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.)

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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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At the Right Place at the Right Time…

11 06 2014

Two BA-330 modules form Bigelow Aerospace's Alpha Station, with SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 depicted docked, (left and right, respectively). [Credit: Bigelow Aerospace]

Two BA-330 modules form Bigelow Aerospace’s Alpha Station, with SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 depicted docked, (left and right, respectively). [Credit: Bigelow Aerospace]

Finally.

On top of all of the other trouble I’ve been habitually getting myself into during the last several months, a series of unlikely and highly serendipitous events recently culminated in a sudden career shift.  -One that, I might add, I’ve been pressing for and gambling on for some time.

–And for longtime readers, it’s a shift that strikes to the very heart of this blog.  My unorthodox gambit toward the stars, it may appear, may have actually just paid off.

As of two weeks ago, I no longer make the daily drive to the deserted Nevada haunts of the former A.E.C..  Instead, I’m now under the employ of Bigelow Aerospace, LLC right here in Las Vegas(!).

There just aren’t powerful enough adjectives to describe how thrilling a development this has been for me.

(A Lack of) Details:

As a strictly private enterprise, security concerns regarding my activities at Bigelow Aerospace are paramount, so details I can reveal about my position and activities are consequently sparse.  However, I can say that my assignment as a Crew Systems Scientist in the Life Support Systems group, (in addition to serving as the company’s Assistant Radiation Safety Officer), presently has me diving into materials properties in the space radiation environment, with hints of larger project management responsibilities not far on the horizon…

I’ve never enjoyed work more in my life, and suddenly, it seems that everything has come full circle.

Looking Ahead

Growing up in Vegas, I have a deep attachment to the region.  That’s probably why I ended up moving back.  Meanwhile, my suspicion has long been (for a couple of decades, now) that aerospace is the cornerstone industry Southern Nevada has been waiting for and that our economy now so desperately needs.  (See: Assembly Joint Resolution #8, 1999, to learn about Spaceport Nevada and infer the crushing tale of the ahead-of-its-time initiative that might have changed the region as we know it…)  The synergy of Bigelow Aerospace’s location here, the company’s globally-unique, NASA-derived and improved spacecraft technology, and their recent sale of a module to the International Space Station is highly coincidental.

I feel it in my bones that it’s not only Southern Nevada’s legacy, (e.g., NASA Apollo training, NASA-AEC NERVA nuclear rocket program), but it’s Southern Nevada’s destiny to become an aerospace nexus.

Let’s see if I can’t do something about it.

Semper Exploro!





Profiled in Vegas Seven Mag!

16 08 2012

Deanna Rilling, a high-school friend of mine who now writes for VEGAS SEVEN recently reached out to do an interview about all of the trouble I’ve been getting into lately.  Well, the article came out – and if you’re interested in hearing me talk about growing up in Las Vegas, the relationship between jazz improvisation and frontier science, my role on a National Geographic television series, and my high hopes for the aerospace industry in Nevada, read on!

The article link is as follows:  “Head in the Stars





Boeing, Bigelow conduct CST-100 drop test over Nevada desert

30 04 2012

The CST-100 successfully touches down on the playa amid a puff of dust. (Credit: BLM)

Aerospace giant Boeing and commercial space-station manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management Ely District’s Caliente Field Office, conducted a relatively quiet spacecraft parachute drop test of Boeing’s Apollo-styled Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft this past April 3rd.  The event, attended by local media and several bystanders, occurred over a remote playa in Delamar Valley, located 50 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Aside from the fact that the test was a success and another commercial orbital spacecraft is that much closer to operation, (see SpaceX’s upcoming launch of their commercial spacecraft, Dragon,) most noteworty in my view is the fact that the event experienced a near-complete lack of media coverage.  To me, this hints at the exciting, implicit truth that an increasingly hum-drum attitude toward commercial space events, (oh, another private spacecraft test,) seems to indicate that the commercial spacecraft market is becoming firmly established. 

-It isn’t necessarily “news” anymore.  It’s (finally!) just reality.  Welcome to the 21st Century.

Personnel inspect the CST-100 following the parachute drop test. (Credit: BLM)

Using an Erickson Sky Crane helicopter, the Boeing-Bigelow joint test was carried out by lofting a test capsule to an altitude of 7,000 feet and releasing it, putting the parachute deployment systems through their paces under true field conditions.

Boeing Commercial Programs Vice-President and Program Manager John Mulholland called the parachute drop test of the CST-100 a “…tremendous milestone that brings Boeing one step closer to completing development of a system that will provide safe, reliable and affordable crewed access to space.”

Additional tests scheduled in 2012 include a second parachute drop test, a series of landing air bag tests, a jettison test of the forward heat shield, and a hot fire test of the maneuvering and attitude control engine.

