Tag Archives: Sierra Nevada Space Systems

A hell of a good universe: let’s go!

“This is the century of human exploration in space,” astronaut Bonnie Dunbar told the audience at a Science Luminaries event, part of the Seattle Science Festival, last night at the Museum of Flight. It was an interesting declaration as Dunbar and fellow space shuttle astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson, who also spoke at the event, are among the space pioneers of the previous century.

The Pacific Science Center has been the lead organizer of the festival. The Space Luminaries event leaned heavily toward the awe and wonder and dreams of science. It included art, too, as members of Seattle Opera performed selections from “The Little Prince”  and members of Seattle Aerial Arts performed dances called “Weightlessness” and “Space.”

Bonnie Dunbar

Bonnie Dunbar. Photo: NASA.

Dunbar told her story of being inspired by the night sky while growing up in the tiny town of Outlook in the Yakima Valley. The stars got her reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and dreaming about building her own spaceship and flying in it. Her eighth-grade teacher encouraged her to take algebra, a college physics professor nudged her toward engineering, and she eventually did build spaceships and flew on five shuttle missions.

“I was lucky because along the way I had very special people who let me dream,” Dunbar said. “I was always encouraged to share my goals, not to be bashful about them. Always to try to achieve excellence and do the best I could at everything, because in the end that’s really what helps us go forward.”

Nelson’s first shuttle mission was to repair the Solar Maximum satellite, the first time NASA had tried to rendezvous with and fix something already in orbit. He said there were two main objectives for the mission.

“One, it was an expensive solar observatory and we wanted to restore it so the scientists could do their work,” Nelson said. “The other—this was in 1984, at the height of the Cold War—we wanted to show the Russians that we could pluck a satellite out of the sky and do whatever we wanted with it.”

Even with such a serious mission, Nelson said that, as he left the shuttle un-tethered and floated out toward SolarMax, the little kid in him took over.

Pinky Nelson

George "Pinky" Nelson. Photo: NASA.

“One of the coolest things that an astronaut gets to do is go outside,” he said of the experience. He recalled looking around, at the shuttle and the Earth below and thinking, “I can’t believe they let me do this!”

Nelson, now director of science, mathematics, and technology education at Western Washington University, is not shedding any tears at the end of the space shuttle era.

“The space shuttle is an amazing engineering achievement,” he said, adding, “I think it’s appropriate that they retired it. The technology is pretty old. It’s time to move on and do something else.”

The something else is private industry, and various companies are working on spacecraft to get people and cargo to and from low-Earth orbit.

“They are incredibly important and valuable, and I wish them success,” Nelson said. “I hope they all get filthy rich and bring a lot more people into space than we have in the past. But it’s not an easy thing to do.”

One of those giving it a shot is Sierra Nevada Space Systems, whose head Mark Sirangelo was the evening’s final speaker. Sirangelo is another dreamer who was flying airplanes before he could drive motor vehicles.

Mark Sirangelo

Mark Sirangelo. Photo: Sierra Nevada Space Systems.

“Life is really about passion and love,” Sirangelo said. “One of the wonderful things about being in this industry is that you really get the sense of passion. You get a lot of people like Pinky and Bonnie who looked up to the stars and said, ‘I want to do something.’”

Sirangelo has certainly done something, too. Sierra Nevada has been part of missions to the Sun, Moon, and seven planets. It built part of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity that is on its way to the Red Planet, and worked on the system that we hope will land it there safely in August. Their big project is a re-usable spacecraft—the Dream Chaser.

“We called it the Dream Chaser for a reason,” Sirangelo said. “You can follow your dreams. You can go out and do things that are amazing. You can go out and push the boundaries.”

Sirangelo said they did some testing of Dream Chaser just a few weeks ago, and it seemed to excite and energize people. They tried to keep it low-key, but he drily noted that flying a spaceship over Denver was bound to attract attention, and the company received much correspondence and art inspired by the spacecraft.

“That’s what this is really about,” he said, “to be able to inspire the future of who we are and what we’re about. That’s how I was inspired as a little boy to start building things and looking to the stars.”

“Virtually everybody who is in the industry felt that way,” he added.

Dunbar, who is heading up Boeing‘s efforts on higher education and STEM strategic workforce planning, continues to dream of a Moon base or a human flight to Mars and figures it’s not “if” but “who” and “when.”

“We must not forget to explore,” Dunbar said. “We need to inspire the next generation to help us go forward. No nation has ever suffered from exploring, but those nations that have stopped exploring have disappeared into history.”

