Beyond Earth: Tucson’s Pioneers in Space Tech with Julie Bonner
In this enriching episode, we soar beyond Earth with Julie Bonner, the Communication Director at FreeFall Aerospace, to delve into Tucson’s pivotal role in advancing space technology. Julie, with her extensive background in aerospace technology and artistic insight, walks us through the fascinating journey of space exploration innovations originating from the heart of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
🚀 What You’ll Learn:
- The transformative contributions of FreeFall Aerospace in shaping modern space technologies.
- Insights into the state-of-the-art antenna technology and its implications for communication beyond Earth.
- The synergy between Tucson’s academic, industrial, and research entities in fostering aerospace advancements.
- The convergence of art and science in propelling space exploration narratives.
- A glimpse into the future of space tech and Tucson’s continuous impact in this domain.
💡 Highlight Moments:
- Julie’s unique journey from an artistic background to a career in aerospace technology.
- An in-depth look at FreeFall Aerospace’s revolutionary developments in space communication.
- Tucson’s rich history and collaborative ecosystem in space technology.
🌌 Why Tune In: “Beyond Earth: Tucson’s Pioneers in Space Tech with Julie Bonner” is a tapestry of inspiring conversations and thoughtful insights into the innovations and collaborative efforts in the aerospace sector. Whether you’re a space enthusiast, tech geek, or just curious about the intertwining worlds of art and science, this episode is a gateway to exploring the limitless possibilities of space and the human spirit’s incessant pursuit of the unknown.
Episode 267- Space-mixdown
Good morning. It’s a beautiful Sunday in the Old Pueblo. And you’re listening to KTDT Tucson. Thank you for spending part of your brunch hour with us on your downtown Tucson community sponsored. All volunteer powered or rock and roll radio station. On this week’s show, we’re going to revisit a 2021 interview we did with Julie Bonner, the director of communications for Free Fall Arizona. They’re a company launching satellites into space. And although they were not part of the OSIRIS -REx mission, that’s getting a lot of press. And all of this is happening through the University of Arizona and their fabulous departments there. Today is October 1st, 2023. My name is Tom Heath, and you’re listening to life along the streetcar. Each and every Sunday are focused on social, cultural and economic impacts. We should learn on hidden gems everyone should know about regarding Tucson’s urban core from a mountain to the University of Arizona and all stops in between. You get the inside track right here
on ninety nine point one FM streaming on downtownradio .org. Also available on your iPhone or Android with our very own downtown radio Tucson app. And if you want to interact with us on the show, head over to Facebook and Instagram is probably the best way to do it. And you can also check out our our information on our book, past episodes or learn about us on our website life along the streetcar dot org. So we had an anniversary, a birthday party of sorts this week. Downtown radio celebrating eight years. We got together first time in a while that the DJs got together and celebrated. Not everyone can make it, of course, but there was a really good showing at our studio in the underground bunker there at the Steinfeld Warehouse. It’s fun to see people get to know some of the faces that I have not yet met. I got to meet Jim and Dave. I’m huge fans of theirs on Monday night. And of course, Paleo Dave, who does our weekly show every every day, every morning during drive time. My brother, Mark,
DJ Bank. Oh, my God. The list was just on and on and on. And a huge shout out to a buck and honey. You know, they they live right on the streetcar route. And they’ve been listening to my show since it started. They give me good feedback. They have a great show on Fridays at five. And, you know, I don’t give them enough love. So here’s some love to Buck and Honey. And check them out Friday at five on a downtown radio. Well, we’ve been in operating for eight years and in that roughly same timeframe, a rocket launched from Earth, landed on an asteroid, collected some sample material and head it on back to Tucson. I’m sorry, Utah. And the material now is in Earth possession in a laboratory and will be analyzed over the next several years to determine kind of the makeup, the cosmic makeup of this universe. And this project was a huge propulsion from the University of Arizona, the Planetary Sciences Department. There is a specific professor there, Dante Loretta, which has really been heading
