Chasing the Challenge
TSR: I gather that MSS intends to operate its own vehicles. Would you consider becoming more of a vehicle manufacturer in the future, and selling vehicles to other operators?
Goff: While we would be interested in selling vehicles, I’m not sure if we’d want to become just a manufacturing outfit. I’m a manufacturing engineer by trade, so I’m not too opposed, but we might just license production out to someone else if we have enough demand. Not sure yet to be honest, we’ll have to see.
TSR: On the company’s website, it is said MSS is targeting a cost of $300 per kilogram for payload, which is estimated to even fit the K-12 education market. This question is coming from a guy who, while in high school, saw the introduction of consumer level pocket calculators. You’re a bit younger than me, but stepping back from the adult engineer for a moment, how sweet would that be as a 16- or 17-year-old to see your high school science project launched on a suborbital flight?
Goff: Dang sweet. Seriously, there’s been a lot of talk over the years about using space to try and encourage kids to get interested in math and science and engineering. However the odds of actually becoming an astronaut and then flying even one spaceflight for NASA is less than the odds of becoming an NBA basketball player. Actually having the opportunity to build and fly something into space is, I think, going to be a lot more personally exciting to high school kids than reading endless numbers of pithy NASA PR hype, glitzy IMAX movies, or watching government employees position flags on other worlds. But that’s just my rather biased and self-serving opinion.
TSR: At $300 per kilo I’m tempted to fly a small payload myself, just for the souvenir value. (As an aside, you’ll know you’re doing your job of opening the frontier properly when flown items become so common that they lose their value). When do you expect to be making the first revenue-generating flights?
Goff: Our first revenue generating spaceflights are scheduled to start some time in 2007. If someone wants to pay us to do flights previous to that for one reason or another, we can probably arrange a deal. We have no qualms with making revenue before we get all the way into operations, especially if it helps create more demand for the operational vehicle.
TSR: Alt.space engineering appears to be an up and coming occupation. How does a guy holding a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing engineering from Brigham Young University land such a cool job, working on such cool projects?
Goff: I don’t actually have that master’s degree yet, since I still haven’t had time to finish doing my thesis project (which unfortunately isn’t rocketry related), however I can tell you a little bit about how I landed the job. Briefly put, I decided to do a project at the university related to finding a way to automate parts of the rocket injector design process for pintle injectors. I had been involved on various space related newsgroups and fora over the years, and had heard about the Space Access conference, so I contacted Henry Vanderbuilt and asked if I could give a brief presentation about my work. He consented, and after my presentation some longhaired, computer-savvy rocket nerds came up to ask me some questions about my presentation. We ended up collaborating a bit further on the project over the next several months, and when I went on a trip out to visit various rocket companies and organizations in California that summer I stopped by the shop for their rocket club. They showed me some engines that they were working on for a VTVL peroxide monoprop demonstrator called POGO. A few months later I went to a “business plan competition” meeting there at BYU (promising myself that this year I wasn’t going to come up with an idea and end up wasting hours and hours and hours like I had last year, and that I really was only going to the meeting to score some free pizza). But alas, I soon had a pesky idea jump into my head. So I shot an email off to Pierce Nichols (one of those longhaired, computer-savvy rocket nerds from the conference), to see what he thought of the idea. He mentioned that he was already involved with a startup doing just that. Before you know it, we were sitting around a table in Santa Clara with the other longhaired computer-savvy rocket nerd (my boss, Dave Masten), planning the start of Masten Space Systems as a cofounder. And it’s been a crazy ride ever since.
TSR: As it relates to the work you do today, what one thing do you thank your lucky stars for gaining from your education at BYU?
Goff: I’m not sure if there’s any one specific thing at BYU that I learned that sticks out, but if I had to pick something, it would have to be the basic entrepreneurial background knowledge I got from some of the MBA classes I took for fun during my undergrad and graduate studies. Most MBA courses are worse than useless, but BYU has a very good Center for Entrepreneurship, and I really owe a lot to some of the entrepreneurially-focused classes that the MBA program put on because of that. All the engineering in the world won’t bring real space development into being without solid business skills and wild, entrepreneurial wheeling-and-dealing going on at the same time.
TSR: By the same token, what one thing most caught you by surprise regarding the work you do today?
Goff: Maybe just how broad of a field engineering really is. There are so many various disciplines that tie together in the development of a rocket vehicle. As I mentioned in the answer to the previous question, it isn’t just engineering disciplines either. At this stage in the industry, unless you have a huge amount of money from somewhere else, get used to becoming a jack-of-all trades. You may be doing CAD work one hour, electrical wiring the next, using a die-grinder to fix a design error later, and then the next day be doing safety documentation for a potential test site, or helping the marketing guy get the promotional material and graphics just right. It’s a dang cool mix, and keeps you on your toes.
TSR: How does it feel going to work every day knowing that the vehicles and systems you are building are actually destined to go into space? And that what you are doing at MSS is right at the vanguard of efforts to open up a whole new frontier?
Goff: It’s really cool to be honest. When you finally have a system debugged and it works the way it’s supposed to, it is always kind of impressive to think that you’ve actually built functioning rocket hardware. When we had our first 500-lbf [2,200-newton] engine test firing a bit ago, I was standing up on a hill about a quarter-mile away from the stand. When the sound of the engine firing hit me (and trust me, it was powerful enough that you could feel it, not just hear it), this thought went through my mind: “Holy crap, I built that!” It’s an amazing feeling indeed.
TSR: Finally, in closing, do you have any thoughts or advice to those high school students looking to join you in the alt.space engineering fraternity?
Goff: Find a project and then go do it. Find a mentor if you can, some sort of patron saint who can hook you up with raw material and know-how. Do cool stuff. Learn how to build real test hardware. Make sure you can handle yourself around a machine shop, behind a CAD package, with a soldering iron. Even if it is in another field, hands-on experience with stuff like cars, planes, and boats is very valuable. One of the best engineers on our team was a gearhead who cut his teeth on making racing modifications for his cars. Even if you end up doing mostly engineering or business-related stuff, knowing how to do the gritty technical stuff will make you that much better of an engineer (or even a business person) in this industry.
If you want to work in this industry, also make sure you’re at least going to the annual Space Access Conference in Phoenix. Make friends with some entrepreneurs. Find a local entrepreneurs’ roundtable, and hang out with them. Learn to speak their language. Volunteer to help them do menial stuff in exchange for some mentorship. Learn how to create win-win business deals. Learn how to communicate with others. Learn how to be confident without being an arrogant pain in the backside. Be at least slightly ADD. You probably don’t need to do all of the above to get into the fraternity, but those were my thoughts.