TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
The Sheet sat down this week with Tina and Tom Sjögren, the CEO and CTO of Pythom, a U.S. rocket engineering company located out of Bishop.
The Swedish couple have earned a lot of accolades over the years. Together they completed the “Three Poles Challenge” by not only summiting Mount Everest, but skiing to both the North and South Poles unsupported.
Tina and Tom were also the second married couple to summit Mount Everest, and then broke the record of high altitude broadcasting by being the first to broadcast live pictures and audio from the Antarctic ice cap.
“We did this in the old days, before all the craziness started with all the commercial expeditions,” explained Tom. “We were completely alone on the ice between Canada and Russia.”
Tina was the first woman in the world to ski to the North Pole without re-supplies.
“It was considered impossible for a small woman to do it,” said Tina. “Because the trip takes almost about 3 months, and it’s really physically hard. If you do it without re-supplies, you have to carry everything with you, which is a lot of weight for a smaller person. But I made it, and when you do hard things like that, it makes you wonder what else you can do,” said Tina.
She keeps her sled from their North Pole expedition hanging on the wall in Pythom’s warehouse on Willow St. in Bishop a stone’s throw from the Black Sheep’s back door, draped with Buddhist prayer flags.
Aside from being outdoor explorers, the couple are also innovators in the realm of business and technology. They moved to San Francisco in 2014 where they became U.S. citizens. While already running a technology company, it was there that they decided to start a space company.
After getting funding from Swedish investors, they launched their own rocket business named Pythom in 2020. After jumping through many hoops during the Covid-19 outbreak, they were able to open their own warehouse in Bishop, from whence they have been designing and building rocket models.
“What we are building is a complete space transportation system,” said Tom. “The goal is to go to other planets. Mars is the next step after the Moon, of course, but not only Mars; we want to open up all of space for human travel. That has normally been done in really huge expeditions funded by billions of dollars through governments. From our expeditions, we found that the most successful expeditions were not that big; only 3, 4 or 5 people. So we thought, let’s take what we learned from our expeditions and apply that to space,” said Tom.
Their current projects include building a rocket, a spaceship that can transport people to other parts of space, and a lander that will be able to land on the surfaces of both planets and asteroids.
The current rocket they are building, the Eiger Rocket, is 45’ high. This first model will only send small satellites to space. The model uses biomass fuel from corn husks and is completely carbon-neutral. It is the only known carbon-neutral rocket currently being built today.
According to the Sjögrens, humanity currently has 4,000 active satellites in space. 150,000 additional satellites are planned to join these within the next eight years.
“We don’t have enough rockets to get those satellites up, so we will be that company to do so, and then get investors, and take part of the money we make from that to go to Mars,” said Tom.
They hope to get to Mars by 2026. “That is a very tight timeline, but it’s better to break a tight deadline than a long deadline. That’s how we look at it,” said Tina.
Though the couple does not have a background in studying aerospace, they say that the internet has given them access to all the information needed to learn the fundamentals.
“Though we have a background in software engineering, we started from scratch basically when it came to aerospace. We thought that it was going to be really hard to understand how to build a rocket, but it turns out the only thing you really need to do is put in a lot of time and hard work. If there’s something you don’t understand, then you can call one of the 90,000 people working at NASA and they can properly explain it to you. But frankly, it hasn’t really been that hard to understand,” said Tom.
The availability of technology, such as 3-D printing, allows them to build their rocket models with exact mathematical precision and ease – including intricate inner chambers of the rocket fuselage that distribute heat perfectly throughout the vessel. The rocket material is the same metal alloy that was used for the Moon landing; this metal is able to withstand heat of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is as hot as the surface of the sun. The material is then able to regeneratively cool itself.
The internet now allows access to papers that early Russian and American scientists wrote, documenting their studies on which techniques worked best for building rockets. Even 10 years ago, one would have to travel to special libraries to access these.
“Nowadays, everything is online. And to teach you how to understand this stuff, there’s now things like Khan Academy where some of the best teachers from the best universities in the world can teach you about it,” said Tina.
