Rick Tumlinson is a space activist, public speaker, and Chairman of the Board at Deep Space Industries, a company that plans to explore and harvest asteroids. Tumlinson is considered one of the world’s top space visionaries and was named one of the top 100 most influential people in the space field by Space News.
I spoke with Rick at Spacefest V in Tucson, Arizona, where he served as the keynote speaker, addressing a room full of world-renowned scientists and pioneering astronauts, including original Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter.
Q. Tell me a little about what you are doing at Spacefest this weekend.
A. I’m here at Spacefest representing both Deep Space Industries – which is our company that is going to be harvesting space resources, or what some people call asteroid mining – and also reaching out to this community, which is slightly different than those of us who’ve been involved in the commercial space world. I’m trying to explain to them that there is a way that we can bring together the traditional space industry – the government space program – and commercial space to create a new frontier.
I believe very heavily that this is our future, and I don’t just mean that as sort of a throwaway line. I mean that absolutely this is our future. To really open space the way it needs to be open – if we’re going to survive – we have to begin to work together and find ways that the government can do its job and the people or the private companies – the private sector – can do their job so that everybody wins.
Q. What is your actual job title? What does it say on your business card?
A. For Deep Space Industries, I’m Chairman of the Board and one of the founders of the company. I have another company called Orbital Outfitters, which is a spacesuit company and I’m the founder and also Chairman of the Board over there. I’ve worked on an organization called the Space Frontier Foundation and was one of the founders there, X Prize, things like that. I kind of get around. I’m one of these people that has an attention deficit problem.
Q. Some might call it being multitalented.
A. No, I actually do have attention deficit (laughs). What I do is I take that, “Oh, look, something shiny, oh, oh, I’ll go over here,” and I try to put it to work in a way that allows me to do different things. For example, when you’re talking about using your skill sets and developing who you are, one of the most important things you have to do is figure out who you’re not. It took me a long time to realize – if I’m starting a company or starting work on a project – I need somebody who’s very rock-steady, somebody who can do spreadsheets, somebody who can show up every day at 9 a.m. That’s not me. I’ve got stuff going on. I’m doing all kinds of things.
When I founded Orbital Outfitters, I brought in somebody else and let him do his job, and let her do her job, and they run the company now. That’s something else that’s an important skill is learning how to give it away. If you know what you know, and you know what you don’t know, then find somebody who does and let them do it. If you can get those things going and get yourself out of the way – a lot of times, the person who founds a company or starts a project is not the one who should run it. That’s where a lot of projects die, because that person who comes in, who has that initial spark – they don’t let go, and they either have to be forced out or there’s some big fight.
If you can start something up, give it a vision, say, “We’re going to go this way, it’s going to look like this, I want it to be like this,” and get everyone excited, get them all going in the same direction – by the way, that’s called leadership – once you take on the leadership role, then you just get out of their way. It’s very hard to do. It’s like a parent letting go of their child and saying, “You can drive the car.” You want to keep reaching over and grabbing the wheel, but you can’t do that. If you can let go of it like that, you’re going to have incredible things happen, and then you can go on and do the next exciting thing you want to do. That’s what I do.
With the spacesuit company, Orbital Outfitters, we’re building spacesuits for a company called XCOR and we’re talking and working with Space X and some of these other companies. They do all the work, they design it, we have engineers, people much smarter than me doing all this kind of stuff. I have given away pieces of the company to the point that, even though I started it, I only own 25 percent of the company now. But, I don’t have to do anything. I just call them up every once in a while and give them advice they don’t want to hear. They work on it and make it happen. Yet, now, I can look back and say, “I founded a spacesuit company” and I can have pride in that. And, to me, that’s more valuable than money.
Q. During your keynote address, you talked a lot about growing up during the early years of the space program and watching astronauts land on the moon. Several of those moon walkers are here at Spacefest and most of them followed a typical career path of joining the military and becoming pilots. Do you think kids today can still aspire to be astronauts the way kids did when you and I were growing up?
A. I think they can absolutely be involved. I dropped out of college. I kept having arguments with all my professors and walking out of classes. Not a good thing. Stay in class and get the degree. But, I was lucky enough to work with a fellow named Gerard K. O’Neill, a professor at Princeton, who wrote a book called “The High Frontier,” and a guy named Freeman Dyson, who’s a major physicist. What they did was, they brought a bunch of us together who were not NASA and they said, “You can do it.” They gave us permission to dream – that we could go ahead and do it, come up with things.
Out of that group of people came the X Prize and all these different companies you’re seeing. It all came back to these people that were not test pilots and were not these people that had gone the military course. These were just people with great ideas and who were too stubborn to give up.
The key here is that you have to really believe in your dream. You have to make sure that your dream has some level of reality in it – you can’t get too, too, too far out – in other words, you don’t want to break the laws of physics, let’s say. You want to stay in the realm of – not what’s possible – but you don’t want to go to what’s totally impossible. Within that, there’s a lot of room.
