Actually, it is rocket science

Centennial-based SEAKR is still a family flight

By Peter Jones
A lot of great ideas have been hatched over dining room tables, but most were probably forgotten by the time dessert was ready. Not so for the Andersons who would launch their family-run business into—no kidding—outer space.

“When I was a kid, they made the Buck Rogers movies with the spaceships, with the little sparks and strings attached,” Ray Anderson said with a gleam in his eye.

While his sons—Scott, Eric, and Kurt—might have been more inclined toward Star Wars a generation later, the Anderson boys all had the imagination and engineering know-how that would eventually turn the family’s garage into a maze of aeronautic computer gadgetry.

Today, the still-family-owned and Centennial-based SEAKR—a techno-sounding acronym for Scott, Eric, Anderson, Kurt, and Ray—is one of the leading manufacturers of multimillion-dollar information-storage systems for military and NASA spacecraft.

That is not to say the family’s Air Force veteran patriarch would have ever had any desire to join the then-burgeoning space program himself, even while he worked on the Corona and Hexagon reconnaissance satellite programs in the 1970s.

“I’m not that brave,” he said of his reluctance to strap on a helmet. “I’d rather build the Atlas [space missile] than get blown up on the pad.”

Anderson has found other ways to make his way into space.

What’s bigger than a breadbox and has traveled on the International Space Station? SEAKR’s digital memory systems. Here, a system awaits testing aboard a simulated spacecraft.
Photos by Peter Jones

 

Since its official founding in the early 1980s, SEAKR Engineering, Inc. has helped revolutionize spacecraft memory systems by gradually replacing clumsy “bubble memory” recorders with the evolving latest in solid-state technologies. Since the early days, SEAKR’s accomplishments have included the world’s highest-performance single-board computer in space and the most powerful array of reconfigurable processors in orbit, all with 100-percent flight success.

Although SEAKR does not have the self-deprecating luxury of quipping that its important work is not rocket science, engineer Dave Jungkind, the firm’s business-development director, says the easiest analogy to explain its product might be in your pocket and was, in part, created by another formerly garage-based powerhouse.

“The camera in your smartphone has a sensor for light and a processor to convert it to an image and memory to store the image,” he said. “It’s the same basic elements in your satellite.”

Back in the day when a bulky computer took an entire room to perform a mere fraction of what a cellphone can now do, the government space missions would use similarly quaint methods to capture visual information on what were essentially glorified reel-to-reel machines.

This vibration machine can make sure a high-tech information-storage device can withstand the rigors of outer-space travel.

“They would chuck the recorder out of the satellite in parachutes for boats or planes to retrieve,” Jungkind said with more than a hint of irony.

It is little wonder that Anderson was sure there was a better way to capture crucial satellite data than to forever live at the mercy of rust and seaweed.

But it would take the family a few years to sort it all out.

After 28 years in the Air Force, the southern California father of three sons began his semiretirement at Rockwell, where he worked more or less alongside his oldest son, Scott, then a recent electrical-engineering graduate.

“It was an old boys’ company and I wasn’t one, so after three years I quit,” the elder Anderson recalled. “Scott didn’t like what he was doing so he quit.”

Back at the dining room table, the unemployed father and son mulled their next move. One day, they flipped through a bulky catalog published for government contractors.

“The defense satellite program wanted a solid-state recorder,” Anderson recalled. “I didn’t know how to make it, but Scott did. So we put together a proposal.”

Be careful. Even static electricity can harm these multi-million-dollar devices. All workers and visitors must wear protective clothing.

Before long, the younger sons were part of the new endeavor. Since regulations said the contractor had to be a small business, the family formed one, using the first initial of the family name and those of the father and his sons to create an official-sounding acronym.

In the early days, the struggling SEAKR had to get by, taking the odd “engineering” job, adjusting skylights, for example, before finally establishing its leadership role in defense contracting, often competing with much larger corporations as Honeywell International, subcontracting for Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace, and Boeing. The business made its first sale to a poorly funded program that could not afford a standard tape machine.

The upstart SEAKR’s first major contract was with Lockheed Martin, for whom the small company constructed what was then the largest recorder of its kind—about the size of a desk-cabinet drawer, by Anderson’s estimation. Some would be as big as the whole desk.

“Everyone in the industry was asking, who’s SEAKR? They were shocked,” Anderson said of SEAKR’s launch into the marketplace.

The Martin contract eventually precipitated SEAKR’s move to Colorado in 1995 when Martin brass decided they needed to keep a closer eye on their family-owned contractor.

Today, SEAKR boasts about 500 employees, more than 300 of whom are engineers. In recent years, the company has contributed to such projects as the International Space Station and the Orion program, as well as to the space shuttles and weather satellites. Among SEAKR’s next projects will be a processor for the Iridium satellite constellation.

Although the firm’s Mass Memory Systems can capture the mundane, as well as the strategically important, the equipment can get pretty esoteric in its information gathering, or as SEAKR Vice President Scott Anderson once told this reporter, “scientific information that’s necessary for astrophysicists to help unlock how the universe began.”

Similar technology has assisted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, documented climate change, helped in the building of canals and kept an eye on goings-on in Afghanistan.

As the changing technology continues to find function everywhere from civilian weather forecasting to Google Earth imaging, CEO Ray Anderson is as dumbfounded as anyone by the ubiquity of today’s digital information storage in space.

“I had no idea,” he said of the newer utilities. “It was just something I liked, and I knew it was useful.”

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