this up. And I mean, eight years ago, I’m just thinking about this. You know, seven years ago, I think it was 2016 when they launched that. Just amazing to me that they had all this sort of mapped out. And I’m still trying to figure out from day to day what my schedule looks like. But in honor of that, we do intend to reach out and have an interview about this particular topic. But we know that Tucson and the University of Arizona have a big part in what’s happening in outer space. And we did an interview with Julie Bonner a couple of years ago talking about a company called Free Fallen that launches these really intricate and unique satellites into space. So I thought it’d be a good time to replay that interview. And again, this is Julie Bonner from 2000 and 21. I’m Julie Bonner with Free Fall Aerospace. Free Fall Aerospace. That sounds pretty cool. Like, what do you do with Free Fall Aerospace? Free Fall develops antennas for space and for the ground, ground stations. So it’s new technology
right here in Tucson, Arizona. So what do you do? Do you go in space? And you personally, are you the one that puts through? Yeah, I go every other weekend right now. I hope to make that like more frequent. You know, there’s going to be a hotel there soon. But no, I don’t actually go to space. I help Free Fall with the marketing, communications and design. So my current role is as marketing director for this company. So tell me about that piece at first, because what I think of a company that puts antennas on rockets to go into space, I don’t think of them needing like this huge marketing, like you’re not trying to drive business, but. Well, actually, I think I am trying to drive business. It’s interesting, co -founders Doug Stetson. He was at NASA JPL for over 25 years and got to talk about some really great missions. But also then when started Free Fall with Chris, Chris, Chris Walker is the other founder. They realized that marketing and and communication is actually a really big part
of a startup. So they started their own company, Free Fall Aerospace, to take this technology Chris designed actually at the U of A and then bring it to market. And so they realized while the engineers are working on parts and prototypes in the lab, it’s always important to have that marketing collateral promotions piece as you’re looking for the latest round of funding, as you want to connect with future partnerships, future partners. So it’s actually more important than I think people realize. And startups definitely need to make sure they have that kind of assistance. Well, we connected because this is a startup, but I was kind of blown away by the fact that the U of A was so prominent in this because that Chris was. Yes. Tell us about Chris and U of A and how this sort of came to be. Yes. So Chris Walker is a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. I think he also is like a double E and then one other college he’s involved with. So he’s really busy, but he created this
new design for the same tenant. And it was while he was at the U of A. And so he partnered with Doug Stetson, who I mentioned earlier, and they took this through the whole tech launch program. And that’s the incubator program for technology coming out of the U of A. And so they go through this whole process. And then eventually they recommended, hey, you could really use help with your branding, marketing, all those pieces. And that’s how I got connected with the company. So it’s actually a few people over tech launch that said to Doug, hey, you should talk to Julie Bonner branding her specialty. And so that’s how the conversation got started. So it’s really exciting. This technology is from the U of A and and Freefall licenses that. And now Freefall has also created its own IP now as its own company. And so two things. First of all, tell me about tech launch. This is an intermediary from is it only for University of Arizona projects? Yes. So it’s called Tech Launch Arizona, and it was
developed. It’s over at the U of A. And it’s that piece that helps bridge the gap between professors that have this new technology or inventions. And how do they actually go ahead and make that turn that into a reality? And so it takes them through those steps. And then you’ll see there’s there’s there’s other pieces to that, like there’s new things like the bridges that are coming, where then people can office or actually Freefall actually started in UACI, University of Arizona Center of Innovation. That’s where our first offices were, which is actually down on Rita Road in that tech parks. U of A has really tried to put together this whole program for if you have this technology, how can you make it happen? And here’s here’s some guidance. Here’s some offices you can use. And so there’s this whole program to really help create companies from technology at the U of A. And does the U of A benefit financially from this? Yes, they. But yes, there’s like a it’s the deals are worked out where