Nelson said he thinks that art and exploration are the most important things we can do to improve our quality of life and standard of living.

“I’ve been lucky as an educator and a scientist and as an astronaut to be a part of exploration in lots of ways,” he said. “Exploration of physical space, exploration of  ideas; to me there’s nothing more important than that.”

He finished his talk by quoting a line from a favorite poem by e.e. cummings:

“There’s a hell of a good universe next door. Let’s go!”



Engineers become dreamers at NASA Future Forum

With a panel of aerospace engineers set to discuss commercial space investments and their benefit to the nation at the NASA Future Forum Dec. 9 at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, one was prepared for some heavy number crunching and rocket science. Instead, the group of representatives of various firms involved in commercial spaceflight focused entirely on the intangibles of inspiration, innovation, and vision.

A great example comes from Sierra Nevada Space Systems, which named its space vehicle Dream Chaser. Mark Sirangelo, head of the company, talked eloquently about the appeal of the industry.

Space Investments panel

A panel discussed Commercial Space Investments and Benefits for the Nation at the NASA Future Forum Dec. 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. L-R: Moderator Doug King, president and CEO of the museum, Phil McAlister of NASA, Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX, Peter McGrath of Boeing, Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Space Systems, Robery Meyerson of Blue Origin, and Steve Isakowitz of Virgin Galactic. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It’s being able to see something built and grow from nothing, from an inspiration,” he said. Sirangelo noted that the companies involved are full of dreamers, and used Seattle’s aerospace giant as an example.

“There was a Boeing. It was a family and it was a person like we are,” he said. “We’re individuals who believe in something and believe that we can make a difference and be able to change something in the future.

“That’s the personal inspiration for me, being able to do something that hasn’t been done in this way before, to be able to fly something that I hope to be able to fly in the next few years, and understand that this is something that we’ve designed and built and developed. There’s no better satisfaction than being able to take that dream and make it a reality.”

Most of the panel participants were of similar age to the author. I was born two weeks before the launch of Sputnik, so my life is the space age and as a kid I was fascinated by the race to the Moon. It is the reason I am interested in space and astronomy today. Everyone on the panel told a similar story. Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said it’s important to remain interesting to the next generation.

“Space has to be cool. It has to be cool to be technical and enter into these kinds of fields,” Shotwell said. “Space is the best place to inspire children to do great things and study hard and focus on changing the world.” Her message to kids: “It’s OK to be a nerd!”

Peter McGrath of Boeing is a chip off the old block—his father also was an aerospace engineer—but he, too, took inspiration from Apollo.

Boeing Santa

The St. Nick on duty at the Museum of Flight seems to have a preference for the local aerospace company. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I would also say it was seeing somebody walk on the Moon,” McGrath said of his career motivations. “We need to create that next environment, somebody walking on the Moon, to really energize the next generation of aerospace engineers.”

“We’re a nation of explorers,” said Robert Meyerson, president of Blue Origin. “Space represents that next frontier. I believe that strong investments in science and technology will make us stronger.”

The engineers did get around to tackling some problems. Steve Isakowitz, chief technology officer for Virgin Galactic, said the cost of space flight is a big hurdle. He noted that technology is making a lot of things easier and cheaper; Moore’s law holds that computer power doubles every 18 months while the cost drops. Unfortunately, that has not yet translated to space.

“In fact if you look at the economics of space travel, the cost has either remained the same or even increased, depending on how you do the math,” Isakowitz said. “I think the challenge to the panel here is to change that, to create our own law. Perhaps every five years the price of space travel will be cut in half, so that more and more people will have the opportunity to enjoy space travel and allow us to push the frontier of space exploration.”

NASA of course remains the major player in the field, but Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said it’s perfectly logical for the companies represented on the panel to help take us to space.

“For lower orbit, where the International Space Station travels, that’s a place that we’ve been many times over the last 40 years,” McAlister said. “So we feel like it’s time now to transition some of the responsibility for launching crew and cargo to low-Earth orbit to the private sector.”

McAlister also noted that having the private sector involved will provide a buffer of sorts to the vagaries of federal spending.

“If this commercial crew and cargo industry takes off we’re no longer dependent on just NASA’s budget going up and down,” he said. “The private market will spur these innovations, spur these opportunities, so when kids get closer to high school they’re going to see these opportunities. It won’t just be about NASA. The pie will be bigger.

“That’s why I believe this is the right path not only for NASA but for the nation.”

You can watch the entire panel discussion on the NASA TV video below.