Transcript: Space4U podcast, Jason Held
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hello, this is Andrew de Naray with the Space Foundation, and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the people who make space exploration today, more accessible to all. Today I’m joined by Jason Held CEO of Saber Astronautics, which is a mission control operation software and services company with locations in Sydney, Australia, and Boulder, Colorado.
Thank you for joining us today, Jason. Yeah. Thanks. Awesome to be here. So let’s get started by getting a little background about you — when and how did your passion for space and or satellites begin? Oh, man, I, as a, as a youngling, like the rest of us, I watched Star Wars when I was five and it was all over from there, but my mother was, was a writer.
And for a while, she was trying to get published in science fiction. So she had all the books on the shelf, the classics, you know, Isaac Asimov and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Polaris, things like that. So I had a really healthy dose of science fiction from a very young age. That’s great. And how did that then evolve into where you are today?
Well, I mean, the thing is, is I wasn’t a very good student when I was in high school. In fact, I barely graduated high school and my admissions officer, their advice was pray you to get into college. Chances are you got to beg to get into a community college. That’s how bad it was. And so I didn’t think that the space industry, despite how much I loved it, I was like, Oh, it’s something I’ve never really going to do.
And I was kind of a, a mouthy kid. So it was always getting into fights and uh, I figured I’d join the Army. I mean, that was something that I could certainly do. And it wasn’t until years later, you know, I was deployed to Bosnia and I had nothing to do. So I just started reading science books again, not science fiction, but this time, you know, academic books learning about biology and physics.
And since I didn’t have the pressures of school, I used to get nervous in testing and things like that. But once that was gone and a little bit older, your, your, your academic brain, some people age at different rates. So I was a bit older. Uh, I realized I had the talent for it and decided I was going to get back into it.
And around the same time, the Army had standed up a component of Army Space Command. And I was like, Oh, awesome. That’s my chance. That’s it. I’m doing that. And so I asked for a transfer from my boss. I was in the artillery at the time and he says, Space Command? What are you crazy? We’re the ground force — and denied it.
So I, I, you like that accent? It’s my best Army commander accent. Right. It was good. Uh, so I quit, I resigned my commission. I was a, a young captain at the time. And I quit my active-duty commission. I went back to the States, you know, bought a used Plymouth Voyager, drove West till I hit Boulder, Colorado, and started applying to space companies.
And that’s the start of the career. I was at Ball Aerospace for a while over the, uh, working on Hubble, uh, for a time at a different company, worked on the ISS, and September 11 happened. And then I got called back into the service. But since I had a such a space heritage already, they put me in Space Command, which is where I wanted to be in the first place.
So that’s kind of how I ended up in there. It was an, it was an active effort. I’ll say serendipity. Um, going back to what you said about Bosnia, a bio I read on you said that you quote, “learned to connect more soundly with your academic side in a mud pit in Bosnia.” You care to elaborate on that? Yeah. I mean, literally like the way this works is you get deployed to a part of the world, that’s got some naughty things going on and it, despite what you see in the news, much of the day-to-day life, especially in peacekeeping or as we call it at the time peace enforcement, our job was mainly to keep two armies from attacking each other.
We were the monkey in the middle and with the Americans there, they weren’t really doing much. And, you know, the war had officially ended. So we’re a bunch of soldiers there with, without anything to do. So the Army was offering free classes from the, uh, relationship with the community college. So I just went and signed up for the class and there was no teachers coming to you. You literally just picked the subject.
You wanted to pick the book that you wanted to learn from. And I just started doing the assignments. Just the ones that interested me. Some of them were too hard. Some, you know, did the easy ones, the ones that I kind of figured those out, I went to harder ones. And then I started coming up with my own ideas as well.
I mean, the problem with space is, obviously, transportation, how do you go from one place to another? So I started coming up with my own ideas on how to make new different versions of engines. How do you improve the state of the art? And some of those ideas I noticed were picked up by universities elsewhere in the world, not to be, but just the ideas were commonly being investigated in other parts.