U of A benefits from these deals with the licensing and that kind of thing. So the professor, with the help of the university, the students, the research, they they come up and create the technology. That technology, if it’s marketable, needs to get into the hands of someone with the capital to make it worthwhile. Yes. And Tech Launch bridges that gap. Money goes back to the university and people like Chris and others benefit. Yes. And he stays at the university. He hasn’t left the university. He’s still there teaching. Yeah. So Chris is actually still at the University of Arizona teaching. Doug is our CEO. And what’s really two things I want to bring up is one. Doug actually is from Pasadena. You know, he went to he was at NASA JPL for so long. He could have chosen anywhere. They could have chosen anywhere to have our headquarters. And but they wanted to keep it here in Tucson. So we have the University of Arizona ties. We created our headquarters here in Tucson. And we also have some
of the grad students that Chris had are now employees of Free Flyer Space. So we’re also University of Arizona engineers to be a part of our company. So there’s there’s a really cool tie in. And the other piece I want to mention was you talked about funding. UA Venture Capital is is is who invested in free fall. And it’s really awesome, really exciting because because that type of funding is is what we needed to go to these next steps. And that’s what that company does. They invest in technology that comes out of the U of A. And the portfolio is amazing. I actually met many of these other companies they’ve invested in pretty recently in a meeting. And it’s exciting. It’s really diverse type of tech. There’s a lot more in space and aerospace in Tucson than I was ever aware of. Are you familiar with what’s happening in that world? Yes. What’s exciting, not only in Tucson, but Arizona. I think Arizona as a state, I think we’re going to be one of the next amazing like space states. There’s
a lot going on. You don’t even realize. But let’s see here in Tucson. So we’re a free fall aerospace. We’re developing these antennas for space. It’s to help move data quicker. And everyone needs more data and faster and better. And so we’re developing an inflatable CubeSat antenna for space. Stop right there with CubeSat. OK, because I just learned about this concept. Yeah, but this is, again, technology beyond my comprehension. But tell us what a CubeSat is. CubeSat. OK, so it’s a really small, small satellite that’s very compact and that you can put up into space and it costs less because it weighs the masses a lot less. And so you can have your technology fit into these. It’s called a U, which basically means unit. So antenna is really exciting. Only fits into like two units of this CubeSat. And I mean, like the size of like a loaf of bread, like really small that saves so much money. Back in the day, satellites were like eight tons and like three meters wide. And they cost a lot of
money. And nowadays you can send them up on rockets for a fraction of the cost. And what’s exciting about ours is that it’ll be compact inside this little box. Once it gets up into space, it opens, it’ll inflate. Picture a beach ball and it will send and receive data better than other solutions. But also it’s so much cheaper to put up in a space because it weighs nothing. Picture it’s air. It’s basically a bit of air inflated in here. And then that helps this array kind of move data back down there. Does someone have to be on the receiving end to do this or is it all done remotely? It’s actually automatic how it’s going to be set up to go up and do that. And then we kind of build the other piece of that, which is a ground station. So you need the receiving end on Earth. And so we’re using the same type of spherical technology and this antenna array on the ground. And so we’re building a system of moving data better. And, you know, that’s where everything’s going in space. So the more that
we can actually get data back from space quicker, the better. Because why do we even put experiments up in space if we can’t actually get the data about how they’re doing? So that’s we’re solving. You launch this cube set. Is there it does it go to a person? Is there a person that accompanies it to to set it up in space? No, no, no. So it’s just totally built to open up itself, basically. We’ll be back to hear more about this amazing technology from a free fallen as part of our celebration of space and the connection to the University of Arizona. But first, I want to remind you that you’re listening to life along the streetcar on downtown radio. Ninety nine point one FM and streaming on downtown radio dot org.
This podcast is sponsored by the Mortgage Guidance Group and Nova Home Loans. If you enjoy this podcast, keep listening or head over to life along the streetcar dot org for all of our past episodes, current events and things to do while visiting Tucson. Tom Heath, NMLS number one, eight to four to zero. Nova NMLS number three zero eight seven BK number zero nine zero two four two nine. Equal housing opportunity.
