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Photos courtesy Masten Space Systems

Masten Space Systems

by Eric Peterson on November 8, 2019, 08:13 am MST

www.masten.aero

Mojave, California

Founded: 2004

Privately owned

Employees: 15

Industry: Electronics & Aerospace

Products: Lunar landing systems

CEO Sean Mahoney sees a bright future with the company's cutting-edge transportation technology for missions to the Moon.

Masten Space Systems is named for founder and Chief Technology Officer David Masten. "He was a Silicon Valley tech guy," says Mahoney.

Masten worked for Cisco Systems during the week, but weekends were focused on amateur rocketry. The hobby became a full-time pursuit when he launched Masten Space Systems in San Jose in 2004.

But Silicon Valley proved a bit limiting for testing new space technology. Lured by the wide-open airspace, Masten uprooted the operation and moved it to Mojave in 2005. "It has been the epicenter of entrepreneurial space," says Mahoney. "Mojave is the place where people go to find a different way of approaching aerospace problems."

Masten Space Systems subsequently entered the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge produced by the X Prize Foundation and NASA in 2009 and won one competition -- and a cool $1 million.

Mahoney joined as COO in 2011 and became CEO in 2013. Masten was "unlike 95 percent of the founders in the world, in that he was willing to let somebody else take care of his baby," says Mahoney.

That's not the company's only differentiator. "The thing that separates Masten is the approach," says Mahoney. "The big idea was to use a software approach to space development, keep your operations team small, and make everything reusable. That was how Dave started the company, and those principles still apply today."

While the technology itself has evolved, the company is still designing and manufacturing vehicles and systems for transportation of cargo to the surface of the Moon. Mahoney uses the metaphor of a seaport: Lunar transportation systems will likewise involve the equivalent of cargo ships, tugboats, and tinders "to get big things into places that matter."

Masten Space Systems' product line includes the single-use XL1 and the more robust XL2.

Mahoney says the XL1 affords "the ability to take a useful payload to the surface of the Moon." with a capacity of 100 kilograms. The lander was developed in collaboration with NASA's Lunar CATALYST program and will likely see its first deployment by 2022.

The XL2 will be a reusable transportation system, as will the next-generation XEUS, which could handle cargo of 25 tonnes.

Mahoney describes Masten Space Systems' manufacturing model as "really streamlined," with "tight coordination" between design, production, and testing. It's all about maintaining a high velocity as a company. "We've built and flown five rockets already," he says. "We want to iterate quickly."

That means in-house 3D-printing capability to allow for rapid prototyping, but the company also relies on a network of local job shops for precision manufacturing of parts. "We don't try to reinvent everything," he says. "The Antelope Valley is the first place we go [for contract manufacturers]."

One strategy to contain costs: not every component needs to be space-rated. "We're constantly looking to see if we can go with military-grade instead of space-grade, for example," says Mahoney.

The company's Mojave location also boosts the speed of iteration. Mahoney says the logistics of getting rockets up for a test are much simpler than those in San Jose.

The initial market is largely government agencies, and not just the U.S. government. "NASA is the primary one there," says Mahoney, noting that the agency awarded Masten Space Systems a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract in 2018 to deliver payloads to the lunar surface for the next decade.

It's a critical period of time for lunar exploration, he adds. By 2025, more industrial applications could emerge on the Moon -- "mining and all the rest of it" -- and the company's customer base would subsequently change with it.

"There's an awful lot of ways a lunar economy will benefit humanity," says Mahoney, pointing to the concept of the Moon as a gas station for trips to other points in the Solar System and beyond. 

No matter what shape the industry takes, he's confident Masten Space Systems is positioned for success. "We're able to adapt to meet the needs wherever they are," says Mahoney. "Ten years from now, there's a whole lot of ways humans could be interacting with the Moon."

While it might be a centralized model with a few outposts or "little pockets everywhere" on the Moon, Mahoney says he's certain of significant industrial output sooner or later, adding, "Imagine a gold rush."

Challenges: "The biggest one I've experiences is the mismatch of timing between a small company and a large government agency or large government program," says Mahoney.

He points to the January 2019 government shutdown's effects still reverberating through the commercial space sector. "We're still dealing with things that are the echoes of that government shutdown. . . . Dealing with that overhang is probably the biggest challenge to the business."

Mahoney identifies another challenge as "balancing our enthusiasm with what we can get done. That balance is important on an industry level as well." But he says the company isn't prone to "bold statements" and prefers to focus on results. "We just shut up and fly."

Another relates to cash flow: "Can you stay liquid longer than the market stays irrational?"

Opportunities: Mahoney says it's all about "value creation" for lunar delivery, and notes that the market will emerge over time. It will ultimately be a combination of lunar landing technology, testing, contract engineering and R&D, and spinoff technologies not unlike Velcro and Tang.

"We are an enabler," says Mahoney, noting that the "holy grail" could be a manufacturing process that requires lunar gravity or materials.  

Needs: "Caffeine and capital," laughs Mahoney. 

In the longer term, Masten Space Systems should max out around 50 employees. "We will be growing," he says. "I do need more people."

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