Ascending into space: John Powell talks about JP Aerospace – part one

John Powell is the president and founder of JP Aerospace. All through his youth, he dreamed of building spacecraft – and that’s exactly what he’s been doing ever since. With advanced balloon, airship and rocket systems, and even his own free flight experiment payload program, John and his team have been quietly and steadily advancing the state of the art in access to near-space. And his plans don’t stop there – he’s following an incremental development path that reaches all the way to orbit.

John was kind enough to talk to us about his company and its current and future endeavours, in this very interesting two-part interview. Read on to learn about PongSat flight experiments, Airship to Orbit, and just how an aerospace company ended up with a house band.

OotC: JP Aerospace is based in California. Did you grow up there, or move there later in life?

My mom has a picture I drew when I was four years old. It was a picture of my spaceship factory. Not a picture of me flying in space, but a row of little ships under construction.

Powell: I was born in the Bronx New York. We were an Air Force family and moved a lot. We started in Anaheim California and worked our way to Sacramento.

OotC: I read a wonderful story on Dave Archer’s website, about how he met you in a mall where he was exhibiting his paintings. You were about thirteen, and he asked if you wanted to be an astronaut someday. You replied “Actually, I want to be the head of JP Aerospace someday!” Clearly, you’ve had this vision for a while. Can you pinpoint a moment of epiphany when it hit you that “this is for me…”, or was it a gradual process?

Powell: My mom has a picture I drew when I was four years old. It was a picture of my spaceship factory. Not a picture of me flying in space, but a row of little ships under construction. I’ve never wanted to do anything else or be anything other than what I am right now. I can’t remember when it started, it’s always been there.

OotC: Can you fill us in with a quick history of how you got from that point to JP Aerospace today?

Powell: We officially formed in 1979. We were around a few years before that, but that’s when we got the business license and seriously started work. We looked like a very traditional startup back then, chasing money from venture capitalists and honing business plans.

Whether you’re a school teacher, a retired administrator, or a truck driver you can build things with your own hands that will fly at mach three or float to 100,000 feet. It’s a powerful draw.

Our big project at the time was the Eohippus satellite. It was a small satellite, a twelve inch diameter cylinder fourteen inches long. It was designed to inspect damaged and failed communications satellites. The project was going very strong when the Challenger accident happened. Literally, before the end of that day our financial backers pulled out. Then a weird thing happened: we were broke, but nobody went home. The other big factor was that, after years of chasing venture capitalists and investors, I couldn’t bear the thought of running through that set of chompers again. That’s when we became the volunteer organization that we are today.

OotC: Tell us a bit about the other people who’ve become involved in JP Aerospace over the years.

Powell: There have been literally hundreds of people come through the doors over the years. One of our primary missions is to create a space program that real people can get involved in. Whether you’re a school teacher, a retired administrator, or a truck driver you can build things with your own hands that will fly at mach three or float to 100,000 feet. It’s a powerful draw. One of our members, Uriah, has a passion not for space, but for making videos. He is a balloon fill captain on missions and then rushes to grab his camera to film the liftoffs. He’s been on the team for about ten years. Tracy has a motivation that’s pretty common in the space field: he always wanted to go to space. However, life interceded and he had to put that dream aside. There are an amazing number of folks out there who ended up being doctors, office workers, nurses, engineers and workers in every imaginable field who always wanted to be an astronaut. We have discovered that they still secretly hold on to that dream. Put a soldering iron in their hands and look out.

It doesn’t always work out. Some people are looking for things we don’t offer. Some people come looking for a great business opportunity or want to fly to space tomorrow. Unfortunately space, (at least the way we work it at JPA), is not a get rich quick scheme. The glamour of spaceships is very different from the day to day reality of designing, soldering, gluing and hanging out in the desert during a dust storm.

We’ve also had folks that work with us for years then life pulls them away for a few years, then they’re back again building and flying.

OotC: Today, you are focusing on the PongSat and Airship to Orbit programs. Tell us a bit about PongSats first: What is the basic idea, and how did it come about?

Powell: Part of out mission is to be a space program that lots of people could get involved with. PongSat is our way of really cranking that up. The idea was inspired by the CubeSat program developed by Bob Twiggs at Stanford University. He created a set of standard rules for making a space satellite. It made the process of integrating into a launch vehicle a lot simpler. Hundreds of students and groups are now building CubeSats.

