Q&A – Rex Ridenoure Discusses Career, Ecliptic Enterprises (Image Credit: Parabolic Arc)
Most people have probably never heard the name Rex Ridenoure, but chances are they have seen his work. The company he co-founded, Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation, helped to pioneer the placement of cameras on launch vehicles and satellites that beam down live in-flight video footage. But, Ecliptic – which was acquired by the Spanish company, ARQUIMEA, in July – is about a lot more than cameras.
Parabolic Arc sat down with Ridenoure during the Small Satellite Conference in Utah this August to discuss his company, his career, and what he’s been doing since stepping down as CEO. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Parabolic Arc: Can you take me through your early years?
Ridenoure: Basically, I came out to California after undergrad school in Iowa to work at Hughes Space and Communications, because they were like the best spacecraft company on the planet back then, and very dominant. And I got a Hughes Fellowship, which pays for your master’s degree. So, I went to Caltech for grad school, got a master’s, kept working at Hughes for about a year and a half, and then got an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, which was to go up to Lockheed in Sunnyvale and train to be an astronaut that would service the Hubble Space Telescope.
Parabolic Arc: No way.
I got up there almost exactly a year before the shuttle launched. They were training an older guy that was in his mid-40s, who had a lot of spacesuit background and had trained astronauts. They wanted a younger guy in his 20s for continuity. And so, we were both training in spacesuits down at NASA Marshall doing neutral buoyancy tests on a full-scale mockup of the telescope. And then the shuttle launched a year after I got there. And then it became very clear soon after that that no one was ever going to touch that except NASA astronauts.
Parabolic Arc: Oh, really?
Ridenoure: Yeah, it was a pretty political thing, but it made sense. But before that, NASA was saying, any spacecraft we’re going to see time and again, the company that built it should have its own payload specialists.
Parabolic Arc: Right.
Ridenoure: That was pretty common, right? But anyway, it became clear that that was never going to happen. And the telescope project itself was slipping every month that I was there. So the launch date was out there somewhere.
So, I went back to Hughes, went back on the same program I left from, and ended up working for three and a half years on four launches and four missions, all with the same spacecraft design. And was great. But the people at Hughes … these senior guys that had been around the block a few times, and they said the most fun they ever had was working on small spacecraft at the beginning of the Space Race. And they had a lot of reasons why. And that all appealed to me.
So, one day I’m in the Hughes library checking the space news. And I saw this picture of a small satellite up here at Utah State University that was designed for an ejection out of a Getaway Special on the Shuttle. And one of the guys in the picture was a guy that was sort of mentoring me, who I had met in college who was an executive up here in Thiokol.
I called him and I said, ‘Hey, what’s this going on with this small satellite in Utah? What’s that all about?’ He said, ‘Oh, we’re spinning off a company from the campus here, Utah State University. We’re going to start a small satellite company. It was a combination of Utah State University, Weber State University, and Thiokol. And they called it Northern Utah Satellite, or NUSat. I think they were the second satellite deployed out of the shuttle from a Getaway Special.
And they were going to spin a company out called Globesat here in Logan. And he said, in fact, he says, we’re looking for people like you, young systems engineers who want to work on spacecraft. So, he flew me up for an interview and I decided to take the job. And I came up here, December ’85. And right after Christmas, I was supposed to start working for Globesat. And then a month after I got here, the shuttle Challenger blew up. So, the whole business plan got very uncertain.
I waited around for another eight months waiting to see how long the shuttle was going to be down. And it looked like it was going to be years. And about that time, a very good friend of mine who worked at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] called and said they had a really interesting position opening up on Voyager, going to Neptune. Because Voyager went by Uranus, I think almost the same week that Challenger blew up. So, it almost didn’t get noticed, I think it was within a week or so. But the Challenger news swamped everything else. I interviewed for the job at JPL and I got hired for that. I ended up at JPL for eleven years.
Parabolic Arc: And then?
Ridenoure: It became very clear to me in the mid ‘90s that all the ingredients were in the industry to put together small spacecraft that could do useful things on the Moon and near-Earth asteroids at least, maybe even Mars, right? And I felt like JPL and APL [Applied Physics Laboratory] and NASA in general needed some of that competition to get some innovation going, right?
So, in one week when I was at JPL in 1997, two different calls came in from two different private groups that said they wanted to put together a privately developed lunar mission, and they wanted, you know, kind of be part of the team, but not the lead. And some of the managers at JPL knew that I was interested in this, so they let me field the calls, basically, and that convinced me that it was actually happening. There’s going to be some private and commercial work to do out in cislunar space. So, I decided to leave the lab and try to pursue that.
