September 03, 2012
Noah Rhys was content in his career as a university researcher until late 2005, when NASA changed direction to launch its Constellation return-to-the-Moon program and funding for his work on advanced propulsion at Marshall Space Flight Center dried up. Rather than seek other sources of research funding for the university, he decided to set up his own company.
“I started doing the math, looking at all the projects I had won and what I had brought into the university, and I realized I was the person taking the risks. I had been handing all of my contingency money over to the university,” he says. “I wanted to have control . . . and have wanted to start a rocket company since I was five years old.”
After securing a contract at Marshall to work on the Constellation launch abort system, Ryhs incorporated Huntsville, Ala.-based Yetispace in 2006. Over the next two years, the company added employees and contracts to conduct research for NASA in areas such as nuclear surface power and cryogenic fluid management—the latter now Yetispace's main line of business.
“Our particular strength is deep-space propellant storage,” Rhys says. When United Launch Alliance proposed a ground test of a small-scale propellant depot prototype, Yetispace worked on preliminary design issues and proposed to Marshall that an existing vacuum chamber be modified to test cryogenic fluid management using the prototype. Yetispace ran the ground tests as part of the Cryote (cryogenic orbital testbed) team hoping to fly a cryogenic fuel management experiment as a rideshare payload.
As part of its work on propellant storage, the company has developed the ability to make multi-layer insulation blankets for cryogenic tanks. “They are tricky, requiring attention to craftsmanship and detail,” says Rhys. Blankets have been supplied to NASA's Marshall, Kennedy and Glenn centers for testing. “We have several proprietary methods for sizing and assembling that result in reports that our blankets are superior to others previously received in terms of fit and finish.” The company has also developed and tested a broad-area cooling shield that combines an aluminum-foil shield with embedded cooling loops.
Rhys believes Yetispace has been able to establish itself because, although NASA's internal culture is “very risk-averse,” the agency gives its external contractors “more leeway to make mistakes.” As a result, “we have done so many things we have not done before that we know how to do things we don't know how to do. That's an unusual characteristic in engineers.”
The cryogenic fuel management business is growing, and now involves eight of the company's 10 employees, in part because a project that would cost NASA Marshall $1 million can be done by Yetispace for $200,000, he says. In adding two or three employees a year, the company is “looking for decathletes,” Rhys says. “We want people that are not wallflowers, not fearful but a little bit aggressive, and open to sharing their mistakes.”