Natalya Bailey: Rocket Engines and Electric Spacecraft Propulsion | Lex Fridman Podcast #157 | Summary and Q&A

February 1, 2021
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Natalya Bailey: Rocket Engines and Electric Spacecraft Propulsion | Lex Fridman Podcast #157


Natalia Bailey, the founder and CTO of Axion Systems, discusses the current state and future possibilities of space propulsion, including ion engines and propellant-less propulsion, and the challenges and opportunities for space exploration and colonization.

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Key Insights

  • 🚀 Key Insight 1: There is a growing interest in space exploration and the search for intelligent life beyond Earth, driven by a sense of childlike wonder and curiosity.
  • 🌌 Key Insight 2: Efficient space propulsion engines, such as ion engines and colloid engines, are being developed to move spacecraft and satellites in space more effectively, with advancements in material science playing a crucial role.
  • 🛰️ Key Insight 3: Chemical engines, which use combustion, are well understood and commonly used for spacecraft launch. Electric propulsion, such as ion engines, offer higher fuel efficiency and are used for maneuvering and satellite operations.
  • 🌍 Key Insight 4: Satellite collision avoidance is a growing concern as more satellites are launched. Electric propulsion systems are used for maneuvering and deorbiting satellites to prevent collisions and ensure responsible space operations.
  • 💡 Key Insight 5: Propellant-less propulsion systems are a major focus in future space exploration, although they are still in the realm of science fiction. Breakthroughs in physics and material science might be necessary to achieve this kind of propulsion.
  • 👥 Key Insight 6: Building a successful space propulsion company involves having an exciting vision, assembling the right team, leveraging personal networks, staying ahead of industry trends, and adapting to changing market demands.
  • 🏭 Key Insight 7: SpaceX is seen as a pioneer in the space industry, but not necessarily a direct competitor for other propulsion companies. Collaboration and opportunities for partnerships may arise in the future.
  • 🌌 Key Insight 8: The future of space exploration could involve millions of satellites, with applications ranging from imaging to communication. Smaller satellites are becoming more common due to advancements in technology and cost-effective designs.


the following is a conversation with natalia bailey a rocket scientist and spacecraft propulsion engineer previously at mit and now the founder and cto of axion systems specializing in efficient space propulsion engines for satellites and spacecraft so these are not the engines that get us from the ground on earth out to space but rather the engine... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: What challenges do current rocket engines face in terms of fuel efficiency, and how are companies like Axion Systems addressing these challenges?

Rocket engines currently rely on chemical reactions for propulsion, which is less fuel efficient. Axion Systems is working on electric propulsion technologies, such as ion engines, that offer greater fuel efficiency.

Q: How does propellant-less propulsion work, and what are the potential applications for this technology in the future?

Propellant-less propulsion relies on new physics principles that don't require traditional propellants for thrust. While there is ongoing research in this area, it holds potential for faster and more efficient space travel.

Q: What are the key considerations for the future colonization of Mars, and how could technologies like electric propulsion contribute to this goal?

In addition to the technological challenges of reaching Mars, we need to consider the long-term sustainability and resource usage on the planet. Electric propulsion offers more efficient travel within space, which could contribute to the feasibility of Mars colonization.

Q: How do companies like Axion Systems ensure their engines are safe and reliable for space missions?

Axion Systems follows rigorous testing and safety protocols to ensure the reliability of their engines. They conduct extensive research and work closely with industry experts to ensure the highest standards of safety and performance.

Q: Is there a possibility of using nuclear power for space propulsion, and what are the potential benefits and challenges associated with this technology?

Nuclear power holds the potential for high-thrust, efficient space propulsion. While there are technical challenges and political considerations associated with using nuclear power in space, there is ongoing research and development in this area.

Q: How can advancements in space propulsion contribute to the future of space exploration, particularly for deep space missions?

Advancements in space propulsion, such as electric engines and propellant-less propulsion, can enable faster and more efficient travel for deep space missions. This would open new possibilities for exploring distant planets and star systems.