All right, we’re back and we’re going to finish up this interview again. It’s from 2021 with Julie Bonner of Freefall, Arizona. They launched satellites into space and we’re recognizing the success and celebrating all of the efforts of the University of Arizona team that’s having an impact in outer space. So we’re talking so we talk about U of A and we’re talking about this inflatable CubeSat. And what’s really exciting is we’re working on this project right now, right now called CatSat for, you know, the U of A Wildcats. And it’s it’s building this new small CubeSat that’s going to go in space next April. So it’s going to fly on a firefly rocket out of Vandenberg Air Force Base. And this is a really exciting project because it’s getting involved. My company, Freefall Aerospace, with the University of Arizona, University of Arizona students are getting the opportunity to work on this project. We also involved another Tucson aerospace related place called Raincon Research. They’re supplying
the radio in this effort. So it’s a really cool partnership with U of A, with these local tech companies, and we’re putting it into space next April, and we’re so excited. Freefall is not the only company out there. What else is happening in the aerospace world? What’s what is Tucson doing in space? Stephen Fleming, he’s at the U of A. He runs a space business roundtable once a month. And if you’re interested, there’s a list you can join. It’s free to attend. Every month, he has a different speaker about space. And so Freefall, that’s how I got involved in the past. Doug was a speaker. But this past month, we had Grant Anderson from Paragon. And Paragon is a Tucson company here. It’s really exciting. They build the life support systems for the astronauts that go in space. So very crucial things. You can’t he explained how obviously you can’t just send a human up without the oxygen and the water and the the environment so they can survive. And so that’s what Paragon helps with. What’s really
cool is I think his workforce has expanded from like 50 to 150 in the past year. Like it’s been a huge thing and it’s exciting. They’re right here. And that’s another company you may not even know about. What’s been fun is in the past, I’ve gone to conferences like we had one in space called Space Comets in Houston and like Freefall right here and then across across the aisle is Paragon. And we’re like two Tucson tech companies in this really cool field of really other really cool space tech happening. You know, it’s interesting, too, is over the past few years, I’ve really connected with this group called Arizona Spaceport Alliance. And so they’re trying to build a spaceport. I believe in Yuma. And it’s exciting about a place in our state that rockets. We have the great weather. I think the sea of Cortez is right nearby. So it’s a safer place to launch. There’s exciting things that can happen. And these are things happening behind the scenes that not everyone knows about. And a lot of
this then is connected through the University of Arizona and and their their efforts. Is that what I’m understanding? Yes, I would say the University of Arizona, especially the space business roundtable, has been hosting this roundtable for a few years now, and it’s been a great way to connect with other other space related businesses, network and then learn about new information. So when you talk about the University of Arizona’s position with with this type of technology, are there similar efforts across the country or is the University of Arizona stand out? Are we we’re number one or are we just one of thousands of space roundtables across the country? Like I mentioned, how Arizona is becoming, I think, this really space state. ASU is also really involved with research. There was this cool expert. She was up there about Mars. She talked a lot about Mars on Twitter. It’s really fun, actually. I want to bring it up to follow some of these universities and also just experts in space to
see what’s going on. So I think ASU is really involved. And in fact, Freefall also partnered with ASU on kind of a capstone project for some of their students about one of our ground stations. So we’re really trying to connect like with the community, connect with universities and and obviously University of Arizona. But, you know, we’re open to other schools and we hope that we can help help the youth of Arizona get into this growing industry. And I know this is not your project, but there’s been a lot of news lately about the U of A team working with the following an asteroid. Yes. Yeah. You know much about that project? You just asked about the Bennu, the asteroid in space that finally they just got to take the sample. And I actually watched it with my son. It’s really exciting. So seeing this technology a few years later actually reach asteroid collects a bit of dust and dirt and sample. Going to bring that back and it’ll take a few years to get back. But it’s really exciting. I actually
just thought to the U of A had an anonymous donation of two million for their space programs. And some of that is going to go more to the OSIRIS -REx project. The OSIRIS -REx, that’s the project with the asteroid. OK. And you mentioned your son. So let me ask you about that. He’s at an age where he’s probably enamored by space, but has since you’ve been working for Freefall, has his sort of ambitions and life changed? Oh, yeah. Siever finally started to understand more about in the beginning. He thought I built airplanes or something like. So now that he’s been in the office, he really understands. And what’s adorable is that. So he’s 10. He’s come in and he’ll like design. So sketch something out and show it to Doug and be like, I think this is something maybe you guys could invent. So he’s he’s drawing. He’s coming up with concepts. What’s really cool, though, is I brought him to the last space business roundtable with Paragon. And Siever has an interest, especially in science and chemistry.