And that’s really when, when I realized that, you know, some of the ideas that I have really aren’t crazy, you know, wow, I’m not crazy. This is actually a real problem. And other people are trying to solve them. And if I could think of them with the background that I had academically, Then studies aren’t as hard as I thought they were, you know, just thinking a bit of a different way.
That’s really kind of how I came around it. So kind of going back to that, and you said, you know, you didn’t have the best grades in high school, and then you kind of were, you know, getting in a little bit of a self-taught angle there. You’ve talked about wanting to democratize space, uh, that there’s a lack of accessibility and mechanisms that hinder people when it comes to employment in the space industry, what’s your philosophy on why these hurdles exist, and in your opinion, how should they be overcome?
Oh, great question. Yeah, the thing is space has always been this kind of industry. It’s kind of like at carnivals, you got to be so high to ride the Ferris wheel. Everybody has to have a PhD. Everybody talks about first, you know, we’re the first people to do A, B or C. I see. And it can be quite daunting. I mean, astronauts, I mean, there’s the tip of the spear.
You know, these are all people who’ve got multiple PhDs. I, I did end up getting a PhD and by the way, I found it easier to do that than high school. Again, kind of very, very self-kind-of-taught research is coming up with something new. But at the end of the day, a lot of people in the space industry, because of this kind of culture of you have to be smart to do it.
It ends up being a barrier for everybody, people who are actually smart, but might not realize that they can actually do these things. So I’ve seen a lot of space engineers who are very proud of how smart they are. That’s a part of the culture of the industry, where a lot of us, this is our place to shine.
Uh, and the whole idea about democratization of space is because we like being so smart. We tend to pick tools that require a lot of effort to use. Okay. So a lot of text-based applications that you got to do a lot of manual math with some of them, and the fact that you have to do that makes us feel smarter.
It’s actually a feedback loop or that the high barriers to entry make the people who are doing them feel happier in a certain way. I got a black belt in this tool. That means that you, you know, I feel smart and that becomes like a marketing mechanism so that the tools have not had an incentive to get better.
And a lot of the systems are in place. So people have to train really hard. And some of the mission control centers that we’ve talked to, six months to 12 months training time just to use the software tools and space is, changing, you know, space… If the democratization of space is all about getting anybody from anywhere in the world. Of any education level to be a part of the, the industry. So that means that from Saber’s perspective.
Yeah. We’re making a mission control software that’s easy enough for your kids to use. We made it into a video game. So you control it like a first person shooter, you know, Just so we can introduce it for the listeners.
The software you produce goes by the acronym, PIGI, which is pronounced piggy. Can you summarize for us kind of, uh, what it is and what it does and how does it improves upon what’s come before. So we make a, a software tool called the predictive ground station interface, affectionately called PIGI.
Essentially we wanted to call it a farm animal name and we got tired of Greek god names for, for space tools. But the whole idea is, think of it like Space Command in the box. Everything you need to do to control a space mission from the commanding to the overpass calculation to situational awareness, to your space, whether in one single tool that anybody can use.
And we priced it as cheap as we could, you know, like 15 bucks a month pays… You guys, it’s cheap enough so that you’re a parent with some kids and you want to give them gift for a couple of months and you want to teach them about space, you could do that. And then when you’re done teaching them, you know, you can turn the tap off and you don’t have to pay anything else.
And it’s also priced really well for entrepreneurs. Yeah, a lot of these new space entrepreneurs out there, they build a spacecraft. They might be good engineers from a university and really smart, but they’ve never flown before. Right? So a lot of them are learning to flight aspect of it for the first time.
So we use this tool to train university students in workshops and let them apply. Some of them have spun off their own companies and investors have used it for due diligence. How much revenue can this new space company make? I don’t know. I’m not a space engineer, just the marketing person, maybe just quote unquote, you know, ‘cause that takes skill to, you know, but two totally different skills.
Uh, so again, kind of tying it to you being so high to ride the Ferris wheel. They don’t have a PhD in space, but you know, you get smart people in the investment community. That want to be a part of the industry, but don’t know how to evaluate a space company. Well, they could use this tool to calculate.
