Shelli Brunswick Interview with Bill Kemp
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
You’re currently the Founder and CEO of United Space Structures, a fascinating venture that designs and constructs habitable environments for space. May I walk back in time with you to see how you came to be involved in this innovative undertaking? What was your first job out of college?
I graduated in 1980 and went to work for Hankins & Anderson in Richmond, Virginia. I worked as a draftsman and later ran my own HVAC project designing the James Madison Fieldhouse. I left in 1982 to start my first company Graphtronx Inc. which was a CAD service bureau in Richmond Virginia working for A&E firms in Richmond and the Washington DC area. Those jobs/businesses expanded my knowledge but during 1983 with Graphtronx Inc., I came up with my first design ideas for a construction process and robotics for constructing very large structures in space and so this was the beginning of United Space Structures.
Having graduated from the prestigious Virginia Commonwealth University’s Interior Architecture Program, what interested you in the Parson’s position?
Graphtronx Inc. did not work out, I was the first CAD service bureau in the Richmond/Washington DC area and so too far ahead of the market, CAD was just in its infancy. We moved back to the Washington DC area where I worked for Dewberry & Davis. After a while I was at Dewberry a friend told me about an opportunity with Parsons, I applied and started working. The work for Parsons was the first work in Mission Critical facilities and data center design work. I was deeply involved in redesigning the FAA’s 23 ARTCC (Air Route Traffic Control Centers) that control all commercial and military flights within the US and partly over the oceans. The equipment in these ARTCC centers were very old and it was projected that they would reach their maximum capacity around the year 2000. The communications patch panel were from the 1940s and their computer (pre integrated circuits) were from the early 1960s. The biggest looming problem was not the system capacity, it was a more human problem. The engineers that diagnosed and repaired the pre integrated circuits boards (18” x 18” board did the work of a single chip that is now the size of your fingernail), these engineers were dying out and they could not hire and train people in these antique computer systems.
You spent many years designing the architecture for data centers. How has this experience influenced your approach to creative architectural design?
Data centers are mission critical and so they can NEVER go down. The data centers for the FAA were tracking every plane in the air and they were all flying 600mph toward themselves and so up time was critical. This is where I learned the importance of N+1 redundancy systems like power systems and HVAC systems that keep the computers cool and UPS battery systems that caught the load if the power went off and kept them going until the generators started to run to then carry the electrical load.
What are the common themes you find or use in architectural design in the many different industries you’ve worked in?
Through my work experience I worked first at the lowest level and then progressed to the highest level of responsibility within the disciplines of mechanical (HVAC), electrical, civil, and architecture. I did not have degrees in any of these disciplines but the people I worked for who did have degrees in those disciplines and licenses in those fields trusted me with their projects and their reputations because I demonstrated consistently that I learned and retained that knowledge and was extremely productive. In addition to that I showed my ability to communicate and coordinate with others in other disciplines to make the project go. The more knowledge and all those disciplines the better I got at coordinating others in other disciplines because I could anticipate their needs because I had done that same work and I could use their own discipline language again because of my experience in those disciplines. I never had the interest to be the king of one discipline. I saw that it was better to be a jack of all trades. It is the gap between different ideas and disciplines where ideas stumble and delays occur. Using my knowledge to become the “bridge” between them I could make the whole process work better for everyone.
Can you describe the space structures that you are working on at USS, how they might be used by commercial industries?
In 1983 I came up with my first design ideas for a construction process and robotics for constructing very large structures in space and so this was the beginning of United Space Structures. These structures were O’Neill cylinders and Stanford toruses. USS believes that if humans are to stay in microgravity space for long durations then artificial gravity is required to keep them healthy. Many years later I developed ideas for unmanned manufacturing plants that would be located in LEO to produce objects that could only be produced in microgravity that were low in mass yet high in value. In the fall of 2019, I developed a new and unique construction method and robotics that could be built within lava tubes either on the moon or Mars. Very recently I have developed another construction process and robotics for building on the surface of the moon or Mars or other moons in the solar system. The idea for most all of these structures except for the manufacturing plant is to provide safe and comfortable habitats in most any place within the solar system so that people that occupy them can work in science or mining operations or as tourist destinations or for companies to set up their data centers for either space or Earth based commerce. The advantage for the human species is the freedom to explore the rest of our solar system safely.
How have you used the principles of space, form, color and light from your studies at VCU in your approach to designing and developing habitable space environments or biospheres?
