John Olds remembers watching the moon landing. He says he was about 5 years old then. He and his dad, a college physics professor in South Carolina, watched the landing on TV and then went outside to look at the moon and marvel.
“I kind of got the bug for aerospace early on, watching the Apollo landing and the Apollo 13 rescue,” he said. “I set my sights on that.”
He still sets his sights on space travel and the moon, but now he and others at his 15-year-old company also think about Mars, or asteroids, or high-altitude flight. Olds, a former Georgia Tech professor, is owner and CEO of SpaceWorks Enterprises Inc., a Dunwoody-based, private aerospace engineering company.
SpaceWorks consults with NASA, the U.S. military and private aerospace companies about engineering problems such as how to set up refueling stations around the moon or how to divert an asteroid headed toward Earth.
“We live at the border of science fiction and science fact,” Olds, who’s 50, said one recent afternoon as he sat in his glass-walled office in the Perimeter area.
Computer-drawn renderings of past projects and space memorabilia decorate the walls. The break room is decorated with posters of classic science-fiction movies. A model of the Space Shuttle sits on a table. The company slogan, printed on his business card, is “Space Is Go.”
“We typically work on next-generation things,” Olds said. Asked to point to projects underway that outsiders might recognize, he smiled and said, “People wouldn’t recognize [things] we’re working on because they haven’t happened yet.”
In summers, Olds and others on SpaceWorks’ staff try to share a little of that enthusiasm for things space-based with interns from metro Atlanta high schools. SpaceWorks sponsors and hosts a program it calls Aerospace Summer Training and Research Opportunity, or ASTRO. The program is in its third year.
Students spend three weeks working together on tasks as varied as building a tower of spaghetti or designing paper airplanes. They also are assigned one large group project, which Olds calls “an immersive design challenge.” One team of five students completed their internships June 19, formally presenting to an audience composed of their parents, other relatives and SpaceWorks’ staff members.
The task: Design a “cubesat,” a 10-centimeter cube usually sent up into space on a rocket. The interns were told to design and make a cube fitted with sensors to serve as a sort of weather station. It would collect information on humidity, temperature and air pressure. After designing the system, the interns manufactured the cube on SpaceWorks’ 3-D printer. It’s due for a test flight in July, when an airplane flies it above Cartersville for about 90 minutes.
“This was a fantastic experience,” said Alex Rogers, a rising senior at the Atlanta International School, one of the five June interns. His teammates came from a variety of metro area schools: Lovett School; Norcross High; the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Lawrenceville; and the Academe of the Oaks in Decatur.
“It was amazing,” said Ty’Niyah Harris, a rising junior at the Academe of the Oaks. “Anybody who wants to be an engineer should test it out through something like this.”
Olds started SpaceWorks while teaching at Georgia Tech. He says he learned about science from his father, but he was inspired to go into business by his entrepreneurial grandfather, who lived in Tennessee. “I wanted to try my hand at owning my own business.”
About a decade ago, he moved to SpaceWorks fulltime. “We had maybe five people and I would come in on Fridays,” he said. “Then we had a couple of big projects from NASA and I thought, ‘I need to be more involved in that.’”
SpaceWorks now employs about 15 people, he said. They’re looking 15 to 20 years into the future, Olds said. “I can’t remember what I wore to work yesterday, but I can imagine what 10 years from now will look like,” Olds said. “It’s a little bit science fiction and a little bit science.”