Who Me, Start a Company?
I usually keep my personal and professional lives separate but today is special. I founded my company, Skycorp Incorporated in March of 1998. I got the idea from Alan Steele’s book “Orbital Decay” and its successors. Good science fiction, very realistic and very human. In the book there is a company called Skycorp, based in Huntsville Alabama that was building a solar power satellite and a lot of other (if you read the rest of the books in the series) large space projects up to and including an O’Neil colony. My thought was that this is the kind of company that I want to build and it was the crystalizing of my space interests that go all the way back to my early childhood and the Gemini and Apollo programs. However, the reality of building a space company that can do those kinds of things is considerably different than my understanding and vision of the time.
The truth is that when I was a kid, even looking at the space race, I never dreamed about running a company. I figured I would be a physicist working for NASA or some big company. My friends kidded me and called me Spock (it was that era). Where we are from in Alabama you go to school, grow up and then go to work. Some go to college and then go to work. A few start a small business and go to work and work more than if you are working for someone else. We never had entrepreneurial role models. Our family either went into the military, or worked at a company. I didn’t find out until I was well into my 30′s that my great grandfather and grandfather were railroad engineers!
When I was in my 20′s a friend of mine in California and I started a company selling computers but quit doing it because business was booming and it was interfering with our skiing time. It was a business model very similar to Dell’s. During the 80′s I was a non degreed engineer in the California computer industry, which at that time was a meritocracy where the good were promoted. We had a marvelous time but I wanted to do space. When I applied for jobs in Aerospace (Rockwell, Boeing, Lockheed), I was either told that I could not do any design work without a degree (Boeing, Rockwell), or the job screening process (to work on Hubble as a test engineer) took so long that I turned the job down. I turned it down partially because I was already in school. Even though in the computer industry I had responsibility for entire technical departments, production lines, or large technical projects, I did understand that if I wanted to do space, it would take a degree.
So, in 1987 I left the good jobs in the computer industry, moved back to Alabama, and went to school at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). I am forever glad that I lucked out and went to UAH because at the time there was still an amazing cast of characters that were still around from the Apollo era. I was such a space nut that I had to get an apartment within sight of the Saturn 1 at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. It was my inspiration and I used to spend a lot of time over there looking at the hardware. At UAH many of the professors were from the Apollo era and some were the German rocket scientists that had left NASA and were into their third careers.
Since I had contacts in the L5 society (soon to become the NSS, merging with the Von Braun inspired National Space Institute, I was able to meet several of these people. One that probably inspired me the most was Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, one of the fathers of American ion propulsion efforts. He was at Teledyne Brown engineering working on drop towers for microgravity and was kind enough to take time to answer all of my questions about space and he schooled me on the value of ion propulsion to spaceflight. I also met Konrad Dannenberg, Dr. Von Tiesenhausen, and many others. I even met General Bruce Medaris (father Medaris, then an Anglican Bishop), Von Braun’s boss in the Army. I also met and became friends with amazing people like Gordon Woodcock, Dr. Charles Lundquist, Dave Christensen, Dr. S.T. Wu and Dr. John Gilbert from UAH, and many others who build the hardware that took us to the Moon and beyond. Here is a picture of Dr. Lundquist lecturing Von Braun and Oberth on orbital mechanics!
The point is that I had an amazing group of mentors there in Huntsville that helped me look beyond the horizons that I had before.
I was able to get extremely low paying student jobs at UAH doing real hardware and science. With my background in the computer industry and in the university environment I was able to do stuff that otherwise I would have had to have had a degree to do! While this sidetracked my degree, making it take almost twice as long as it should have, I was able to work on a very wide range of hardware. I built microgravity measuring systems for the Black Brant sounding rocket (CONSORT 1-6) and on an ill fated sounding rocket mission (JOUST-1). I have my own ballistically implanted reef!. I and my team that we started building of students at UAH did a lot of other projects as well. This was all through Dr. Lundquist’s Consortium for Materials Development in Space (CMDS) and through Dr. S.T. Wu’s Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR)
In 1989 I was one of the early founders of the Lunar Prospector project, which later flew in the 1990′s. We started our own small satellite project at the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDSAT-1). We raised $6.5 million dollars in cash and in kind donations and it flew in October of 1998 as a secondary payload on the Deep Space 1 mission. I flew the first MacIntosh as an experiment controller on the Shuttle on STS 46 in the Cargo bay and on STS 57, 60, and 63 in the SpaceHab module. All in all a heck of a lot of flight experience.
Starting a Space Company
It was only after I was working at UAH and had worked on a lot of space projects that I realized that I probably did not want to work at Boeing or any other large aerospace company or NASA for that matter. I worked with too many guys at MSFC who were great engineers but my student spacecraft was the first flight hardware that they had ever been involved with. I also saw the politics and how a great space center (MSFC) was being systematically dismantled from Washington by leadership that had no idea what they were destroying. We are still reaping the ill fruits of those decisions.
So, at about the time of my graduation with an engineering physics degree and a lot of flight hardware, I founded Skycorp. I still had no idea what I was getting into…. Rather than go into a lot of gory details, I introduce to you, my reader, my company website…
I ask you to peruse the site and see what we have accomplished over what is now 14 years. As this post is getting long I will leave you with my website. I will do a separate post on my lessons learned in developing a space company. If you look on my site you will see a lot of projects and the lessons learned in the pursuit of those projects is what I want to discuss next……..
For almost 15 years I did not do a Skycorp website. I never found anyone to give it the look and feel that I wanted. The exception is my favorite space artist Mark Maxwell, but I have always been so involved that I never took the time that it would take for he and I to do it as I would have had to have written all the text anyway.
Some of these projects people who know me, know about. Some of them you don’t. Some of them are still emerging and will go live soon. It is beyond time for Skycorp to come out of the closet so to speak and after spending the time to develop this site, which will continue to develop, we are proud of the things we have done and look forward to the things that we will do!
Please let me know what you think……