Digital Builder Ep 85: The Future of Commercial Space Exploration

One of the perks of hosting the Digital Builder podcast is I get to chat with people who are doing truly remarkable and ambitious things. Rarely do I have the opportunity to connect with folks who are working on projects that are out of this world—literally.

Stephen Brooke, Digital Delivery Manager with Burns & McDonnell, joins me in the latest episode of Digital Builder, where he talks about a project with private commercial space company, Intuitive Machines.

Selected by NASA to develop technologies that advance space explorations, Intuitive Machines needed a lunar production and operations center equipped with advanced features, including 3D printing capabilities, metal fabrication, and spaces for assembling lunar landers.

The company partnered with Burns & McDonnell to construct this facility, which would serve not only as a base of operations but also as an innovation hub designed to support its lunar and beyond missions.

Check out the episode recap below. 

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On this episode:

We discuss:

  • Stephen’s career journey through the AEC industry
  • Intuitive Machines’ facility
  • How to encourage an innovative mindset in the next generation
  • Collaborating with vendors to bring value to clients

An overview of the Intuitive Machines project 

Stephen highlighted the Intuitive Machines partnership and how it represents a major step toward private-sector involvement in lunar exploration.

"Intuitive Machines has been around for a couple of years now, and they want to be the first private US commercial company to send spacecraft to the moon. They're more about cargo and scientific discovery," he explains. 

As for how the partnership came about, Stephen says that Intuitive Machines reached out to Burns & McDonnell about growing the company's facilities. 

Given that Intuitive Machines is reaching for the moon, it needed a lunar production and operations center that could support both administrative functions and sophisticated engineering tasks.

"It was awesome to be engaged with that project … They can actually operate and function from that facility that we just finished up."

According to Stephen, this facility is essential because it allows Intuitive Machines to conduct engine tests and yield compliance with the stringent requirements for lunar missions. Completing this test facility was a crucial first step towards the company's inaugural lunar mission, IM-1, which launched and landed on the moon in February 2024.

Notable capabilities of Intuitive Machine's facility

If you're into science, technology, and space, visiting Intuitive Machine's facility may feel like being a kid in a candy store—it's hard to pick just one thing you like. 

This is certainly the case for Stephen. That said, he mentions that a notable feature is the mural in the facility.

If you’d like to see the mural, check out a timelapse video of it being painted by the artist herself, Anat Ronin.

Beyond that, Stephen marvels at the capabilities of the mission control room.

"One of the cool features is that they're able to control and operate the mission from there. The science behind it all is just incredible—the communication, satellites, and technology that they have. And then, right next door, they're testing rocket engines. Those are the two features that I think are pretty cool."

Industry trends to keep an eye on

Stephen also touches on AI and data analytics. He’s excited about how these technologies can enhance quality assurance and control processes so we can surface high-quality insights. 

"It's AI, but it's also data. If we look at the trends of all the technology and software vendors out there, everybody's trying to figure out how to give us better data. How do we give better data for ourselves to QA and QC and ensure we're not dealing with duplicate data?"

He continues, "That's where it's going, and at the end of the day, that's what we are chasing at Burns & McDonnell. We're asking, 'How do we take data to the next level? How do we make our teams more efficient?'"

In addition, Stephen brings up the growing need for skilled, tech-savvy workers. 

"There's a high demand for modelers, detailers, and folks who use design authoring tools. I've been trying to reach out to the high schools. We're a big proponent in our community of having AEC mentoring and high schools in the STEM fields. So, we invite them to come to Burns & McDonnell and show them some of their career paths."

According to Stephen, the team also shows young professionals the different technologies used in construction, including AR, VR, and 3D printing. The goal, he shares, is to spark an interest in engineering and construction careers.

"We want to show them that there's more. There are people who must be in the trenches creating the models, putting the data into the models, creating the contract drawings. We need those people."

Bringing innovation to the project

Space travel represents the pinnacle of innovation. So, when building Intuitive Machine's lunar production and operations center, Stephen and his team knew that the project needed tools that were just as innovative.

One of the tools Stephen's team chose was Autodesk Construction Cloud to help elevate their project management and tech practices. 

"I said, 'How do we bring innovation to a client, Intuitive Machines, that's innovating the commercial space market?' And so, I reached out and talked internally with some folks, and we asked, 'What are some of the technologies coming out?'"

"We looked at Autodesk Construction Cloud and its ability to become a single platform to better integrate our design and construction teams. "

Stephen adds that Burns & McDonnell takes a collaborative approach with software vendors. Doing so not only enhances their operational efficiency but also solidifies long-term partnerships.

"If the software vendors partner with us, we become successful and keep using their product. We then help the client be more successful, so they keep coming back to us, and it's repeat business all the way around."

New podcast episode every week

Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every week. Listen to the Digital Builder Podcast on:

Eric Thomas

Eric is a Sr. Multimedia Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk and hosts the Digital Builder podcast. He has worked in the construction industry for over a decade at top ENR General Contractors and AEC technology companies. Eric has worked for Autodesk for nearly 5 years and joined the company via the PlanGrid acquisition. He has held numerous marketing roles at Autodesk including managing global industry research projects and other content marketing programs. Today Eric focuses on multimedia programs with an emphasis on video.