Saturday, March 14, 2015

Swiss Space Systems... in Florida!

You've heard me mention Swiss Space Systems in passing and may be wondering what a Swiss company has to do with Florida. That, too, is what I wondered two years ago when I received a message from a new LinkedIn connection telling me about the educational and outreach components of his company S3 and mentioning a visit to Florida. Thankfully, I was familiar with S3 already. At the time, I was the lead analyst for the industry analysis company NewSpace Global and had just completed a study of S3 after the company's public announcement. Their interest in Florida surprised and excited me. I immediately put my new connection in contact with some business development people in Florida who I knew would be able to assist them in their activities.

They did indeed visit Florida in July of that year. I had breakfast with the Swiss cohort when they arrived, meeting my online connection and his colleagues. The excitement they exhibited to be in Florida was palatable! I would be excited to visit Switzerland, but this was to a different level. Florida's Space Coast is synonymous with space exploration, and these were all space enthusiasts like myself. We talked about NASA's historic achievements and the recently ended space shuttle program which hit the area hard when it ended. I told them about the surrounding universities and the space-related research being done. I briefly described some of the spacey locations and facilities in the area. I urged them to see the really cool things that the area has to offer during their tour later in the day.

One year ago today, S3 hosted a Florida office inauguration event at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Speeches were given, presentations were explained, and the milestone was celebrated with food and socialization. I hung out in the KSC rocket garden (yes, that's what we call our collection of old rockets standing vertically) with some of the Swiss, enjoying the lovely Florida evening. We went out for dinner after. They spoke in English for my benefit, and now that I think about it, my French isn't any better today than it was one year ago!

In November, I became the Manager of Florida Operations. This means that I'm handling everything that we need to do to make S3 successful in Florida. We have our upcoming “zero G” microgravity parabolic flight campaign which I'm really excited about. In Florida we will take off and land on Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), the huge runway where the space shuttle orbiters used to land. We are working on a spaceplane that will fly suborbitally and launch small satellites into orbit.

(As a physicist, I can't in good conscious use the terms zero G or weightless without quotes, because the force due to gravity G is always there. It's really a net zero G due to the freefall acceleration, but even that isn't accurate because there's some tiny bit of residual force at any given time due to the imprecision of technology and the interactions with the air current outside. I prefer the term parabolic flight which describes the shape of the plane's trajectory and makes no judgment on the experience inside the plane. NASA prefers the term reduced gravity, which is also accurate but broader, describing other plane trajectories that can produce analog lunar or Martian gravity conditions, for example.)

This diagram of a plane flying a parabola is taken from one of our company presentations, because it is said a picture is worth a thousand words. I haven't had the opportunity to look out the window during one of these parabolas, but I have been told that the horizon becomes nearly vertical as the plane nearly nosedives to the ground. A scary sight! But the plane is specially modified and the pilots are specially trained to make these roller coaster moves over and over and over. I've been on two parabolic flight campaigns previously, though that's a topic for anther entry.

As you can imagine, flying on one of these flights is a ton of fun! It's one of the most exciting things I've done in my life. In full disclosure, I did get horribly sick during the second half of my second flight (which is why they nicknamed it the vomit comet), but I did decline to take the motion sickness medication before we took off so I am partly to blame. I would go up again in an instant, over and over and over!

In addition to being fantastically fun, there are scientific benefits to certain experiments. I intend to write about microgravity experimentation at great depth in the future, but for now, I'll just say that the approximately 20 seconds of microgravity per parabola is enough time for certain well-conceived experiments to do some real science that couldn't otherwise be done on Earth. These flights are also a good stepping stone to longer suborbital or orbital flights where the microgravity time ranges from 5 minutes to years.

The parabolic flight campaign on our wide-body Airbus jet is the first stage of our air-to-launch space system (hence the company name, Swiss Space Systems). In a few years, we will fly the SOAR spaceplane on top of the Airbus. Once the SOAR is released in the air, it will ignite and launch to suborbital space. A third-stage launch module will send small satellites and cubesats into orbit around the planet. Eventually, many years from now, the goal is to send people into suborbital space to transport passengers very quickly across the globe. See this diagram from our website.

If you thought you'd get juicy details from me, sorry, I'm being vague on purpose. But you can find out more at our website at If you see French and have as much French ability as I have, click on EN on the top right corner. I also recommend following our Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts for the latest information. I'll try to answer any questions in the comments but be forewarned that I may not be able to fully answer them, but I'll try.

To clarify because I get this question a lot: no, I am not Swiss. I am Philadelphian, born and raised, and undeniably Floridian now. I have not yet had the opportunity to visit the land of beautiful mountains and delicious chocolate, but I hope to one day. I sent this to my boss before publishing it, so you know I'm hinting pretty hard.


  1. I call parabolic flights the "upchuck" flights ... :-)

  2. I highly recommend Chocolate Trash Cans from the Rohr company. DELICIOUS!

    1. For real? With a name like that, I am curious!

    2. I found a link...

      Wife and I had it on our honeymoon in Switzerland, it's amazing! Had some shipped in one anniversary as well, she loves it.

    3. Yum! I love truffles. Someday I'll get over there. My husband and I chose the warmness of St. Croix, Virgin Islands for our honeymoon.

    4. That's fantastic. Congrats BTW!

    5. Thank you! A moment on our honeymoon is actually a topic for a future blog post...