And while you really need to understand chemistry and science, if you’re building life support systems, you know, in space. So he basically said, I think I want to work here when I’m older. So he’s 10. So we’ll see what happens. But I think it’s really cool that he’s getting exposed to these companies and technology that that it’s like that. I, you know, didn’t know a few years ago. So I think that’s how you start to build a dynasty. You you get the the intellectual property from the University of Arizona turned into marketable. And then you get the community rallied around that employment. And then the families start to get involved. The next thing you know, you’ve got a 10 year old that a few years ago probably had very little interest in space. And now all of a sudden is, you know, on the fast track to go to the U of A’s aerospace program. And yes, take one of his his drawings and get it launched into space in a few years. He definitely is. And I think he definitely is kind of engineering
vibes. He’s really good with math and science. And I think he’s a little problem solver. I think he’ll be a good fit. And and I won’t be sad if he doesn’t come to my company and if he doesn’t, it’ll be OK. Yeah. As long as he’s making the money to take care of mom. Right. That’s all that matters. Well, this has been fascinating for me because I I just don’t think of sleepy old Tucson, you know, it’s the old West town. I don’t think of it as a pioneer in space travel. But really, it’s it has its place in space. Yeah, there’s definitely a place in space. And, you know, one thing also, if anyone wants to learn more about the technology in general in Arizona is we’re really involved with the Arizona Technology Council. It’s statewide. And so there’s events in Tucson, there’s events in Phoenix. But it’s been really eye opening for me to learn about what we’re doing right here, right in Tucson, and also connecting with other people and technology. And then especially for me, women in technology,
which is even more of a minority, I believe. So there’s a lot happening. It’s just not as talked about as our tacos and trails. Right. Which which are the fun, you know, the things that we love. We all love. So I love the story of the University of Arizona. This concept of the tech launch, the capital from UA Venture, all of this sort of happening organically and, you know, leading to great things and the great beyond. Yes. Well, I appreciate your time and look forward to the April 2022 launch. Yes. And there will be lots of news about our April launch since I’m the one behind all the I’ll be pushing the news. Everyone will hear about the launch in April and there’ll be lots leading up to it as well. Well, let’s let’s circle back to the beginning of the year and see if I can squeeze an invite into the launch party. OK. Yes. Sounds good. All right. Thanks for your time. You know what? I never did get an invite to that launch party. I’m a little bitter. That’s right. I’ll get over it. Julie
Bonner, thanks again for your time. That was from 2021. My name is Tom Heath. You are listening to Lifelong Streetcar and Downtown Radio 99 .1 FM and streaming on downtown radio dot org.
Well, once again, huge birthday and anniversary. Shout out to Downtown Radio. Eight years. Absolutely amazing. And you think about this done with without people being paid. All these DJs, show hosts, board members just out there doing something that they love. And I think we all feel honored to be able to share what we love. You know, I got that feeling from talking to all of these these DJs last night. They’re appreciative of having the platform. But I know I’m appreciative as a fan to hear what they spend their time doing. And some of them, they spend a lot of time making this a great station. Everyone works hard. Other some some put in multiple shows, which is hours and hours of work each week. Well, we’re going to leave you with music today by Stevie Nicks, a song you may have heard, but a version that maybe not. In honor of our guest, Julie Bonner from Free Fall, Arizona, we’re going to play Free Fallen. My name is Tom Heath. I hope you have a great week and tune in next Sunday for more life along the streetcar.