All right. So here’s how much money this company that these a hundred satellites can actually make. And, you know, we we’ve had friends of ours, you know, raise millions of dollars off of the back of the outputs of the product. So that’s what PIGI’s for, you know, is everything in between. And of course, Saber as an operations company, we use PIGI ourselves and loan operation centers to be able to control lots of satellites with only a few people, done a lot of work with university interns.
You know, that’s a level of training you really need just like an undergraduate bachelor’s degree and a couple of hours training and you’re up and running. So if people are almost PIGI-backing off of that. Awesome. Yeah, sure. Is it, is it truly the first 3D software for satellite tracking? I, I don’t know about the first — again, we, everybody likes to say where the first at something, my NASA buddies tease me.
They’re like, congratulations, you turned it into a video game. You brought us up to the 1990s. You know, I I’ll tell you. There’s a bunch of tools out there that are making 3D interfaces. We are considered the top of the line in terms of video game quality, look, and feel and ease of use. Alright. We are considered the top of the line for that.
I do see a lot of companies catching on and trying their own things. And there’s some really good work out there being done. We like to kind of stay ahead of the curve as much as we can. You kind of have to, as a company. So we went and made the first virtual reality mission control. And we did the first demonstration of VR in mission control with multinational.
We had Australians and we had French and we had U.S. military that used PIGI VR. To do their handovers. And that was really good, but I definitely, definitely see this would be the way to go. I mean, honestly, it’s so hard to use the other tools if you’re going to Mars, right? I mean, as Tom Hanks says, Houston, you have a problem.
You don’t want 20 people on the ground trying to fit round pegs into square holes. You know, like the Apollo 13 movie if you’ve seen that, you know, you’re going to want to have this thing onboard the spacecraft. Yeah. And I’ve noticed that it has the capability for operators to run diagnostics on in-orbit satellites to determine what’s malfunctioning.
So in that situation, how does an operator then resolve any issues that are found? Well, there’s two sizes of the front end, which is the pretty graphics, which is the sizzle, but you have to have steak on the backend. One thing we haven’t really talked about is Saber as a company has about a decade of experience in machine learning.
And that was actually the PAC that I did when I went to graduate school. And again, I always cringe when somebody says we’re the first to do x. I’m possibly a complete hypocrite when I say this, but Saber Astronautics is the first company to solve the machine … The machine learning diagnostics problem for space.
I, we did that back in 2012 with data from NASA Goddard. So the idea is telemetry from the spacecraft telling you what was healthy and what isn’t anyway, and people can track that, but they can’t tell you why there’s a problem. So we tied in the data from there as well as space weather data from NOAA Space Weather Protection Services, as well as gap fill data from Australia’s Bureau of Metrology.
And we use machine learning to find the cause and effect between them, right? So an operator and that feeds directly into the graphics. So all that backend, fancy schmancy stuff. I just said to you, the operator doesn’t have to worry about the machine learning so much. All they have to do is use the tool and say, okay, here’s the part that is damaged, that part’s glowing, red, red is bad.
We all know that, here’s a bunch of parts that are glowing blue, that are part of that cause-and-effect chain. And here’s another part, that’s the real root cause. And that lets them quickly answer the question of what do I do about it. And for a lot of these newer operators, they don’t have 20 years’ experience in the space industry with their own spacecraft.
A lot of the times I haven’t even manufactured them spacecraft. They bought it off the shelf from another supplier. So, instead of going back to that manufacturer to diagnose it, they could sit right there in their own chair and see the problem and diagnose the problem right away and make it correct.
It’s great. I, you know, I watched some of your videos that show the exploded view you can get of them. And it’s really impressive looking, did you actually involve gaming engineers in the design of the software? Oh, yeah, absolutely. That’s the good part of the story. So Sabre was founded in Colorado, but also in Australia.
And I tend to go back and forth the Australian lab hired game engineers and sat next to space engineers and some extra software engineers. Those are the three areas that we typically hire. And at the same time, the games industry in Australia was tanking. So it was really good game engineers that were available.
