Wednesday, December 21, 2016

December 21, 2015: New Life For Rockets & Humans

This is not the SpaceX launch on Dec. 21, 2015; this was July 18, 2016. But still pretty.

I remember the evening of December 21, 2015 well. The winter solstice brought new life into my world with the birth of my daughter Josephine on December 20. As I stepped foot into motherhood, the space industry stepped foot into a new era of reusable rocketry.

It has been a guessing game for spectators up to that point: will SpaceX succeed in launching a Falcon 9 rocket to orbit and successfully land a spent booster back on the ground, upright, asking to be refurbished and reused? Before each launch, probabilities were discussed and bets were taken. And each time, we watched with disappointment as our collective hopes ended in a fiery collapse.

But maybe this time was different. Past technological successes proved that it was feasible. Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, NASA, and others had demonstrated launch and landing of a vertical rocket. But this was the first orbital attempt of its kind, the first time a rocketeer dared to direct a spacecraft to circle the Earth, make a delivery, and return intact to Earth where it left minutes before.

Space is always in my heart and on my mind. I had not forgotten about the rocket launch in my sleep-deprived new mom hustle. I barely knew what day it was, but I knew the exact time SpaceX was scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. However, from my hospital room in Melbourne an hour south from the launch activity, I was barely aware of what time it was! Exhausted and in love, I cuddled my newborn and counted down the hours until the hospital would release us home.

A passenger in my husband's car as we drove north on US-1, my primary concern was comforting my passionately upset daughter who I would soon learn hated everything about car rides. Through the baby's screams and my brain's own screams for rest, I noted the time and looked east. There was the fireball rising in the dark night sky, ascending more quickly than I could capture it with my phone's camera. The result was a blurred image with an equally bright streetlight detracting from the photo's brilliant subject. Normally I would have been bummed to miss photographing a launch, but at that moment, it was far down on my list of priorities.

Time was lost to me again as we arrived home. I unbuckled my tiny daughter from her car seat and lifted her above the driveway of her new home. And I heard it: two sonic booms. I quickly checked the news on my phone and cheered – they had done it! The SpaceX team had successfully landed the first stage Falcon 9 booster back down at Cape Canaveral. I, and to a limited extent my one-day-old child, had witnessed history being made. Knowing me, I probably cried a little at the beauty.

I ask you, is it too much to call this new era of rocket reusability the era of Josephine?

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Moment of Silence for Swiss Space Systems

Taken September 2015 at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C.

I received the email the same day I got engaged. I had been waiting months for this email, wondering if it would ever really happen. I've had unofficial job offers dangled in front of me in the past, only to become disappointed when they never materialized into paper. Live and learn.

It was a Saturday evening in Florida in May 2013 when I accepted a LinkedIn invitation and struck up a conversation with a stranger in Hong Kong who was part of a team creating a “new space” start-up in Switzerland. It was ambitious and intriguing. He asked me for assistance setting up a meeting in Florida. I was happy to help.

I met the team for a pre-meeting breakfast in July, then again at the Florida office grand opening in March 2014. I met with the man who would head the U.S. subsidiary, my future boss, twice one-on-one. The delays in the start of operations worried me only slightly. I took it as a sign that they were being extra cautious before jumping into the U.S. market.

On August 29, 2014, Swiss Space Systems' US subsidiary S3 USA asked me to run their Florida office. With a shiny new ring on my left hand, I said yes to both the marriage proposal and the job. I finally began two months later. The intent was for me to start hiring employees for the office right away in preparation for parabolic “Zero G” flights that would begin out of Kennedy Space Center's huge SLF runway the following year.

The business plan seemed solid to me. With investments and partners, S3 would purchase and modify a large plane to begin parabolic flights for research and tourism. With that income, funds would be available to build their spaceplane which would fly suborbital flights across the world. Eventually, a small satellite launcher would be added to the suborbital vehicle to launch small satellites into orbit. They even had a smallsat customer lined up. The Swiss are known for their meticulous attention to detail and deep pockets. They sold me on the dream.

Up to that point, I had worked for two space start-ups, both with varying degrees of challenges and successes. I entered into the position eyes wide open. I knew there was a high risk of failure. At that stage of my career, I was willing to take the chance. And I lost.

Hiring a staff never happened. Financial troubles began to trickle down to me in February. It wasn't long before previous months' of paychecks were added to the list of company promises. I was kept out of the loop for the most part. I started part-time tutoring math, physics, and exam prep on the side. I hadn't even reached a year with S3 before being encouraged by my boss to look for other opportunities. The difficulty was, I was pregnant and far along, so beginning a new full-time job at that time was impractical.

December 2015. The sweet front desk administrator at Space Florida's Space Life Science Lab gave me a surprise baby shower gift around the same I was clearing out the S3 Florida office. It wasn't pregnancy hormones that caused me to cry in my empty office. It was only because my immediate boss is a truly decent, protecting, generous human being was I able to give birth with health insurance that S3 HQ had cut off the month prior. As 2015 came to a close, so did my employment with the Swiss space start-up that wasn't meant to be.

With notice of its bankruptcy last week, I'd like to take a moment of silence to reflect on the short life and long decline of Swiss Space Systems. As I unpack my belongs in my new home this month, I find reminders: a stack of holographic bookmarks, a bomber jacket, a spaceplane pin, and a high-quality print-out of a graphically rendered spaceplane that hung in the S3 Florida office. Long gone, S3 will always hold a place in my memory.

Lesson learned. By wary of start-ups. But it's okay to take that chance sometimes. You never know what will happen if the dreamers succeed.