My degree is in interior architecture, I wanted to be an architect but didn’t have the math grades at the time to go to the school I wanted to attend, but in the end I am glad in the direction I went in. Architects design from the outside of the building to the inside of the building. Buildings are shelters that serve a function and really all the functions occur inside the building so thinking inside the building and designing out makes the most sense for me. Really all the functions happen inside the structure. Space structures work the same way, everything on a human scale happens inside the structure. Between 1919 and 1933 there was a German design school called the Bauhaus and one of the principals from that school was “Form follows Function”. That is one of the principals I use to design everything.
In 2011 you said “If mankind wishes to live in space longer than a year or perhaps even permanently, we will need to take gravity with us, we will need to create artificial gravity. United Space Structures has filed with the US patent office an application for technology that can create variable gravity environments.” Where are you now on the technology to take gravity with you to space?
Those ideas are currently in patent pending, the market is just not ready for them yet, their time will come.
Why is it important to take gravity with you?
Humans evolved to be one gravity creatures; we are just giant bags of water that were never evolved to operate in a microgravity environment. So when you put a human in a microgravity environment that human will try to adapt and continue to evolve but evolution occurs over many, many generations and so the human body loses muscle and bone mass, and causes problems with our eyes and impacts our epigenome with has an impact on the expression of our genome which also impact our immune system. Viruses and bacteria become more virulent in microgravity so the human body with a weakened immune system is more susceptible to health issues. By spinning a large enough structure at the right spin will create centripetal force in which the body perceives like gravity and so the body can operate like being on Earth with some small exceptions.
What about solar panels – where are they on your biospheres?
Yes, well especially for our orbiting space stations solar power will be important. It is also important on the moon and Mars but the moon being tidally locked to the Earth the lunar solar day is 2 weeks in a month and the lunar solar night is 2 week in a month and so other power sources will be required for the moon especially since we want to host data center companies that use a lot of power. On Mars it is easier since it rotates on its axis and has nearly an identical day/night cycle as Earth. I have a friend who has invented a “Solar Paint” that is actually a nano material and so more of a technical coating versus a paint from Home Depot. The advantage of this material is that it absorbs and converts light to energy from the entire EM spectrum and so produces much more energy. Unfortunately, his company is not yet in production but eventually when it is, we would coat the entire space station or collector surfaces on the moon or Mars. He has actually had it tested on the ISS a little while back.
At what point in your career (or your life) did you decide to build a company of your own? Was there a particular event in your life that catalyzed you to do so? And why space?
My first company was Graphtronix a CAD service bureau in the 1980s. I didn’t mind working with and for other people or companies but I saw CAD as the next big thing in the architecture and engineering field so I wanted to be part of it and I didn’t want to wait. While I invented my space construction process and robotics in 1983, I did not start the patent process and corporate formation until 2009. The reason was the market for that product was slow in forming and I learned from my first company being too early can kill an idea that is too early. I thought in 2009 with Elon Musk and Richard Branson the New Space industry would open that market and make it happen. Well, it is now 2020 and the market for space stations is still not there yet but our IP is still parked in “Patent Pending” status and will remain so until that market starts to warm up further. Since then I have pivoted and come up with new construction methods and robotics for a product that the market is ready for and that is lunar and Mars habitats built within lava tubes. That is our full time focus now.
What about orbital debris – how would the biospheres be protected from the increasing amount of debris?
Orbital debris is a big problem and getting bigger all the time but the best places to park the space stations are at the LaGrange points. Most of the debris is located in LEO or GEO.
How long will it take to develop these biospheres?
How long will it take to build our habitats? That really depends on at least a couple of factors, perhaps the biggest factor is resources and the biggest resource that is hardest to secure is financial funding. These projects are massive and require a lot of money and they take years to design and build and the sources with the most financial resources Venture Capital (VC) companies have a relatively short time horizon of about 8-10 years. They have plenty of terrestrial businesses to chase after and so space is considered high risk but potentially high reward. The New Space field is heating up and VC’s are getting more interested. The design and construction process for space projects is similar to large architectural/engineering building projects in that they take years to design before you start to build them then it takes a couple of years to build them. The other factor on how long it takes to build the habitats is based on the scale of the project, the larger and more complex the project the longer it takes.
Was there an event in your life that catalyzed you to become an entrepreneur? And why space and not organic foods or other industries?
