I grew up during the Apollo era but what really inspired me to get involved in the space business was Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. My dad took me and my brother to see it at the Cinerama theater in New York City the year it was released. It was a mind-blowing experience. When I went to MIT, my intent was to go into aerospace engineering but the collapse of the aerospace industry after the cancellation of Apollo and the ending of the Vietnam war motivated me to switch to electrical engineering, which is Course VI at MIT. There I would begin my exploration of the technologies that were found in 2001.
The first exposure was Professor Patrick Winston’s course 6.034 or “Artificial Intelligence.” Researchers at MIT were working to make HAL 9000 a reality. The course covered topics such as “Blocks World,” an AI system that could reason in the context of a world consisting of nothing but a pile of blocks. We learned Lisp, an early AI language. I did my research project on AI chess, an appropriate topic as I had written an end-game chess program in high school and HAL defeats Frank Poole in chess onboard the Discovery.
You can find images from the movie on IMDB.
After getting my SB (bachelors degree at MIT) I went to graduate school in Aernoautics and Astronautics, Course XVI, at MIT. My first spacecraft experience was working with Professor John McCarthy to design a small space station that could be lifted in one Space Shuttle launch. Professor McCarthy was a manager on the Apollo program before the Apollo I fire. He had a phenomenal amount of practical experience,
While I was at MIT fellow graduate student Dave Akin was working on space suits and astronaut in space work. MIT pioneered that idea that astronauts could do construction in space, something seen in the Discovery scenes in the movie.
After getting my Engineer of Aeronautics and Astronautics, I spent a year working on thrusters at MIT before going to the Draper Laboratory where I worked on the Space Shuttle. I learned the Shuttle programming language, HAL/S. It was named after Hal Laning. At least that is the official story. The Space Shuttle was NASA’s first approximation of the Orion Space Clipper. I also worked on several early NASA space station designs including Space Station Freedom. I looked into a space design design with rotating crew quarters though not a big wheel like Space Station V.
I then moved to New Jersey to work at GE Astro Space. I was there for 6 years where I worked on GPS IIR, Inmarsat 3 and several other spacecraft. That is where I gained experience of a wide variety of autonomous spacecraft.
I started Princeton Satellite Systems in 1992. We’ve worked on many different projects and are currently pursuing just about every element in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Our biggest project at the moment is Direct Fusion Drive, a nuclear fusion propulsion system. These are equivalent to the engines on the Discovery. We are teaming with Sam Cohen at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory on this technology and have a ARPA-E grant to demonstrate ion heating, a necessary first step on the path to a fusion engine. Discovery I’s engines were Cavradyne engines – gaseous core nuclear thermal engines. Many years later NASA recreated Discovery I using hypothetical fusion engines.
Under IR&D we are developing Space Rapid Transit (SRT), a two stage to orbit launch vehicle that takes off and lands horizontally. As it happens, the Orion spacecraft was two stage to orbit with a boost from an electromagnetic launcher. SRT has an air-breathing first stage and an LH2/LO2 propelled second stage. Orion used nuclear thermal engines for both stages – something that would not be popular today. The picture below was generated by a 2001 fan based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel. SRT is right below it.
We also did a conceptual design of a reusable lunar lander with a nuclear thermal engine for shuttling to and from lunar orbit. It would use hydrogen from lunar water. It has a Lockheed Martin Orion spacecraft on top. The entire vehicle is one piece. This is much like the Aries 1B in 2001.
We are also advancing AI technology with or work on deep learning. We have a new book coming out on the subject. We’ve also written and flown autonomous control systems for three different missions. The software can’t play chess, but does function without humans in the loop, something that HAL would have liked!