Every quarter, the Arizona Technology Council publishes a data report showcasing the performance of the tech industry in the state. We’re now adding an additional layer, with the stories of the people behind the numbers—the people who are the employers and employees, the innovators and investors.
Grant Anderson is president and CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation, the Tucson-based company he co-founded in 1993. Paragon was formed “to change the future by creating extreme environment life support and thermal control solutions that would allow humans to expand beyond their previously believed limits.”
Grant joined Molly Castelazo, storyteller-in-chief at Castelazo Content, in a lively conversation that ranged from supporting crewed missions to Mars, to batteries, to the importance of imagination. The full transcript, edited just for clarity, is here, with timestamps to ease navigation through the video.
To start off, take us back to the beginning. You clearly have lived and worked in Arizona for quite a while. Did you grow up here? Take me way back to the days of your youth.
I had a very blessed youth. I would say I’m a son of a diplomat. So I actually grew up and moved eight times in 18 years. My last three years of high school were in three different countries. The longest I’d lived anywhere before I went to college was actually Vienna, Austria. But I’m from a small rural town technically, in Iowa called Gowrie, Iowa. My parents at the age of 90 still live there today. So I was probably the only child who grew up, you know, getting out of school in Vienna, Austria, and coming home and walking beans in a bean field in Iowa for the summer and then going back to Austria again for another year of school. I will also say that I had never been farther west of the Mississippi than Iowa until I went to college in California.
[02:20] So you went to Stanford. You got a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a masters in aeronautics and astronautics. What inspired you to pursue those fields and to do so at Stanford?
I loved airplanes, beginning of it all. I mean, one of the things, even though my first four trips across the Atlantic were on a boat, which, of course ages me greatly. But I remember my first real aha moment that I wanted to be an engineer was flying a 747 from New York to Amsterdam and then Brussels when I was eight years old. And then I became a plane nut. I would build models. I could tell you by just looking at the contrails of an airplane what type of airplane it was. And I just really immersed myself in in the details. I even designed a supersonic airliner for Boeing and sent it to them when I was, oh, about 14.
So what were you thinking when you were in college that you wanted to do after graduation? Did you want to go work at Boeing or, you know, kind of what was your vision for your career at the time?
I wanted to work in the human spaceflight program. I had morphed from airplanes which were kind of, you know, they were they were designed and although they’ve been evolving and they’re wonderfully more advanced than they were back when I was young, but I had evolved into wanting to do human spaceflight. I remember the looking for internships after my junior and my senior year, I was applying to the Boeings and Lockheeds and Rockwell International and other large companies like that and NASA trying to get internships because I really wanted to work in human spaceflight. I enjoyed doing mechanical engineering, but to me, designing a machine like a robot – all a satellite really is a robot just in a really cool place – but the human element really intrigues me. How do you design with humans and around humans and so humans can use something? There was a very good design course at Stanford that also turned me on into human design. So I really wanted to go out and work that type of program.
[05:15] So and I’m guessing that this is exactly the reason why you founded Paragon. But before that, after you graduated, where did you go to work and what did you do?
Well, I went to Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California. So I moved down the street about 10 miles from the Stanford campus. And believe it or not, I didn’t start out in … I actually had a brief opportunity to work in human spaceflight. But I recognized at that time is having a good manager young in your young career is much more important than necessarily doing what you want. You’re learning the ropes, especially in a large organization. So I actually went in working for at that time it was known as SDI – Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, otherwise known as Star Wars, sort of derogatorily. It was Reagan’s buildup and the idea of a shield to protect you from incoming weapons. So I actually worked classified programs and stuff having to do with that first. And it wasn’t until I was about three years into my career that I had an opportunity to jump over to the space station program. And that’s when I did that. But I actually cut my teeth on defense type projects and then worked into the space station program.
Take me then to 1993. And when you founded Paragon, did you found the company in California and move here or had you moved here already?
I was still in California. I mean, I founded it with some other friends of mine who lived in Tucson, Arizona. And frankly, it was a little bit of a no brainer. You know, we were not starting the next highly capitalized venture capital-backed company. We were doing it, bootstrapping it on credit cards and not paying ourselves for a little while. And, you know, it’s very expensive to own a company in California. It’s extremely expensive to own a company in the Silicon Valley area. And also, frankly, my wife grew up in San Francisco and my four mile commute was taking me forty five minutes and it was just getting crowded. My starter home of, you know, nine hundred square feet cost me almost a quarter of a million dollars. So there’s a whole bunch of things that were pushing me out of California, so to speak.
