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We're revisiting one of our favorite interviews this month! 7investing founder Simon Erickson chats with former NASA astronaut Dr. Sandy Magnus about the space economy, colonizing other planets, and what it's like living four months on the International Space Station.
September 17, 2020 – By Simon Erickson
One of our favorite interviews from earlier this year was originally published before we had an official 7investing podcast. Today, we are re-publishing our interview with Dr. Sandy Magnus and are making it available on Spotify, Apple, and our other podcast distribution channels.
Dr. Sandy Magnus has quite literally seen the world from a much higher point of view.
As a former NASA astronaut, one who even lived four months on the International Space Station, she’s had a direct look for decades at the world’s most innovative technologies. She’s also a hero and an incredible role model to millions of people across our planet.
But outer space is also capturing the imagination of the business world as well. Billionaire entrepreneurs are committing fortunes to launch companies that build reusable rockets, offer satellite-based internet, or even launch tourists into orbit. There are huge opportunities now developing for the private sector.
In this exclusive interview with 7investing, Sandy shares her thoughts about the new “space economy”. She also discusses what technologies will be most-needed for off-world colonization and describes several things that people interested in this space should have on their radar.
This interview was recorded on February 23, 2020 and first published on March 19, 2020. Dr. Sandy Magnus currently serves as the Deputy Director of Engineering for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
[00:00:00] Simon Erickson: Hi everyone! 7investing founder Simon Erickson here. I’m very excited that on our first interview, I have the chance to speak with someone who is a role model and a hero to millions of people. Dr. Sandy Magnus was a former NASA astronaut. She’s also served in various leadership roles in the space industry. Sandy, I’m excited to chat with you. Thank you for joining me here this afternoon!
[00:00:22] Sandy Magnus: Well, thank you very much for the invitation.
[00:00:25] Simon Erickson: Sandy, you have a very extensive resume. That’s very impressive because you’ve seen a variety of different things here on earth, but you’ve also seen a variety of things from several miles above Earth as well. I have to start with the first question, of “what is it like in four and a half months in the International Space Station?” Is there anything you could pass along to those of us that haven’t been in outer space? That’s truly spectacular.
[00:00:50] Sandy Magnus: Well, clearly, the view has to be the first thing that I talk about, because those of you who have never had the good fortune to leave the planet and move to space. I basically moved to space for four and a half months. I had this beautiful view of our planet out the window every day and really never got tired of looking out the window at our amazing earth. And what you see when you look out the window is a beautiful, fragile planet, but you also see it as the home for all of us.
And it is our spaceship. And so every astronaut that goes to space has the same impressions like, wow, you know, it’s just one planet. You don’t see the country; the country’s boundaries. We don’t see tribes. We just see one place where humans live. And it’s a very profound experience.
[00:01:38] Simon Erickson: I can believe that. And there are a lot of other people getting excited about space right now, too. We’re starting to see billionaire entrepreneurs founding companies that are working on rocket ships. We have other entrepreneurs that are bringing companies public that are doing space tourism, bringing people out into outer space. I want to ask, what is your take on this new commercial space economy? Even with all the excitement, are there also some considerations that should be addressed right now?
[00:02:04] Sandy Magnus: Well, I think we can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not easy. So we still have a lot to learn as we expand both the breadth and the depth and the people that are able to have the experiences that I had.
You know, if you think about it, it’s the natural step and where we should be going is as human beings with our adventures in space. We’ve had, you know, 50 years plus of government investment in this particular domain, if you will, or sector. Right. And the purpose of government investment is to lower the barriers. You know, do the hard technology types of efforts that companies don’t want to pay for because companies have to make a profit.
And so what you see right now is after 50 years, you know, there’s a a really broad and deep foundational knowledge, what it takes to launch things into space, you know, to the point where students are launching CubeSats in college, something I never could have dreamed of when I was in school, you know, thirty five years ago. The technology’s changed a lot. You know, the amount of brainpower you have on your smartphone far exceeds by orders of magnitude what the shuttle computers are capable of doing.
You’ve got entrepreneurs who are willing to take some risks with this emerging space market or space sector because of the first two items that there’s sort of a little bit of a feel for the risk reward equation more so than before. And the government finally is allowing all this to happen in the way that they’re engaging with commercial partners to contract for services instead of just buy the car and own the car. Right.
So we’re living in this really interesting place where all of these decades’ of government investment is finally paying off. But it’s still the beginning of that transition. And we can’t forget that it’s not easy. And as we try and enlarge this scope of people that are engaging in space and create a market that’s hopefully government independent, some day it’s going to take a little while. It’s not going to happen overnight. We’ll have to be patient.
[00:04:05] Simon Erickson: Double clicking on that point you make about the governments and how they have an interest in this. I’ve seen that you’ve worked in the past with the European Space Agency. You’ve worked with Japan. You’ve worked with Brazil. You’ve worked with Russia.
