Category Archives: Rick+Space

Crazy Times

Some on your are wondering, where’s Rick? Is he gone? Does he still do aerospace stuff?

I’m still around. In fact, I’m involved with too many initiatives.

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret. I have a day job, but it’s not in the aerospace industry. I work with embedded computing, the Linux operating system, and toolchains that generate machine code. If you understood that last sentence, then you probably have a good idea of the domain that I work in. I do these because these are important building blocks for future work in flight vehicle telemetry and control, autonomous systems, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

In my case, I’m not primarily in the developer role, but rather building up and maintaining the test automation. I configure boards and storage devices, build new kernels, install Linux distributions, look for platform aberrations, etc. Often these are used as build slaves to someone’s build master.

Beyond the day job, I have too many after-hours initiatives. I’m going try to briefly list them here without divulging prorietary information. (What possessed me? How in the world do I do all those things?)

  • Nanoelectronics start-up—I’m on the ground floor of a technology start-up for a different kind of transistor. If it works, it will have a major impact on future space avionics systems, and instrumentation that goes into high radiation environments.
  • Small UAV (drone) development—I’m a strategist/contributor for a small aerospace technology company in developing drones for special applications. Part of my role is reality checking the compute workload for certain types of missions. I examine the computing elements of existing drones.
  • CubeCab—This is a company that wants to launch individual CubeSats into Earth orbit. In 2014, we won the NewSpace Business Plan Competition. My focus is on the avionics side. I’ve had the good fortune to work alongside very smart propulsion people. Getting a vehicle from design to bending metal to actual commercial launch is a hard road to travel. But we’re still on that road.
  • Silicon Valley Space Center—I’m the Communications and DevOps Director. This is really two different roles merged into one. Communications involves getting the message out to SVSC friends and members. This goes into e-mail, onto the SVSC website, and into Facebook. DevOps is a contraction for “development operations”. This is a cross between IT operations, installing new versions of software, and developing a new platform for emerging needs. I also host a series of “TechTalks” by small space startups who have built satellites, propulsion systems, communication and tracking networks, etc. These have mostly taken place at the Hacker Dojo.
  • Experimental Rocket Propulsion Society—ERPS is involved in developing liquid propellant rockets. Like many other rocket groups formed in the 1990s, their vision is cheap access to space. Their first rocket was launched in 2003; some of the people involved in that launch have gone on to important industry roles. My original role was simply to host monthly meetings over at the Hacker Dojo. In May 2017, to my shock, I was elected to be President of ERPS. I decided that if they were going to do this to me, I was going to introduce some of my own initiatives. :-) So far, reception has been reasonably positive.
  • ASTRA—I might as well confess to it. ASTRA was conceived with the notion of enabling rapid incremental development of technologies to reduce the cost of access to space. This means flight platforms which help to mature a technology by flying it at relatively high frequencies and low cost. Shortening development cycles reduces the overall cost of a product. It is also important to give new technologies “flight heritage”. Without this, it is very difficult to get a new part or technology accepted into missions where the stakes are higher.

So if you were wondering why you haven’t seen posts from me for many, many months, that’s why.

Clearly, this is a bit too crazy. Some people believe that in doing all this, I am managing “controlled chaos”, an essential skill for managing a successful start-up. Believe me, it is not by design, and some consolidation or re-prioritization is clearly in order.

As I sort through this, I will probably share a bit more about these initiatives. In most cases, there is very little published about them, and some could use more exposure while they get their own publishing platforms under control.

Rick on MPR — the cost of space, CubeSats, Space Hackers

If you caught my interview on MPR, then you were probably wondering…  “What is he talking about?? The guy should slow down!!”  So I’ll try to supplement the interview with some written notes here so you can sense what I was trying to say.  (As for the rest of you… you’re wondering… “whaaaa??? What did Rick do?“)

Friday morning, I was interviewed by Doug Turnbull for MPR (not NPR).  We were planning a 15 minute interview, but managed to go for over 30 minutes.  So the interview is being broken into two pieces. MPR is “Mars Pirate Radio“.   Doug is bringing together space science fact and fiction.   I was his “rocket science” guest for Episode I.

