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Rick Davis on the Future of Space Exploration

November 19, 2021

Join 7MA Partner Leroy Davis as he sits down for a fireside chat with the Assistant Director for Science and Exploration Science Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Richard (Rick) Davis. On this special episode of Deal Talk, as part of the 2021 ACCESS Conference, they discuss Richard’s background and the fascinating work his team is doing on the Mission to Mars program.

Leroy takes the opportunity to ask Rick how he first became interested in space, his involvement in the Mars Mission, and the technology behind the project. Private equity investors will be interested to hear Rick’s take on private equity, commercial involvement in space exploration, and how NASA and the government partner with private entities to advance space travel.

Rick grew up on a farm outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, in a rural town called Happy Creek. There, the lack of light pollution means “the night skies are dark as anything and you could just see star fields like you wouldn’t believe,” he explains. “I remember walking outside and seeing them and I was just totally drawn to that.”

Leroy and Rick discuss William Shatner’s recent space flight on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, as well as commercial developments in space travel. As a child, Rick was an obsessive Star Trek fan, which further inspired his future in space exploration.

“As we look at going to Mars, there’s actually two parts of the equation,” he says. “Because when you see the Blue Origin … and the SpaceX launches, the cost of getting to space is dropping dramatically. So that increases our ability to push stuff up and to make these missions more affordable.”

💡 Featured Guest 💡

Name: Richard (Rick) Davis 

What he does: As the Assistant Director for Science and Exploration, Science Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Richard Davis is an accomplished aerospace engineer with extensive experience working in space exploration. His current role entails significant integration across all mission directorates and offices involved in Mars exploration. He is fluent in three languages, including English, Spanish, and Russian, and has earned numerous accomplishments and awards. Richard is also an instrument-rated pilot with 600 hours plus of flight experience.

Organization: NASA 

Words of wisdom: “I think that if we do it right, you use the federal government to allow the private sector to establish a toehold and to get the sea legs — or space legs, if you will — to actually get up there. And then they will just go a lot further than any of us would imagine.”

Connect: Twitter

🗝️ Key Points 🗝️

Top takeaways from this episode 

★    The cost of getting to space is dropping dramatically. The Blue Origin and SpaceX launches are examples of what is possible when space travel becomes less expensive. It increases our ability to expedite plans for other missions and make future missions more affordable.

★    Let’s learn from Lewis and Clark. Rick believes we can learn from the Lewis and Clark expeditions. The explorers set out with a limited supply of materials and lived off them to extend their journey. This is what astronauts must do to make a Mars mission successful.

★    Space assembly is the new frontier. The International Space Station has provided the ability for humans to become skilled at assembling equipment and materials in space. Rick thinks it might be the next frontier of space exploration: businesses or international entities could launch materials from Earth and assemble or aggregate them in orbit.

★    Commercial players are driving costs down. Rick believes that the United States is a leading example of the opportunity that arises when commercial players bid on space projects and help drive costs down. While NASA was originally criticized for doing this, allowing commercial interests to get involved has already paid dividends.

⚡ Episode Insights ⚡

[10:48] Challenges of getting to Mars: SpaceX and Blue Origin are driving down the cost of getting to space, but we still need to figure out how to live off resources we can find up there for longer missions — starting with finding a way to create propellant for a return trip back to Earth.

[13:02] Finding water on Mars: About 14 years ago ice sheets were discovered on Mars. Today, the goal is to send a new radar to Mars to gather more precise data on their location and learn more about the opportunities they might present.

[16:45] Preparing for a three-year mission: Rick says a mission to Mars is about three years. Astronauts spend six to eight months traveling. Then they’ll live in the Martian system for roughly 500 days. Time in space can either be in orbit, on the surface, or some combination of both. The return trip is also six to eight months. A key component of these missions will be having a comfortable and well-prepared mothership to live on.

[26:59] Private space travel is coming: Rick predicts that as private space exploration companies continue to grow, we’ll see the launch of hotels and support staff in space. Personnel might stay for long periods of time, run experiments, and/or a wide range of activities we can’t even imagine today.

[29:05] Nuclear propulsion will be used in space: Using nuclear propulsion technology in space has two main benefits – avoiding the inherent dangers present on Earth and reducing the travel time to Mars by up to a year.

[36:42] Is there other life out there?: On the topic of aliens, Rick says, “I’ve never seen any evidence there’s intelligent life out there or visiting this planet. But anyone who’s been thinking about space, and they look at this cosmos, realizes there is essentially almost an infinite number of stars. And we can actually see planets around these stars.” He thinks the probability of intelligent life is high.

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Deal Talk with 7MA, a bi-weekly podcast by 7 Mile Advisors, aims to give listeners a look behind the curtain of the middle-market Mergers & Acquisitions world. 7 Mile Advisors is a middle-market M&A firm based in Charlotte, NC, that provides investment banking services and advice on mergers, acquisitions, and private capital transactions around the globe.

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