Parabolic Arc: And that’s when you got into BlastOff!?
Ridenoure: No. BlastOff! was the third company I was in. The first was Microcosm, which was a space mission engineering firm. They didn’t actually build spacecraft or anything, but they were very good at analyzing space missions and doing all the numbers. And one of those commercial studies I was able to take to Microcosm, we helped them study the mission concept.
But, six months into my work at Microcosm, a new company popped out of the woodwork from nowhere named Space Development Corporation, SpaceDev. The CEO and founder was Jim Benson, who had made a small fortune in the software business, but he was very passionate about doing commercial missions to the moon and asteroids and Mars. It’s exactly what I wanted to do.
So, a year after I left JPL, I left Microcosm and went to SpaceDev, and we were putting together commercial missions to asteroids and then commercial missions to the Moon. We want to study from JPL to look at commercial missions to Mars. And it was all the right idea, but about 20 years ahead of its time. The market just wasn’t quite ready for that.
They had to pivot to stay alive, and they ended up taking some work doing low Earth orbiting NASA missions, which is not what I was interested in. So, I was there a year and a half, and just about the time I wanted to leave, I got word of this new company in Pasadena called BlastOff! Corporation, which was completely stealth. No one knew about it. And one of my best friends in the space biz was the first employee, so I really wanted to hear more. So, I went up and talked to him about the project, and he introduced me to the founder who was going to fund it. And I was soon after hired as the second employee of BlastOff!
Parabolic Arc: Tell me about BlastOff!
Ridenoure: During the year 2000, a team was built up in Pasadena, California, to put together an uncrewed lunar lander that would land roughly a mile or two from an Apollo site. And then journey to the Apollo site, and first of all, verify that we actually did land on the Moon. Because back then, there were some documentaries floating around on the TV stations that claimed we didn’t. And then secondarily, return a rich suite of images and video back to Earth, which would be monetized by the funding source for the mission, which was a dot.com Internet entrepreneur.
So, based on a meeting that I had had when I was at SpaceDev, we had been introduced to a billionaire who was interested in the idea of moving commercial practices beyond geosynchronous orbit out into cis-lunar space and beyond. I hadn’t seen this guy. I only met him once, but I hadn’t seen him in a year and a half.
All of us on the team at BlastOff! were encouraged to find some source of funding, whether it was an individual or a company or whatever. He was the only one I knew. So, I called him out of the blue, told him we had this interesting idea, a really good team, and that we were basically looking for funding, and he was quite interested. So, he signed a nondisclosure agreement right away, and we told him what we were trying to do. We had two meetings with him before the end of 2000 that were going well.
Parabolic Arc: So who is the billionaire?
Ridenoure: His name is Peter Sperling. His father, back in the early ’70s, started the University of Phoenix as the first for profit university.
He got very excited and realized that we had, as he put it, 50 world-class rocket scientists with nothing to do. And we said, yeah, we’re all out of work. He wanted to know if we were thinking of continuing as some sort of a company. And we said, yeah, we had a few ideas. He said, I can’t afford to fund 50 people in a startup. But, he suggested maybe a dozen or so.
And it caught us off guard, frankly. And so he said, have you guys thought about what you’d like to do? And we said, well, a little bit, but we asked him what he would like to do if he was going to fund a company, what would you like to see? And he gave us a very crisp set of constraints. And first of all, he said, I want to hear about a product-oriented space company, not an engineering services company, or any kind of services products. He said, build something for a dollar and sell it for $2. That’s what I want to hear.
And then the really bright thing he said was, I want you to tell me in a single sentence that my grandmother will understand. What are you going to do? He said, no rocket science, no mumbo jumbo, no engineering speak – very simple. And then he said, once you define that broad area of products, whatever it is, I want you to tell me what the first product in that category is that you’re going to build. And then I want to see a letter from another CEO of another company that says if we build it, they’ll buy one.
And then finally he said, I’m not really an engineer. You guys are the engineers, but I’m a financial guy, and I want to make sure that you show me that you have a financial guy in your team that speaks income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow, because that’s what I really understand.
Parabolic Arc: Right.
Ridenoure: So, then he added on a few other things. He said he would write a check for a certain amount of money, and to me, it just seemed like he pulled it out of the air. And I said, where did you get that number? Because we hadn’t even told him what we’re going to do yet. And it turned out he had a deal with his wife, who was an interior decorator by training and experience. They had multiple homes in three states. And he had a deal with his wife that she could spend a certain amount of money every year on the houses without him questioning her. And in return, he got to spend the same amount of money on one of his pet projects without being questioned by her.
Parabolic Arc: OK.