Right now, companies are using satellites to look down at Earth to keep track of things such as weather patterns, climate change, and social geography. They are also instrumental in the function of the internet, GPS, and the use of mobile data. However, the majority of these satellites look towards Earth. According to Tom and Tina, the next generation of space equipment will look outwards towards space.
There are 3 main objectives for the next phase of rocket engineering: space-pharma, space-based solar power, and in-space manufacturing/mining.
“Things behave differently in space. Some cells, especially neurons, actually grow much better in space than they do here on earth, because they don’t have to fight gravity. Now all of a sudden, there is a chance for neurological diseases that we haven’t been able to cure here on earth to find a cure for them in space; we’re talking Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, paralyzation,” said Tina. “That’s just one aspect of the potential in space pharma.”
According to a Citibank study, by 2040, experts predict that the biggest market in space will be satellites ($140 billion a year), while the second biggest market ($20 billion a year) will be for space-based solar power.
“Somewhere within the next 20-40 years, we won’t be able to rely on oil or fossil fuel for our energy. Humanity without energy is humanity that can’t use their iPhones, medical equipment, and all of that stuff; basically, we can’t function in a developed way. In order to use solar power gathered on Earth, you’d have to cover all of the United States in panels, and that still wouldn’t be enough. If you go to space and put the solar cell in space, it will be active for 24-hours a day, and it’s not going to have to go through the atmosphere and lose a lot of energy; in fact, solar power in space is 30-40% as effective as solar power on Earth,” said Tom.
The plan is to transmit the energy gathered from in-space solar panels back to Earth using either lasers or microwaves.
“You’d only need a narrow band of solar panels in space around the equator, and you would have all the power you would need,” said Tom.
“All of the energy we need on this planet for the rest of time,” added Tina. “It would change everything. All of a sudden, we would go from a declining species to an expanding species again. The Earth would become a park; no more scarring, no more fracking.”
The third objective, space manufacturing and space mining, comes with the most political implications.
According to the couple, the thousands of asteroids circling Earth right now contain many of the minerals and metals that humanity is currently running out of. All we have to do is go up there, land on them, and start mining.
China currently has a monopoly over the supply of these minerals and metals here on Earth. China hopes to be able to secure this same monopoly in space.
“This is also a fight between totalitarian states and democratic states,” said Tom. “China and Russia want all the asteroids and minerals in space to be owned by states. The U.S. has written a proposition saying that every citizen can go up there and mine what they want independently. The proposition has been signed by at least 10 to 15 states- Japan, New Zealand, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates etc.- which are on track to follow that. China is trying to lock down everything, so that’s the fight that we are currently in.”
China has much less red tape on their rocket production regulations. They are also ahead of the world in the realms of science and math. In 2021, for the first time, China had more space launches than the United States.
“This is a really important fight. We are much more dependent on space today than we ever have been. Much more dependent than people realize. All our mobile phones, GPS, internet, everything – that goes through space. Whoever leads in space is going to control our planet,” said Tina.
Tina was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia under Soviet occupation. “If you have known what it is like to live unfree, you fight with everything every day for freedom. But if you don’t know what that is like, then you don’t understand the significance of it until it’s too late,” she said.
The couple says that this new-age space race provides an opportunity for young people to find hope and purpose.
“The kids are so depressed right now. If you look at the statistics, suicides and drug use and overdose deaths are all through the roof in the last twenty years. This reminds me of in Europe between World War 1 and World War II – the generation of youth that they called ‘The Lost Generation’.
… Except for one little club: the rocketeers. These guys came up with the idea that missiles, instead of just killing people, could actually be used to go to space. This just blew their minds. In all of this depression, this little club of guys kept hope. And after World War II happened, they came to America and ended up building the rockets that took America – and the world – to the Moon. This gave birth to a whole new generation of scientists; kids were running to learn science, because all of a sudden it was useful and it was fun. I think today that we are in the same situation a little bit, that we have a lot of depressed kids who can’t even find a small plot of land to live on. In the meantime, we have this new world where knowledge is everywhere. We can design things on our computer that machines can now make perfectly. This means that a lot more people can get into space, and with space, we maybe can find a new hope, new ideas, and new possibilities.”