Peter Timko

Sometimes, ethnographic research can be a delicate process, one that requires tactfully navigating conversations with people reluctant to share their personal views. Other times, you meet Ari Lewis. “Money! It’s about money. Every morning I wake up thinking about money and how to make more of it.” This is how Lewis explains his involvement with Payload, a media outlet he co-founded with Mo Islam, a former JP Morgan VP, back in the fall of 2020. 

Payload’s primary product is a daily email newsletter covering space industry news, policy updates, and other stories relevant to the business of aeronautics. I’ve been subscribed for about a year and found it a useful tool for keeping tabs on an increasingly sprawling and active sector. Others feel the same—the newsletter recently surpassed 10,000 subscribers and it occasionally comes up in my conversations with space workers. The company also puts out a podcast and hosts space industry networking socials in various cities around the US.

This is where I finally caught up with Lewis, at a space marketing happy hour hosted by the team in Las Vegas. Tall and topped off with a Payload logo ballcap, he was easy enough to spot among the scrum of branding experts, social media managers, and other PR professionals. In our short conversation, Lewis explained that he was never particularly drawn to the idea of space itself—astronomy, rocket science, interplanetary exploration; these are all ancillary to his primary passion: making deals. 

“Do you read the newsletter?” He asks. “Then you know, each one has a sponsor up top and an ad in the middle. That’s the business, advertising. That’s what I sell and that’s what people pay for… and they pay a lot because we’re read by all the executives. That’s why people want to advertise with us.” Then, to illustrate his point, reels off a list of recent Payload partners—Firefly, Epsilon3, Lockheed Martin, etc.—along with how much revenue the company pulled in each quarter this year, adding “if you’re interested in space, talk to Mo.”

This attitude isn’t uncommon in the current push toward space. During the gold rush, forty-niners weren’t drawn to California’s hills by an intense interest in geology; likewise, many of today’s space professionals aren’t motivated by stargazing and sci-fi. They want economic prosperity and space is just another avenue to get it. 

At a conference in Turkey I spoke to a CEO of an American launch company. He’d just taken the job after spending the previous decades working as an executive in the alcohol and beverage industry. Why pivot to rockets? He’d sat down and considered which emerging sector would offer the highest salary and most valuable stock for someone with his skills—mining, telemedicine, and space infrastructure were all on the list. In his words, “I’m a prostitute. I’ll do anything for money.” A few months later, this same CEO’s headshot appeared on my newsfeed. He’s been indicted with multiple counts of fraud by the SEC. 

This anecdote aside, there’s nothing terribly novel about the business savvy or well-connected flocking to an industry with high earning potential. And, in certain roles projecting a public persona defined by the ambition and ability to accumulate as much capital as possible can be a strategic bit of personal branding. Though, such declarations sometimes cause people taking up the more commercial projects to be seen as outsiders by others in the industry. While at the International Astronautical Conference in Paris, I had drinks with a few mechanical engineers who worked on building satellites for private companies. I introduced myself as an anthropologist and told them I was at the conference to speak with “space people.” One gave me a skeptical look, “you’re only talking to real space people, right?” 

“What do you mean ‘real’?” The group explained that in their view the IAC was full of “people in it for the hype.” These included marketers, financers, and other assorted business professionals, people who “talk a lot but don’t actually do any science or build anything.” In their estimation, if you’ve never actually touched a rocket, a satellite, or similar hardware, you’re just along for the ride. This gatekeeping process—delineating who’s in, who’s out, and who matters, who doesn’t—happens across industries. Those with careers broadly classified as STEM, such as engineers and programmers, have a reputation for looking down on non-technical roles. While these professionals are often attracted by and enjoy the same high salaries as their counterparts in other departments, they can nonetheless see their work as more authentic in some ways.

Part of this distinction comes from their own working experience. The engineers I spoke with occasionally found themselves clashing with other more commerce-oriented departments at their companies—management would curtail work on tricky technical problems in favor of simpler, less risky approaches or worse, a salesperson would make clients promises that were physically impossible to keep. 

This last situation had everyone groaning with recognition. One engineer rolled their head back in exasperation, another, slapping the table for emphasis, added, “I’ve had to sit someone down and say ‘Look, it doesn’t matter what they want! What you’re asking for just isn’t allowed by the laws of physics!” They were getting worked up, it had been a long day. In the morning, everyone would wake up a little hungover, presumably thinking about making satellites. 

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