And a lot of these guys are young, 22 to 26 years old. Didn’t know anything about space. When some, a game community college out there, they call them Pace. It’s essentially a community college. And were very intimidated to sit next to a space engineer and code next home. And what we found was that the game engineers knew pretty much a lot of the same backend mess that the space engineers had to know matrix transformation, linear algebra, a lot of these things, they didn’t know the overall mechanics, but they knew the rest.
And were able to hold their own really, really easily and a lot of the space engineers were trying to catch up on their ability to code. So watching that was really kind of the back end of how we made PIGI real synergistic kind of thing going there. So you’ve mentioned NASA earlier, who are some of the more notable users that use your software?
Uh, well we have multiple contracts right now with the U.S. Air Force with Space Command. So. It is being used with quite a few members of the new Space Forces at the moment. We’re, uh, also getting a lot of work out with the Australian military as well. The Royal Australian Air Force has recently picked us up.
So most of our big dollar customers are in the military at the moment. Uh, we have had some commercial customers, most of our commercial customers say, Hey, we want you to do this thing for us. But we don’t want you to tell anybody about it. So, unfortunately, I can’t tell you who they are, but they’re usually, you know yeah.
But they’re usually like medium-sized spacecraft. So in the commercial sector, you got your cube sat companies, and we’ve had a few of those, a couple of companies, you know, one of the ones that we promoted were a large internet of things, company out of Australia called Fleet. So that’s one of the companies that we ended up doing the mission design for using PIGI, and they raised 5 million in investment at the time, but we’ve done a bunch of others, larger telcos, a large telco out of Canada that use us for some similar work, a couple of companies that have medium-sized spacecraft.
It’s really a small space, about 50 to 150 kilograms. But these days, everybody in the space is starting to get smaller and smaller, Uh, up to 10 at that point. So that seems like a good spot for us at the moment. We’ve got a couple of live missions that are coming up. They’re both of the cube sat space in that kind of micro sat zone.
So the size of the satellite matters not pretty much. It’s happy with anything. We’re we’re happy with anything. The size of the satellite does matter because the larger the spacecraft, the more there is to monitor and there’s kind of an upfront effort informing the models there, but also the larger, the spacecraft, typically the amount of money that, that people have spent on it.
So, um, you know, millions of dollars in lost customers, you know, for the larger spacecraft is higher risk. So we have to be very diligent and definitely we cross our T’s and dot our I’s with any customer, but the ones that have higher risk have typically higher requirements in that area while those smaller ones typically require more direct support from us in terms of training, a lot of them might not understand how much.
Data they should do so we help them close the loop there. Um, that’s kinda how it works. This question is kind of a selfish one, because besides working at the Space Foundation, I’m also a part-time professional brewer. And I found a Forbes article from a couple of years ago where Sabre had partnered with an Australian brewery to make a beer that can be consumed in space.
And so I want to hear the story on this. Oh, that’s a long conversation, man. Uh, so when we founded back in 2008, we founded just down the road from a startup microbrewery called the Four Pines Brewing Company in Manly, Australia. Right? That’s the name of the beach. I didn’t come up with the name. Um, And, uh, I used to go there for lunch, have a beer, you know, just building a business from scratch can be pretty emotional so having a beer in the middle of the day was quite nice. And I struck up a friendship with the, uh, general manager, a guy named Jaron Mitchell, uh, really kind of cool laid-back guy and got to know each other a bit. And I just walked up to him. He never really knew what I did for a living. I just walked up to him one day, I say, Hey, how’d you like to have your beer in space?
And he looked at me like I was crazy then then realized I was actually serious about it, this is what I do. And it turns out that he was one of these guys grew up in Western Australia. If you’re a smart person in West Australia, you’re told to do accounting and finance. That’s what the smart people in Australia are told to do.
And you’d always wanted to do space, but there’s always thought that he never could do it. So, you know, it was a good fit. It kinda kind of fits the democratization thing. But my whole motivation there was, I had my buddies on the Hubble team when I was in Colorado. We were all homebrewers, you know, so it’s kind of a Colorado thing is as you know, you know, you can get your Stouts out there and everybody competes to see who’s got the best brew.
