Category Archives: Silicon Valley 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.

There and back again

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the SpaceX Falcon 9 return-to-flight and landing-on-land that happened on December 21.  But if not, here’s what you missed.

In general, SpaceX webcasts can be fairly educational. But here we’ve jumped immediately into the action. Here are some associated timestamps (mm:ss):

  • 22:00 – T minus 1 minute to launch
  • 30:20 – Coming up on first stage entry burn
  • 31:30 – Some cool math on return of the first stage, crowd at SpaceX starts to  go crazy
  • 32:45 – Landing happens, crowd is really crazy, with views of SpaceX mission control and Gwynne Shotwell (CEO) in the center

You can take your pick of watching a lighted ball descend on Times Square to mark the new year,  or a Falcon 9 first stage landing.

I was visiting a space start-up holiday party at Moffett Field, CA, when it happened. We made sure to project the launch and landing on the wall as we celebrated the holidays, solstice, etc. Nothing like being in a crowd of space entrepreneurs when you think history is being made.

Space entrepreneurship at Moffett Field?

Moffett Federal Airfield. On left of runways, NASA Ames, Hangar One. On right, Hangars Two and Three.
On approach to Moffett Federal Airfield. On left of runways, NASA Ames, Hangar One. On right, Hangars Two and Three.  (Photo by I. Kluft.)

One of the landmarks of the San Francisco bay area is Hangar One, located at Moffett Federal Airfield. It was built in the early 1930s to house lighter-than-air ships, specifically the USS Macon. The field started as Naval Air Station Sunnyvale, but was renamed in 1935 to NAS Moffett, in honor of Admiral William A. Moffett, who died in the crash of the airship USS Akron in 1933.

In its history, several federal agencies and military branches have been located there, including the Navy, Army Reserve, and the Air Force. It is also home to NASA Ames Research Center, which started there as the NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in 1939, on recommendations of a committee chaired by Charles Lindbergh.

Crossroads for Moffett

The airfield and surrounding land are now at a crossroads. The General Services Adminstration and NASA have put out a request for proposal (RFP) to lease either just Hangar One, or the whole airfield, including Hangars One, Two, and Three.  This particular post that you are reading started out as a reply to questions posed in the Mountain View Voice, the community newspaper of Mountain View, the town on the western border of NASA Ames. Mountain View is home to Google, and was once also home to Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, Adobe, etc. To south of the field, right under the approach to the runway is Sunnyvale, current or former home to a variety of other tech companies. Hence the original name of the field, NAS Sunnyvale.

There is a lot of debate about the future use of the field and the hangars. A couple of years ago, one plan called for ripping out the runways and using the land to house World Expo 2020.  This plan seems to no longer be viable.

HangarOneReleased in May, the RFP allows for a couple of two kinds of proposals: (1) just Hangar One, or (2) the airfield, including Hangars One, Two, and Three. In the first case, it seems NASA (via the California Air National Guard) would continue to operate the airfield. In both cases, the airfield would remain operational.

I have just started studying the RFP. There is nothing I see in it that allows the hangars to be torn down; if anything, there are varying levels of rehabilitation required. There may be reimbursable costs, but it is up to leasee to make the field financially viable. NASA Ames and the NASA Research Park in front of Hanger One are not part of the RFP, and remain under NASA control.

There appear to be four interested parties getting ready to submit proposals:

  • Google (presumably through its related company H211 LLC)
  • International Space Development Hub (ISDhub)
  • Silicon Valley Space Center (SVSC) and its Moffett Federal Airfield (MFA) Alliance
  • Earth, Air, and Space Center of the  Air and Space West Foundation

Of these groups, at least a couple of them seem intent on space entrepreneurship: ISDHub and SVSC. The Google founders have invested in space companies, but there is no indication of whether or not space entrepreneurship would factor into its proposal. Thus, what space entrepreneurship means for Moffett Field will depend on who wins the lease.

Among the key problems: Hangar One was stripped of its external skin, which showed evidence of asbestos. That job was performed by the Navy before it handed the airfield over to NASA. A protective coating has been applied to the skeleton. But the hangar need to be reskinned by whomever is the winning leasee of the property.

The opportunity

(Disclosure: For regular readers of this blog, it is no surprise that I am an SVSC member. I am not one of the key personnel on the SVSC/MFA Alliance proposal. However, I’ve worked with other SVSC members on projects, and have had opportunities to talk to the founders of companies being incubated through SVSC. I represent the AIAA SF side of the Small Payload Entrepreneur TechTalks which are co-sponsored with SVSC.)

