Kevin Heath, the former SpaceDev business development manager preparing to open a spaceflight training school in Houston this summer, has already made his mark on space history.
Heath’s signature is among those adorning the nozzle of the hybrid rocket motor SpaceDev built for the $10 million Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne, the suborbital spaceplane on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
It was during his time with SpaceDev — now part of Sierra Nevada Corp. — that Heath began to see the need for Waypoint 2 Space.
“I noticed a lot of these people were focused on the vehicles but nobody was talking about how to train these people that were going to go up,” Heath said. “So that’s when I started thinking, OK, who’s doing the training? And all I kept hearing was the Russians. And I was like, that doesn’t make sense, we’re supposed to be leaders in the space industry, why are we going to Russia to train?”
Heath started looking into the matter and found that while some companies were offering some astronaut training experiences, nobody was providing a complete, end-to-end program. After talking to NASA he concluded that the agency had no interest in offering what he had in mind.
“So I started looking at my own facility,” Heath said.
It was only after the space shuttle program neared retirement that NASA began to show real interest, Heath said.
Heath met Yolanda Marshall, director of strategic opportunities and partnership development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, in late 2010 at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight. “Her spiel was … ‘come down and see what JSC has to offer.’”
Quite a lot, as it turned out. Heath spent the next three years trying to hammer out an agreement with Johnson’s engineering directorate that would allow Waypoint to train its initial students using the same equipment and facilities NASA uses to train its astronauts. Use of the facilities would be handled under the umbrella of Jacob Engineering’s $1.9 billion JSC Engineering, Technology and Science contract, with Waypoint paying NASA about $1 million a year for the access and contractor support.
That agreement encountered fresh delays in January, however, prompting Waypoint to accelerate plans for its own facility, relying on NASA primarily for technology transfer.
Heath spoke recently with SpaceNews Deputy Editor Brian Berger.
Are you still on track to open the school this year?
Yes. We have spent the last eight months developing the curriculum and facility and training equipment requirements, and our program just received Federal Aviation Administration safety approval. We are working with NASA on technology transfer agreements and believe we will have the first of many of those executed in the next several weeks. In addition, we are working toward signing a lease for a 10,000-square-foot [929-square-meter] facility and are ordering some of the long lead items as we speak. We are also working with Jacobs Engineering and other engineering companies to begin construction of the larger training equipment and simulators and still plan to be fully operational by June.
What about students?
We have received many applications and are sifting through them to determine if they qualify and when they would be available to schedule their training.
What do you need from NASA?
We are working in collaboration with JSC to transfer technologies they currently use to train their astronauts to our facility while at the same time developing and integrating new technologies that are of benefit to both commercial and NASA programs. JSC has recently agreed to let Waypoint 2 Space personnel have access to the Engineering Directorate’s facilities and equipment through our existing contract with Jacobs Engineering. This access allows us to finalize the technologies and equipment we will be using for our program. Then we will work in collaboration to get our facility up and running while giving JSC access, technology co-development and overflow capabilities.
Can you give me an example of the collaboration you envision?
One of the training experiences we’re offering is called the ARGOS, or Active Response Gravity Offload System. It offsets your gravity so you can do a lunar or Mars or fully weightless environment. With a parabolic flight you get about 25 seconds’ worth of weightlessness, and with the ARGOS you’re weightless all the time. We’re going to build our ARGOS bigger than NASA’s and we’re going to build two of them. So now all of a sudden you have the ability to train four people, two in each. And now instead of doing a lunar walk that’s two steps you can do a lunar walk that’s 100 feet [30 meters]. So that’s something NASA’s really interested in. We’re also going to integrate virtual reality into the ARGOS so you’re now going to be seeing like you’re in space but you’re going to be grabbing real hardware and you have the ability to do that on a bigger setup.
How does NASA benefit?