And Tucson, from a standpoint of what we wanted to do, of course there’s a university here, which was one thing. And then also the understanding of the biological side of things that, you know, the University of Arizona has a lot of programs on drip irrigation and other things like that. So there was the understanding of the plant world as well as the technical world. And in fact, one of the things about Paragon, it was really started around the idea of an aerospace person and the biological person, a biologist and then a chemist, which are all part of human spaceflight and environmental control, all getting together to solve problems. And we all came at it from different directions as opposed to me being an aerospace techie guy. You know, the chemist had a different idea and a biologist had a different idea. We found it was a really great synergy on how we did that.
So we definitely chose Tucson, Arizona. It made the most sense. There were people down here, and I knew eventually that if it worked that I would move to Tucson. And that’s what ended up happening.
[08:45] Thinking about human spaceflight, it’s obvious, sort of the role that an aerospace engineer would have. What were the roles or what was the contribution of the chemist and the biologist?
Well, in reality, humans are just a big chemical factory. I mean, we operate on chemical energy. We ingest oxygen and food sources that have carbohydrates and fats and stuff. And we process that and we put out waste. And, yes, we do deal with waste fairly often. And then also the chemical side of it. How do you remove CO2, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere? How do you purify water? All of those things are tied up in environmental control and life support. You have to understand all of those.
I was just having a conversation with one of my employees about how multidisciplinary we have to be in order to do the work we do. While there are sections that you can just be a thermal analyst or you would just be a chemist, you have to understand a little bit more of the bigger picture when you’re dealing with human beings.
I actually give a fair amount of conference talks and talks, of course, to kids and stuff. And one of the questions I like to ask at the beginning is how many people stepped out of their house or their hotel this morning and wondered if they had enough oxygen to make it through the day. It’s just not done. It’s there. The biosphere we live in on earth gives you all of those things. And it’s second nature and it’s the second thought. Of course, we’re much more environmentally conscious now about the poisons putting into the environment and other effects we have on the environment. So it’s become a little bit more aware than it used to be, but it still is taken for granted. And you can’t take that for granted when you’ve got nothing but the vacuum of space around you. You have to be able to supply all those things and reliably.
And so we have this law of threes in the environmental control world. It’s three seconds, three minutes, three days and three weeks. And it’s three seconds is how long you can survive without or without air pressure. Three minutes is how long you can survive without oxygen. How long you can hold your breath, really. The average person three days is about how long you can survive without water. And three weeks is about how long you can survive without food. And so we’re used to having that all available and not having to worry about it too much. But in space, you’ve got to provide that and you’ve got to provide it all the time or else or else you’re in trouble.
[12:00] Can you talk about Paragon’s role in these big first?
Well, you know, you can say about starting a company, but anything – you don’t do it unless you persevere. You’ve got to be tenacious. And what we do, Paragon does the really hard stuff. You know, if somebody comes to us and says, ‘We’d like a new thermal jacket’ you know, like from a Lands End or from REI or something, that doesn’t really interest us. It’s got to be hard, maybe never done before or maybe never done the way that we need to do it before. So there’s a certain amount of doing those cool critical projects that no one else can do. And very few people in the world can do it. We thrive on that. So it takes a certain amount of innovation. It takes a certain amount of just perseverance. You’re always going to have problems when you’re doing something new.
And then the imagination, the imagination that says, OK, we’ve done this in the past, but it was really hellishly expensive and we don’t have, you know, an unlimited amount of money. How do you do this differently so that you can do it at the budget that your customer wants? And so we combine all those things and it takes a lot of thinking and it takes a lot of acceptance of new ideas. And we have a touchstone called the respectful dissension when somebody can say, ‘I understand you, but I don’t agree with that. I think we should do it this way.’ And we discuss it out. And it’s a quite probably a different atmosphere than most people are used to in the in the company world.
[14:05] Thinking about space exploration, whether it’s, you know, doing experiments on the International Space Station, sending people back to the moon, eventually sending a crewed mission to Mars. What’s the point?
Well, I did a TED talk on that, so definitely I would encourage your customers to look up the Winter Park TED Talk I did in December of 2019. There is an innate need in humanity to explore. And humans, probably more than any creature, can live vicariously through the achievements of other humans. But it really means something when another human does it. Another question I ask at conferences fairly often is ‘Who can name the first person that walked on the moon and what country did they come from?’ And of course. Ninety eight percent of the people know it’s Neil Armstrong and came from the United States in the Apollo mission. And then I say, ‘OK, now name me the first robot that landed on Mars. And what country did it come from?’ The first mobile robot. And there’s always one person in the audience that knows the answer. And they say, the…whatever the answer is, frankly, and say that about the second and then I’ll go, OK, and then I’ll go on. They said, well, was I right? And I said, frankly, I don’t know. And I don’t really care. And that’s one of the reasons people humans really care when other humans do things and when they make achievements. It’s why we watch the Olympics. It’s why we watch sporting events in general. We can live vicariously through that. So when we do exploration and we can take them along like we can now with the communications we have and everything else, it really raises the whole human spirit. Another point I’d make is that there were 400 million TVs in all of the world in 1969, and yet more than six hundred million people watched the landing live. Remember, we didn’t have YouTube then. You couldn’t wait till later to watch that. If you wanted to see it happening, you had to be there. And everybody remembers the iconic pictures of people standing around the TV standing in a store front and watching the landing. Now we’re happy if 30 million people watch a Mars landing of a robot. So there is a difference. And that human uplifting of the spirit is why we do it.