There was no mentor or event in my past that helped to make me an entrepreneur. I was always very creative and also curious about many different things like different fields of science or technology and structures like homes and buildings. I don’t like to wait, if an opportunity doesn’t come along then I try to make it happen on my own. I am not afraid to fail, failure is the most important lesson in any success, you only learn from failure and never from your successes. An entrepreneur must have the courage to withstand failure both publicly and privately.
As to why space and not something like organic food or something else? My first passion was design of large structures like homes and buildings, so it doesn’t really matter where those structures are located, on land, on water, underwater, or in space. The inspiration for my first space construction process and their robotics for building them was something very visual, a remembrance of something that had nothing to do with space or construction. Have you ever seen the very lame 4th of July fireworks called “Snakes”? They are little black cylinders in which you light one of its edges and it ignites and burns and while it burns it expands and creates a long cylindrical body of ash until it is completely burned out, it kind of looks and squirms around while it grows like a snake and thus the name. I have seen them and played with them for many years but one day I remember in my mind them growing and thought to myself what if something like this could be used to grow a structure? My immediate thought was that they were very flimsy structures so not good for Earth based structures but…space doesn’t have gravity, what if it could be used in space? The other problem with the snake fireworks is they grow very unpredictable so perhaps another way to make the structure in space then I thought about the extrusion process and that thought then solidified in my mind and hasn’t faded since.
What are the most exciting aspects/rewards of being an entrepreneur?
Discovering an idea in your mind that perhaps no one else has ever thought of is the most exciting thing. I find the exploration and refinement of an idea is the greatest reward. It is not the money you could make from the idea or the recognition, those have some importance but making something that never existed until you thought it up and then made it physically come to life is really the biggest reward of self-accomplishment.
What are the biggest challenges of being an entrepreneur?
The biggest challenge of being an entrepreneur is sustaining persistence. To persevere and follow the idea until you have come to an impenetrable barrier that blocks your way to continue. That barrier can be temporal though and so even though you can find the resources to make it happen now there is always potential in the future. There could always be a key technology required that when yourself or someone else creates that will make it possible. In short, the biggest challenge is to not give up!
How is being a space entrepreneur different from being an entrepreneur in other industries?
The process is the same, the only difference is the location and the science and technology that surrounds the ideas.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who is interested in going into some aspect of space?
Follow your passion, open your mind and remove as many roadblocks in your mind as possible and realize that every roadblock you create in your mind eliminates not one but many branching opportunities in your future. Those concepts have nothing to do with space but everything to do with being a creative entrepreneur first and foremost. If you then want to focus on space ideas, then expose yourself to as many ideas from others as possibly. Read and watch as many topics in all fields of science and technology and space and fill your mind to the brim at all times only then can the magic happen. How do you turn on that magic? All the information you exposed yourself is the fuel, the real secret will not really make sense until it happens to you and you recognize it. The secret is to then turn off your brain, that’s right, the key is not to focus but to do the opposite which is to not focus on anything. Allow yourself to daydream and then follow it without forcing it in one direction or another. You need to think of your mind as a body of water and make the surface very, very calm and stare into the abyss and then see what is in there.
You’re on the board of the Lifeboat Foundation, whose mission is “to encourage scientific advancements while helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies.” How is USS aligned with that mission?
I joined the organization to help to participate in interesting projects. I was involved in one group for a while but the group and the process and thus the event we were planning for never came about. The organization is not structured well so its rudderless structure is not well conducive to accomplishing much at least to my limited exposure. The efforts are also pro bono in nature and so ownership and financial reward is not there to help drive the effort.
Given today’s COVID-19 epidemic, how might your work on the biospheres and the Lifeboat Foundation be applicable to a solution?
USS is going to design and build and occupy the most self-sustaining human living system anyone has ever attempted. We hope to use it as an example of how we could alter our lifestyles here on Earth in a more sustainable way. We need to change our way of eating and the use of water and recycle everything and throw nothing away. We must use energy more efficiently and we need to alter how we work and where and when we work and how we derive an income with or without work. Healthcare should be equally available for everyone because it affects everyone regardless if you have it or not. We currently have healthcare for everyone, no one ever gets turned away from hospitals but when people who don’t have healthcare insurance don’t pay for their service, we all pay for it, so our system of healthcare is very inefficient financially. Getting back to your question, our medical system within our space stations and lunar or Mars facilities will treat everyone equally and proactively, so a medical issue isn’t ignored until it becomes a chronic disease. Healthcare in space is NOT going to be a revenue generating function, it will just be about the well-being of humans.
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