Q: What impact does SpaceX have on the space propulsion industry, and how do other companies like Axion Systems differentiate themselves in this competitive landscape?

While SpaceX is a major player in the space industry, companies like Axion Systems focus on niche areas of propulsion technology, such as electric engines. By specializing in specific technologies and addressing unique challenges, these companies differentiate themselves and contribute to the overall advancement of space propulsion.


This conversation is with Natalia Bailey, a rocket scientist and spacecraft propulsion engineer. She is the founder and CTO of Axion Systems, which specializes in efficient space propulsion engines for satellites and spacecraft. They discuss various topics, including the possibility of intelligent life in the universe, the future of space exploration, the different types of rocket engines, the use of electric propulsion, and the challenges in the field of propulsion engineering.

Questions & Answers

Q: Do you think there is intelligent life in the universe?

Natalia believes it is likely that there is other life in the universe, given the vastness of time and the number of stars with planets. However, she is uncertain about the existence of intelligent life and wonders why we haven't had contact with them yet.

Q: How would intelligent life communicate with us?

Natalia suggests that the communication medium between intelligent life forms could be different from what we currently understand. It could be on a different time scale or a different kind of medium altogether. She also posits that the nature of our consciousness and intelligence itself could be the medium of communication.

Q: Do you think there is life on Mars?

Natalia believes it is possible that there was or still is microbial life on Mars. However, she is doubtful about the existence of more complex life forms. She also acknowledges the challenges of exploring our own solar system and the possibility of contamination from Earth.

Q: What is the Drake equation?

The Drake equation is a formula that estimates the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. It takes into account factors such as the rate of star formation, the probability of life developing on a given planet, and the average lifespan of technologically advanced civilizations.

Q: How do rocket engines work?

Rocket engines work on the principle of conservation of momentum. There are two main types of rocket propulsion: chemical and electric. Chemical engines use the combustion of fuel and oxidizer to produce thrust, while electric engines use electrical energy to accelerate charged particles and create thrust.

Q: What are the challenges in rocket engine development?

The chemical engines are well-understood, but there is ongoing research on making them more fuel-efficient. Electric engines, on the other hand, are still not fully understood, especially in terms of their stability and behavior. Natalia mentions the need for advancements in power supplies for more powerful electric propulsion systems.

Q: How do ion engines work?

Ion engines use ionized gases as propellants. The gas is ionized by high-energy electrons, and the resulting ions are accelerated through electric fields and ejected from the engine at high speeds. This accelerated ejection of ions generates thrust.

Q: What are colloid thrusters?

Colloid thrusters are a type of electric propulsion engine that uses liquid propellant instead of ionized gases. They utilize ionic liquids, which are liquids that can conduct electricity. The engine creates high electric fields that cause the liquid to form tiny cones, from which ions are emitted to generate thrust.

Q: What role can AI play in space exploration?

Natalia believes that AI can have a significant role in space exploration, especially in scenarios where it is difficult or dangerous for humans to travel. AI could enable more autonomous exploration and provide a greater understanding of space with robotic missions.

Q: What are the current use cases for electric propulsion engines?

Electric propulsion engines are primarily used for station-keeping, orbital maneuvers, collision avoidance, and end-of-life disposal of satellites. They offer thrust efficiency and precision control, making them suitable for these types of missions.


In this conversation, Natalia Bailey discusses various aspects of space exploration and propulsion engineering. She shares her thoughts on the search for intelligent life in the universe and the challenges of interstellar communication. Natalia explains the different types of rocket engines, including chemical and electric propulsion systems. She also highlights the potential of AI in space exploration and the current use cases for electric propulsion engines. Overall, this conversation provides insights into the exciting field of space propulsion and the future of space exploration.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Axion Systems is a space propulsion company specializing in efficient space engines for satellites and spacecraft.

  • Natalia Bailey discusses the possibilities of finding intelligent life in outer space and the challenges of space exploration.

  • She explains the principles of rocket engines, including chemical and electric propulsion, and the future potential for propellant-less propulsion.

  • Bailey also explores the future of space travel, including the colonization of Mars and the use of nuclear power for propulsion.

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