I think we can kind of imagine in a closer sense, the true feat that it is to put humans into space.
Yeah, it definitely is harder and of course, a lot of people say, but it’s so expensive. I will say that humans are still the most versatile thing around. There’s no artificial intelligence that even gets anywhere near close. You know, if a mouse were to scamper across the front of a rover on Mars right now, they probably would not notice it because a robot will only notice what you’ve programed it to notice, whereas a human will look at something and say why and investigate things that look interesting. And you just can’t program that in yet. You can do it slowly by scanning and having humans look at the pictures and say, hey, let’s go over that rock. And then, you know, four days later, the robot gets over to that rock and looks at it. It’s a little bit slow-mo in how it does exploration. And the thing about having a human there is when you hear the explanation like think it was the astronaut Schmitt who was, ‘Wow, that’s orange soil!’ You know, they saw something orange on a very gray moon and you could hear the excitement in their voice. You could they ran over and looked at it and took pictures of it and took samples of it. And you could hear the excitement of discovery while it was happening. And that just doesn’t happen with the robot.
[19:20] I want to hear about the new first that Paragon is currently working on. Can you talk a little bit more about those and any other projects that you’re currently really excited about?
Well, I you know, I’m excited about all the projects. One thing is that, you know, if Paragon is doing a project we’re always excited about it. The yeah, definitely with Dynetics and the human lander system, that’s the next step to go back to the moon and take humans back to the moon by 2024. And while some people could say, well, we’ve done that on Apollo before, you’re just repeating that, we’re talking about a whole new scale of things, more people going to the ground, more continuous access. Going back to stay and making sure we’re designing something that just, you know, the most the Apollo mission would last on the moon was three days before they had to take off. And they you know, they only had so much consumables. And we’re talking about plunking down there for a lot longer time and eventually having habitats and every day will almost be a first. Once that happens, though, we’re facilitating that exploration capability.
There’s other programs, some that I’m not allowed to talk about because we are in a commercial world – working with other companies for everywhere from low Earth orbit systems to other systems on the way to Mars or towards Mars and in the cislunar environment, the Earth Moon environment. We’re introducing new technologies. We’re introducing new ways of doing things. We’re definitely hitting a different price point. You know, the costs for the environmental control system for Apollo was in the billions of dollars. And we’re doing it for a lot less than that in real dollar terms. So, you know, the part of it is we’re building upon what we know already. And part of it is there’s just a little bit different way of doing things.
But it’s some of our littler projects that are actually very exciting, can be very exciting for somebody like me who works in the technology. You know, we have a little one hundred thousand two hundred thousand dollar projects that are, you know, trying to recover water on the moon from the ice on the moon and working to actually recycle human feces, which is – remember, we work with pee and poop all the time. Being able to make cryogenic fluids last longer in space. Right now, you launch a hydrogen powered rocket and the hydrogen will boil off in a few hours. And developing technologies so that hydrogen doesn’t boil off for weeks or months is an issue that that is kind of key to being able to explore with chemical rockets. And I should say, we’ve talked about space, but Paragon does extreme life support and thermal control in all environments. So we have some terrestrial things having to do with batteries and battery fires and how do you contain them and how do you protect very expensive equipment from a battery fire. All these have so much potential there. They’re like little babies in cradles that are going to grow up to be, you know, brilliant, brilliant individuals that contribute better technology that contributes to the human condition. And so all of them are exciting if you have enough imagination.
[23:00] Talk a little bit more, if you wouldn’t mind, about the work that you’re doing around batteries.
There are two issues with batteries. One of them is an issue we don’t deal with is how do you make a compact, high energy density battery? You know, where if for those of you of your audience are technical, we’re looking for 400 kilowatt hours per kilogram. I mean, they’re going to be very intense and powerful. The problem with that is when you put that much energy in a small space, especially as everyone knows with lithium batteries, they can spontaneously burst into flames. A different mechanisms that I won’t go into. So part of it is protecting humans from that sort of the same reason of gas can. You know, the reason you have an automatic shut off valve on the coming from your gas tank in your car and you have protection around the tank is all to make sure that that stored energy doesn’t spontaneously get released, as it’s famously known as an unplanned disassembly or explosion. That’s half the problem.
