Thomas Salzman has joined Apex as Director of Spacecraft, where he will lead the design and production of the Apex spacecraft platforms. Apex’s satellite bus, Aries, has a 200kg wet mass and has configuration packages to let it work with a wide range of payloads. In this blog post, we’ll do a Q&A with Thomas.
Q: When did you get excited about the aerospace industry?
The aerospace industry is a very exciting place to be right now, and the most exciting field within it is space. We’re at a unique time in history where traditional aerospace knowledge is being combined with a “new space” mentality, leading to capabilities that were previously unrealizable.
Now, the space industry is bringing external innovations, like semiconductor technology, automotive manufacturing principles, and software tools, which lets us adapt space to the current era– significantly reducing the barriers to entry for new business models.
Q: Tell us a bit about your career path so far.
I started my career in space in Washington DC working on US Government flagship programs. There’s no better way to dive into the deep end and gain deep knowledge of how large satellites are designed and manufactured.
But I realized the industry was starting to move to smaller form factor satellites, where more satellites are built and launched in a constellation for a lower price point than a single large satellite. To dive in, I moved to the Los Angeles area where I started working at Millenium Space Systems (part of Boeing) as a mechanical engineer where I designed multiple vehicles and approached satellite manufacturing in a much more rapid and non-traditional way. I had the opportunity to apply novel manufacturing & material techniques, production methods, and assembly approaches to satellite manufacturing, speeding up spacecraft deployment time. Most of our customers were on the government side, and around this time, I noticed a huge growth in the commercial space markets.
I decided to move over to Rocket Lab on their Photon satellite bus program. In my role as a Lead Spacecraft Engineer, I led the architecture of multiple unique spacecraft and approached satellite system design with a similar approach of rapid development and deployment for customers.
After seeing the industry from so many perspectives, it became obvious that we needed to start looking at satellite bus design with a fresh lens– taking everything I’ve worked on over the years and converting new non-recurring engineering work into scalable, flexible products that can be built at scale. It felt like fate when I came across Apex– our philosophies are directly aligned. Now at Apex, I get to take all of my learnings and drastically lower the barriers of entry to space by offering satellite buses that are rapid to manufacture, interoperable with a wide range of payloads, and cater towards both commercial and government customers.
Q: Why satellites?
When I entered the industry, there was a tremendous focus on launch, but it felt like the problem was moving fast towards being solved. On the other hand, satellite manufacturing hadn’t changed for years, so I’ve always been curious about how we can increase access to orbit by focusing not on how we get to orbit, but what we put in space. I could not pass on the opportunity to work in an industry that is changing so rapidly and solving complex problems simultaneously.
Also, who else cannot help but envision themselves as an astronaut? One day I'll get there, but in the meantime I will get as many vehicles in space as I can… and one day, maybe one of those vehicles will have a human life support module.
Q: What’s the biggest near-disaster you experienced in your career?
One of the satellites I worked on inexplicably lost communication– we were flummoxed. In my defense, I was not part of the radio/comms team, but I could not imagine a situation where years of our hard work would suddenly just stop working. After thinking all was lost, we finally got a blip of data from the satellite! It had begun communicating again, but it was spinning at unfathomable rates. I worked with my teams to recover out of the spin… and the mission proceeded nominally!
Q: Proudest moment of your career?
While I’m proud of each of the satellites I’ve designed from the ground up, I’m by far proudest of one small– but critical– component on many of those satellites. Early on in my career, I had the opportunity to build a star tracker end-to-end. Star trackers are critical to navigating in space– they help satellites understand where they are. And I didn’t just build a single star tracker– my design ended up being manufactured at scale and installed on a large number of satellites. It’s amazing to know there are so many satellites relying on my design!
Q: What do you think the satellite industry looks like in 2030?
By 2030 my hope is space is very accessible, even more so than today, and the barrier to space has reduced such that sending things to space is common-place. The development of commoditized satellites will enable that, which is one of the primary reasons I believe in the vision of Apex and am working to realize that future.
Another important goal for aerospace is to enable and spread the knowledge about space and access to space to the masses through education. Space and satellites impact many areas of our lives and many don’t know how much. I envision a world where space enables people to access data, make decisions, and increase safety across the globe.
Q: Favorite part of Apex (so far!)?
My favorite part of Apex is the group of people we are assembling to achieve our goals. Working with smart and capable engineers is one of the most exciting things to see because I get to learn from everyone I am working with. We are building a world-class team to positively impact the space industry, and I am excited to be working alongside them.