Leaving Bigelow Aerospace

20 03 2016
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Image of the 2100-cubic-meter “Olympus” mockup in the A3 Building at the Bigelow Aerospace main campus in North Las Vegas.

While I can’t speak too explicitly about the circumstances surrounding my departure, it’s time for me to update these chronicles to report that I’ve left my position as lead human factors analyst and radiation modeler/instrument designer at Bigelow Aerospace.

I expect that this news may perplex many readers who know how long I’ve been working toward a position precisely like the one I held at Bigelow, and the confusion would be well-founded without a view to the many experiences I’ve had these last two years.

Clarity, perhaps, may be best expressed (without violating company Non-Disclosure Agreements) in the immortal words of a certain legendary Jedi.  Quite simply, Bigelow Aerospace’s destiny “lies along a different path from mine.”  …at least for the foreseeable future.

A Little Context

It’s taken me some time to compose this post in large part because the entire Bigelow Aerospace experience has been an exercise in extremes.   Frankly, I haven’t been sure how best to distill what exactly it is that’s happened in the nearly two years since I started there.

Those who follow the industry will recall that Bigelow suffered a recent round of deeply-cutting layoffs, reported as between 20% and 30% of the staff.  While I was not amongst those shown the door shortly after the New Year, I will admit that this event did influence my decision to leave.

However, in the interests of moving forward, I’d like to focus here not on the motivation for my leaving, but rather, on revealing what it is that I’m walking away with.  Much, as it happens, can be learned by just spending a little time working at a small NewSpace company in the thick of the newest “Commercial Space” movement…

Interdisciplinarity is the New Black

Versatility and adaptability are not just advantageous attributes for those seeking gainful employment at a small NewSpace firm like Bigelow… They’re demanded by the nature of the work.  There, one doesn’t just wear ‘multiple hats.’  Those with the most longevity become experts at balancing and nimbly flipping between a spire of dynamic headwear as they sprint from need to need.

For instance, any of my given Bigelow mornings might have started with a conventional task, like formalizing human factors safety requirements or recommendations.  Before long, however, I’d be interrupted by a “fire drill” research effort – something like identifying power requirements or a mass budget for a particular life support system aboard the International Space Station.  This could be followed by performing a critical document peer review that a co-worker needs turned around quickly, which I’d barely have finished before getting pulled in as a “fresh pair of eyes” for a meeting on something I’m only tangentially related to, like power system depth-of-discharge.  Then, after managing a few more minutes on the task that started the day, I’d get entangled with having to help manage something like an unexpected spot audit for the radiation safety program or helping to bend Swagelok tubing for a looming deadline.  Finally, we’d be informed at the end of the day of an impending emergent project or task we hadn’t seen before, which would be our new priority one.  So it went…

My point is that, in much of the NewSpace world, companies’ smaller sizes make it a great commodity to be able to serve a useful role at any number of conference tables, laboratories, or shop floors on a given day.

Making Big Dents (whether you want to or not)

In many conventional aerospace firms it might be difficult or at least extremely time consuming (years) to make a ‘dent’ in the company, i.e., contribute in a way that makes a noticeable and lasting mark on a program or programs.  No so with smaller NewSpace firms.  (Quite the opposite, in fact.)

AdobePhotoshopExpress_2016_03_20_13:50:31

The officially unofficial Bigelow Aerospace Crew Systems Program patch I designed in 2014. (Our motto, “Homines Ante Omnia” means, “Humans Before All Else,” or more loosely, “Crew First!”)

Take for instance the latest incarnation of the Crew Systems group at Bigelow Aerospace, which I helmed.  From designing the program’s first complete Concept of Operations on down to performing practical evaluations of physical items and procedures for future crew astronauts, I had an unprecedented opportunity to get my hands on the meat of a division’s scope of work, tasking, priorities, approach, and hiring.

In fact, I was shocked at how quickly I was given enough rope to really create something unique that pushes the envelope… (or hang myself if I didn’t think it through.)  Such is the nature of the beast at companies that must be nimbly staffed and move quickly to adapt to the needs of an emerging market.

Unfortunately, for the smallest companies, it seems that making a dent is almost a certainty.  This is true even (or perhaps especially) for those who under-perform.  In this case, missteps by even one engineer or manager have a capability to cripple an entire program or cost the company years in terms of lost time when work has to be re-done.

Don’t Get Too Attached

Given market fits and spurts or the risk of R&D grants not being renewed before something is ready to go primetime, etc., the odds are pretty high of a specific project you’ve been working on getting shelved, at least temporarily. Not to despair, though — if the company is still around, it usually implies that management is following the money/clients to more successful work.

(Take even the patch I mentioned above: after a management changeover, much of the earlier work we’d accomplished needed to be re-approved.  However, as a super-low priority, getting something as programmatically-cosmetic as a patch approved by upper management slipped between the cracks upstairs, and so to this day, the logo became officially unofficial.  Perhaps this will remain a vestige of our work to be replaced by a future incarnation of the Bigelow Aerospace Crew Systems group.)

Be Ready to Learn

I mean this in the truest sense.  Prepare yourself.  I’ve learned more about the aerospace field in the last two years than I did during a lifetime of leisure reading as an enthusiast and years of academic work on the subject(!).

Specifically, be prepared to hinge your skull back and brain-guzzle for the first few months, if not the first year.  The pace is breakneck and the content oh-so-alluring for those who share a passion for space.

The lesson types are threefold:

  1. Academic-style learning, that being more along the lines of facts and figures, e.g., “What kinds of tanks are used to store oxygen outside the Quest airlock on the ISS, who makes them, what are their properties, and how much do they cost?”
  2. Programmatic learning, e.g., “What do we need to get this piece of hardware from TRL-2 to TRL-9?”
  3. Lessons-learned – potentially the most valuable, e.g., “If only we had this particular expertise, we might have been able to meet this deadline or fill this critical knowledge/experience gap!”

If anything, my time at Bigelow taught me that if you’re not ready to learn, then NewSpace isn’t for you.

Looking Ahead

Despite the fact that my first foray into the aerospace contracting world is behind me, 2016 promises some exciting adventures.  With a little more time and energy available to me to devote to the blog, research, finishing up a Master’s Degree, and pursuing some field adventures of the cataclysmic kind, stay tuned for a lot more from Astrowright…

…and as always, Semper Exploro!

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2 responses

21 03 2016
Leaving Bigelow Aerospace | robert's space

[…] Source: Leaving Bigelow Aerospace […]

22 03 2016
Allan Palmer

Ben, you will now have the chance to extend your reach…best wishes for success in your future. From one who has been down that road several times and enjoyed the journey. You will too…

Allan

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