So, you have your idea and you then begin to flesh it out. You put the pieces together in a way that makes sense and come up with a way of presenting that idea that captures people’s imagination. And, then, you never take “no” for an answer after that. Move ahead. Just don’t quit. The idea of the frontier is that it’s an endless challenge. It’s all about challenge, and overcoming challenge, and then the next challenge, and then the next challenge.
And, by the way, those challenges are not all the kinds of challenges that a jet pilot deals with in the cockpit. It’s all kinds of things. How do you breathe, what do you eat, what do you wear, what do you do for your social entertainment? It gets into all kinds of things and every one of those questions – when you’re in space – is brand new, and we have to figure it all out. So, whatever your skills set is, whatever your passion is, if you also have a passion for space, if you have a passion for challenge, for the frontier, then you put those together and come up with something new. It’s an exciting time.
Q. What’s the single best piece of career advice you could give someone, whether they’re looking at a space career or another type of career? Something that would stick with them no matter what challenges they face.
A. If I were to give somebody a piece of advice about the best attitude or whatever it is that they can carry with them – just stay calm. Just stay calm and stay the course. That would really be it. Stay calm and stay the course. Anything that seems like it’s a crisis right now, tomorrow it’s not going to be a crisis anymore. And, if you are spending all your time staying in a state of high anxiety over what’s happening right now, you’re just going to be tense and you’re never going to get anything done. So, just be calm.
You’ll notice – if you watch any movies whatsoever – the captain of the ship just stays calm. He doesn’t freak out. Everybody else is going to be freaking out and going crazy, but you just stay the course. If you’ve got the right course and you’re willing to dance with it – to interact with your dream in a way that keeps it alive and vital, and you’re just moving ahead – that’s all you need to do.
It’s interesting, I read a lot of science fiction – Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke – and they’ve kind of given me my dream. And then I watched these fellows from the Apollo space program and they showed me that it could really be done. But, then, I went out to master my own attitude. I studied people like Alan Watts – he’s the guy who brought Zen to America, literally, in the ‘50s. He’s the one who came over and said, “You guys should check this out.” And I would recommend going on YouTube and listening to some of his stuff. He basically says, “You know what? Set your goal, go for it,” – and, it’s called detaching – “don’t worry about the outcome.” Just do your absolute best. Stay the course. Don’t let anything fluster you. Whatever happens, just accept it and move on.
The last thing I would say about that is, if you fail, you haven’t failed. Every time you fall down is nothing but an opportunity to get up. That’s all it is. You’ve got nowhere to go but up when you’re down. And, believe me, I’ve fallen down a few times. You just brush yourself off, learn from it – “Oh, I’m not going to do that again” – and then you move ahead. The difference between people who succeed in life and those who don’t is the way they deal with failure, whether it’s a relationship, learning to drive a car, or starting a business. When you make a mistake, don’t dwell on the mistake. Learn from it and move on. Stay calm. Always stay calm. Rick Tumlinson is an entrepreneur who is a founder/co-founder of several space companies. He is a prominent figure of space society. SpaceNews magazine, which is founded in 1989 and is currently one of the top publications in the world, listed Tumlinson in the top hundred most influential persons in the field of space. He is a big advocate of commercial space travel and exploration of the solar system and what lies beyond.
Tumlinson is one of eleven people who founded Deep Space Industries (DPI,) a space resource mining company that recently signed an agreement with the government of Luxembourg. They have agreed to help fund DSI’s project called Prospector-X. This project is essential for future space mining missions. The goal of this project is to launch a spacecraft to study and analyze a nearby asteroid. The data this mission collects will shape the future of the use of asteroid mining to produce essential material in space rather than relying on resources sent from earth. The cost of sending material to space from earth is huge. Even though new technologies, such as Space X reusable rockets, are trying to cut the overall cost, we still need to find ways to gather material in space.
Scientists have proven that asteroids contain many useful resources including water. Tumlinson believes that to truly open space for human exploration, we must find new technologies that are cost effective and can enable humans to reach other planets; he believes that asteroid mining is the key to deep-space exploration. Prospector-X mission will put new technologies in space to test their efficiency. Its data is crucial to the development of futuristic space exploration equipment.
Among the many organizations that Tumlinson founded, the two notable ones are EarthLight Foundation and New Worlds Institute; he is serving as the CEO at both these companies. He founded and worked with several other organizations. He is an authority figure in space research community. He wants everybody to work together to enable the human race to open space for everyone to explore and to inhabit other planets. He believes that colonization of Mars is one of the first steps we humans need to take.
Tumlinson also talked about following one’s dream in life. He said that we must find things that we love to do and things that we don’t want to do. He continued by saying that we cannot necessarily be good at doing what we love, but that would not stop us from pursuing our dreams. In this interview, he talked about how he started a company and then hired people who could effectively run it. The work this company did was what Tumlinson wanted it to do, but he believes that he could not run it in an effective way. There is a lot we can learn from his life experience!