Are there certain specific things that the international community is working together to fix or to address in outer space? And then also, how does this work, with other governments having their own kind of national interests or even now that you’ve got the private sector in that’s trying to generate profits?
How are we going to address getting to outer space collaboratively?
[00:04:41] Sandy Magnus: Yeah, it’s a thorny question. But, you know, my experience has been mainly when I was at NASA working on the International Space Station program, and that’s 16 different countries that have worked together to build this amazing outpost in space or we’ve learned how to to work together. And you mentioned a lot of them, Russia, Europe, the European Space Agency, with their many member nations, Japan, Canada, Brazil was there for a little while. There are a lot of other countries doing things in space as well.
And there is global concern that we try and use space intelligently as a species as well as collaboratively and cooperatively as possible. There’s a body underneath the United Nations called the Committee on the Peace Leases of Outer Space that has been around for 50 years or so. And they discuss things like that. How can we set some standards, some best practices, some behavioral norms for the use of space as a global community, regardless of whether you go up as a confederation like we did with Space Station or as individual nations pursuing national goals? You probably hear a lot of conversations about space traffic management and space situational awareness, which has actually nothing really primarily to do with human spaceflight.
But more to the point that so many countries and companies are now launching satellites of various kinds into orbit. And how do you manage that similar to the air traffic control system that governs how planes fly around the planet? There’s actually international body that does that, and planes don’t fly randomly. They’re sort of highways that have been mapped out in the sky with specific modes of communication and protocols.
And so there’s a lot of nations interested in establish similar kind of things for space.
[00:06:27] Simon Erickson: There’s a lot of work being done for the infrastructure of going into outer space right now.
[00:06:32] Sandy Magnus: Yes. And it’s going to take some time. And just like every other formative activity, there’s, you know, we’re trying to learn as we go and it’s course complicated by the fact that it’s a global endeavor. And so we have a lot to learn.
[00:06:47] Simon Erickson: Well, I want to look a little bit farther out, literally a little bit farther out. Because, Sandy, you were cued up for a South by Southwest panel – which South by Southwest unfortunately got cancelled this year – but I was really looking forward to hearing the topic of your presentation of the panel was on off-world civilizations and colonizing other planets.
I guess I’d like to frame this question by asking, do you think that colonizing other planets would be an extension incrementally of what Earth is like? Or because we’re starting from scratch and we don’t have any infrastructure already in place, is it going to be completely different?
[00:07:27] Sandy Magnus: You know what? I think it’s going to be a hodgepodge, right? Because you can imagine a colony is going to start very small. It’s going to be an outpost. They’ll probably be a group of people there from different countries because it’s such a massive undertaking. No one country can really afford to do it themselves. And so whether that’s two countries or five countries or ten countries, it’s going to be sort of a amalgamation of these different cultures that are placing themselves on this outpost.
And so, of course, they’ll start with what they know. Because that’s where people start. Right. We’ll probably leverage a lot of knowledge from how we’ve run the International Space Station and how other countries that collaborate in space operate. But if you can imagine a culture that’s sort of a mixture of different parts of what we have on Earth. But then there’s this outpost and they’re very far away. And they’re going to have to be dependent upon themselves to a great extent. And over time, I would expect them to evolve into a single unique mishmash of a civilization that’s different, quite different than what we have on Earth, because the conditions are different. So even though it might start one way, it’s certainly going to evolve into another.
And I think that’s that will be a really interesting sociological experiment to watch.
And engineering experience, too. Right. I mean, starting from scratch, we’re going to build off of what we know, but the needs of a civilization be totally different.
Yeah. Then again, you learn as you go, and can you.
The big factor will be can you use the resources of the place that you’re colonizing? What’s your logistics tail? How much are you dependent upon the earth for your survival? These will all be factors into how the civilization evolves.
[00:09:18] Simon Erickson: Speaking of learning as you go, Sandy, you have a bachelor’s degree in Physics, a masters degree in Electrical Engineering, and then a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering.
Speaking from one engineer to another, are there technologies here on Earth that you’re really excited about, that you think are really innovative?
[00:09:35] Sandy Magnus: Yeah, you know, it’s going to really have a space exploration viewpoint on things like 3D printing, for example, where you don’t have to have such a huge logistics tail because you can manufacture things out of the raw materials that are there. If you think about it, when people were exploring the planet, Columbus sailed across the ocean in the great seafaring endeavors that people did. They didn’t have to bring oxygen. There are certain things they did and they had they had to bring their own food, water. But they knew that wherever they were going, they would probably find food and water there. They could live off the land, as it were. And so technologies that allow us to recycle water and take dirty water and make it clean and for drinking recycling in general, not wasting materials and being very efficient about how you’re reusing things or repurposing things to keep the logistics tail down, to keep the the colony the as independent as possible, where they’re not relying on a steady stream of spacecraft from Earth to come to resupply them. So anything in recycling, being able to grow food that is very energy dense.