Ridenoure: So that was the deal. It was early 2001. He said, I have not decided how I’m going to spend my allocation for the year. So, you guys just might get it if the idea is good enough. … We got a hold of the people that we understood were interested in continuing as a company, perhaps. And we knew we could only get about twelve maybe. But we had about 35 people that were interested in doing something.
A few days later, about half those people ended up in my living room in Pasadena, 17 or 18 people. And we caucused some more, and we came up with a few more ideas and finally settled on going back to the guy. This is like three weeks after our meeting with him. We went back to the office he had in Santa Barbara, and we said we wanted to pursue onboard video for rockets and spacecraft and the data systems to get that video back to the Earth.
The reason we threw that out is because basically what we were doing at BlastOff! was putting a lot of video and imaging cameras on a lunar lander. Digital cameras were just coming on the market. They were very expensive, but you could get them at Best Buy. So, we had taken several digital cameras built by Kodak at BlastOff!, ripped them all apart, repackaged them, and we were able to get them to pass the stringent environmental test regimes that the Mars cameras were going through for a lot of the JPL Mars missions.
So, we said, we think we can get commercial cameras, ruggedize them for space, and then put them on rockets and spacecraft. And he loved the idea. So he agreed to start a company. And three weeks later we had an office in Pasadena and opened up. So, the whole process took six weeks.
Parabolic Arc: How did you come up with the name Ecliptic?
Ridenoure: When I was first hired into JPL, for the first four years I was a contractor. So, I had my own business, and I had my own logo and everything. And that was called Ecliptic Astronautics. And I threw that out. I said, hey, if you want to use the name, we can use that name. And we thought it made sense because our funding source fundamentally was interested in applying commercial business practices to deep space, basically. And we convinced him that for the next hundred years, if there is business in space, it’s all going to be in the ecliptic plane.
So, we got this office in Pasadena…We get a call from the only other company we knew that was doing that in Colorado. And their CTO was best man at our CTO’s wedding and vice versa. They were best friends. And that company had just had their strategic planning meeting for 2001 because it’s like March. And they decided they were going to pivot the company a little bit and they wanted to get rid of the product line that they had developed called rocket cam. They had already tried to trademark that name, RocketCam. They had, I believe, 17 launches already on Delta II and Atlas rockets. They had shipped about six or seven flight ship sets to the shuttle program, but none had been launched. And they also had shipped a couple to Titan IV, but they wanted to pivot into more radio and RF related products. So, they said basically they heard from their friend, our CTO, that we were starting this company and would we like to buy the product line from them.
And we basically said, wow, what luck. Five weeks after we opened the doors, we owned the only product line like that in the world, basically. And we pretty much owned the market because no one else was doing it either. So the day after we signed the deal was the first launch of the next launch in the line of RocketCam launches. So that was, I think it was a Mars mission. And we did get the letter from another CEO that said if we build something, he’ll buy it. And so we got contracts almost immediately, plus we got all the customers and the future business from the customers the other company had.
Parabolic Arc: That’s very lucky.
Ridenoure: Yeah, very lucky. So luck is a part of the story, for sure. The startup phase of the company was extremely smooth, much smoother than I’ve ever heard about.
We sort of let our guard down near the end of the year in 2001 because it seemed so easy. We actually didn’t market that much. And that caught up with us roughly about a year after we started and a couple of fairly significant contracts that we just assumed we were going to get didn’t materialize. And so we went from thinking we were going to hire people to thinking we’re going to have to lay a bunch of people off right, all in like one week. And so we ended up having to lay off, I think, five out of the eleven.
And right about that time, also, because of a little bit of luck and timing, we were able to get Mike Griffin to join our board, because we had formed the board to be a five-person board. He was coming out of Orbital Sciences. And was kind of a free agent consultant and several of us on the team had had interactions with him and he really liked what we were doing. I think he was one of the key members of our independent review board at BlastOff!, so he was quite familiar with the team and our capability and so he gladly joined our board and he helped us for two years until he got the job of running the space division at APL. But he kind of helped us navigate through that dip a year after we started where we could have gone out of business.
But what we decided to do during that downturn was the RocketCam products from the company in Colorado, which was called CrossLink Incorporated, their product line was strictly analog video cameras and power supplies and transmitters, but it was all analog, and we knew the industry was going more toward digital for both the cameras and the transmissions. So, we decided to develop a digital version of the RocketCam product line. And so that required us to develop some brand new avionics that were all digital.
And we used the same cameras that CrossLink had because they’re very good, they’d never failed. And we digitized the output of those cameras, which was an analog signal, and then from then on it was all digital. And right in the middle of that downturn, we made the first sale to a spacecraft project. And then from then on it was all rockets and spacecraft for like the next ten years. And the avionics got better and better. And we eventually got into different sorts of cameras and sensors.