The other problem is when you have that much energy and you want to make it utilizable – have a good utility – you’ve got to be able to charge it and discharge it quickly. And, and you know, nobody wants to say, OK, great, I’m going to drive for eight hours on a battery and drive it, you know, 60 miles an hour and make it all the way there on a charge of battery and then have to sit there for hours until it’s charged back up. You want to be able to charge it up rapidly, but to charge up rapidly creates heat because there’s always resistance to electricity flowing through it. And so how to cool batteries and how to keep them at a good temperature, both to keep them from spontaneously combusting, also to just make them more operable so you can use the energy faster and you can charge them faster. Those are all things we’re dealing with. And how do you pull the heat out of a battery and keep them cool in a very small space? Those types of things are the hard problems. You may say, what does that have to do with life support? Well, when you keep a human at 72 plus or minus three degrees, so precisely, you become very good at the thermal analysis side of it. But it also comes a little bit with the imagination we bring into how to solve those types of problems for the industry.
Thinking about the extreme environments that humans go in to, that you’re designing systems to protect humans in those environments. Do you ever feel is there ever a little part of you that wishes that you were going out into those extreme environments with that spirit of adventure?
Oh, definitely true. And in fact, I encourage all my staff and I do too, to think that you are going to go because you want to make sure that you … You always worry about the person who won’t use the product they actually build. But, you know, the fact of the matter is we do something that’s life critical. We make a mistake, somebody gets hurt or dies. So we want to make sure that it’s as safe as possible. So with you, put your place in that and say, you know, I’ve got kids, I’ve got what in my case, a wife or spouse or a significant other. You’ve got people you care about. The system has to be the best. You can make it to be safe. Nothing is 100 percent safe. You know, everything can be defeated somehow, either by happenstance, bad luck or by a bad design. And of course, we want to keep the bad design out of it. And also we anticipate the bad luck. But in the end of it all, yes, everybody wants to go out there. It’s really the risk tolerance level of who wants to be first. But, yeah, there’s a lot of romance out there. I’ve been told by more astronauts and I can count about how it changes their perspective on life to actually see the world from outside of it and that you can’t see any borders. You really do see the Earth as a very fragile marble and that it’s life changing. So, yes, it would be a it would be a great thing to go out and do that.
I can only imagine that that must be really quite incredible to get that real perspective of the Earth says that basically a ball of rock, among other balls of rocks and fire and all that.
Yeah, there’s actually a book on that called The Overview Effect that was written in the nineteen seventies, I believe, by a gentleman named White. And if you ever get a chance to read The Overview Effect – or for that matter, just read any, any book that was written by an ex astronaut. Those are all good. They, they try to describe it, but they all say they really can’t describe what it feels like to see Earth from that perspective.
It’d be cool if somebody made some kind of VR experience so that more people who will never actually go into space to experience that or something similar to it. That’s about as close as you can get right now. For the cost of a movie ticket and it’s profound. It’s not just for engineers, so. Well, look at that. See, some of the space films, IMAX movies I recommend anybody who’s got a chance to see that, whether at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. or another museum near you. Go ahead and do that.
[29:40] For a young person who’s thinking about going in to aerospace or even engineering in general. Any particular advice that you would give a young person?
One is be curious for sure. The other one is don’t rely on a computer. I often say that one of the most valuable courses I had at Stanford was freehand drawing because I could take something I was picturing and sketch it out. Not perfect. Definitely not a Rembrandt, but enough that I could explain it to somebody else. And also I could sketch different versions of something quickly. I find young engineers tend to get on computers too quickly and computers have a big fault. And that is they give you an exact number and nothing’s ever exact. You know, you never believe the – we call it the significant digits past the decimal point, especially in the concept.
But then on a more human level, really look for inspiration. The, you know, go out and read those books that we’ve been talking about maybe and read books from people that have done engineering. There’s books by the people who design the Moon lander that designed the space shuttle and listen to what they say about the process and how they came up with what they came up with. The process is what’s important, it’s not necessarily what’s been designed. Just as much respect for somebody has to design a very simple household products like a toothbrush, as much as somebody who has built a spacecraft because they both have functionality that they need to have and they answer a problem and they’re engineered to give a solution to a problem and be very aware around you of all of the stuff you use and do and use on a daily basis, because that’s really where engineers get their get their mojo, so to speak, is to be fascinated about what’s around. Don’t take anything for granted around you.
Castelazo Content is a B2B demand generation and sales acceleration firm. Working with our clients from the very beginning of the marketing funnel to the very end of the sales pipeline, we deliver the results that drive revenue. We do that by leveraging proven sales & marketing strategies and tools to deliver the right content at the right time, helping our clients walk their buyers through the journey – from pre-awareness, to decision, to evangelization. In a single year, our content generated 20,841 leads and contributed to over $69 million in net new revenue for our clients. Connect with Castelazo Content on the web at castelazocontent.com and on Twitter at @cmmarketing.