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Space startups

Warnings about the potential perils of foreign alliances go back to George Washington’s Farewell Address — but in the Space Age, the issues surrounding international relations are much more nuanced.

At least that’s the view from Christopher Richins, the founder and CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based RBC Signals.

RBC Signals acts as a broker for global satellite connectivity services, and counts the U.S. government among its customers. But because RBC’s business model relies on partnerships with satellite ground stations around the world, RBC has to work with countries that the U.S. government views as rivals on the space frontier — specifically, Russia and China.

“You don’t have to have the U.S. government as a customer,” Richins told GeekWire. “But if you do intend to at some point, being mindful of things like cybersecurity and management structure, knowing your customers and knowing your investors — all of those things will serve you well in removing some of the potential barriers to entry for getting those opportunities.”

The troubles encountered by Momentus Space, one of RBC Signals’ customers, serve as a cautionary tale. The space-tug startup’s planned merger with a blank-check company, Stable Road Acquisition Corp., has been held up because of U.S. government concerns about Momentus’ Russian co-founders. Moreover, Momentus’ plans for its first launch have been stymied by the Federal Aviation Administration for similar reasons.

Foreign entanglements can bedevil well-established companies like Virgin Galactic as well: Several years ago, the space company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson had to win a licensing exemption from the State Department to fly non-U.S. citizens on its SpaceShipTwo space plane. Even after that exemption was granted, a controversy came up over selling tickets to Chinese citizens.

Mindful of such concerns, Richins said RBC Signals has been treading carefully over the six years of its existence.

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