Small Business Contributions to U.S. Space Exploration

NASA OSBP Associate Administrator Glenn Delgado in conversation at JSC Industry Day. Credit: NASA.

NASA OSBP Associate Administrator Glenn Delgado in conversation at JSC Industry Day. Credit: NASA.

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Many of you have likely been following the progression of the Mars Rover Curiosity in recent weeks. I’ve personally developed an interest in the types of tests that are being done on the red planet during the mission. This interest led me to think about the types of test equipment that is being utilized not only for experiments, but to ensure the safety of astronauts in manned missions as well. As I began to research this area further, I discovered an entire segment of expert service providers that are utilized by NASA to develop these specialized systems. Many of them are smaller firms and they’re doing some pretty incredible work for the agency. In fact, I discovered that NASA does a great deal to support small businesses each year via the Office of Small Business Programs (@NASA_OSBP).

Case Study: G Systems, L.P.

Systems and equipment used by NASA and other aerospace organizations aren’t the kind that you can just buy off the shelf. A piece of equipment that is used in space is obviously subjected to vastly different conditions than those found on Earth. Each must be rigorously tested before ever leaving the ground. To meet this need, NASA and other organizations often contract with highly specialized service providers to develop the equipment needed for individual space missions – including appropriate testing equipment required to maintain mission integrity. One such provider in my own backyard is G Systems, a growing, Texas-based engineering firm.

Pressurization and Vent System. Credit: G Systems, L.P.

Pressurization and Vent System, G Systems, L.P.

Unlike most test equipment available on the market today, the systems that G Systems develops are actually customized, turnkey models. That means that they can be expected to work whenever they’re turned on – without fail. Proper operation and maintenance are huge concerns in the aerospace industry since individual launch windows are often very small and involve a great number of interoperable systems. Having stable equipment to work with is needed because proper operation in space is absolutely vital. This is an industry where a single bolt means the difference between life and death.

While most of you probably have never heard of the company, several of the most recent space projects have involved G Systems’ contributions. For instance, one of their recent projects involved the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Having delivered test systems for the new Orion exploration crew vehicle test facility at the Michoud Assembly plant, G Systems played a major role in ensuring that this project went off without a hitch. They shipped data acquisition devices that collect and record information concerning the crew module’s structural strength.

G Systems also provided Orion researchers with data distribution devices that collect video of the capsule in addition to audio recordings and parametric information. Because the equipment is necessary for pressure tests, it’s actually capable of independently pressurizing the cabin. In other words, it can use supplies of air and helium to alter the pressure inside of the Orion capsule automatically. Data distribution tools also include an operator control terminal so that an engineer can set these options remotely if desired.

Data Acquisition System. Image Credit: G Systems, L.P.

Data Acquisition System. Credit: G Systems, L.P.

While the Constellation program has been shelved (sadly), the Orion project remains active today. Structural tests on the capsule are extremely important, and firms such as G Systems have played a key role in the program’s success thus far. While I don’t always agree with the actions taken by NASA administrators, I love the fact that they tap into the amazing talent available at private firms today. In doing so, the agency is supporting small business – always a good thing. This is yet another reason I remain a vocal proponent of NASA today.

Reference:

Archibald, R., & Finifter, D. (2003). Evaluating the NASA small business innovation research program: preliminary evidence of a trade-off between commercialization and basic research Research Policy, 32 (4), 605-619 DOI: 10.1016/S0048-7333(02)00046-X

Rapid Development of Orion Structural Test Systems. (2011). G Systems, L.P. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from goo.gl/7QW4p

Mansfield, C. L. (2013, January 14). NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from goo.gl/zqjQK

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  • Dan

    Good to see smaller companies getting involved at all levels of space exploration. I’m particularly excited to see what the future holds for innovative startups like SpaceX, XCOR, DSI, etc.

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