The opinions below are mine. They reflect my current thinking on the future of Moffett Field. If/when the proposals are released for public consumption, I might change my mind on some aspects.

In my view, using Moffett Field for endeavors other than aerospace development activities would be a lost opportunity. There is collaboration that can come from pulling several complementary companies together in a single setting. There are suddenly a lot more potential users of products concentrated together; discovering common needs comes much more quickly. These users may be NASA or small companies in the area.  In effect, as new economic supply chains emerge, participants are able to identify their current niches, and discover missing links and opportunities. [mod:0926]

To me, NASA Ames has demonstrated more interest and support for commercial applications in space than any other NASA center.  It had the Space Portal long before the rest of NASA put such a priority on commercialization. The NASA Flight Opportunities program at Ames matches technology with research flights all across the country; it is helping to accelerate the maturity of hardware to be used in space. These programs stand to reduce the costs of space flight even faster if Moffett Field is dedicated to that kind of collaboration.

Mastering aerospace complexities

What about technologies other than aerospace? Would only aerospace companies reside in an aerospace entrepreneurial research park? There are two answers to this:

1. Concentrated aerospace.  The unique value of Ames is to be able to pull developers of various parts of the aerospace ecosystem together in a single place. There are experts at Ames in various aerospace problems and technologies. The National Full-scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC) is at Ames. The Arc Jet Complex, used to test materials for atmospheric entry, is at Ames. The Lunar Science Institute is there. The Astrobiology Institute is there. The list goes on and on.

There are things that researchers at Ames want and entrepreneurs would like to offer. Rather than travel (which the GSA has managed to restrict), conference calls, and shipping intermediate deliverables around the country, which usually have to be highly focused activites, this opens up the ability to informally affect secondary and tertiary effects of technologies, leading to quicker feedback and optimization.

If you want to develop better computing technologies, or simply want to have a manufacturing line, there are other places in the Valley to do it.  And close proximity to a flight line is not necessarily conducive to those activities, particularly if it is not a shipping port for manufactured goods.

2. The truly complex nature of aerospace.  Ultimately, the goal of an aerospace enterprise is to design, construct, or integrate a flight vehicle that accomplishes a class of missions.  For larger projects, the undertaking is so complex and has so many spin-offs that large aerospace companies sometimes identify themselves as systems companies.  The complexity and resulting cash flow requirements are just too high for the vast majority of entrepreneurs. Starting with aeronautics, the field traditionally includes: aerodynamics, structures, propulsion, and controls. But when you get to satellites, the dominant discipline is electronics.  This can be broken into power systems, sensors, computing, communications, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. I expect to see boutique companies focusing on a single or a small cluster of disciplines. The integration of these disciplines makes aircraft or launch vehicles possible; this is virtually impossible for entrepreneurs to do, except for the most well-financed.

The smallest flight vehicle that an aerospace company might attempt is a small satellite or an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs). In such enterprises, an orchestrated solution for power, communications, sensors, attitude control, and overall resource management is being attempted. For serious UAVs, structures and mass are traded against propulsion, which may be traded against aerodynamics. Successful flight vehicles need expertise in all these areas. Concentrating so much intellectual power in an entrepreneurial company is a major challenge.

Thus, the most likely scenario is to see companies with highly focused products or activities which are able to occupy a niche in an aerospace supply chain.

Museums

As for museums, I don’t see an inherent conflict between space entrepreneurship and having part of Hangar One as a museum.  If you go to the Computer History Museum, The Tech Museum, or the California Science Center down south, the exhibits show how technology works and what the potentials are for the future. The challenge would be how you cost-effectively add value above and beyond the other excellent venues that are already available in the region.  Furthermore, NASA Ames has a Visitor Center at the entrance just off Highway 101. Would that continue as an independent venue, or be folded into a museum in Hangar One? Presumably, those who are proposing a museum in Hangar One are figuring that out.

If you dedicate a substantial part of Hangar One to a museum or other educational center, then you will need the rest of the airfield and its facilities if you also want to support space entrepreneurship. Some entrepreneurial work will involve chemicals, gasses, or other hazards which probably should not be present in a public venue.  Otherwise, you need to accept from the outset that such activities cannot be pursued on the premises.  (Since Hangar One is a historical site, they may not be allowed anyway.)

