The countdown for the launch of space shuttle mission STS-117 is going well and a liftoff of the shuttle Atlantis tomorrow evening is highly possible. One of the goals of this NASA mission is to expand the International Space Station (ISS) by adding two 17.5 tons trusses to it. To do so, the astronauts will rely on the Space Vision System (SVS) developed by the Neptec Design Group which will provide them with position and attitude cues during assembly. Despite his busy schedule, Iain Christie, Neptec's president, talked with me today about his company, his relationship with NASA, and about the future. The photo on the left has been taken by his daughter Emma. Below are some excerpts of our conversation.
Before starting this interview, above is 'a shot of one of the multi-purpose logistics modules where you can see Neptec's target arrays that are used to line things up with the SVS and a diagram of the ISS" (Credit: Neptec Design Group).
Roland: First, let me thank you to spend some time with me. As you mention in this news release, the STS-117 Atlantis mission marks the 20th flight for your Space Vision System (SVS). How a 85-person Ottawa-based Canadian company has been able to develop such strong ties with NASA, which is a very large organization?
Iain: We've started to work with NASA 15 years ago. And as we always showed that our technologies and our people were reliable, they continue to trust us.
Roland: So you've worked with NASA for a long time. How did you start?
Iain: We've been helped by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) which has been a privileged partner of NASA. You need to know that the CSA contributions to the U.S. space programs are very important.
Roland: NASA's budget was drastically reduced this year. How did this affect you?
Iain: Of course, NASA asked us to make some adjustments. And we did. But as our systems are somewhat critical for NASA's missions, this has not been too bad. As I said before, once NASA experts trust you, you're in a good situation -- except if you completely miss your goals, a thing that never happened to Neptec.
Roland: Will you try new technological tools during this mission?
Iain: Both the SVS and the LCS have seen minor improvements, such as better camera resolution or better reliability, but basically they are the same tools we've used during previous NASA missions.
Roland: Will you sleep well during the STS-117 mission? What will happen if your systems don't work? Can you control them from Earth?
Iain: We have a team of about 20 people working on the mission, half in Ottawa, and half in Houston. And of course, they'll do an excellent job. I'll obviously take a look at what's happening, but I'm not worried. Even if something goes wrong, NASA knows how to proceed, and the astronauts have enough spare parts to fix a problem with our systems.
Roland: Do you have other projects with NASA, such for Moon or Mars exploration?
Iain: I cannot be too specific, but our TriDAR dual sensing, multi-purpose scanner, combined with other technologies, could be used for Automated Rendezvous and Docking (AR&D). As for Moon or Mars exploration, we'll see in time.
Roland: Your systems cost dozens of millions of dollars in development. Do you think you could use some of your technologies to build products for the mass market?
Iain: Of course, we're looking for more diversification. But right now, NASA is still our largest customer. We've already licensed some of our technologies to other industries and we expect that our non-NASA customers will represent 50% of our sales by next year.
Roland: NASA is a U.S. organization. This is certainly not easy to be based in Ottawa. Are they other Canadian companies working for NASA? And have you developed alliances with these other Canadian organizations?
Iain: As I've mentioned before, the CSA has always been a privileged partner for NASA. And there is a company across the street working on the James Webb telescope.
Roland: Thanks again for your time, and good luck with this mission.
For your viewing pleasure, you can see above the Neptec's LCS attached to the Canadarm (Credit: Neptec Design Group). And for more information about the Neptec devices, here are two links to the Space Vision System (SVS) and to the
Laser Camera System (LCS).
[Disclaimer: I don't have any financial ties with Neptec, even if I've already written several times about what the company does for space exploration. Here are links to my previous posts.]
Sources: Roland Piquepaille, June 7, 2007; Neptec Design Group website
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