NSV#9: Space industry insights and advisory from David Ward, Sonaca Space.

Dear NewSpaceVisionaries,

NSV#9: „From Lookheed Martin to Sonaca Space“ was a deep space industry event. David Ward shared his experience he gained through working for a lot of space companies all around the globe. He was involved into more than 20 different projects that launched into space and worked at the spaceports Baikonur, Cape Canaveral, Guiana, and Vandenberg Airforce Base. With this article we want to share a few of David’s funny stories and helpful advisory for working in the space industry.

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Planning, Planning, Planning:

Space projects are huge and complicated. So, you need to plan everything in detail for a perfect execution. So many different people and companies are involved into projects in the space industry and the processes need to be coordinated perfectly. But beside all the technological challenges sometimes trivial events cause serious problems.

Two small planning fails David told us:

Imagine you must transport a million Euro satellite with a truck to another destination. Everything is planned perfectly and it is running smooth until the satellite reaches the destination. You just need to get the satellite out of the truck to finish the day. Does this require a lot of planning? Well, yes it does. David told us that they could get the satellite into the truck, but not out of the truck because the satellite was to heavy for the fork-lift truck. Loosing preparation time before a launch is very critical. Thanks to another company nearby they could solve the problem with additional hardware and hours.


Another planning fail was this story David told us. He was on a flight with his team to Baikonur to work four weeks until the launch of a satellite. Baikonur is far away from the next big city and you want to have good food for the next four weeks. One of David’s team members was responsible for the food transport. In the payload cabin was a satellite and a food container full of ice. That is a perfect plan for an efficient satellite and food transport to Baikonur until the ice melts and the water level in the cabin reaches ten centimeters. Result: Satellite survived fortunately, four weeks with colleagues who really miss their steak. You don´t want to be responsible for this.

„Take pictures, it is so easy and perfect for documentation.“

Documentation is another key to successful missions. Even when it is boring or time demanding. You need a good documentation for e.g. failure analysis or problem solving.

„Never underestimate the value of fit checks and dry runs.“

„Scheduling and procedures are another key to a successful mission within the space industry.“

One of the hardest space fails was the damage of the NOAA satellite. A 290 million dollar satellite on the shop floor. Six years delay, just because the team did not check the bolts again as specified in the procedure. „Two days before moving the satellite bolts where there“ does not mean they are there!

„Know what you are doing.“

If something went wrong, do not continue and try an unknown procedure. Stop the process and analyze. Think before you act. In the space industry, there is no room for unnecessary risks.


Space is a tough business.

„Rocket science is about things that want to explode.“

5 percent of all launches fail. This means every twentieth launch may destroy the hundreds of million-Euro work of more than a decade. Take your time to imagine that: You work more than ten years on a satellite, everything went perfect, you got three promotions within this project. As the climax, you want to see it launching into space, a dream and then…BOOM…the rocket explodes. Maybe next time. See you in ten years. A lot of space projects enjoy their long under water life after rocket failures. Remember, you need a lot of resilience in the space industry.

That is not tough enough? David was involved into hydrazine fueling for launches. He told us how he got into this suit looking like an astronaut and then starting the fueling process. Imagine you have all this toxic hydrazine around you and you know that if there is a leak in your suit, you are dead. You can say that he as an engineer got a little bit astronaut feeling in his career.


Main attitude of different work cultures in the space industry:

USA: Working overtime, all the time.

France: Great expertise but after 7,5 hours you won´t find anyone at work.

Russia: Pragmatism solves every problem!

Germany: Put all the above into a mixer and you have the German work culture in the space industry.


Tip from David for all New Space actors:

Do not reinvent the wheel! All the big agencies and companies had the brightest minds working on space problems for more than 50 years. You can find NASA patents on the internet. Take the old knowledge and optimize, minimize or use them to build something more complex.

A side notice from NSV: We can see a lot of successful New Space projects that took old plans from promising programs that were canceled by Governments. A good example is project BEAM, the expandable habitat on the international space station. US Congress cut the program’s funding in 2000 and Entrepreneur and space enthusiast Robert T. Bigelow purchased the rights to the NASA patents. Now it is a promising „New Space“ project of a private company.


Sven and I want to thank David again for all the space industry insights he shared with us. It was a perfect mix of tough space engineering advisory, anecdotes and humor. We loved the discussion and Q&A session with all participants of NSV#9. Hope to see you all at our next event NSV#10 with Hybrid Airplane and their UAV H-Aero which someday may fly on Mars (Date announcement soon).


Daniel and Sven


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