Career & Success

Steve Jurvetson: “Explore What Hasn’t Been Explored.”

An investor in the space and satellite industry heads to the desert with his own rockets and looks to new heights.

January 27, 2014

| by Michael Freedman Steve Fyffe



Launching rockets in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert (Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson)

Steve Jurvetson has spent the better part of the last two decades identifying and investing in some of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial ventures. In his time off, he does something quite different: He heads out to California’s Central Valley, Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and other less populated areas to launch rockets. At first, it was just the small ones — about a decade ago, he picked up a rocket kit at a hobby store, assembled it, and launched it with his kids. Over time, he went bigger — much bigger — assembling custom designs with esoteric materials, plus onboard cameras, computers, and other electronics to measure performance.


What’s the appeal? For starters, there’s the community. “You’re surrounded by a bunch of other geeks, generally, science, engineering types who love to talk about nose cone design and computational fluid dynamics,” he says. There’s also the satisfaction of physically building something with one’s own hands. And then, of course, there’s the spectacle. There are no limits on rocket speed, and virtually no barriers to size, cost, and complexity. He knows of launches that have reached 330,000 feet. (Those sorts of altitudes require FAA approval.) He, too, has built his share of impressive ones. His skinny carbon-fiber rocket hit Mach 2 several times. In some instances, the launch ignites a solid 10-foot-tall plume of fire. In one case, he used a titanium sponge propellant and created a pyrotechnic shower in the desert that spewed fire 80 feet into the air.

Jurvetson’s interest in rocketry goes beyond being a hobby. He invests in low-earth-orbit satellites and space exploration businesses such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, where Jurvetson sits on the board. The idea behind the satellite investment is, essentially, that it used to cost so much to build and launch a satellite that it had to stay in orbit for years to recover the cost. Doing so meant flying the satellite far from earth so that it didn’t de-orbit. Now, with the size and cost dropping dramatically, satellites can orbit closer to Earth, which means improvements in applications like telecommunications and imagery. “The entire constellation costs a fraction of the old model but provides a much better service,” he says. “If you’re looking with cameras at the Earth, you fly in close to the Earth; you get a better picture. If you have hundreds of them up there, you see the entire Earth every day. You don’t have to have a big, expensive telephoto lens off in the distance. You have a bunch of little ones. That’s just a smarter way to do it.”

That insight, he says — to have almost disposable satellites — would have been unthinkable in the past. “People are used to building satellites that cost a half-billion dollars,” says Jurvetson, a partner in the Menlo Park venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. “They’re the size of a Greyhound bus. They’re now being shrunk down to the size of a shoebox that costs tens of thousands of dollars, and you put hundreds of them up there.”

Underlying all of this, Jurvetson says, is this notion that “we, as humans, like to imagine what could be and explore what hasn’t been explored — to go to the deepest depths, to go to the highest heights.” In every startup, he says, there’s an entrepreneur who has some dream or vision, a star he or she sees on the horizon. “They often have taken a number of pragmatic steps to get there, like building rocket engines and then building rockets, then building a spacecraft.” But it is the dream of the prize — “in the case of SpaceX, it’s colonizing Mars” — that carries and motivates the entrepreneur, the team, and the investors, through years of hard work.

“The people who push humanity forward, to the frontiers of the unknown,” he says, “are some of our greatest heroes.”

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