Making mistakes early pays off for deep-space technology developer
Noah Rhys was content in his career as a university researcher until late 2005, when changed direction to launch its Constellation return-to-the-Moon program and funding for his work on advanced propulsion at dried up. Rather than seek other sources of research funding for the university, he decided to set up his own company.
“I started doing the math, looking at all the projects I had won and what I had brought into the university, and I realized I was the person taking the risks. I had been handing all of my contingency money over to the university,” he says. “I wanted to have control . . . and have wanted to start a rocket company since I was five years old.”
After securing a contract at Marshall to work on the Constellation launch abort system, Ryhs incorporated Huntsville, Ala.-based Yetispace in 2006. Over the next two years, the company added employees and contracts to conduct research forin areas such as nuclear surface power and cryogenic fluid management—the latter now Yetispace's main line of business.
“Our particular strength is deep-space propellant storage,” Rhys says. When United Launch Alliance proposed a ground test of a small-scale propellant depot prototype, Yetispace worked on preliminary design issues and proposed to Marshall that an existing vacuum chamber be modified to test cryogenic fluid management using the prototype. Yetispace ran the ground tests as part of the Cryote (cryogenic orbital testbed) team hoping to fly a cryogenic fuel management experiment as a rideshare payload.
As part of its work on propellant storage, the company has developed the ability to make multi-layer insulation blankets for cryogenic tanks. “They are tricky, requiring attention to craftsmanship and detail,” says Rhys. Blankets have been supplied to NASA's Marshall, Kennedy and Glenn centers for testing. “We have several proprietary methods for sizing and assembling that result in reports that our blankets are superior to others previously received in terms of fit and finish.” The company has also developed and tested a broad-area cooling shield that combines an aluminum-foil shield with embedded cooling loops.
Rhys believes Yetispace has been able to establish itself because, although NASA's internal culture is “very risk-averse,” the agency gives its external contractors “more leeway to make mistakes.” As a result, “we have done so many things we have not done before that we know how to do things we don't know how to do. That's an unusual characteristic in engineers.”
The cryogenic fuel management business is growing, and now involves eight of the company's 10 employees, in part because a project that would cost NASA Marshall $1 million can be done by Yetispace for $200,000, he says. In adding two or three employees a year, the company is “looking for decathletes,” Rhys says. “We want people that are not wallflowers, not fearful but a little bit aggressive, and open to sharing their mistakes.”
Key to Yetispace's culture is a willingness to “make mistakes as fast as possible,” he says, explaining: “There are 'n' mistakes required on the path to success. We don't know what n is, but it is not zero. So we need to make them early, when they are cheap and can go unnoticed. Too many companies wait till the end of the program to find out what works.”
“When we get a program, we brainstorm for a few days then put something together to find mistakes in the conops [operating concept]. Understanding the conops early is essential to staying on track. It greatly accelerates understanding,” he says, adding: “Often what kills a program is a fundamental truth that could have been figured out at the beginning.”
Yetispace has “a very serious plan” for where it wants to go, says Rhys. “We could have more work than we could handle, but we look for work in certain areas because my goal is to design, fabricate and deliver small deep-space chemical-propulsion stages.” An orbital capture stage for a Neptune probe or a Mars sample return stage are examples. “We are within a year or two of being able to offer the market an inexpensive and capable deep-stage propulsion stage,” he says.
“I see whathas achieved as very inspirational,” Rhys says. “I want to start from low Earth orbit and see how far out I can go. It might be for NASA, or for the Paul Allens of this world.” (Billionaire Microsoft co-founder Allen, with SpaceX creator Elon Musk, is behind the Huntsville-based Stratolaunch venture to dramatically reduce the cost of launching small satellites.)
Rhys believes the U.S. is on the cusp of an “unusual explosion” in space exploration “that will not look like the last 50 years. There are people with extraordinary wealth that they want to [dedicate to] amazing things. Imagine a totally privately funded Mars sample return mission: What is it worth to someone to be the first person with a Mars rock?”