Parabolic Arc: What was the most exciting mission that you can remember?
Ridenoure: We were on the rocket for the Spirit and Opportunity launches [to Mars], and especially the Spirit launch.
And NASA wanted a better signal for that really high profile Mars launch. So virtually the best video we ever got from a rocket launch was from Spirit, the Delta II launch of Spirit. It was really crystal clear. But it was exciting to be on those launches. We got the job of doing all the videos for the Ansari XPRIZE flights, including the test flights.
For the readers of your article that remember seeing the XPrize flights, all that video was our system. We had onboard, outside, and inside video on both the Spaceship One and the carrier aircraft. That was pretty cool. And we were on the launch of Mars Curiosity and we captured the separation of the spacecraft from the rocket on the way to Mars. A little bit later in 2009, we were on LCROSS going to the Moon.
Parabolic Arc: Right.
Ridenoure: One of the nine instruments was our video camera, but we controlled all the payload on that. So, we controlled all the other sensors, all the science sensors, and we processed all the data for transmission back to the Earth. That was exciting. And then, of course, when the Columbia broke up in 2003, we had a prototype of a video system on the external tank of the shuttle a couple of missions before that launch, there wasn’t any on the Columbia mission, but after the mission, NASA decided they’re going to put video all over that vehicle for future launches. So, we got orders for three different video systems, one on the external tank and one each on the solid rocket boosters. And then on the return to flight launch, which was a couple of years after Columbia broke up, they launched the shuttle and a big piece of foam fell off something like 70 seconds into the flight.
And they had about 100 cameras from the ground, from the air, and on board looking at the launch. And ours on the external tank was the only one that caught the foam falling off, which was instrumental in figuring out what happened, because we knew exactly when it fell off. So, the shuttle program stood down for another whole year until they fixed that problem. And from then on, we were on every shuttle until the end of the series.
Parabolic Arc: How much did the company expand beyond the cameras over the years? Or was that the main thing you focused on?
Ridenoure: Around 2009 or so, the CubeSat form factor was coming on strong, and because of Moore’s Law, primarily, we were in a good position to shrink all our avionics. And so, we just decided to shrink the electronics down to CubeSat form factor, basically. And we converted the avionics boxes to more of what we call a slice-based architecture. So when you put them all together, these slices, the avionics box kind of looks like a loaf of bread. And with each slice of bread, so to speak, doing certain functions for the whole box, and that really took off. Sales of that architecture took off really well because it was smaller and a lot more capable than the previous versions. So, we started getting them put on lots of rockets and spacecraft, and especially spacecraft.
And about that same time, around 2009 or 10, more competitors entered the market. So, we didn’t really own the market anymore. Which was one reason we decided to shift over a little more to the avionics side of things rather than the video cameras. It’s still a problem after 22 years that a lot of folks think we’re a camera company, but about 90 percent of the business is the avionics.
Parabolic Arc: Oh, really?
Ridenoure: Customers began to appreciate that our avionics box could do a lot more than just control video cameras. So, we would be asked, hey, can you control this other camera we have? It’s not yours, but can you control it? Yeah, sure, we can do that. Can you control this mechanical thing? Yeah, we can do that. Can you power these devices on this spacecraft? Yeah, we can do that. Can we route this telemetry through the box instead of the way we normally do it? Yeah, we can do that. So, we started using avionics as more of an experiment or device controller and sequencer. And we got very good at sequencing and handling data, because when video cameras turn on, they create massive amounts of data compared to the normal data flow from, like, a spacecraft or rocket. Orders of magnitude more data. So, we got really good at manipulating the data, compressing it, formatting it, storing it, forwarding it, replaying it, erasing it, that kind of stuff. During the 2010 to 2020 timeframe, many, many more applications opened up for that avionics.
So, by the end of 2020, say, we were deploying solar arrays, we were deploying spacecraft off rockets, activating those devices. We were controlling entire experiments on the space station, mechanical, electrical, providing video of the experiment. Controlling science instruments, controlling moving parts on instruments, all that sort of stuff. And that’s still a very vibrant business.
Parabolic Arc: Was that when you decided to step back as CEO? When was that?
Ridenoure: Well, we were sustaining ourselves pretty well all the way from startup through 2018 or so. We had a couple of near misses where we almost died. We recovered, but we weren’t really growing in any significant way.
