope that vision evolves.
Catherine: What type of business model are you using to delivery this service?
Brian: We are using the tried and proven business model that has been used by the MSS industry for decades. We will charge our customers for airtime. We also have to build the satellite transceivers (which we call our Space Communicators) because they simply don’t exist. We make margins on sales of our space communicators. And like any other aerospace company, a large portion of our revenue will come through government contracts with NASA and the DOD, as well as international space agencies.
Catherine: As you know, user experience is at the heart of success for all wireless mobility services. What kind of user experience can customers expect from WiFi in Space?
Brian: We want to provide world-class customer service to our customers, 24/7. We want our customers to be able to connect to their things in space using their laptop or smartphone. This revolutionizes the way space research can be conducted. Of course, we also want to be the company that provides connectivity to people travelling in space. That’s the application that grabs the headlines.
Catherine: Let’s turn from users to you and your role as innovator and leader of this enterprising new business. What’s your background in space-based business and how did you get to this unique point in the industry that you are at today?
Brian: When I got my Masters in business and project management, I decided to leave NASA to enter the business world. I had a focused goal on getting hired by KPMG Peat Marwick which had a Space and High-Tech practice founded by Frank Dibello (known as the “Godfather” of commercial space), in the DC office. After NASA, I became a management consultant with KPMG. We were basically the go-to firm for anything having to do with commercial space in the 1990s. We did business planning and market assessments for NASA and large aerospace companies that were thinking about launching commercial MSS or remote sensing satellites. KPMG was the firm that identified and projected this idea that GPS would become the largest and most profitable application enabled by space assets. We didn’t know exactly what those applications were going to be but we knew it would be huge. We also identified the internet of things was the other application that would be huge. Us in the MSS industry were way ahead of everyone else because IOT is such a buzz word today but all those little and big LEO constellations were enabling IOT 20 years ago. We were way ahead of our time. I decided to start a company to leverage the Iridiums and Globalstars and Orbcomms of the world and turn it into a business. Then of course we all remember how difficult it was in those early years (late 1990s and early 2000s) to make it happen and all the pain we all had to go through.
Catherine: As you know, space-based inventions always breed doubters. What do you say to skeptics about this or any inventive new business?
Brian: Well, somebody has to do it so it might as well be Solstar! Watch this space!
Catherine: How can interested channel partners, customers or other parties best reach you for more information?
Brian: Please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In.
Catherine: Final question – you’ve given us a whole new dimension in which to think about satellite mobility services. How about your favorite form of recreational mobility? In other words, what do you enjoy doing when not thinking about WiFi in Space?
Brian: I am a classically trained rock drummer. I am happiest when playing the drums or performing in front of people. I want to be the first drummer in space, and I’ve started a band and production company called DrumsAstro™. The idea is to connect musicians and artists of all genres to space exploration. I’d like to have art and music mixed in with every launch I am ever involved with going forward. I love travelling with my family and staying in shape through running and hot yoga. Since I live in the mountains, I love snow skiing and hiking but I need to kick myself into doing those things more often. In terms of community involvement, I try to do my part in promoting Women in Aerospace and STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) education. I like to give talks to students about WiFi in Space. I’m a big college football fan (Boomer Sooner!).
Catherine: Brian, thank you, I’ve really enjoyed hearing about your company and news. Additionally, I just learned you successfully got language inserted – just this week -- in NASA’s budget bill to study commercial communications services for sub-orbital flight and Low-Earth-Orbit research. Ideally the outcome of this will be more evidence in the value of public-private partnerships such the one evolving between NASA and Solstar Space. A big congratulations to you on that accomplishment as well! I, and members of the MSUA community are surely going to enjoy watching Solstar Space’s business develop and grow. Again Brian, thank you!
Biography: M. Brian Barnett Founder and CEO of Solstar Space Company, M. Brian Barnett is a serial entrepreneur with 30 years’ experience in commercial space and mobile satellite services industries, NASA, and at KPMG Consulting. He is Founder and CEO of Solstar Space Co., the first internet service provider for people, things, and machines in space. Mr. Barnett began his career at NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center where he provided Space Shuttle payload integration services at the Payloads Project Office. He also provided astronaut crew training in the Mission Operations Laboratory for Spacelab missions. At Johnson Space Center, he worked in the Missions Operations Directorate, and later worked on JSC’s 1992 Strategic Plan. He also managed a contract to document all Space Shuttle operations processes as directed by Congress after the Challenger accident. Later, as a management consultant for KPMG’s Space and High Technology group, he wrote dozens of business plans and market assessments for commercial space companies. This is the group that very early and accurately, predicted that GPS applications would grow into the huge market it is today. Barnett led the Team that wrote the initial business plan for the spaceport that eventually became Spaceport America. He began launching payloads out of Spaceport America beginning in 2011. On April 29th, 2018, Solstar demonstrated the first commercial two-way data and wi-fi service in space and Tweet from space aboard Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule, using Barnett’s patent-pending technology. Solstar Space is his third commercial space start-up. He earned a B.S. in microbiology from the University of Oklahoma, a Masters in Administrative Science from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and is a graduate of the International Space University.