Launching an Astronautics Startup: A Student Entrepreneur’s Journey

Remy LeMaire | May 8, 2024

Graduating engineer James Austin went from small-town roots to becoming a startup founder developing a new space launch system.

James Austin is developing a startup to make space travel more affordable and accessible

James Austin is developing a startup to make space travel more affordable and accessible

Growing up in the small town of Chilton, Wisconsin, James Austin gained early exposure to the world of aerospace at the nearby EAA AirVenture Oshkosh – one of the largest annual air shows in the country. Attending the event with his father each year, Austin grew increasingly intrigued by how the engines worked and the seemingly effortless magic of aerodynamics. What started as a family outing became a passion that guided Austin through high school and eventually won him a place to study engineering at USC.

Double majoring in astronautical engineering alongside business administration has equipped Austin with the technical and entrepreneurial foundation to start his own company: Austin Space Holdings. While still a student, he began developing a kinetic space launch system that aims to make space travel more accessible and less expensive – two major priorities of the rapidly growing space industry.

What projects at USC have you found particularly inspiring?

Some of the most enlivening initiatives I’ve worked on during my time at USC were team-based endeavors. One standout project was a semester-long conceptual spacecraft design in my aerospace engineering class. As the team lead for a group of 7-8 students, I faced the unique challenge of managing diverse personalities and skill sets. This experience taught me invaluable lessons in leadership, collaboration and conflict resolution.

Is there a professor at USC who has had a significant positive impact on you?

I took spacecraft systems engineering with Professor Jim Chase in my junior year; he’s become instrumental in my growth as a student and as a person. I’m now one of his teaching assistants for the same class, and he’s the technical advisor for my nascent startup. Being able to continue the connection with him has been amazing.

You presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech Forum in January. What was the topic of your paper?

I presented on calculating the time a spacecraft in orbit spends in the shadow of a planet. There have been a couple of previous papers on this topic, but they make simplifying assumptions – either considering only 2D orbits or focusing specifically Earth orbits. My work took a more comprehensive approach.

Planetary orbits are not perfectly circular, meaning the distance between a planet and the Sun varies throughout its orbit. This variation affects the size of the planet’s shadow at different points in time. This has significant implications for satellites operating around the inner planets (Mars and closer). Most of these satellites rely heavily on solar power for their energy needs. When a spacecraft enters the shadow of the planet it orbits, it can’t generate solar power and must rely on battery power. Precise calculations of eclipse times are crucial for optimal battery sizing. Reducing unnecessary battery weight is a critical factor in minimizing spacecraft mass.

With this in mind, I wrote code for a completely dynamic simulation that accounts for elliptical orbits and varying shadow sizes based on the specific day analyzed.

As someone with a double major in business administration and astronautical engineering, how have the two complemented one another and contributed to your goal of starting your own company?

When I first started the double major, I didn’t find much overlap between the business and astronautics programs. But then I realized the real value for me is in applying the skills gained through the business degree to my knowledge as an engineer, with the goal of starting my own astronautics company.

The connections I made through the business school jumpstarted the path I’m on right now. Through my business classes, I learned crucial personal skills that aren’t always taught to engineering students. The greatest benefit of the business degree for me has been learning the intricacies of working with people and finance – aspects that might be overlooked by those strictly focused on technical aspects.

What is the business concept of the company you founded, Austin Space Holdings?

The mission behind my company is to make space more accessible and affordable. It all started based on an idea I had for a kinetic launcher that doesn’t need propellant to get all the way up into orbit. The goal of the system is to eliminate the need for first-stage combustion rockets. Current rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon are massive, with only the top 15-20 feet carrying a satellite. The rest is all rocket fuel, which is what makes launch costs so high, often over $1 million for a single satellite. With this new system, the cost of launching a satellite could drop to just a few thousand dollars. This would make space much more affordable and accessible.

There are companies developing small satellite constellations, but it’s still such an expensive venture. If launch costs can be significantly reduced the space industry could expand more than tenfold beyond current projections. By 2030, over 100,000 new satellite missions are planned, but current launch capabilities can only support 2,500 per year. Developing a system that can dramatically increase the annual launch rate will trigger explosive growth in the space industry.

How did you get the idea behind this new system?

During my junior year, I had the idea for this system when I was in the shower. I ran out of the shower, shampoo still in my hair, and started rambling to my roommate about how if you built this you could change space travel for the next century. I’m a terrible draughtsman, but I drew up a rough sketch of the design in my notebook, then put it off to the side and forgot about it for 3 months.

What was the catalyst that motivated you to seriously pursue the idea for your kinetic space launch system after initially putting it aside?

One day, I was at the business school working on my astronomical gas dynamics homework. I looked sleep-deprived and stressed and someone noticed and approached me – the prominent businessman Paul Orfalea. When he learned I was an engineering student, he questioned my presence in the business school. I explained that I double majored in business because one day I wanted to start my own space company, though I wasn’t sure of the “how” at the time. He was teaching an MBA class on the entrepreneurial mindset and he invited me to join.

After that class, I thanked him for inviting me. His response was “If you promise to sleep more, you can come back next week.” He kept extending the invitation for the whole semester.

His teaching method is really unique. He doesn’t assign any traditional homework. Instead he had everyone read the news, then we’d all sit in a socratic circle for 3 hours, discussing ideas and concepts. You may not learn as much about the hard numbers behind business, but you gain a whole mindset about how to approach entrepreneurship and the business world.

At the end of that semester, I had the inspiration and decided to just try and start this company. if it goes wrong, it goes wrong. I thought – I’m young, I can take a risk. If I fail, I won’t have lost anything.

After graduating from USC, what are your plans to further develop Austin Space Holdings?

I plan to set up my lab and get started on the project as soon as possible. Without classes to worry about, I can focus solely on the business. I want to get a good foundation set up, and then focus on my long-term goals. I grew up in an entirely self-employed family, and I inherited that trait. I have a list of ideas I want to pursue. When one finishes, I’m going to start right up on the next one.

Published on May 8th, 2024

Last updated on May 8th, 2024

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