Now, I happen to know that my thoughts get ahead of my mouth or my fingers.  With writing, I get to go back and fix what I wrote to make it more understandable.  With interviews, you get the full brunt of zigzagged thought patterns with minimal mercy.  So this time, I tried to organize my thoughts beforehand.  But alas, it is what it is. In any case, here are some notes.

In part 1 of the interview, we talked about the following subjects:

  1. reducing the cost of space flight
  2. CubeSats and nanosatellites

Because time is short to register, in this blog post, I’m also going to talk about Space Hacker Workshop on May 4-5.

Reducing the cost of space flight

Doug made reference to Alan Stern, a former associate adminstrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Stern had postulated that emerging private launch systems could put payloads into orbit for one-third the cost of NASA’s traditional contractors. Doug asked what I thought about this.

First, I need to say a few words about Alan Stern. He is one of the most energetic people I know of.  He’s a driving for behind:

  1. suborbital research in the Commercial Space Flight Federation
  2. Uwingu, an attempt to marry space research and consumer products
  3. Golden Spike, an attempt to build a translunar economy

He’s also the principal investigator of New Horizons, which is currently on it s way to Pluto.

Stern has observed that other scientific endeavors, like medical or green energy, can go to a variety of sources for research money — private foundations or companies, as well as the Federal government. Space is not like that. Virtually all of it is from the Federal government. So he’s trying to change that. He’s trying to build commercial revenue streams which sustain themselves but will then support space research as well.

Do I agree with Stern? Ultimately, yes. I don’t know if my reasoning is the same.

Why would emerging space companies get the cost down where NASA’s traditional contractors haven’t?

When NASA’s traditional contractors began working the space business, there was no commercial market. One did quickly form for communication satellites, but that was pretty much the only market.

Delivering goods to the Federal government, whether it is NASA or DoD or any other agency, tends to be mission-oriented. There are often special requirements. You cannot simply offer commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products. Designing or bending to these requirements adds cost. And if only the government can buy the service, the market will never grow sufficiently to drop the cost.

Left to its own devices, private industry will design a product to appeal to the largest possible set of customers. In fact, it may choose to forego customers for which the requirements are too difficult to satisfy. Instead, the customer will adapt his/her/its practices to fit what vendors in the market have to offer. Thus, development costs are spread over a broad base of sales. The product may be improved incrementally as feedback comes from a large spectrum of users.

Private industry also doesn’t have its mission re-purposed every four years. It also doesn’t endure as much second guessing by members of Congress as Federal agencies do. These interruption to programs ensure the costs stay high.

This is not to say that commercial companies never have to change their mission or practices. They do. If they find they’re not doing what the customer wants, they lose profit and die. But they are typically not blindsided by this. When it does happen, it usually means a change of CEO or other top exec of the company.

But ultimately getting the cost of space flight down depends on a building sustainable economic ecosystem. This is a little like building up little towns on the frontier of a new land. Small businesses interact, support each other, find ways to live off the local land rather than have everything imported. This is the kind of transition we’re in now for the emerging space economy.

CubeSats – a standard nanosat form factor

Doug asked me about CubeSats and nanosatellites.

A CubeSat is a kind of nanosatellite. It is 10 cm on a side, for a total of 1 liter in volume. Maximum mass is 1.33 kg. (This defines the standard 1U CubeSat. There are also 2U, 3U, etc.) It has a standard shape and a standard deployment mechanism.

In the past, a larger satellite required virtually all of it to be custom built. While the situation is starting to improve, they have not progressed as far as CubeSats.