Uh, we used to sit around and watch Star Trek and have pasta nights – that’s a geekiest thing I’ve ever said in public, but… Hey, how, what, what would it be like to have a beer in space? How awesome would that be? Uh, and with everything we’re seeing with space tourism and the whole motivation, if you remember back in 2009, 2010, that I had a lot of marketing push behind it.
Yeah. So it’s easy to convince somebody that, Hey, let’s give it a go. Beverages are critical. So yeah, beverage is critical and beer is the number one entertainment drink in human history. It’s been around since the dawn of time. And in fact, humanity invented beer and it took us about 3,000 years to sober up enough to invent the wheel.
Right. I mean a big part of exploration. So it all kind of makes sense. So we did it. We made a recipe, so there’s a lot of beer projects out there for space that are really good. Roscosmos did it. One was Sapporo a couple of years back to make the wheat and the barley. I think Budweiser’s doing the same thing.
Coors out in Golden. I actually credit Coors as having a first Facebook project that they proved that you can brew in space. That’s a really good one. I was wondering how you yeast behave in that situation, yeast loves zero G loves it. Really good for pharmaceuticals. Uh, the Coors project had a stuck fermentation only because it was a small sample size.
It was like a thimble full. That was the only thing I think that really went wrong. The Four Pines and Sabre project, we call it Vostok, you know, obviously after the Yuri Gagarin spaceship and the approach is saying, all right, you can brew in space thanks to Coors, you can grow the hops and barley, thanks to Sapporo and Budweiser.
Can you actually drink it? So that’s the approach: let’s make a recipe that allows anybody to, well, not anybody, you know, you gotta be in 21 and up, or if you’re Australian 18 and up and you gotta be off flight status and you can’t be flying the spacecraft, but to be able to drink it, you gotta fix issues with carbonation, the human body.
Doesn’t like carbon gases and liquids don’t respond. Don’t separate very well in zero-G You have to handle surface tension, you know, because how are you going to actually physically drink it? You know, we didn’t want people drinking out of a plastic bag. We want an actual bottle. So we’ve been doing a parabolic flights since 2009.
First flight was to validate the recipe. The second flight was to get more data points on human physiology and tests the beer bottle mechanism that passive flow from the bottom of the beer bottle to the mouth where you can drink it. Third flight, which we did back in November, tested two different options for the mouthpiece for the bottle.
Does it, like in Colorado here, you’ll probably say, well, you know, high altitude catch a buzz quicker or whatever it is, how does it metabolize in microgravity? Well, we’re studying that for sure. But you need a lot of data points and we are seeing, uh, the official word it’s inconclusive yet, which means we don’t have a conclusion.
We are seeing some differences in the individuals that have drunk in zero G we think you metabolize it faster, but we need a lot more data points to be conclusive about that. Okay. Well, it’s fascinating for me. You need to come and drink with us. That sounds awesome. I’m down. Yeah. Yeah. So, uh, before I close, I just want to kind of offer the podium to you.
Uh, if there’s anything I didn’t cover that you would like to. Just my message to your listeners is space is something that anybody can do. You know, if someone like myself, who with the history I have on the academic front can pull into it. I think anybody can, uh, I think the market is changing so that spacecraft are getting cheaper and cheaper.
Keep an eye out for 3D printing on orbit. That’s going to make it even cheaper than it was before. So the more exposure that you have to it at a young age, the more you’re going to be ready for the, the markets that are going to come up and the space jobs that are, could come up in 10 to 20 years’ time. But I think that’s really important. That’s it? That’s all I got.
Well, thank you, Jason. It’s been great talking with you today and we appreciate your time. Likewise much appreciated. And that concludes this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. Keep your eyes and ears open for more Space4U episodes by checking out our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
And of course on our website at spacefoundation.org. On all of those outlets and more it’s our goal to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate for the space community, because at the Space Foundation, we will always have space for you. Thanks for listening.
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