Inventing lingo to run entire space missions

Language: Ellicott City firm tests software for probe of universe's origins.

August 31, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

They met at a formal ball in northern France. He was a boyishly handsome French engineer, she a pretty blond American exchange student.

After a yearlong courtship, they married and went to Morocco for the Peace Corps.

Almost 20 years later, a few things have changed. Now Doreen and Pat Cappelaere live in Ellicott City, coach soccer for their three daughters and work in a faceless Columbia office park.

But the excitement and romance of their early days isn't gone; it just comes in the thrill of running their own company.

Pat Cappelaere founded Interface & Control Systems Inc. 11 years ago -- on Bastille Day, he proudly notes -- and is beginning to be noticed for his innovative ideas about software for controlling satellites.

The privately held company more than doubled in size in two years, growing from about 25 employees and $1.5 million in sales in 1996 to 55 workers and revenue of almost $5 million in 1998.

With the launch in June of a Johns Hopkins University satellite for studying the origins of the universe, ICS finally has a vehicle that demonstrates many of Cappelaere's concepts.

"We have a chance," said Cappelaere, the 43-year-old chief executive officer, "to become a major contributor to change in the industry."

There are two main thrusts to the software package that Cappelaere's company has been developing for more than a decade, which is called Spacecraft Command Language, or SCL:

Most satellite projects use separate sets of software for the spacecraft itself, the ground control station and testing facilities. SCL is designed as a common language for all aspects of a mission.

Satellites require constant monitoring and supervision, but are often in contact with the ground for only a few minutes at a time as they whiz around the globe. SCL is intended to let a spacecraft control itself, reacting to change and executing commands for long periods without human intervention. NASA's 1994 Clementine space probe, which discovered indications there is water on the moon, was the first major mission that carried SCL aboard.

But the June launch of the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, or FUSE, marked the first time a mission has used SCL both for controlling the spacecraft and running the ground control center.

Created and maintained by scientists at Johns Hopkins, FUSE -- which is looking for remnants of the creation of the universe -- originally carried a price tag of $350 million but was built for only $108 million as NASA's budget dwindled.

The new emphasis on small, cheaper missions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration creates an environment that encourages consolidation and the use of standard commercial products -- perfect for promoting SCL, Cappelaere said.

A little over two years ago, Cappelaere and two major business partners at ICS realized that their company faced a choice. They could remain a small boutique firm, or they could capitalize on the space industry's move toward numerous small missions and try to grab a prominent role.

They decided to storm the Bastille. Cappelaere recently completed his M.B.A. at Loyola College and now spends more time tinkering with business plans than software codes.

With the aid of his wife, who came to work at ICS four years ago as an accountant, Cappelaere is developing a plan to grow to $12 million in annual sales in four or five years and then make an initial public offering of stock.

So far, the plan is on track, he said.

Lockheed Martin Corp. chose SCL last year for the launch control system on its X-33 reusable spacecraft, a next-generation follow-up to the space shuttle that is slated to make its first experimental flight next year.

The Bethesda aerospace giant also included SCL on its own satellite command and control package, which the company markets as an inexpensive and reliable way to operate big networks of satellites.

Because the SCL software allows a system to largely run itself, "It reduces the load on the operator [and] allows one operator to service many satellites," said Ron Rianda, chief architect of Lockheed Martin's Satellite Control System 21.

One thing Cappelaere has struggled with, though, is how to market the esoteric mission of his company.

After two failed attempts at cooking up promotional materials, he realized that the answer lay in his roots -- the love of fine arts cultivated while growing up in France.

Now ICS business cards, posters and its marketing brochure carry a bold graphic design based on the abstract painting of Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian.

In the lobby, an elegant, geometrical chair by Gerrit Thomas Rietveld illustrates the simplicity of the company's software. Elsewhere, Cappelaere uses the mobiles of Alexander Calder and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright to explain other aspects of his company's product.

"People are responding," Cappelaere said. "After 11 years, we're getting some attention."

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