CubeSats have a standard frame. There are a few commoditized parts now on the market, like solar panels, or batteries, or data computers. This means that satellite designers don’t have to worry about all these infrastructure details. This is good for university students as well as business and research. Payload builders focus more quickly on getting the payload designed and built. Businesses can shorten their development cycles. The cost of a CubeSat is currently around $60K to $100K, including launch costs.

This started about 1999 when Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Stanford Univ collaborated on the CubeSat spec. I believe Prof. Bob Twiggs at Stanford University came up with the idea of a standard nanosat infrastructure. Prof. Jordi Puig-Suari and his students came up with a spring loaded container and mechanism which would hold and then push the satellites out into orbit.

Due to improvements in microelectronics, CubeSats are getting to be increasingly practical. Just to see how far this can be pushed, NASA Ames will be launching a CubeSat called PhoneSat later this year. It is, in fact, a Google Android phone. Smartphones todaty have GPS, accelerometers, cameras — a lot of sensors that experimenters want.

The problem with CubeSats right now is that rockets are too large for them. They are sized for huge primary payloads. Often the customer of the primary gets only one shot at getting this particular payload to orbit, and spent hundreds of millions or billon of dollars to make it reliable. As a result, the customer can dictate any rules that secondary payloads must follow. CubeSats frequently hitch rides as secondary payloads. In most cases, it means they cannot have any propulsion, because a propulsion accident in a CubeSat might damage a multi-billion dollar primary payload.

This reliance of CubeSats on secondary payloads is not good for business. You are limited in what you can do, and the primary payload may slip its launch date, all the CubeSats on that launch slip as well.

A small rocket dedicated to CubeSat launches would provide immense flexibility that doesn’t exist today.

Interest in CubeSats and small launchers is currently very high. DoD would like to replace complex monolithic satellites by a formation of nanosatellites and microsatellites that have common structures and communication mechanisms. The component satellites might each have a different function. When that satellite breaks down, a spare can be positioned in its place from orbit or launched from the ground. This creates a demand for launchers that can deliver nanosatellites to precise orbits on a day’s notice.

Space Hacker Workshop

I’m helping the Silicon Valley Space Center (SVSC) and Citizens in Space put on a Space Hacker Workshop on May 4-5. Here’s what’s happening.

Citizens in Space has purchased 10 flights on the XCOR Lynx two-seat rocket.  They intend to fly close to 100 experiments built largely by citizen scientists. To make building payloads easy, the Silicon Valley Space Center is training workshop participants on ArduLab, a CubeSat-sized laboratory module which was originally designed for the International Space Station.

Using components available at Radio Shack or Fry’s Electronics, citizen scientists can build instruments and experiments with more power than a NASA satellite from a new years back. The Space Hacker Workshop will provide hands-on exposure to a variety of microcontrollers, sensors, imaging systems, and other components that you can use to design and build microgravity, fluid-physics, life-science, and engineering experiments.

We’ll be meeting across the street (literally) from NASA Ames Research Center at the Hacker Dojo, one of the premire hacker spaces in the world. The Dojo is home to many successful start-up efforts. It has a robotics lab with lots of used and donated parts. There is a continuing stream of talks and workshops there, including the ones I help organize for SVSC and AIAA San Francisco. (AIAA is the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, of which I am a member. It is to aerospace what IEEE is to electronics.)

The current early bird registration is $100; this will expire on April 18. After that, it goes up $125, and then to $150 at the door if there is space.

Here are some links about the workshop:

If you’ve ever dreamed of putting an experiment in space, here is your chance.  It is in the Lynx, and experiences 5-6 minutes of micro-gravity.  But given that Citizens in Space has already arranged for the rides and is basically looking for worth payloads to fill slots, this is the best opportunity most of us will get to have hands on an experience for something that will fly to space.

A month of drafting (and why would I do this?)

Here’s a piece of artwork that is probably familiar to many who are learning to do drafting and design by computer.