We took that idea and made it smaller. A PongSat is an experiment that can fit inside of a ping pong ball.

We’ve had students, NASA engineers, teachers, ranchers and firefighters, all running their own space programs through PongSat.

People from all over the world send them to us. We fly them as ‘ride alongs’ on the next mission. We then send them back along with video from the mission and all the data from the flight.

OotC: Who can fly a PongSat on one of your away missions, and how much does it cost?

Powell: Anyone can fly a PongSat. We’ve had students, NASA engineers, teachers, ranchers and firefighters, all running their own space programs through PongSat. We don’t restrict who can fly and we don’t judge the experiment. You never know where the next great idea will come from. A group of third graders flew PongSats full of M&Ms. Now you won’t think that would have any value. Yet, the students noticed that the M&Ms were rough after the flight. The surface of the M&Ms outgassed in the near vacuum at the edge of space. The students not only learned about outgassing, but they got to feel the result directly. How many third graders do you know have an intuitive feel for a sophisticated space phenomenon? It was a wonderful and completely unexpected result. I live for that.

We don’t charge a thing to participate in PongSat. It’s a completely free program. Although anyone out there who wants to buy a tee shirt to support the program should head to www.jpaerospace.com and go to our online store.

OotC: How many PongSats have flown, and how many people have been involved in PongSat experiments?

Powell: 1804 PongSats have flown. Just over 8000 folks have participated. Sometimes a PongSat is made by an individual and sometimes whole groups work on just one. We have one series of PongSats that had sixteen experiments in each one. Each experiment was put together by a group of ten students.

OotC: What might be considered a typical payload for a PongSat? Can you give examples of some of the more exotic experiments you have carried?

On our last mission we had six PongSats that had checklists. On board computers and sensors are becoming more and more popular in the PongSats.

Powell: The majority of experiments are very simple. A marshmallow that expands in vacuum then freeze dries or plant seeds that get cosmic ray damage that are then grown in dixie cups on classroom window sills.

We’ve been getting more and more complex experiments. On our last mission we had six PongSats that had checklists. We’ve flown some advanced biological experiments from a college in Belgium and some very sensitive cosmic ray counters. On board computers and sensors are becoming more and more popular in the PongSats. Two PongSats had solar cells powering them.

OotC: Do PongSats fly on dedicated missions, or are they secondary payloads on other vehicles? Tell us a bit about the craft that PongSats fly on.

Powell: Although we have flown one dedicated PongSat mission, they generally fly as secondary payloads on existing missions. PongSats fly on everything we send up: Away missions, Mesospheric Explorer missions, airship flights, and rockets. The most common ride is the Away mission. Away missions are our workhorse development flights. They are carbon and foam platforms that are carried to between 80,000 and 130,000 feet by balloons. We use these flights to test equipment, prove or disprove ideas, and gain experience in near space.

PongSats create a lot of goodwill and positive media exposure.

When we fly an airship or Dark Sky Station everything on board has already been given a shakedown run onboard an Away mission.

OotC: If someone wants to become involved in the PongSat program, what do they need to do?

Powell: Go to the website and sign up. Signing up consists of send JPA an e-mail, (jpowell@jpaerospace.com) fax or letter saying how many PongSats they want to fly and about when they want to fly them. We then manifest the PongSats on a mission and assign each PongSat an ID number. The participant sends their PongSat to JPA at least ten days before the mission with the ID number written on the side, (the ID numbers are very important, hundreds of ping pong balls all start to look the same after a while).

There is a user’s guide that can be downloaded off the JPA website. It has some basic rules such as no live animals, but it’s really a very simple process.

OotC: Similarly, if a company is interested in becoming a PongSat program sponsor, who should they contact?

Powell: They should call or e-mail me directly. PongSats create a lot of goodwill and positive media exposure. The flights are also expensive. It can cost us up to $15,000 to fly a single mission. We’re actually looking for a sponsor to cover the costs of the PongSat certificates, videos and shipping for the next flight. There are over 1200 PongSats already signed up for Away 27. That’s 1200 principle investigators, 1200 certificates and videos and flight data sheets and lots of shipping boxes. It may be the most experiments flown on anything, ever.

Check back for part two of this interview with John Powell of JP Aerospace later in the week. We talk with John about his Airship to Orbit program, his take on the state of alt.space, JP Aerospace’s house band the Space Vacuum From Outer Space, and his thoughts on NASA’s Moon-Mars architecture.

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