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Last summer, Amazon Web Services [AMZN] dove further into the space sector by establishing the AWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions division. AWS signaled its serious intent by placing
retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Clint Crosier at the helm. Crosier, who has a long and distinguished career in military space, has been credited with leading the stand-up of the U.S. Space Force. Now in charge of standing up the AWS division that will serve the space and satellite industry, Crosier spoke with sister publication Via Satellite about what he calls the “space-cloud nexus” and how the cloud can enable advanced space technologies.
VIA SATELLITE: What have you been working on over the past year since the AWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions division was announced, and how has the division been taking shape?
Crosier: AWS saw tremendous growth in the space industry with the number of satellites that are launched every year and the number of missions moving into space. They had the foresight
to recognize that the cloud was uniquely suited to support the space industry. That was the idea behind setting up the organization, to lean in and focus on supporting space customers. We took a very customer-centric approach to building a team of space experts. We’ve collected space leaders from every part of the space mission set, whether it’s acquisition, launch, or satellite operations, etc. We’re able to sit down with our customers and help them figure out how to leverage the cloud for those capabilities. That’s really resonated with our customers.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the thesis of how this division is looking to enable the space and satellite industry?
Crosier: It’s all about bringing the cloud to the space industry. When we established ourselves a year ago, we set a number of internal goals and targets and we’ve met or exceeded every one
of those. One of the key pieces was deploying a global team of space and cloud experts because the space industry is global. We spent the last year finding the right experts with the right expertise. We literally had hundreds and hundreds of candidates, there was no shortage of people who wanted to get involved in the AWS space mission. Now we have teams in Asia, Europe, and Latin America —all focused on helping our customers fully leverage the cloud. There are lots of companies that are space experts, and a handful of companies that really understand the cloud. The niche space that we’re trying to build is bringing together a group of people that deeply understand advanced cloud-based technologies, and understand the space enterprise. There are some things that space requires the cloud for, and some things that the cloud is uniquely postured to support in space. When you bring those two together, it’s powerful. We want to be the world thought leader and the world technology leader in this new ‘space-cloud nexus.’
VIA SATELLITE: What is an example of how space needs the cloud and the cloud is well suited for space?
Crosier: We are going to be collecting data at such a scale that there’s no way to collect the data, process the data, disseminate, distribute, and make sense of the data without using
advanced tools like Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and advanced analytics. As a young lieutenant captain flying satellites back in the 1990s, it was all about the satellite to
me. But it’s not about the satellite — it’s about the data. There’s no other capability out there that has the ability to identify actionable insights out of that data on the scale that’s relevant to
decision makers. AWS was built as a company that manages, processes, and disseminates data. It was a very natural process to support moving that to the cloud. Some space workloads are uniquely suited for the cloud, you can only do those kinds of things on the cloud. LeoLabs is one of the companies in our space accelerator. LeoLabs recognized how fast LEO [Low-Earth Orbit] is growing, somebody had to lean into the space traffic management collision avoidance piece of that. They’re using machine learning on AWS to sort through the hundreds of thousands and millions of perturbations to focus on space traffic management.
VIA SATELLITE: Have you seen hesitancy among potential customers for cloud adoption?
Crosier: Anytime you’re changing or transforming an industry, there’s some natural hesitancy. The space industry has been relatively slow compared to the financial industry or other industries in fully adopting the cloud. We’re seeing that change. The way the space business and space industry was built caused some initial concern. It used to be that companies or governments were concerned about security because space systems are highly classified and must be highly secure. But [AWS has] certification for the commercial cloud from the national security and national
intelligence enterprises. What was originally a hesitancy for some companies — now we can provide better security than those companies have on their own systems. We are seeing more
companies realize that they won’t remain competitive based on technology or profitability without moving their workloads to the cloud.
VIA SATELLITE: Where is the space industry now in terms of working with the cloud and advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence? Is this just the beginning?
Crosier: We’re at the very beginning, the initial days. I’ve been in space for 33 years and have flown satellites and launched rockets my whole life. Two years ago, if you would have asked me
about AWS, I would have said ‘It’s a computer company that manages data and I’m not really aware there’s any relevance to the space industry.’ I think that was generally the perspective of
the space industry. We’ve been able to help space companies see this is about data and data management. Companies find ways of leveraging the cloud to do things they couldn’t do before. Companies like Maxar that say they can do weather predictions 58 percent faster than the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association] supercomputers. Or Fireball.International, which can identify an outbreak of forest fires within three minutes of ignition. The more we bring those use cases to light, the more space companies realize the applicability of cloud and data
management to their mission solutions. We’re at the very beginning and seeing some really innovative things.
VIA SATELLITE: AWS has been hosting a space accelerator, how many applicants did you have for 10 spots?
Crosier: We had over 190 applications across 44 countries. I was overwhelmed by the response, I would have been happy if we had 50 companies recognize the value of the cloud. The hard part was down-selecting to 10. We wanted innovative companies that represented all of the market. These 10 companies are going to do things that can’t be done without the cloud and push innovation in the space industry. We took them through a four-week program where we taught key leaders everything from the advanced capabilities to the cloud, how to build models on the cloud, how to leverage AI and ML, very technical cloud aspects that can be applied to their business.
VIA SATELLITE: What have you learned from your customers over the past year, whether it’s those startups or other customers?
Crosier: The innovative spirit is the most important thing. There are passionate people in every industry, but the passion that I see in companies that are building new and innovative space
capabilities is just off the charts. Space inspires people. The thirst for new technology is probably the thing that most leads them to the cloud — they’re not going to move to the cloud if
they don’t see the value of harnessing new technology.
VIA SATELLITE: On a more personal note, what led you to get on board with AWS after a long career in military space?
Crosier: I have always loved being part of something bigger than myself. Serving in the United States military, serving the American people, and having a role in national security, I always appreciated that. Gen. Raymond has been very gracious talking about me as the architect of the stand-up of the U.S. Space Force and that was certainly something much bigger than myself, the opportunity to lead the stand-up of the first new U.S. military service in 72 years. It really gave me a chance to make a difference at a national level. My role here at AWS continues to build on that. I have the opportunity here to help lead the stand-up of this new business that’s focused on serving our customers and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in space. It’s something that I see as serving the human good. After the challenge of having stood up the U.S. Space Force, to now build a new business focused on the space industry, that was a perfect opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
VIA SATELLITE: What are the industry trends that you are watching, and how might your division work in those?
Crosier: There’s a couple of really interesting things happening right now. The first is commercialization. I grew up in a world where only the U.S. government and a few others in the
world could operate in space because of the costs and the security. That’s all changed for very good reasons. I’m happy that we’ve seen this commercialization trend where SDA, U.S. Space
Force, NASA, ESA, and others are starting to commercialize capabilities that used to be government-owned. That opens up lots of opportunities for the global space industry and for our global space customers. Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and advanced analytics are absolute game changers in the space industry. My whole career when we launched satellites, we had so little ability to do upgrades. Now, [companies like] D-Orbit are planning to be able to service the satellite, put on a new solar array, the possibilities are endless. All of those things require a greater amount of autonomy in robotics. Those are the kinds of things that you can only do on the cloud. AWS has the scope and scale to invest in pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with AI and ML and advanced analytics more than any single company can do.