What is at stake

The decision on how to lease/manage Moffett Field has major repercussions for the future of space entrepreneurship.  It is possible for it to struggle along in Silicon Valley, but increasingly, companies will find that it is more expedient to move out of California to Texas (home of the Johnson Space Flight Center), or Colorado (home to a lot of spacecraft design and construction), or other states that want space business.

The infusion of capital from Silicon Valley, where half of venture capital deals are made, is likely to accelerate the maturity of new commercial space operations.  This is much more likely to happen when companies are located within easy access to venture firms.  (Local residents understand the relationship between projects spun out from Stanford University and Sand Hill Road, which is just west of the campus.)

To be sure, a large portion of aerospace vehicle design and construction happens in southern California. That concentration of talent has allowed SpaceX to rise very quickly.  The concentration of experimental flight vehicle talent around Mojave, just north of Los Angeles, makes possible Scaled Composites, XCOR Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, etc.  However, some of these entrepreneurial companies are moving manufacturing and test operations to Texas (particularly, XCOR and SpaceX). Other states would certainly like to be home base to aerospace vehicle design and manufacturing, e.g., Alabama (Marshall Space Flight Center), Mississippi (Stennis Space Center) and Florida (Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center), and even Virginia (Wallops Island). If companies don’t want to stay in California, there are welcome mats in a lot of other places.

The decision for the next phase of Moffett Field lies in the hands of NASA and the GSA.  The residents of surrounding communities have their preferences on what they want to see, based on good and bad experiences with other local enterprises.  Space entrepreneurs badly want to enable technology for humans returning to the Moon, reaching Mars, and settlements on both.

The next phase of Moffett Field is more than just the next side-effect of base realignment when the Navy and Air Force pulled out.  It has potentially a major impact on how quickly a commercial space economy gets a foothold beyond Earth orbit, and how soon NASA’s limited resources can be freed up for more robust exploration missions.

[PostScript: Since I originally pushed this post out a few days ago, I’m making occasional small fixes, chiefly spelling or grammatical.  Paragraphs that have such mods are marked with [mod:mmdd], where mmdd is obviously the month and day of modification.  Given the readership I’m seeing, there may be a need to expand of a particular aspect of this article.  But I’ll deal with that as a separate post at this time.  –RSR]

Synopsis of events – 2 weeks ending March 2, 2013

[Modified on Mar 7 to add Feb 25 launch of STRaNDS-1.]

A lot of things have happened in the past two weeks, since asteroid 2012 DA14 passed near Earth and a previously unknown object impacted in Russia.  Alas, I’ve been short of time to comment on the events since then.

As an alternative, I hope to simply briefly mention significant events, either past or upcoming, and provide links to them.  Some these will only be of interest to Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area, where I operate. Others will be events which have been referred to me through reputable sources. And then there are a few surprise news items. The ones which involve AIAA SF and SVSC are certainly in the Bay area, in fact, in Mountain View.

Recent Events

Feb 21 – NASA announced a new Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). [announcement] [STMD website]  It appears that it will take on much of what was previously done by the NASA Office of Chief Technologist (OCT), which managed some highly innovative programs, and continues as a separate office.  At lot of what I previously saw in OCT functions is now on the STMD home page. I confess, I haven’t figured it all out and don’t know if those of us who try to develop technology will see any difference.

Feb 25 – The STRaND-1 smartphone nanosatellite was launched by an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV C-20).  [announcement]  The phone is a Google Nexus One running Android software with a few innovative apps.  It also has an amateur radio transmitting 9600 bps AX.25 on 437.568 MHz.

Feb 25 – I helped host an AIAA SF/SVSC talk on the Mission Control Technologies (MCT) software package, which was developed at NASA Ames, used by mission controllers at places like the NASA Johnson Space Center.  The presentation was primarily made by team lead Jay Trimble, but accompanied by three other team members to field diverse questions about the package.  MCT is an open source package; during the talk, at least one Java-skilled developer downloaded it and began to explore it.  Assisting us in the meeting was Darlene Damm of DIY Rockets, who told me about an upcoming SXSW event.  (See item below on March 9.)

Feb 27 – Dennis Tito, a multi-millionaire aerospace engineer and the world’s first space tourist, unveiled Inspiration Mars, a effort to send a pair humans on a fly-by of Mars starting January 28, 2018. [YouTube]  Apparently, this type of fly-by can only be done every 15 years. Thus, the next possibility would be 2033. The technical details of the accompanying feasibility study will be shared in the next few days.

