On-orbit refueling technology
Five years ago, Schiel connected with Orbit Fab co-founder and CEO Daniel Faber on a startup that could upend the status quo of planned obsolescence in space.
"I met Daniel at Deep Space Industries back in 2017," says Schiel. "We reconnected later that year at a conference and discussed a few different business ideas."
Schiel and Faber were soon brainstorming together in Silicon Valley, and one idea rose to the top of the list. "NASA was looking at retrofitting satellites that launched already with a fill-and-drain refueling interface," explains Schiel. "They were spending a few hundred million dollars on that mission. We took a different approach where we're only focused on spacecraft that haven't been launched yet."
"We worked on several business models, with Orbit Fab being one of them, and that one was the one that really took off when we started talking to different customers and asking them what they could do with an extra tank of gas. The response was overwhelming. After the seventh customer, we were like, 'There's a business in here.'"
The company's flagship innovation is RAFTI (Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface), a valve designed for refueling spacecraft in orbit.
Dubbed by Orbit Fab as both failsafe and "safe to fail," RAFTI is compatible with numerous low- and high-pressure fuels and legacy spacecraft designs. "RAFTI has been baselined on several government programs," says Schiel. "We're continuing to make RAFTI the industry-wide refueling interface so us and others can provide refueling services to these vehicles."
Schiel says input from more than 60 companies helped shape the product's design. "We talked with them and were gathering their requirements, so with each iteration of RAFTI we were getting feedback and getting holes poked in it to really make it the industry's refueling interface," says Schiel. "That's the drop-in replacement for fill-and-drain valves on satellites."
He adds, "You have to integrate RAFTI while you're on the ground, whereas the legacy spacecraft that are launched without the interface, they can contract with our partners, like Astroscale, to perform mission extension and fleet management, and we would go and refuel those servicing vehicles that our customers provide."
After Orbit Fab became the first private company to refuel the International Space Station with water in 2019, the first spacecraft outfitted with a RAFTI unit -- the Tanker-001 Tenzing -- launched in June 2021. Several companies have integrated the valve into designs, and Orbit Fab has agreements with a number of partners in the emerging on-orbit refueling economy.
In January 2022, Astroscale signed the industry's first refueling agreement with Orbit Fab, with a refueling hub slated for launch in October 2023. "The big thing we're working on now is a fuel sale demonstration in orbit," says Schiel. "With our architecture, we have fuel depots -- which are big simple tanks of fuel -- and we have fuel shuttles that are the go-between, so they'll go take the fuel from the depot and deliver it to the customers. Our goal is to operationalize two of those fuel shuttles to prove out our docking capability and our fuel transfer capability."
The company moved its entire staff (then 17 employees) from California to Colorado in early 2022 due to the pool of executive talent and proximity to such customers as Lockheed Martin and Astroscale. "It just made sense to move out here," says Schiel.
"It's much easier to buy a house here than it is in the Bay Area," he adds. "If we were looking for our senior leadership to move out to Northern California, we'd have to pay them a lot more money to maintain their current standard of living."
The company manufactures RAFTI largely at its 60,000-square-foot Lafayette facility with the help of several contract manufacturers. "Colorado's got a lot of good machine shops and other vendors that we've been needing to source," says Schiel. He says the facility allows the company to "bring all of our manufacturing in-house as well as our business development and finance teams."
While the manufacturing model remains the same as it was in Orbit Fab's prototyping phase, the space allows the company to scale with demand.
"We built Furphy in-house, we built our payload for Tenzing in-house," says Schiel. "We just moved to a bigger shop space so we can ramp up for producing RAFTI in larger quantities for our customers and also building our fuel depots in-house."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is just perception in the industry," says Schiel. "We've had 60 years of really only the International Space Station being refueled. So it's coming up with new, creative mission operations and business models that are opened up because of the availability of fuel on orbit."
Opportunities: If all goes to plan, the big opportunity is RAFTI emerging as an industry standard. "I equate it to oil and gas being available to the terrestrial economy," says Schiel. "Within 100 years, we went from not really shipping a whole lot of goods and services to a $16 trillion logistics market because of what oil and gas enabled."
To date, space has been "an inflexible industry," he adds. "Once you have a robust fuel supply in orbit, you can design satellites to do many different things, because you don't have to worry about the life-limiting factor, which has always been fuel. NASA wants to put people on the Moon; that's going to require a logistics stream from LEO [low-earth orbit] to lunar. That's going to require fuel to make it cost-effective."
The company's 60,000-square-foot facility presents another opportunity: "One of the big reasons we got this big facility is we want to turn it into an ecosystem within Colorado, so we are subleasing some of the space to partners, vendors, suppliers, and customers to really try and grow this ecosystem within this building."
Kayhan Space, maker of collision-avoidance tools for spaceflight, is the first such tenant. "We're actively looking for additional space companies to join us," says Schiel.
Needs: "We're currently raising a Series A," says Schiel. "That's our current round of funding to help us complete the fuel shuttle commissioning."
Orbit Fab also needs employees, says Schiel. "Propulsion and controls engineers are the two big positions we're trying to fill right now."