To my friends and readers, Happy 2013. It’s been a complicated 2012. I had planned to do many more posts during the year. Indeed, I’ve probably done more writing and editing in 2012 than I have in any other year, but it wasn’t to blog entries. Most of it was not published publicly, and it wasn’t necessarily in writing software either.
Beyond the writing, I was involved in a joint program of the AIAA San Francisco Section and the recently created Silicon Valley Space Center. In June, I agreed to become Deputy Director of Communications for AIAA Region VI, with the proviso that I was going to get a late start due to other work I had over-committed myself to. Strangely, the least stressful of everything I did in 2012 was probably an article I wrote for Aerospace America, the flagship membership magazine of AIAA.
In early 2011, the Silicon Valley Space Center (SVSC) was formed. Among its activities was a series of TechTalks jointly sponsored with the AIAA San Francisco Section. I had originally decided not to take a leading role in SVSC because it had good leadership already and I seem to be perennially over-committed. In mid-2011, the organizer of the TechTalks told us that he was leaving his job in the San Francisco Bay area. He was going to work in Southern California for an outfit called “SpaceX”. (I knew of them; I had a couple of friends there already.) I was asked to take over the TechTalks, which I hesitated to do, but I felt it was a good program. To this day, I blame my friend.
We crafted an emphasis during the following year on small payloads. (To SVSC, the series is known as the “Small Payload Entrepreneurs Speaker Series.”) Among the highlights, we’ve had talks by three separate nanosatellite projects funded by Kickstarter. We also highlighted TechEdSat, which was sent to the ISS, and launched into orbit from there; and a set of experiments which designed by high school students, and sent to the ISS to operate there for a month.
In the process, I got to learn a lot from other people’s experiences. Nevertheless, I still blame my friend for making me so busy. But that’s alright. I’ll figure out a way for him to repay me.
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is a technical and professional society devoted to aerospace sciences and engineering. Each December, AIAA publishes short reviews of developments during the year in the various technology areas that affect aerospace. I am a member of the AIAA Computer Systems Technical Committee, and write the article on “Computer Systems” on its behalf. (The article appears on page 40 of the December 2012 issue. If you are a member of AIAA, you should have access to the on-line version of the magazine, but you probably have also received the hard-copy version in your mailbox.)
Frequently, I canvass members of the TC for their observations so that I am not simply writing my opinion. The highlight this year was the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars; the article touches on the BAE Systems RAD750 computer that serves as the brains of Curiosity. This is a radiation-hard version of the PowerPC 750 used in the Apple Power Macintosh G3 computers. The article also touches on many other developments during the year in aerospace computing. However, it is a very top-level survey of what happened since the article is constrained to one page. The one important item I missed in the article was the rendezvous and berthing of SpaceX Dragon with ISS. I ended up confessing to a friend at SpaceX that I forgot to contact him for more info.
One page does not do justice to all the aerospace computing work that happens during the year. I’ve pondered more in-depth computing articles for Aerospace America. But it seems like I need to get the rest of my life squared away before that can happen…
NASA SBIR 2011 Phase I
While I was writing the December article, I was also working on a final report for a NASA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Phase I project. This was a six-month project that ran from late February to late August, 2012. The project involved a distance measurement technique applied to nanosatellites.
I was not the author of the project proposal, but helped shepherd it through the submission process in early September 2011. We found that in late November that we were selected for negotiation of a project contract. For various reasons, including an act of Congress, work on the project was held up. The act of Congress was affirmation that our firm was not doing business with the government or a company of mainland China. Actually, Congress wanted assurances that US government money via NASA was not going to go to the mainland Chinese government. Under normal circumstances, I would have expected the project to start in January. At times, I had serious doubts that the project was actually going to proceed. But it finally started in late February 2012.
The project was a major learning exercise in many respects. We over-committed ourselves in many ways. Some parts of the project should have been ironed out before project work was started. Somehow, I managed to turn our project milestones into deliverables to NASA. (While it was good for NASA, it put a lot of undue stress on the team.) We filed our final project report on August 23, 2012. In fact, I had started delivery of the report the day before, but discovered that I couldn’t complete it until a number of other milestones were completed (e.g., new technology disclosure; I thought we had two more months for that). Note that I was not the principal investigator of the project, but rather the contractor point-of-contact for NASA.
I should also note, this wasn’t my day job. I had another job which took at least 8 hours a day. I took a day off from the day-job to ensure that the report and all its prerequisites were filed before the deadline. After it was filed, NASA informed me that the report could not be accepted because of a legend that had to be placed on each of the submitted pages; immediately, I set to work fixing that for them, and resubmitting it.
Having gone through the experience once, you’d think I would learn not to do it again.
NASA SBIR 2012 Phase I
During the summer of 2011, I started investigating a flight concept which I felt might help reduce the cost of access to space. When I was asked to shepherd the SBIR 2011 Phase I proposal, I had to put the concept aside, and picked it again after submittal. Work on the flight concept was interrupted again when we were informed that the proposal was accepted, and again for several months when project work started in February 2012.
After the SBIR 2011 Phase I project was complete (in August 2012), I thought I was would get to: (1) fulfill my obligations as a Deputy Director in AIAA, and (2) flesh out the flight concept. In fact, I was still dealing with some of the aftermath of the completed project. And then on September 17, 2012. NASA announced its new SBIR topics. One of the topics was closely aligned to my flight concept.
Suddenly, my hopes of picking up the pieces of my life took a back seat to getting a new proposal out. For the next several weeks, up to the submission deadline of November 29, 2012, I coordinated the overall vehicle design, wrote up a simulation for what I felt was the most questionable part of the concept, and then wrote up a proposal for NASA SBIR 2012 submission.
It was grueling. I felt some significant parts of the proposal had insufficient detail. And in fact, I was trying to do too much. A few days before completion, it became clear that the proposal had to be re-worked to reflect a new emphasis. By the time I submitted the proposal, I was not done. I felt the work plan was weak, while the technical objectives were very strong. The limit on the proposal length was 20 pages; I wrote 18. I submitted that with 5 minutes to spare before the submission on-line gate was closed down.
In the process of solidifying the design and writing the proposal, I got substantial feedback from a couple of veteran researchers. This certainly helped improve the proposal content.
A number of people in the AIAA San Francisco Section were aware that I was concocting a strange flight concept. During the Christmas dinner for the AIAA San Francisco Section council, I passed around the one-sheet briefing chart that was submitted with the proposal. A few people were already aware of the concept. The rest got a taste for just how outlandish some of my concepts can be.
Air Force SBIR 2013.1 Phase I
In November, I had been put on notice that someone was going to ask me for help on another SBIR proposal, but this time written for the Air Force. I was tired, and wanting to get my life back together. But then a few days before the Christmas dinner, I was asked if I had personal interest in a particular topic dealing with smartphone device technology. I looked at it and realized that I had done very similar work on my day-job for much of 2011.
… and so..
Here I am, on New Year’s Eve, the last day of 2012. I’m helping put the foundations beneath someone else’s proposal and also writing my own. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve probably done more writing and editing in 2012 than I have in any other year. A lot of it has been for technical reports and proposals.
In 2013, I’m hoping to slow down on the proposal writing, and pick up on design work, testing, and some semi-technical writing that I’ve been putting off for years. If any of these proposals get funded in 2013, then hopefully I will get to share a glimpse with you of what goes on in one or more corners of aerospace research.
–Rick, computer scientist and aspiring rocket scientist