I just didn’t have any bright ideas, but my business development guy who came on in late 2006 had been doing that job for 12 years, I’m talking about 2018 or so. And he had a pretty close relationship with some of our best customers, and kind of knew where they wanted things to go, and he had some ideas of his own on what we could do to grow. And so, he kind of pleaded with me to let’s get some of these bolder things going. And I personally thought they were too much for our little team to do.
I could tell he was getting a little irritated and kind of had a feeling that if we didn’t do something, he would maybe leave. And I couldn’t afford to have him leave, but I also didn’t want to try to implement these projects myself and be responsible as CEO. So, I basically asked him if he’d like my job and he could be CEO and then he could decide to do it and he totally wanted that job.
Parabolic Arc: Who is he?
Ridenoure: Mike Alvarez. He has been the CEO since 2018. Basically, he and I were the only two in the company doing business development anyway. And so, he became CEO so he could kind of have the decision authority and he continued to do business development, especially with our best customers because he had known these people for 10 years. And I sort of helped him by cultivating some of the other second-tier customers. And I hung on as an employee at Ecliptic for two more years to help Mike, and also just to kind of make sure he could take over, you know, kind of have a transition there. And then COVID kicked in in early 2020, but largely due to his efforts in 2020, by the end of the year, he had broken our previous sales record by more than a factor of two.
It was almost all his doing. I decided, boy, if there’s any time to step down from the company, might as well do it when they’re having their best year ever. Plus, I had gotten used to working remotely with COVID and I really liked that way of working. And so at the end of 2020, I stepped down as an employee, but I stayed on the board.
Parabolic Arc: OK.
Ridenoure: And our original CFO, this guy that Peter Sperling said we have to have on our team, he did the same thing two years before that, so he was still on the board but not an employee anymore. And so, I became a consultant at the end of 2020 and did a couple of odd jobs through March or so of 2021. And then I got invited to join the Space Portfolio group at DUI, Defense Innovation Unit. And that was a halftime job, and I thought that was a nice job to have because it kind of is a base half time right, versus always hustling for whatever work I could get. At least I had that job, and it was an interesting job.
Parabolic Arc: What do you do there?
Ridenoure: Defense Innovation Unit is right at the top of the Defense Department reporting to the Secretary of Defense now, but I don’t know anything about the DoD, really. I never have, never worked in that area. But they wanted me to because of my longtime familiarity with this small satellite crowd and all the commercial space companies. I’ve been embedded in that environment since basically 1997.
They thought it was a plus that I’d run my own company and knew how CEOs think, knew a little bit about the investment angle on startups and that sort of thing. And since mid ‘90s, I’ve been an advocate of commercial business, moving out beyond geosynchronous orbit, all the way to the moon and beyond. And I’ve worked in several companies trying to do that. And that’s a focus of the DIU Space Portfolio is cultivating an ecosystem out there, a commercial ecosystem.
Parabolic Arc: So, you go to conferences like this, you meet with companies, you kind of see what’s going on?
Ridenoure: I go on-site visits with some of the other teams in DIU. I listen in on most of the calls where it’s a new company that wants to introduce themselves to DIU. I’m on many of those calls. Sometimes we talk to venture capitalists that are funding these commercial space companies and we try to understand why they did that and what they’re going to do next, and what do they need to see to write the next check. We get into some discussions like that.
Occasionally we get policy papers at the high levels of the government from the White House level or other parts of the government, and we get review copies to review and comment on before they publish the official version. I’ve done a couple of those and basically just lend my expertise and background and insights to the group. I review contract statements of work before they sign contracts. I get to review some of those statements of work and review a lot of proposals that come in response to diu calls for proposals.
Parabolic Arc: So the company was acquired this year.
Ridenoure: Well, I can tell you a colleague of mine from JPL days had a good career at JPL, but then he left maybe, I don’t know, five, six, seven years ago. And he started an incubator company of sorts in Pasadena to cultivate and incubate and coach startups in the tech field, including space, but other things as well. And a Spanish firm that was looking to team with a company in the U.S. to expand their business here in the U.S. heard about his incubator company and the services they provide.
Last fall, this firm, ARCHIMEA, managed to acquire 10 percent of the company. That’s kind of like getting engaged. And then that led to more serious negotiations, which finally led to them acquiring Ecliptic in July. In July, just [a] couple of weeks before this conference.
Parabolic Arc: So are you excited about what ARCHIMEA brings to Ecliptic?
Ridenoure: Yeah, it seems like a good combination. Complementary skills. They’re ten times bigger than Ecliptic, so a lot more staff, more products, more synergy, more resources, all that. So, they can market Ecliptic products in Europe, which we never had, never had someone that was doing that for us. And then we can market their products here, and then they can jointly develop new stuff. So it’s a good combination, I think.