Speaker Interview: Jeff Thornburg, President at Interstellar Technologies

We caught up with Jeff Thornburg, president at Interstellar Technologies, to talk about the jeff thornburgfuture of propulsion systems. Jeff is an engineer and executive leader who recently led Paul Allen’s PGA engine development program for Stratolaunch. Prior to joining Stratolaunch, Jeff founded Interstellar Technologies LLC, an engineering technology development and consulting company focused on advanced R&D, manufacturing, testing, production, and operations for spacecraft, launch vehicles, and propulsion systems.

Jeff was previously senior director of propulsion engineering at SpaceX in Hawthorne, CA, and served as the lead engineer and director of methane engine systems, including the Raptor engine development program. Jeff was responsible for the development of the propulsion hardware and facilities used in next-generation vehicles and propulsion systems capable of missions beyond Earth orbit, with an eye toward Mars. Jeff also served as the vice president of propulsion engineering at SpaceX, overseeing flight, test, development, and research operations while also supporting customer interactions, including those with NASA and the US Air Force.


Hi Jeff, you will participate in the Expanding Space Capabilities by Developing and Selecting Advanced Propulsion Systems for Next-Gen Applications panel session at the conference on Wednesday, May 22. Propulsion systems remain a topic of interest to many players in the industry – what are the most exciting developments you have identified when it comes to propulsion system technologies?

I feel that the transition to a more commercial-led propulsion industry as compared to a government-led industry is one of the most exciting developments. In addition, the renewed interest in nuclear thermal propulsion is an extremely exciting development.


On your panel we will highlight a variety of technologies, including electric, hybrid, lunar lander, and chemical propulsion. Where are the gaps and what are the challenges in technology development for propulsion systems?

I think one of the most important challenges that is cross-cutting across all of the various propulsion system applications is standardizing the approach to additive manufacturing and its flight certification for commercial and government missions, while not limiting the creativity and disruption that additive manufacturing enables for the propulsion industry.


With many organizations working on various types of propulsion technology, do you think there could be a need for new regulations and standards in this area?

For nuclear propulsion, we need to find the appropriate compromises in regulation to enable the commercial industry to innovate in the nuclear thermal propulsion arena. With global interest in nuclear applications for exploration in cis-lunar space and beyond, we need to ensure we stay competitive with our adversaries and competitors internationally.


In terms of industry news, what development, announcement, or otherwise has stood out most to you in the past year and why?

I feel that there are three that truly stand out: 1) Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic’s successful sub-orbital launches with Space Ship 2; 2) Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin’s successful New Shepard flights leading to their upcoming human flights; and 3) Elon Musk and SpaceX’s successful docking of the Dragon 2 crew capsule to the ISS.


We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Conference at Space Tech Expo. Can you tell us what you’re most looking forward to at the show?

It is always great to see the industry come together and share the latest developments in this very exciting industry!

Jeff will be speaking at Space Tech Conference 2019 on 'Expanding Space Capabilities by Developing and Selecting Advanced Propulsion Systems for Next-Gen Applications' on Wednesday May 22 2019 at 8:45am.