The Interview: Blaze Sanders pushes toward the final frontier

Since he was a young boy growing up in upstate New York, Blaze Sanders always said he wanted to be an astronaut. He's doing his best to live up to his dream.

Sanders, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University, worked as a civil servant for NASA, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. But he wanted to move faster with his various dreams for space exploration and even space commerce — dreams that involve air bag lunar-landing modules, robots and a business plan for collecting space junk, fixing satellites and space sky diving.

Space sky diving? Yes, Sanders is working on a suit and method for launching tourists into space and having them descend back to earth — slowly, and then as they enter the atmosphere, more quickly — in a durable space suit, and land by parachute.

Two years ago, Sanders started his own company, Solar System Express, based in the Emerging Technology Center in Baltimore. He's been buoyed by recent, high-profile developments in the space industry, as a company called Space X docked the first commercial space ship with the International Space Station in May.

The Google Lunar X Prize — a $30 million competition to send a robot to the moon and beam back high-definition images and data — has also fueled the imaginations and engineering talents of people such as Sanders. He and scores of others have until 2015 to meet Google Inc.'s challenge.

As more big and small companies focus on the potential for space business, such as space tourism, Sanders is optimistic that his small company will be able to raise funding and find the right partnerships to develop businesses. He recently talked with The Baltimore Sun about his ideas for space, technology and business.

Why did you leave a potentially stable position at NASA?

With the Google Lunar X Prize ending soon, and with my own company that I started in 2010, it was a good time to take an opportunity to find some funding. It felt like the government space [program] was too slow and not willing to take enough risks. At the end of 2011, I made a decision to really go for it. We have four partners and three part-time employees.

So what are you all working on?

Two things. The first is the Gravity Development Board [a printed circuit board whose hardware and software can be modified and programmed], which will allow grad students and investors to prototype faster. It's 50 percent smaller and 40 percent faster than leading competitors. It's the core IP [intellectual property] for our future products.

We've also started prototyping a few elements of a space sky diving suit. We've built a carbon fiber overlay and done some analysis of the force elements and thermal requirements for that suit. We have a contract with Final Frontier Design, which will build the suit. Their glove placed second in the NASA Astronaut Glove Challenge [in 2009].

We also have a contract with Juxtopia LLC to develop AR [augmented reality] goggles. Just like "Iron Man" in the movies, you'll have a heads up display — so you'll have all the stuff you'll want to know as you're falling through the sky at Mach 1.

How are you funding product development?

We're boot strapping. We've spent about $50,000 of our own personal capital. Right now, we're looking for investors. We're looking for $200,000 to complete the Gravity development board and approximately $400,000 for the suit.

How are you involved with the Google Lunar X Prize?

We've been working on a rocket engine. We've been working on our air bag lander, which is part of our business plan. Scientists all over the world can use the air bag lander [which inflates an air bag that can protect a small robot or instruments upon impact on the moon, for instance.]

The X Prize will be given to the first commercial entity with less than 10 percent government funding to land an unmanned probe, move 500 meters, and send back video from the moon. We have the air bag lander and an earthworm-like robot.

What inspired you to be so focused on space?

Bad grades in English. I was interested in watching shuttle flights when I was younger. My parents have me on video saying I wanted to be an astronaut at the age of five.

What is your personal motivation?

Obviously I want to build a space-scalable technology. We need to develop technology that has clear uses in space. The focus of Sol-X [Solar System Express] is being able to think forward enough to see solutions and requirements. When you're on Mars and something breaks, you don't necessarily want to make a new custom robot. You want to have a system that's easy to change and easy to prototype.

What else is part of your business plan?

Ultimately, we want to be the first space garbage man with our space suit. We have a business plan for manned orbital debris [cleanup] and satellite maintenance. We can charge to service satellites. This is a long-term vision for my company.

What's the biggest danger in using these space suits?

We have the technology to shield against high temperatures [from falling into the Earth's atmosphere]. The biggest danger is spinning out of control and having all the blood rush to your head and feet. It's the opposite of a black out. It's a red out. You get too much blood in the brain and eyes and pass out. The suit's gyroscopes allow you to rotate without firing any thrusters. You'll be able to use a [small] rocket motor to slow yourself down.

So where are you now in the development of the gravity board?

We just started the alpha release for the gravity board. We're giving away 25 free boards. We're giving people a chance to test the hardware. We'll have a beta release at the end of August. We'll release the final version right before Christmas.



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