Engineer Spotlight: Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya on NASA and Designing Private Sector Satellites

February 14, 2017 by Tim Youngblood

AAC sat down with Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya, a former rocket scientist for NASA who recently started an incubator in Singapore for the "NewSpace" economy.

AAC sat down with Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya, a former rocket scientist for NASA who recently started an incubator in Singapore for the "NewSpace" economy.

What is the NewSpace Economy?

The NewSpace economy is the cooperation of public and private entities to bring cargo into orbit, explore, and make space travel more accessible for everyone in pursuit of becoming a multi-planet civilization.

Even before NASA was formed in 1958, private investors and entrepreneurs were interested in space exploration. Andrew Carnegie contributed $1.4 million (About $630 million today) to the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory, James Lick donated the equivalent of $1.2 billion to the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, and Daniel Guggenheim donated the equivalent of $36 million for Robert Goddard's rocket experiments. NASA wrote a very interesting paper entitled "Emerging Space: The Evolving Landscape of 21st Century American Spaceflight" (PDF) that details the relationship between private entities and publicly funded space programs.


Robert Goddard and his first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. Image courtesy of NASA


Private contributions to space exploration (at least in the United States) faded from the public eye after the formation of NASA. NASA launched several successful manned and unmanned missions and captured the imaginations of people around the world. Fear of losing the public space program entirely to sequestration in 2013 brought privatized companies like SpaceX into the public eye and the cooperation of public and privately funded space programs has been highly successful.

Although SpaceX is the most popular, there are actually several private companies dedicated to space exploration around the world. One of the new kids on the block is the Astropreneur's HUB, an incubator for NewSpace Economy startups located in Singapore. It was co-founded by Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya a veteran of NASA who worked on several prominent space exploration programs. She also founded Bhattacharya Space Enterprises, an educational outfit dedicated to training the next generation of space leaders. I got to have a chat with her and learned a lot about the NewSpace Economy and the future of space exploration.


Dr. Bhattacharya, my new favorite rocket scientist.

AAC: You worked on a lot of important projects at NASA: Voyager, Mars Pathfinder, Galileo, Cassini, and Terra. Could you tell us a little about your work verifying the pre-launch hardware and software?

BB: Pre-launch verification typically involves running simulated data through a pipeline and verifying that the output products give you reasonable numbers, both from an engineering perspective as well as scientific.

I worked on a number of missions over the years, starting with pre-launch calibration of the Hubble Space Telescope, at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Having an interdisciplinary, broad-based background really helps. For instance, on HST I worked on the Faint Object Spectrograph, one of the original payloads. It way my first job out of college, and I assumed, somewhat naively, that everyone else also looked at the big picture. It was an interesting challenge having to convince the software engineer, who was more senior than me and a contractor from the other side of the country, that her software she was generating, basically, useless results. We were getting < 0 flux numbers from the spacecraft simulator! The two of us had a lot of interesting conversations over the phone about what her numbers meant in the physical world, as negative fluxes are like "negative photons" or something I guess. In her mind, the fact that the software didn’t crash and produced results was a measure of success. The actual issue was wraparound, as the processor couldn’t handle numbers larger than 2^15 and error trapping just threw out negative numbers. I had to talk to a number of senior people on my team to be convinced I was right, and in the end having effective communication skills (and patience!) got the job done.

My responsibilities on other NASA projects were sometimes along these lines, but I also managed on-orbit calibration schedules, trained scientists in use of data from various spacecraft, and did a number of other things over the year.


The Cassini Orbiter in testing. Photo courtesy of NASA.

AAC: You have a lot experience working in the public sector for NASA and UCLA as an engineer and educator. Can you tell me more about why you decided to pursue education and space exploration in the private sector as an Astropeneur?

BB: I had a fortunate set of professional experiences that led to where I am today. My last job with NASA was on the Herschel Space Observatory. I was on that project for three years, and then it looked like our funding situation was going to change, so I started looking around for other opportunities. There was opening for someone to start a research development program for The Claremont Colleges, and since I was ready to move into management I took that job, which kind of got me hooked on startups.  
Running a space technology incubator in Singapore is a great opportunity to bring a non-spacefaring nation into the current realm of disruptive growth in the private sector (so-called “NewSpace”). The education component is important, not only because I get to share my excitement about space with the public, but it also inspires people to consider careers in space, thus feeding the incubator!

The incubator was set up late last year, actually, in response to market demand. After a number of people asked me how to set up a space business I realized this was a service I could uniquely provide based on my years of experience, so we started Astropreneurs HUB.

AAC: You were involved with a program in Singapore called COMPACT. Did COMPACT have any bearing on your decision to set up BSE (Bhattacharya Space Enterprises) and Astropreneurs HUB in Singapore?

BB: The COMPACT program is still under development, but in the mean time I have gone ahead and actively engaged the public in space education and outreach through public lectures and events such as the United Nations World Space Week. BSE was set up to engage in space entrepreneurship, with an eye towards CubeSats (disruptive technology used to produce handheld satellites). Being in Singapore is a huge advantage for a number of reasons. It’s a very easy place to do business. Southeast and South Asia represent a market of 3 billion people that has yet to be tapped. We’re also the first incubator in the region, so we can define the direction NewSpace will take in that part of the world.

AAC: I read through your educational background, and I noticed it takes a very diverse skillset to be a rocket scientist: mechanical engineering, physics, programming, and circuitry! Are there any skill sets or disciplines utilized by rocket scientists that might surprise people?

BB: (not that much experience with circuitry, actually)

As I mentioned above, being able to work in teams and communicate effectively with people of all backgrounds, like I had to do with the engineer on HST, is critical to success. 

AAC: It looks like BSE is primarily focused on CubeSats at the moment. Could you explain what CubeSats are for our readers?

BB: CubeSats are handheld, self-contained satellites that can be build using COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) components. The basic form factor is a 10x10x10 cm cube weighing 1.3 kg, known as a 1U. People typically develop 1U, 3U, 6U, etc., depending on what their needs are. You can assemble and launch a CubeSat for $100K, not counting labor. You can include the latest technology, as development time is as short as a few weeks, and the low cost allows designers to take greater risks. It’s crazily disruptive, much like our cell phones are able to process more information than a room-sized computer did a few decades ago. 


A 1u CubeSat without outer skin. Courtesy of Svobodat [CC BY-SA 3.0]

AAC: Women in STEM week wrapped up recently. Do have any advice for young women who want to get involved in space exploration or science and engineering in general?

BB: I’ve worked in STEM education and outreach since having kids. I have two daughters, ages 22 and 17, and when they were in preschool my husband (an astronomy prof — met him while working on the Hubble) and I started going to their daycare to talk about space. Space is inspirational and a very easy way to engage both girls and boys in STEM. With regard to young women, who are still unfortunately underrepresented in STEM, I’d say two things. 1) Diversity is the key to success for any technical project, and we really need you!  2) If other people’s expectations are in your way, just remember that they’re working with the limited dataset of their own life experience, which may not include intelligent, dynamic and inspired X-chromosome holders such as yourself. 

AAC: What kind of involvement are you currently seeking for BSE and Astropreneurs HUB?

BB: BSE needs people who are good in conveying engineering and science principles to students and the public. Astroprenuers HUB is looking for space-curious entrepreneurs with ideas, at any stage, for development in the context of outer space.

AAC: Since I'm sure our audience is curious... do you know Elon Musk?

BB: Um….While, like most women, I would not turn down the opportunity to meet Ryan Gosling or Shah Rukh Khan, I’d totally be into having a conversation with Elon Musk. I’ll let you know when that happens.