An Interview with Doug Stetson, President of FreeFall Aerospace:
Where did you grow up?
“My Dad was in the Air Force so we moved around a bit, but mostly I grew up in Southern California. We spent a few years at Edwards Air Force Base when I was little so I got to see a lot of flight tests of cool planes back in the 1960’s. I think that’s what got me hooked on aerospace. I followed through with that in college at Stanford University. I also earned a degree in Physics and then a Master’s in Aeronautics and Astronautics. We lived near Disneyland so I worked there during a few summers when I was home from college. I drove the Jungle Cruise boat so I could tell dumb jokes and shoot at the hippo.”
What was your previous work experience?
“My first real job was at JPL starting in 1983 doing mission design, orbital mechanics, and spacecraft systems engineering for future solar system exploration missions. After a while I went to Washington DC for a few years as manager of advanced studies for the planetary program. When I returned to JPL I took on a number of program management roles, the last one being manager of the Solar System Exploration Program Office which focused on mission development, strategic planning, and new technologies for planetary exploration.”
What were some of the cool projects you worked during your 25+ years at JPL?
“Most of the missions I worked on never actually flew, which is just the way it is in space science – you develop investigations and projects and propose them up the chain at NASA, and ultimately they make a selection based on science priorities, risk, and budget. But we always learned a lot by designing new missions and they frequently led to new technologies that would eventually get developed. I spent a lot of time on the Cassini mission to Saturn, which was launched in 1997 and just completed its mission last year. My primary role was the initial design of the orbital tour of the Saturnian system with flybys of the various moons, and that was a great job and very satisfying to see it actually take place.
Over the years I worked on concepts for missions to all of the planets as well as comets and asteroids, including the Galileo mission to Jupiter some of the early Mars orbiters and rovers. I kept on with some of that work as a consultant after I left JPL. We just finished a proposal to send a drone to explore Titan, which is the largest moon of Saturn. It’s one of two finalists in the latest competition for major NASA missions, and if that’s selected it will be the coolest one ever!”
What is FreeFall and how was it started?
We like to say that our business is “moving data”, and of course these days there is a huge amount of data to move every day. And the vast majority of that data moves through antennas at one point or another, so in a nutshell we’re an antenna company. As part of my consulting business I had started working with Chris Walker, who is a professor of astronomy at University of Arizona. Chris had developed the concept of highly efficient spherical reflectors for his research projects, and he realized that this technology could greatly improve the data return capability of small spacecraft. I had just finished working on the LightSail project that deployed a solar sail from a small spacecraft, so I was interested in the challenges as well as the potential of this technique. So one weekend I got on LegalZoom and formed an LLC and we were off and running. Since then we’ve grown a lot and morphed into advanced antenna technology for not only satellites, but also ground stations and 5G internet wireless applications. I still have a picture of the whiteboard on which we roughed out the first ideas for the company in August 2016, and we really had no idea where that would lead.
What’s been challenging, and what are some of the key accomplishments so far?
What hasn’t been challenging? There’s a whole bunch of things that I either didn’t anticipate, or at least didn’t appreciate how significant they would be. There’s intellectual property, which we’re fortunate to have but brings a lot of complexity and expense. There’s finding office space and equipment, which of course you need but that’s not cheap either. There’s finding the right employees, which is absolutely critical but not easy. The list goes on and on and it seems like there’s something new every day. But even so I’d say we’ve had a lot of success so far. Most of the potential customers we’re spoken to seem to be excited about our technology and understand that there are huge benefits to moving more data better, faster, and cheaper, which is what we’re trying to do. We’re building our prototypes that will demonstrate these new techniques and they should be ready for full-scale demonstration in just a few months. And we’ve got a great group of people who are totally committed to what we’re doing and really enjoy working together, and for me that’s what makes it all worthwhile. Yes it’s a challenge, but I’ve learned a lot and it’s fun coming to work every day.
Any other advice you would give entrepreneurs?
Don’t try to do everything yourself. There’s just too much and you’ll go crazy and then you’ll go nowhere. Concentrate on finding the right small team and trust those people to do their jobs, so you can focus on setting the vision and guiding the company, finding customers, and raising money. Without those three things you’re finished before you start. And don’t become what I call a “self-licking ice cream cone”, which is a company that’s in business just to stay in business. Be sure you’re solving an actual problem and providing real value to your customers, and have a plan for growth and development of your business and your team. That’s what will make it satisfying and successful in the long run.