They’re giving us the baseline and then they’re going to turn their ARGOS into a demo lab where they’re going to try the latest and greatest things and then implement them into ours. That will benefit NASA astronauts too because right now you can only train one astronaut at a time on NASA’s system and ours will be able to train two to four. So this might be a situation where we’re helping NASA train two astronauts on one of them and we’re training two commercial spaceflight participants on the other.
In addition to ARGOS, we’re talking to David Clark Co., ILC Dover and Final Frontier Design because, say, NASA comes out with, “Oh, we need a new glove,” and they do a competition for it and they award a bidder. Well maybe there’s a better solution out there but for whatever reason the guy writes a crappy proposal or can’t get the right funding or whatever but he never gets his shot to get to NASA. What’s interesting about our program is we can implement new technologies and have our customer base be the test bed and they don’t care because they’re trying out new stuff, the latest and greatest coolest thing, and the glove maker gets real world data they can take back to NASA and say, “Look what we’ve done.” Now all of a sudden they can benefit, and we can benefit because we can implement those technologies into our training and then ultimately the commercial spaceflight market can benefit because they can use that stuff as well. So it’s a win all across the board.
What is Waypoint offering that a would-be astronaut can’t already get from the National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Pennsylvania?
NASTAR has a great program but they are primarily focused on suborbital training and we are offering a fully comprehensive training program starting with a presuborbital program called Level 1 — Spaceflight Fundamentals: An Introduction to Astronaut Training, and post-Orbital and Payload Specialist programs, in addition to our Level 2 — Suborbital program. We believe our Spaceflight Fundamentals program meets the spirit or the intent of the informed consent piece of the Commercial Space Launch Act. In other words, after going through our Spaceflight Fundamentals program the spaceflight participant has the knowledge and experience to be able to make an informed decision on where to go next: suborbital or orbital. Without this basis to draw from, the spaceflight participant would potentially have no idea as to what they are getting themselves into by just buying a ticket, training for a day or two and then flying.
I’ll give you an example. I waited for two hours to go on the X2 roller-coaster ride at Six Flags in California. I had no idea what I was getting myself into but since there was a long line it must be good, right? Well I rode on it and to this day I honestly don’t remember much, if anything, about it. It was such an impact to my body and mind that my senses were overloaded and I couldn’t enjoy the ride. Waypoint 2 Space trains you so thoroughly that we prepare you for almost all eventualities and we overload your senses here on Earth so that when you do fly you get the most enjoyment as possible out of your flight.
So Waypoint is entering a field essentially without competition?
Our only real competition right now is the program the Russians are doing through Space Adventures. They’re the only ones with as comprehensive a program but still we’re the only domestic program that is doing as much as we’re doing. I read about a survey where people were asked, “If you wanted to train like an astronaut where would you train?” Sixty percent said the U.S. It’ll be interesting to see when they redo that study once we’re up and running what the response is then, because we’re basically dead center of the country and working in collaboration with NASA.
How much do you charge for the training?
It’s $45,000 for the entire week. You show up on Sunday, we pick you up at the airport and we drop you off at the airport on Saturday. Everything’s covered but your airfare.
Will you be hiring people who have trained NASA astronauts?
We already have. Dr. Kelly Soich, he’s my director of programs. He worked for Oceaneering and he literally got in the tank; he trained the astronauts when they were in the tank. He also is an Air Force reservist; he’s a navigator on the hurricane-hunter planes. So this guy has got quite the résumé and when I looked at it, I thought there was no way I can afford this guy. He’s a Ph.D., the guy’s a stud, and I’m like, “I would love to talk to you but I can’t pay you what you want, there’s no way.” And he goes, “I’m not doing it for that. I’ve applied to be an astronaut three times, I want to go.” So we had a stack of people like that at JSC and all over the country so far that I’ve met at my conferences that have just said, “this is awesome, how do I do it?”
Where is your startup funding coming from?
We have an angel investor who is funding us until we launch in June. We hope to train 300 people this year.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @Berger_SN