Mar 1 – SpaceX launched a Dragon spacecraft capsule atop a Falcon 9 on their second Crew Resupply Services mission (CRS-2) to the International Space Station. [press release] There was a problem with the attitude thruster pods when the Dragon got to orbit; one of four was working and they needed two. The problem was apparently fixed a couple of hours later. Rather than March 2, Dragon will be expected to berth with the ISS on March 3.

Upcoming Events

Mar 9 – A panel discussion on “Crowd-sourceing the Space Frontier” will be part of the South by Southwest event (SXSW), March 8-17, 2013, in Austin, Texas. The panel, on March 9, will include Anousheh Ansari, principal sponsor of the Ansari X-Prize; Edward Wright, project manager at Citizens in Space; Christopher Gentry, manager of the NASA Open Innovation Program; and Darlene Damm, founder and co-president of DIY Rockets, which is planning to make some announcements there. (SXSW website) (moonandback.com article)

Mar 19-20 – AIAA 2013 Congressional Visits Day (website) AIAA members converge on Capitol Hill and raise awareness of aerospace issues. The AIAA public policy process, which involves members of its technical committees and others, has developed a set of key issues for 2013.

Mar 25 – Deep Space Industries will elaborate on its plans at an AIAA SF/SVSC TechTalk. Yes, I’m helping host it.

Apr 12 – Yuri’s Night, the world space party.  Friends tell me it’s a lot of fun.

Apr 24-26 – 10th Annual Spring CubeSat Developers’ Workshop 2013, San Luis Obispo, CA.  [website]

Jun 3-5 – Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference 2013, Broomfield, CO. [website]

Jun 17-21 – 10th Interplanetary Probe Workshop (IPPW 10), San Jose State University, CA. [website]

Engineering Curiosity’s EDL

Note:  The announcement below is from the San Jose State University College of Engineering. This talk is being given tomorrow (Jan 24, 2013).  I’m posting it now to give people a head’s up, and because there doesn’t seem to be any other web announcement of the talk.  As I get more precise details, I’ll update the page.  If you are a participant or have more specifics, feel free to leave a comment. One more thing, if you saw JPL’s excellent “7 Minutes of Terror” video prior to Curiosity landing on Mars, then you know who Anita Sengupta is. Here’s chance for a more detailed look at Mars entry, descent, and landing … aka EDL.

 

SJSU MAE Dept Seminar
Thursday, Jan 24, 2013, 5-7pm
SJSU Davidson College of Engineering, San Jose

Engineering Curiosity’s Entry Descent and Landing on Mars

Dr. Anita Sengupta
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

 Abstract

This August NASA landed its most capable robotic geologist on the surface of the Red Planet. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission landed a 2000 lb rover, the size of a compact car, to explore the planes of Mars. The rover, aptly named Curiosity, will search for organic compounds, characterize the climate and geology, and continue the search for life.  One of the most challenging aspects of the mission, from an engineering perspective, was safely landing the rover on the surface. The entry descent and landing (EDL) system used a heat shield to accommodate its hypersonic entry conditions, followed by a supersonic parachute, and eight retro rockets for the powered descent phase. For its final terminal descent, a maneuver called the sky crane was used where the rover was lowered on tethers for touchdown. The talk will describe the motivation for Mars Exploration and how the MSL EDL engineering challenges were tackled with computational modeling and cutting edge experimental techniques.

The Speaker

Dr. Anita Sengupta is an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). She has been developing entry system and propulsion technologies for Mars, Venus, and deep space missions for the past decade. She is currently the Project Manager for the Cold Atom Laboratory Mission, an ultra-cold quantum gas experiment to be launched to the International Space Station in 2016. She previously was the lead systems engineer for the MSL supersonic parachute, leading the development of a Mars Ascent Vehicle, the principal investigator for the Orion Vehicle Drogue Parachute Subscale Test Program, entry system lead for a Venus lander mission, lead systems engineer for a Mars Sample return mission concept, and Co-Investigator of several plasma propulsion development programs including VHITAL, NEXIS, and Prometheus 1. Prior to joining JPL she worked in industry on the Delta IV Launch Vehicle, X37 Vehicle, Space Shuttle, and Commercial Communication Satellites (XM-radio). She received her PhD and MS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Southern California, where she is currently teaching Spacecraft Design in the Astronautics Department. She received her BS in Aerospace Engineering from Boston University.

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.

TechTalks

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.

Meanwhile….

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