First Mode celebrates first steps in space exploration – and looks ahead to the moon

First Mode's Chris Voorhees
First Mode’s president and chief engineer, Chris Voorhees, shows off the employee-owned company’s digs near Seattle’s Pike Place Market. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

One year after engineers from the Planetary Resources asteroid mining company peeled off to form their own employee-owned startup, known as First Mode, they can point to the profitable work they’ve done on space missions that are heading for Mars and, yes, an asteroid.

But now they’re widening their focus to take in projects that are closer to home — including mining operations back here on Earth, and NASA’s Artemis effort to send astronauts to the moon’s surface by 2024.

“We’re growing our own infrastructure here,” Chris Voorhees, the company’s president and chief engineer, told GeekWire during a tour of First Mode’s office space in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, not far from Pike Place Market.

So far, First Mode has made a name for itself as a design and engineering consultancy, but now it’s putting the infrastructure in place to build hardware as well. Its in-house clean room bears testament to that ambition.

“We really like the idea of flight hardware getting delivered out of Pike Place Market,” Voorhees said. “We think that’s pretty cool.”

First Mode was founded last year amid the financial uncertainties and staff reductions that dogged Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources. Voorhees, a veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, served as Planetary Resources’ chief engineer. When Voorhees left that company, he joined forces with 10 other alumni to create First Mode (which was initially known as Synchronous). Meanwhile, Planetary Resources morphed into a blockchain venture called ConsenSys Space.

A group portrait shows some of First Mode’s employees with replicas of the “Star Wars” robots R2-D2 and C-3PO in their midst. (First Mode Photo)

In the months since its founding, First Mode has been involved in space projects including NASA’s 2020 Mars rover, the Psyche mission to a metal-rich asteroid beyond Mars’ orbit, and the Europa Clipper’s quest to get a closer look at an icy moon of Jupiter.

The company is picking up recognition: First Mode’s engineers recently won awards from JPL for their roles in designing and delivering the “surrogate rover” for the 2020 Mars mission.

It’s also picking up steam: The head count is currently at 22 full-time employees, up from 14 just a few months ago and shooting for about 30 by the end of the year, said Rhae Adams, another Planetary Resources alumnus who is First Mode’s vice president of strategy and business development.

Part of the reason for that expansion has to do with First Mode’s diversification. The company’s engineers aim to apply their experience in space applications to down-to-Earth challenges in the fields of mining, metal processing and medical devices, Voorhees said. It’s still too early to go into detail on those projects, but he and Adams acknowledged that the mining projects involve sites in Africa and Australia.

First Mode’s engineers include veterans from a wide variety of ventures, ranging from Boeing and Lockheed Martin to Tesla and Intel. The prospect of living in the Seattle area is a big draw for recruiting, Voorhees said. “All of our people are here, and most of our customers are not,” he observed.

So what’s next? “The part of the market that’s next is trying to find our place within the country’s lunar exploration interests,” Voorhees said.

First Mode’s office space includes a clean room for component assembly and testing. (First Mode Photo)

He’s particularly interested in the opportunities that NASA’s Artemis program may provide for new breeds of rovers and other mobile robotic platforms, plus technologies for resource discovery and utilization. Those technologies play to the strengths of a team that’s accumulated years of experience in developing NASA’s Mars rovers and getting ready to go prospecting for water ice on asteroids.

“We’re certainly not Blue Origin, and we’re not ever going to be,” Voorhees said. “We’re not Lockheed Martin. We’re probably not going to build a 5-metric-ton-capable lander in Pike Place Market. That’s probably not going to happen. But we have skill sets that, I think, become complementary with those groups.”

Adams noted that the King County Landmarks Commission just approved historical landmark status for the lunar rovers that were built by Boeing in the Seattle area a half-century ago.

“We’d like to think we could carry on the legacy of Seattle with mobile platforms on the moon … even if we start a little smaller than that,” Adams said. “It doesn’t have to have an astronaut riding on the back, but that’s certainly where we’re most excited about going. There are not too many vehicles driving around on other planets right now, and we’re lucky enough to have a good team that knows how to build them.”

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