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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Thinking outside the circle

6 11 2010

There’s a new coalition of businesses and organizations on the block.  Called the Coalition for Space Exploration, the group recognizes the many benefit of space exploration to society, and they’re going to take the message to the people.

According to their mission statement, the Coalition plans to “ensure the United States remains the leader in space, science and technology by reinforcing the value and benefits of space exploration with the public and our nation’s leaders, and building lasting support for a long-term, sustainable, strategic direction for space exploration.”

I think it’s high time someone took up this cause!  I’ve personally always taken issue with NASA’s PR machine, and though NASA does a great job in producing material for the public, it’s never been so great (in my opinion) at getting it out to them.

The Coalition for Space Exploration is currently shopping for interested members and partner organizations.  Sporting a cool position video, a news clearinghouse, and a blog, there’s a fair amount of content for an organization that hasn’t been around long.  Check them out if you get a chance.

Considering how important I think space exploration is to our future, I can’t imagine a more worthy cause.





Space Race Ads, Society, and a Book Alert

17 07 2010

Illustration of a manned nuclear exploration spacecraft and landing capsule in Mars orbit. Credit: Douglas/TIme Magazine, 1963

This one hits close to home for me.  I’ve been collecting space advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s for some time now, and I even have a few gems under glass hanging on my office walls.  Why?  Because they’re meant to inspire.  Truly inspire.  And not just through the now-dated imagery of flashy ships and alien worlds – just the text is intended to fire up the mind and spirit.  Let me give you an example, (sans-illustration for effect):

TOUCHDOWN ON THE MOON (1953)

  • “When the first space ship touches down on the moon, who will be its passengers?  Not the grownups of today, but our grandchildren or great-grandchildren.  In their imaginations may lie the final answer to man’s dream of conquering outer space.  Books for the young that stimulate the imagination are a specialty of Rand McNally …  textbooks and books of nature, science and adventure.  Who knows but that some youngster may find in a Rand McNally book the inspiration that will lead another step closer to travel in space?  And perhaps when that first space ship touches down on the moon, the pilot will check his bearings by Rand McNally maps.”

That’s it.  No pushing of products, no sales pitch for a new line of books or maps.  This is an entire ad funded by Rand McNally that is simply intended to inspire a reader about the amazing possibilities that await, and to let them know that Rand McNally is planning to be a part of it.

The effect is greatly magnified by the dominating illustration of a lunar lander that, for being a concept sketch, looks remarkably like what the real lunar lander would wind up looking like sixteen years later.

Apparently, the entire world was like this for a couple of decades.  Full of vision.  Sprinkler companies took out ads declaring with pride their involvement in nuclear rocket tests by providing fire suppressions systems.  O-ring companies for cars took out ads entitled, “WHEN WE MAN THE IRON MINES OF MARS,” proposing that when off-world resourcing takes off, they’ll work to be a part of it.  We were going to own the future and make it ours.

I don’t think we really realize today just how much of an effect our social marketing has on our outlook on life as a society.  At least, I can say that I didn’t realize it until I started finding and reading these advertisements.  Almost immediately, I found myself suddenly more optimistic about my own dreams of spaceflight.  And then it hit me – these things really do affect what we think about and how we view the world.

Take another example, again (I know, some may groan,) just the text:

HE OPENED THE DOOR TO SPACE…

“It was small compared with the giants men send up today.  And for all the racket it didn’t go much higher than the barn roof.

This didn’t matter to Robert Goddard.  The big thing was that it flew.

They’re all over the front pages now.  Rockets with names like Atlas and Explorer and Vanguard probe the heavens and stretch for the moon, chipping away at space… because a young physics professor from Worcester, Mass., taught them how.

But in those days only boys were supposed to take rockets seriously.  They discovered them in the books of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.  Bob Goddard did.  And he carefully noted in the margins whenever these friends violated scientific fact.

At college his first experiements filled the labs with smoke.  Later, with savings from his modest salary, he shopped hardware stores for “rocket parts.”  And in his workshop a dream began to have shape.

On a cold March morning in 1926, out on his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, the dream took flight.  With the first successful launching of a liquid-fueled rocket, Bob Goddard turned science fiction into fact.

And he made us remember something, this stubborn Yankee professor … that America is a land where free men have made a habit of doing the impossible.  In such a climate no boy’s dreams are ever really out of reach.

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.”

That’s it!  See?  No pitch!  No promotion!  Just an ad, (a big ad, beautifully illustrated with a painting of Goddard shielding his eyes from the light of that first test on the farm,) making us all remember that we as Americans stare danger in the face and eat impossibility for breakfast.  Incredible!

In the web of day-to-day exposures, especially in the 21st century with digital media coming at us from all directions, our outlook is heavily influenced by what we unintentionally see or read.  Are we an instant gratification culture, or do we think about the future?  Or do we think at all, or just react?  Much may be told about our society at any given time through the eyes of our advertisements.

Not that it would ever happen, but I think modern corporations should take a nod from their fathers’ ad men.  They should take the time, (and, yes, money,) to help us see the world as it might be.  -Help us to remember our strengths and see how we might all participate in creating a better, more exciting future.  We did it before, and then we went to the moon.  I don’t think that’s coincidence.

So, if you’re interested, but you don’t want to go through the time and trouble of finding some of these ads for yourself, don’t worry.  This brings me to my second point – a new book has just been released from historian Megan Prelinger, entitled “Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962.”  In it, she visually documents through page after page of reproduced ads how the companies that would be the first to take us to space recruited the men and women who would be the ones to figure out how to actually do it.

A must-have for any serious, aspiring astronaut as well as the more casual space enthusiast.

-Or maybe for advertising executives that want to change the world for the better.  Again.








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