I had an opportunity to interview Scott Ostrem, Chief Engineer at The Spaceship Company (TSC). Headquartered at Mojave Air and Space Port, The Spaceship Company is the aerospace production company, founded by Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, which is building the world’s first fleet of commercial spaceships (SpaceShipTwos) and carrier aircraft (WhiteKnightTwos) intended to make regular, commercial, manned space travel a reality. TSC’s operations now stretch over 150,000 square feet in three separate facilities and its team has grown to over 145 individuals.
You are a Mechanical Engineer, how did you end up as Chief Engineer at TSC?
I studied mechanical and aerospace engineering in college and later completed a master’s degree in materials science. One of my special interests throughout my career has been carbon composite structures. I gravitated to this specialized field early in my career, and I have been aggressive in terms of learning as much as possible. I was fortunate to be able to take this interest to the level of integrated systems within composite aircraft and spacecraft. When the opportunity arose to become the Chief Engineer at TSC I jumped on it.
Are you doing any engineering these days?
One of the best things about being the Chief Engineer at TSC is I am involved in engineering decisions every day. I am not just making organization / people decisions – I get involved in many of the nitty-gritty details associated with designing a spaceflight system. This is one of the things I love about working at TSC.
How many Mechanical Engineers are working in the company?
The engineers on my team are typically either mechanical, aerospace, or a combination of both. There are currently a total of 66 engineers on my team. Approximately 35 are mechanical, 15 are aerospace, and the remainder are a combination of the two disciplines. We still have many engineering positions open on my team across various disciplines. Visit thespaceshipcompany.com for more details of the opportunities.
What processes and parts are you covering with your in-house team?
Our processes cover all of the steps required to build our WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) and SpaceShipTwo (SS2) vehicles. We outsource some special system components, however all of the composite structures and all of the vehicle assembly is in-house. We have developed numerous in-house processes to cover the fabrication and assembly of our vehicles. These processes cover such things as material storage, tool prep, composite lay-up, bond prep, trim, testing, inspection, repairs, and assembly.
The first SS2 and WK2 that are in flight test today were developed by our development partners at Scaled Composites. They have developed other remarkable vehicles including SpaceShipOne which provided the operations concept for SS2. We work closely with Scaled Composites to complete the flight test portion of the development program and transition the vehicles into commercial service. We have the responsibility for continually evolving the product as we design, build and support the remainder of the fleet.
You are building the world’s first fleet of commercial spaceships. What are the challenges and constraints?
The challenges we face range from hiring the absolute best aerospace team in the world to finding the right balance between weight optimization and getting a product built in a reasonable time frame. We are very selective in who we hire, and this is obvious when you meet our team. Every person is outstanding at what they do. However, this selectivity takes time. As leader of Engineering at TSC, I have to guide my team to not over-design / optimize our parts. Safety is our “North Star” at Virgin, so we do not compromise in this area of course.
What are the specifics of space vehicle engineering?
We start the process around a table or a white-board brainstorming ideas and respectfully challenging each other. When we settle on a few good concepts we take the design process to CAD. We primarily use CATIA for our CAD design, however for some specialized designs we use NX (Unigraphics). Concurrent with defining the design in CAD, we perform free-body loads analysis and begin to develop a finite element model of the part as applicable. Our design engineers and stress engineers work side-by-side, and in some cases are the same person. When we get to the 80% design solution we conduct a design review where members of the greater integrated product team provide their inputs.
You are revolutionizing the way the world perceives space travel. How have you found capable and talented people?
First, we have an awesome recruiting team. I also believe we have an incredible project to work on. Talented and capable engineers who understand the project and the opportunities to apply their skills are typically easy sells when it comes to hiring. I admit the recruitment was slow at the beginning when our team was small. In the past year we have nearly doubled in size. Our total company size across Virgin Galacticd and The Spaceship Company is now between 300 and 400 people. We now have the ability to interview many more people in a given time period.
What engineering specialties does your team lack?
We have struggled finding a few specialized engineering skills. Fuel systems engineers and air-breathing propulsion systems engineers have been a recruitment challenge. I cannot think of a better company and project for an engineer than this one. We have excellent mentors and engineers who are passionate about what they do.
What skills, experiences etc. do you look for in a candidate?
We look for engineers who are passionate about what they do, want to work hard, learn, be hands-on, communicate well, work well in team structures, love space, are driven, like to solve problems, able to apply knowledge (not just be smart), and would jump at the chance to ride on our spaceship if given the opportunity. We have engineers working on our team who are still in college through to individuals with 40+ years of experience.
What are the plans for the rest of 2013 and 2014?
We plan to continue flight testing our two flying vehicles through 2013 and into 2014, setting us up for commercial operations in 2014. We are also engineering and building our second SS2, so this is a major team focus this year and next.
What CAD tools are your team using?
We use both CATIA and NX for CAD design. CATIA V5 is our baseline CAD software. We have seats of Solidworks that are occasionally used for creating .stp or .iges files or developing simple kinematic models.
When will the first passenger fly to space?
Next year (2014). Our entire team is focused around this goal.
Do you think space travel will be more affordable in the future?
Absolutely! We are developing a spaceflight system with full configuration control, detailed processes, CAD definition, maintenance plans, repair manuals, health monitoring instrumentation, reliability analysis, inspection plans/tools, and detailed stress analysis. Our systems are purposefully designed to be simple and reusable. We will ultimately have a fleet of spaceships that will be able to rocket to space on a daily basis. Our plan is to continue to drastically reduce the price of space travel over time.
General Characteristics of WhiteKnightTwo
WhiteKnightTwo is the mothership for SpaceShipTwo and is currently the world’s largest commercial all composites aircraft. The first WK2, christened VMS Eve after Sir Richard Branson’s mother, was revealed to the public for the first time in July 2008 and had its maiden flight in December 2008:
• All composite construction
• Dual fuselage and empennage
• Quad retractable landing gear
• Crew: 2
• Capacity: 8
• Length: 78 feet
• Wingspan: 140 feet
• Height: 30 feet
• Integrated glass cockpit
• (4) Pratt & Whitney PW308A
• Thrust / Engine: 6,904 lbs
• Altitude: ≈ 52,000 feet
• Range: Over 2,000 nautical miles
• Payload (main): ≈35,000 lb
Images and data courtesy of The Spaceship Company.