So you don’t have to use an acre of land, for example, to grow lettuce for five people or whatever that may be. Advanced medical technology. So you you can have medical officers who don’t require ten or twelve years of school. So telemedicine or smart, really smart equipment for diagnostics. That’ll be really key.
I mentioned advanced manufacturing and additive manufacturing things where you can manufacture from the the materials that are there, intelligence spacecraft who can do their own health and status monitoring so that you don’t have to pay attention to your life support system full time. But it’ll report to you if it it needs some some work. These are the kind of technologies that will enable colonization of other places.
[00:11:38] Simon Erickson: Any idea how far we how far out we are on colonizing other planets? I will not hold you to the date! But just from someone who’s an expert in the field, how far out are we from a colony on Mars?
[00:11:50] Sandy Magnus: On Mars? We’re probably quite some time away from a colony on Mars. You know, it makes sense, especially as an operator.
It makes sense to me to go to the moon and try some of these techniques out on the moon, which is only three days away, as opposed to, you know, throwing someone in the deep part of the ocean right where Mars is six months away one way. And also it’s not going to be cheap. It’s going to cost them money. And it requires a long term commitment. And we seem to be in the United States especially not able to make long term commitments.
You know, we’ve got to refocus on the moon, which has happened during this administration. And generally the space community agrees that’s the right thing to go do first. And then a matter of how long do you stay on the moon before you make the leap to Mars? There are some people that want to stay on the moon for a while. There’s others that want to go to the moon just long enough to test out the things that we need to test out before we feel confident that we can send people to Mars. And so that that’s sort of a fork in the road. They’re about agendas. And I think what makes sense is to do what we need to do, and the moon test out what we need to do in order to keep pushing that bubble outward to Mars.
But while we’re learning and practicing and establishing the infrastructure on the moon, we do it in such a way that the commercial community, the nongovernmental community, can continue that effort as the government pushes the edge of the bubble outward towards Mars. But I think we’re still a couple of decades from Mars. Minimum.
[00:13:19] Simon Erickson: Well, my last question, Sandy, is our audience here at 7investing is individual investors. And there are a ton of headlines out there. There’s a ton of information in the news media about space. But you’re the expert that has lived this for decades. And so for anyone who’s really interested in learning more about space or seeing how the progress is coming, what are a few things that you think that we should be paying attention to? Or also, what are a few things that you don’t think are getting enough coverage right now, that actually are really big steps we’ve taken?
[00:13:52] Sandy Magnus: Wow. That there’s so much going on here.
There’s a lot of a lot of activity in this CubeSat small-sat kind of arena. What is from an investment viewpoint to really understanding what those business cases are is really important. Also, the small launch, your business is coming online because in order to launch these smaller payloads, these small satellites, you need a launch system that is there frequently. You know that you’ve got the frequency that you need, because right now, if you’re trying to launch satellite as a small site, you try and get a hosted ride on another vehicle and sometimes you can’t control the schedule. So having an app on demand, small launch capability is going to be very important for the future from a human spaceflight side.
NASA has slowly lowered opening the aperture on the ability to fly private citizens the space station. And I think the big key there is developing the market for what are those things that you can do in space as a company to take advantage of the microgravity environment, to create things that are useful here on Earth? Or alternatively, depending upon how we build the infrastructure to create things up in space that are useful in space, in order to enable markets, of course, you need to have frequent access services, commercial crew vehicles come on line.
And there are now abilities to get people in space on a regular cadence that will that will help develop the markets there. Because when you get to microgravity and you experience it and you’re floating around in it and you’ve sort of seen firsthand how the physics changes and how how the behavioral of the materials change. And if you send creative scientists and engineers up there, people are going to come up with some really clever ideas about how to utilize microgravity. But we need more access for more people. That’s really the big mountain to climb is getting more and more people up there on a on a more social side as we get the tourist trade up there to suborbital.
And people get the views that I was able to get while I was up there. Those people are going to come back and talk about it the way you hear astronauts talk about. And some of those people have an incredible reach, because they’re quite well known. What that does with society or how that excites the general population to accelerate this whole space thing: If you recall, though, some of the first pictures of the moon from Apollo 8 when they were sent back to Earth, spawned the whole environmental movement.
And so now if you have more and more people experiencing this this view of Earth, as I expressed earlier in the interview, you have to wonder “how is that going to ripple through society?”
So there are some interesting things I think people should keep an eye out for.
[00:16:37] Simon Erickson: Definitely a lot of interesting things going on right now. And again, Sandy Magnus, former and retired astronaut with NASA, really just an expert opinion in the space industry. Sandy, it’s been a real pleasure hearing your perspective on all of this. Thank you so much for joining me this afternoon.
[00:16:54] Sandy Magnus: Well, I appreciate the invitation and keep your eye on the space industry. It’s a pretty exciting place.
[00:17:00] Simon Erickson: And thanks, everyone, for tuning in.
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