While many Colorado School of Mines students dream of one day working for large aeronautical companies, Jonathan Goff of Altius Space Machines decided to take a leap of faith and start his very own.
“Sometimes the best way to learn about a business startup is to jump in and learn the hard way,” said Goff during a guest lecture coordinated by the CSM Space Society. Goff is the founder and CEO of the Broomfield-based company, and received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering, respectively. Prior to starting Altius Space Machines in 2010, Goff worked for the California-based company Masten Space Systems.
“I am a big ideas person, so if I see an opportunity that I like, it’s nice to be able to go and take it,” expresses Goff in regards to company projects. Altius is currently working on developing orbital propellant depots for space refueling and reusable space vehicles. Additionally, the company conducts research on human hypogravity with the hope of determining the minimum amount of gravity necessary for human life.
The small company, however, is best known in the aerospace world for Sticky Boom, an extendable robotic arm. Altius is currently doing similar research to develop International Space Station (ISS) assistive robots to reduce the enormous amount of time that astronauts spend simply maintaining the system.
“We spend $3-4 billion per year on the ISS, and get approximately 2,100 man-hours of research in return,” explains Goff. The MAGE (Mechanical Assistant for Glove-Box Experiment) robots would be controlled from the ground, which allows earthbound researchers to manipulate and control their own experiments.
Altius similarly landed a contract from NASA to design an asteroid boulder retrieval system. The company’s design, “The Prospector,” can land on the surface, pry a boulder free, leap off, and wrap the boulder up for a safe return to earth. With only eight employees, Altius was the smallest company by far to land the prestigious contract.
“Plasma decelerator development is the one non-technical thing that we are doing that I think will make a huge difference,” asserts Goff. Because slowing spacecraft down uses a tremendous amount of energy, plasma decelerators aim to utilize a protective plasma shield to divert the spacecraft’s kinetic energy into the surrounding atmosphere.
While owning a business yields freedom and rewards, Goff outlined some of Altius’ greatest challenges as well.
“You get to control your own destiny, which is actually the best and the worst part,” said Goff with a laugh. Because space contracts tend to be of short duration and operations are very expensive, finding the money to keep things moving forward can be difficult. In this way, the tradeoff of more business control is financial stability.
As Altius Space Machines continues expanding over the next few years, the company is searching for interns and student engineers for the future. Goff has numerous recommendations for students looking to work in the aerospace industry or even start their own aerospace businesses.
“Do your research and go and try something big,” Goff suggests. “Projects outside of class show initiative and are often differentiators in the hiring process.” For instance, Goff’s first hire for Altius was a student who built a bowling-ball trebuchet in high school. Even though the project was completely unrelated to aerospace, it demonstrated the problem-solving process necessary for research.
Goff also points out that the aerospace industry is currently going through a period of changing attitudes and research, which can be beneficial for scientists. “When you have a lot of change going on, there are more opportunities for individuals to make a difference with innovation.”