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

Neil Armstrong – 1930-2012

Neil Armstrong with X-15

By now, the passing of Neil Armstrong is well known. He died on Saturday, August 25, 2012, at age 82 from complications following heart surgery three weeks earlier.

I was sad and upset at the same time, and both for the same reason. The first man to walk on the Moon did not live to see a new generation of humans return there. It should not have been this way.

My great fascination while growing up was not Apollo, but the X-15 – a hypersonic research aircraft which Armstrong flew. Thus, I was able to follow as he switched from being an NACA/NASA research pilot to an astronaut on the Gemini and Apollo missions. (He also flew in the Korean War. As a research pilot , he flew of variations of the X-1 along with a whole host of other aircraft.)

He largely stayed out of the public limelight, and did not cash in on his fame.  Thankfully, he was not as reclusive as Howard Hughes, but continued to educate young engineers and was involved in certain NASA review panels.  Only in recent years, did he become more visible, largely driven by the chaos that ensued following the cancellation of the Constellation program by the Obama administration.

Some of us were fortunate enough to hear Neil speak at the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, in Palo Alto early this year. He was there because he was one of the first suborbital researchers, flying the X-15. It was great to hear him talk about the X-15 research program, its goals, and what it achieved. … And then he was like one of us, trying to learn more about how to move suborbital research forward.

A couple of months before his passing, I had publicly (i.e., on Facebook) regressed to using a pocket protector). I had too many pens. (Why? I just do; no good reason.) I was thus taken by surprise to read this comment by Neil Armstrong to the National Press Club in 2000:

“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”

It was stunning how many of my friends identified with that statement, although to my knowledge, I’m the only one with the pocket protector.

As I said, I was sad and upset at the same time. I summed up my reaction to his passing as follows:

“Naval aviator. X-15 research pilot. First man on the Moon. Can we please go back now?”

NASA wants feedback about Nano Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge

I am sporadically following the NASA Nano Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge. It is one of the NASA Centennial Challenges that is run out of the Office of the Chief Technologist. (About Centennial Challenges.) The latest twist is a questionnaire that indicate that NASA is re-thinking the challenge.

The questionnaire

NASA has put out a two-part questionnaire regarding the NSL Challenge. The parts are directed at separate audiences: (1) nano-satellite users/builders and (2) potential launch service providers. The purpose seems to be to ascertain the desires of users/builders in terms of their mission needs, and figure out what sort of contest will help drive launch innovation toward fulfilling those needs.

Announcement of the questionnaire is found on the Federal Business Opportunities site as Solicitation # NNH12ZUA001L. Title: Request for Information – Centennial Challenges Nano Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge. This, in turn, takes you to the questionnaire on the NASA site. Responses need to be returned to Dr. Larry Cooper at NASA HQ. The deadline is September 10. His e-mail address is on the questionnaire.

I think anyone who has a nanosatellite/CubeSat design on the drawing board should respond. I wonder just how many nanosat projects are actually in planning.

As for my personal views on nanosat launchers…

The business case for nanosat launchers

I favor having on-demand nanosat launch service for 1U thru 3U payloads, where “on-demand” means something on the order of a couple of weeks. We cannot do this today.

We also put major constraints on nanosat designers. As it stands now, I see basically two ways to get nanosatellites into orbit. (1) Be a secondary payload, where the primary makes the rules and can bump you off, and you go only when the primary is ready to launch. (2) Go to the ISS on one of the supply missions (e.g., NanoRacks) and get pushed off the station; you will have to show that your payload will not endanger the ISS or its occupants if anything goes wrong. In either case, you have to show that you are not going to put an investment of 10s or 100s of millions of dollars at risk; the primary has every right to grill you and make you jump through hoops.

The way out of that is make the nanosatellite the primary payload, or at least ride with a few other payloads of equal perceived value. That is, you need a nanosatellite launcher. I think this is a critical enabler to get non-space commercial businesses to take advantage of space.

For a commercial company to do research work in LEO (I’m thinking materials or biotech) you need a short development feedback cycle. A company should be able to design an experiment, get it launched, obtain data, redesign the experiment, and go again in 2 or 3 months. With anything longer, the team needs to find alternatives to get or supplement results, or get reassigned to other work until an experiment has flown. At that point, it gets very difficult to make a business case for going to space on a regular basis.


Thanks to Charles Pooley at Microlaunchers for pointing out this new development in the NSL Challenge.

With very minor variation, this post by me was also submitted as a comment to Thespaceshow’s Blog for the date of August 21.  David Livingston, the host of The Space Show, ran an Open Lines call-in program.  Charles was the second caller on that program.

Addendum – Dec. 31, 2012

For those who followed the NSL Challenge this now old news. NASA cancelled the challenge in late November. The challenge had a complex fitful history in getting started. While it was happened, it was perhaps overtaken by other programs, chiefly the Army SWORDS program and the DARPA ALASA program. However, Percy Luney of Space Florida, which was managing the challenge on NASA’s behalf, noted “Without the prize funds provided by NASA, Space Florida is unable go forward with the NanoSat Launch Challenge at this time. We are considering other options.” So as a NASA Centennial Challenge, it is over. But that may not be the end of the story.

Additional info:

Hello world!

Yep.  RocketSciRick is here.  This is a new site and domain.  Content will be added soon (where “soon” == hours to many days).

If you’ve followed me on Facebook, then you probably have an idea of what to expect.  There are other thoughts/observations I’ve posted on other sites, most notably Orkut.  I’ll try to collect some of my thoughts from those sites, select the still relevant pieces, and present them here.