Agency Spotlight | Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation

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SAN FRANCISCO — The Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation (VCSI) is not a traditional not-for-profit research and development center because it focuses on finding work already underway in industry, academia or government organizations and|applying it to meet new requirements.

“We don’t want to be engaged in extended research,” said Marty Kress, VCSI executive director. “We are very product oriented.”

In one of its first projects, VCSI paired a radiometer being designed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., with an antenna built by engineers at the University of Central Florida and sensors from the University of Michigan and the Georgia Tech Research Institute. The result is the Hurricane Imaging Radiometer (HIRad), an instrument designed to fly on a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk unmanned aircraft measuring rainfall and wind speed on the ocean’s surface for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This type of collaborative effort with multiple partners representing multiple organizations is exactly what VCSI was established to tackle. While the Huntsville area is home to universities, businesses and government agencies including NASA Marshall, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) and the Missile Defense Agency, it has not been the site of much defense or space manufacturing activity, Kress said. VCSI was conceived as a way to capitalize on the local resources, better integrate their activities and spark local manufacturing, he said.

That approach is evident in projects like the Fast Affordable Science and Technology Satellite-Huntsville, or FASTSat-HSV, a microsatellite scheduled for launch Sept. 5 on a Minotaur 4 launched from Kodiak Island, Alaska. In 2008, VCSI began working with NASA Marshall and the Defense Department’s Space Test Program to develop the small spacecraft. The project involves 13 subcontractors and Dynetics, a Huntsville-based company that invested $4.4 million in exchange for the rights to future production of the microsatellite.

FASTSat-HSV is scheduled to carry six payloads into low Earth orbit, including three atmospheric research instruments for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a technology demonstration for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, Kress said. FASTSat-HSV also will carry a CubeSat developed by NASA and SMDC that includes a miniature solar sail.

“For all these different projects and activities we are building different coalitions,” Kress said. “There is sharing of ideas and assets and hardware.”

The Huntsville business and industry leaders who asked Kress to establish VCSI were seeking this type of collaboration. “The vision we had for VCSI is being realized,” said David King, former director of NASA Marshall who invited Kress to Huntsville. “I believe we are just getting started — that VCSI will continue to be more successful as time goes on. This is an example of how non-profits can play a tremendous role in bringing technologies to bear that meet real needs.”

VCSI also is involved in a cooperative effort with NASA Marshall and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory to develop a robotic lunar lander that is scheduled to be tested this fall inside a facility at Edwards Air Force Base in California. By the end of the year, the lunar lander is expected to undergo additional testing at the U.S. Army Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

VCSI was established in August 2006, approximately one year before the U.S. recession began, but Kress said the economic downturn was a good time to introduce a new business model. “We are offering a rapid prototype or an engineering demonstration in a shorter period of time for less money than the competition because we have a unique approach both from the management side and from the technology side,” he said.

Before joining VCSI, Kress served as deputy director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, led the staff of the Senate Commerce science, technology and space subcommittee, and worked for Battelle, the giant independent research and development laboratory in Columbus, Ohio.

At VCSI, he directs a staff of five full-time employees and “a couple of part-time interns,” said Kim Webb, VCSI business operations manager.

VCSI is located on the grounds of the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, a 76,000-square-meter facility that houses scientists, engineers and researchers working for NASA and local universities as well as 33 laboratories, clean rooms and high bays.

As a not-for-profit, VCSI has several advantages. For example, government customers can waive federal acquisition regulations to streamline the development process. Federal legislation also allows not-for-profit institutions to retain the intellectual property rights for their inventions, Kress said.

VCSI has 12 dues-paying members representing businesses in Northern Alabama that support the center’s mission and programs. The dues provided by those members in addition to government contracts cover VCSI’s expenses. Whenever VCSI makes more money than it spends, it invests in technology research and scholarships. VCSI has provided about $125,000 in college scholarships to science and engineering students in Alabama and Virginia, Webb said.