There is nothing special about it, except that I drew this one, following the instructions in the workbook as precisely as possible.1 Actually, I drew half of it. The thin vertical plate, with two bolts, the rod it attaches to, and the guide assembly in the foreground were drawn by me. The vertical block in the back and the darker plate that it connects to were provided as part of the homework exercise.

This drawing is the result of about four weeks of CAD practice using SolidWorks. Half of this was done in the CAD lab at De Anza College, in Cupertino, California.2 The other half was done on my home machine, which I hastily modified to run Windows 7. To my surprise, I was told that SolidWorks requires Excel to manage its bill of materials. The user interface on SolidWorks, and many other CAD programs, is very rich.  By comparison, simple spreadsheet functions (not full Excel) are fairly trivial.

For those of you who think that I am primarily a computer scientist who is picking up engineering, that is perhaps partly true. On the other hand, my diversion into computer science started from engineering.  Decades ago, I grew up using mechanical drawing pencils, T-square, right triangles, a variety of scales, compass, and French curves. (The latter refers to a piece of plastic, not a people or person.)

All this was well before the invention of the personal computer. The programming I did professionally started on IBM System/370 and Amdahl 470  computers, although I had learned on IBM 360.  There was no AutoCAD, no Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator.  These tools came much later with the invention of the raster graphics workstation.  (By contrast, there were tools like CADAM, but I’m told they required mainframe computers.)  So in doing nearly four decades of computing, I managed to miss the computer-aided drafting and design revolution. A better way to say it is, I knew about the revolution, but I had no access.3

Why SolidWorks?  Why not Creo or AutoCAD?  The simple answer is that most of the aerospace groups that I’ve personally dealt with in the last three years were doing mechanical design using SolidWorks. Both SolidWorks and Creo (formerly Pro/Engineer) are parametric modeling tools.  So is AutoDesk Inventor.  AutoCAD is not.

After a career of computing, with an excursion into VLSI design, why do this now?  There are several reasons for this.

  1. Back in high school, you could divide up prospective engineering students taking shop courses into two major camps: those with electrical circuit skills and those with mechanical design skills.  I was in the latter camp.  I would much rather deal with Newton’s Laws than Kirchhoff’s Laws.  (A couple of decades later, I decided that a serious engineer should be grounded in both. However, I should caution that I know very few engineers who actually deal in both.)
  2. In recent years, I’ve gotten into discussions with aerospace people about various aspects of vehicle design. This includes small launch vehicles, and small satellites and making them survive re-entry.  We’ve even talked about exploration of planetary bodies and their moons with dense atmospheres.  One of these projects is progressing beyond the design concept phase.  I’ve discovered that in doing a vehicle design, I am very hampered by not having a drafting table or CAD software.  Furthermore, analysis of some of these designs will require computerized finite element methods.
  3. The technology of 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) is emerging beyond rapid prototyping.  Industrial use of 3D printing is taking off, and consumer 3D printers are beginning to emerge.  For space exploration, it is even more important.  It provides an alternative to continually bring up finished products from Earth to orbit, and then launching them onto interplanetary trajectories.  It makes more sense to process raw material in very little gravity and energy, and utilize the resulting feedstock in 3D printers to create space structures.

For the immediate future, my goal is to work on small vehicle designs and hopefully explore 3D printing.  And perhaps design my own furniture.


1. The design exercise for the drawing is from Engineering Desgn with SolidWorks 2012 by David C. Planchard & Marie P. Planchard.

2. Yes, I now have a real student ID card and student parking permit.  And I am feeling the pain of homework deadlines.

3. Strangely, in the late 1980s, I ended up working with senior designers on full-custom design of VLSI circuits. For a while, I had pretty good access to VLSI CAD, although I didn’t have any prior training in the field.  A little over a decade later, I supplemented that with courses in VLSI and ASIC design.

Happy 2013 (Farewell, 2012)

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. :-)

Aerospace America

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