The ultimate success of the CST-100 is strategically-important to Bigelow Aerospace, which has continually delayed the launch of their first human-rated space modules until comemrcial spacecraft like the CST-100 have been proven spaceworthy.  (Also, a preferred partnership with Boeing means the CST-100 is first in line to transport paying customers to future Bigelow space stations.)

For the complete set of photos of the successful test, click here for the BLM Nevada Flickr image collection.





Airships: A century from prototype to spaceflight?

24 02 2012

An airship that might have been, from "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." (Credit: Paramount)

Airships.  There’s a certain nostalgic thrill to the streamline, art deco aircraft heyday that nearly was.

To the point (and as illustrated above): the Empire State Building’s observation tower was originally intended to serve as a mooring point for airships.

Achieving the power of flight by harnessing a buoyant gas is simple, reliable, quiet, low-velocity, and (after shifting away from using an explosive gas) veritably safe.  -And to many’s surprise, it might soon take us to space.

USS Shenandoah, U.S. Navy ZR-1, under construction in 1923.

Early 20th Century

Many don’t realize that the United States had airships in military service, which were outgrowths of a German design reverse-engineered after World War I.

For example, from 1922-1923, the first rigid airship, ZR-1 USS Shenandoah was constructed.  Several subsequent military airships flew under the American flag prior to World War II until they became tactically obsolete.

Early 21st Cenury

Now, after decades of work, volunteer-based aerospace firm JP Aerospace has its eyes set on an orbital airship as a gateway to the stars.

Ascender airship being serviced. (Credit: JP Aerospace)

How does it work?  The system is essentially 180-degrees apart from the rocket-and-fanfare, minutes-to-space spaceflight that we’ve all become accustomed to.  Instead, two separate classes of airships and a transfer station in-between slowly loft cargo to orbit over a matter of days.

The process is something they call “Airship-to-Orbit,” or ATO.

Essentially, an airship-to-orbit spaceflight program represents finesse versus conventional rocketry’s brute force.

Though there are still engineering challenges ahead, JP Aerospace is powering through tests of their magnetohydrodynamic thrusters and are continuing toward a stunning run of 67 high-altitude balloon and sensor platform ascents.

So, a century from prototype to spaceflight?  It certainly looks possible.  And if there truly is merit to the airship-to-orbit concept, based on how quickly JP Aerospace has been able to achieve flight benchmarks on a volunteer basis, then just imagine what could happen with serious backing by a government space agency.

Food for thought.

Personally, I love the architecture.  There’s something about truly alien competition to conventional spaceflight providers that I think is sorely needed.

Ascender 6000 on approach. (Credit: JP Aerospace)





Excalibur back in British Isles!

23 02 2011

One of the two Excalibur Alamz Limited (EA) space stations being delivered to the Isle of Man. (Credit: JCK, Ltd, IOM)

…commercial spacecraft manufacturer/provider Excalibur Almaz (EA), that is.  And they ferried two partially-constructed commercial space stations with them.

The Almaz Crew Module as premiered in Russia earlier this year. (Credit: Excalibur Almaz)

A primary competitor to Bigelow Aerospace on the commercial space station frontier, EA has leveraged 20th-Century Russian military space technology in a bid to accelerate a fully-functioning private spaceflight program to orbit.  Because it is based on preexisting technology, (which was originally known as “Almaz,”) primary elements of the spaceflight system have already been through flight testing, giving EA a distinct research and development (i.e., cost) advantage.  They’re currently working to update the Almaz space system.

Should EA’s number of flights grow to six a year or more, (according to their recent press release,) it would be economically-feasible for them to launch and sustain the legacy space stations on-orbit for government and academic research as well as space tourism.

If EA is able to complete their modernizations quickly, they’d be at a distinct advantage compared to Bigelow in that EA is developing both spacecraft and space stations as part of their program.

Bigelow is reliant on someone else’s spacecraft to reach their inflatable habitats.





Bigelow Aerospace preps new digs

22 02 2011

Rendering of a commercial space station composed of Bigelow Aerospace inflatable modules. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

It appears, in the interest of furnishing the new space digs (read: inflatable orbital space modules) they’re poised to launch, Bigelow Aerospace has secured a partially exclusive license from NASA.

The license is for the cryptically entitled, “Apparatus For Integrating A Rigid Structure Into A Flexible Wall Of An Inflatable Structure,” – or as I read it, “Fancy brackets to allow walls and floors to unfold as an inflatable module inflates.”

This is what one would need to, say, loft a station complete with prefabricated compartments – ready for commercial customers and occupants.

To me, this is a very exciting development, especially on the heels of NASA’s recent hint that Bigelow might be providing one of its modules to test on the International Space Station.  This means imminent progress.  A company wouldn’t pay to license technology without the reasonable expectation of a turnaround, and sooner rather than later.

The advent of the private space station appears to be completely on track.








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