A Journey through Microspace

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I got started in microspace through amateur radio and AMSAT. In the early 1980s I had the unusual experience of spending evenings building small satellites in a garage in Redondo Beach, Calif., paid for essentially with small contributions by the team that was building them, while during the day working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and then TRW, where it was insisted that without something close to $1 billion there wasn’t much you could do other than paper studies.

Maybe it was a naïve idea but I thought that there must be people who were willing to have less “mission” for less money and that it was worth exploring what could be done for them. The result was not AeroAstro; it was a period of eight years of going from one organization to another, with each saying it wanted to pursue the microspace idea, and each finding some reason or other that it wasn’t practical.

Finally, I thought: If I really believe in this, I have to do it. I can’t wait for someone else to make it happen. The result was that I founded AeroAstro in the basement of my house in Reston, Va., in the fall of 1988. At that time there was one employee besides me, it had zero income and my wife did our books on paper ledger pages because the lack of activity didn’t justify using a computer. The two of us were handy with computers and thanks to Apple’s focus on graphics and the new technology of page layout, we were creating proposals that looked like they were coming from a “real” company. That, plus a lot of enthusiasm — I was running around the country and the world proselytizing microspace — and we were able to meet a few people and organizations willing to take a chance on us. The first was Los Alamos National Lab, from whom we were awarded our first spacecraft contract in 1989. That satellite was built in my house by a group of about 13 and delivered to Los Alamos in less than a year. It worked wonderfully for many more years than any of us would have predicted.

Skipping forward almost 20 years and many satellites and subsystems later, with the support of a majority of the AeroAstro board, I arranged the sale of the company to Radyne in 2007. Paul Lithgow, who was at Radyne at that time, was brought on as our chief operating officer. I had already decided that I would be leaving eventually, and Radyne knew that. If I had planned to stay for another 20 years, I would not have sold, but it was part of my own strategy that after 20, almost 21 years, plus two with George Sebestyen building small satellites at DSI and then a total of six in the industry in California (JPL and TRW) I wanted to do something different. I always loved AeroAstro but I needed a change. I thought the “revolution” of small satellites was pretty much a fact and what was needed was a serious manager who could make the company a stronger business entity. Radyne and Paul seemed to be that package.

There was always a division of philosophy within the company. I was more interested in remaining with very small satellites, from a few hundred thousand dollars to maybe $5 million and staying mostly under 100 kilograms if not 50 kilograms. Most of the rest of the employees favored growing the company and increasing the size and complexity of our projects and products, and rather than do an either/or we essentially did everything in that whole size category up to a few hundred kilograms, as evidenced by STPSat-1 and the Joint Milli-Arcsecond Pathfinder Survey. But to me that’s a different niche and one I’m less interested in — I like particularly small and low-cost missions. So again, it was easier for me to leave as the company’s mission shifted toward larger, as had happened in Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) and Spectrum Astro.

Now Comtech Telecommunications Corp., which acquired Radyne in 2008, is closing down AeroAstro.

In terms of what it means to me and the industry, those are two different topics. To me it is a sort of a finality — I never intended to go back and I have an entirely different life now. I don’t get too emotional about a company, which is a legal entity that can change missions, ownership and employees, but still after more than 20 years and all the people, sure, it has some emotional content. But it is more an underscoring of a reality I accepted in 2007. I had hoped for the sake of the people there for a more exciting and rewarding ride, but I don’t blame anyone for that not happening. I know the crew worked very hard, and it’s too easy to second guess later.

For the industry, I don’t entirely believe the microsatellite revolution is a fact of history. I work with many space organizations around the world, and there is widespread lack of understanding of what small space is and what small missions can do. The world is still mostly frozen in concepts of the past in terms of what we can do in space and how we can do it. We have been trained since the 1950s to think in terms of “missions,” long time frames and large budgets. Normal life is not like that — at least not exclusively. It does take 20 years to educate a child into an adult, but we also do things every day that are more ad hoc — we decide to enjoy a movie or to take a week vacation in the mountains. That doesn’t exist in space, and it should.

To use an overused analogy, look at computers. When I did my thesis in the late 1970s, they were for scientific modeling and analysis and business accounting — IBM. Those missions still certainly exist — more so than then. But then there are personal computers where individuals can do the same on a small scale. Spreadsheets and word processing are adapted from those big missions. But now we have smartphones and tablets that we use intuitively without really knowing anything about files, about keyboards and mice. The computer has evolved into a part of everyday life — you don’t see a computer so much anymore even though there are many more of them in use. My doctor pulls out his iPad to show me pictures of my posture and a quick video on exercises I can do to improve it. There’s no apparent computer, no keyboard, no operating system that loads, no software that runs (from the user’s point of view).

Space is still a desert with no services; every satellite is a totally autonomous island, like the covered wagons of the westward migration in North America. It’s quite antiquated, our “modern” space architecture.

So in that sense, the revolution is yet to happen. We have a few revolutionaries out there, mostly considered a little on the flaky side of the crumbling edge, and otherwise it’s business more or less as usual. The boxes shrink a little but given how much smaller electronics have gotten, it’s only surprising our classical boxes haven’t shrunk much more. Lack of innovation in space power is largely to blame there. We have not invested much in the problem of creating aperture in space. But more importantly the mentality of the user is the same.

So is the loss of one company that was not at this point particularly visionary that significant? I don’t think so. America has a lot of corporate activity and the military customer is quite positive about bringing in new blood — something that one does not see here in Europe. If there is a role for an AeroAstro to play, the niche will be populated. And there are certainly others in that niche already, like Sierra Nevada and SSTL’s U.S. division. I would like to see some smaller players, and there are a few out there too, in the U.S. and more in the rest of the world.

I am hoping to see more real revolutionaries — like Sir Richard Branson. I hope Virgin Galactic works, and that SpaceX proves capable of really being different (who knows if they will grow up to be a “the king is dead, long live the king” sort of thing. I hope not!).

And what am I doing about all this? I don’t have the desire to become immersed in another 24/7 activity, nor to be in the commercial sector again. So I’m teaching in Rome at La Sapienza and at Brown University, and that gives me the flexibility to pursue these ideas. I try to infect some students with these concepts to induce new people to enter the field with fresh points of view. And I work at helping others to realize their ideas.

 

Rick Fleeter is founder of AeroAstro.