Meet the IBEX Team: Walter Holemans
As a child living in Belgium, and later Philadelphia, Walter Holemans loved space and engineering, and hoped to become an inventor. "I just wanted to put things together. I was just completely enamored of aerospace - hook, line and sinker," he said.
Now, Walter is living his childhood dream as the chief engineer, owner, and founder of Planetary Systems Corporation
, which manufactures his invention called the Lightband Separation System. Lightbands are unlatching devices that separate a satellite from a rocket. The IBEX mission will use three Lightbands of varying sizes to separate the spacecraft from the Pegasus rocket, the cone from the rocket's engine, and the spacecraft from its motor.
The separation of the cone from the rocket’s engine is called the interstage. "The interstage solves a relatively subtle but important concern; when you stage a rocket, you've got two cylinders separating, and if they are rotating, the lower stage can run into the upper stage and break it. So, the interstage is added to make the separation an easy, controlled event. By breaking it down into simpler and simpler events, you avoid having bigger problems. It makes a lot of sense," Walter said.
The Lightband, which took Walter three years to develop, improves upon older separation systems because it weighs less and does not use explosives. "It weighs about 15 pounds less than what people were using, and the reason that’s important is that the cost per pound to get into space is $20,000. That we separate satellites using the action of an electric motor rather than an explosive is also important, so they don’t have to worry about a bomb," he said. The Lightband can also be tested before the spacecraft is launched, since it does not have a dangerous explosive attached to it.
Walter likens the Lightband's unlatching mechanism to the latch on the trunk of a car. "Push a button on your keychain, and the trunk opens. With the Lightband, when you push a button on the computer, the satellite comes off. They both reuse a motor."
This month, Walter and his employees have been testing the Lightbands for the IBEX spacecraft to make sure that they will work properly in space. He says that testing the Lightbands is much harder than building them. "There's a lot of testing that we have to do, and there is more work to test it than to build it. We have to simulate the conditions in space, so we have to build little test cells to do the test. We create a chamber to put our Lightband in and suck out all the air and change the temperature and measure the current and voltage at the same time, and to do all of those things at the same time is pretty tough to do."
Testing new ideas in the lab is the best part of Walter’s job. "In the end of an experiment, you get to be an expert on a specific method. We find that we're getting to a higher consciousness about a product. That’s the fun part of the lab: you get to learn the truth about how things will work. More often than not we find out our ideas are terrible, so we should abandon the bulk and keep what's good. Which is okay, since no one wants to make junk," he said.
Walter says that he loves his job. "I have the best job in the world. I get to play in a laboratory all day long. It is like being in college without finals. This fall I get to drive around the country showing our products to companies like Lockheed and Jet Propulsion Lab. I'll get one–on–one tours of the space flight hardware they are building. I can’t believe I get paid to do this!"
However, running his own business is not easy. "It's all the things that everybody takes for granted as an employee that are very difficult – a positive cash flow, being responsible for everything in engineering, and the business side. I put in lots of 80–hour weeks, with no vacations for years. It's very brutal. You think of a new idea and think it’s about the idea, but it's about maintaining the facility used to invent and manufacture the idea. And in the spacecraft field, manufacturing is extremely important. So we burn money here just maintaining the facility, which is terribly expensive," Walter said. He has also had to deal with lawsuits from an investor. Although he won the case, it took years to sort it out.
Walter recommends that potential inventors do not let the ins and outs of running a business keep them from doing what they enjoy. "Don't run a company. Get others to provide support so you can spend your time in the lab. Spend as much time in the lab as possible. Avoid management positions. Do not seek credit. Don't follow leaders," he said.
One of the toughest parts of starting his own business was convincing customers to purchase a Lightband before it had been used on a spacecraft. "Gaining credibility is really hard. It is not enough to have a good idea. What was required of me before getting a sale was to get spaceflight heritage, because everyone wants you to have experience before they hire you. It's like your first job – you can't get hired if you don’t have experience, and you won't get experience until you get a job," Walter said.
Luckily, Planetary Systems Corporation is past that point. Lightbands have been successfully deployed on many satellites, which means that Walter spends less time selling his product and more time on his hobbies, which include traveling to Southeast Asia and building small liquid engines and robotic oceanographic vessels
. He hopes that his work on robotic boats will help draw attention to understudied and under–funded research on oceans. Studying oceans, Walter says, will help predict the extent of global warming and reveal more about an enormous area of the Earth that humans know little about. He will enter his robotic boat into the Microtransat Challenge
, sponsored by the French government, this year.
In the future, Walter hopes to continue to put his mechanical engineering knowledge to use by inventing and building new space–related technology. "I would like to build my own rocket and fly into space sub–orbitally. I also want to invent a new solar array hinge," Walter said.