A Moment with a Mission Manager: Scott Higginbotham

Scott Higginbotham is a Mission Manager for NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. With a career at NASA spanning 33 years, Scott has decades of experience building and testing spacecraft that have flown on both crewed missions like the space shuttle and uncrewed rockets. Today, he leads the launches for NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI), and has played a major role in organizing the manifest for Virgin Orbit’s upcoming Launch Demo 2 flight, the 20th mission in the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) series.

Here, we catch up with Scott to learn more about his role at NASA and how he sees CubeSats fitting into the rapidly evolving space industry.

Can you describe what a mission manager does exactly? What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

I am responsible for working with our business office and procurement team to go put the contracts in place that are necessary to obtain launch services from launch vehicle providers. Once we do that, we then have to manage that contract and make sure that all the deliverables are received, that we’re paying you on time for your services — that sort of thing. That’s the business side of the job.

On the technical side, I have a responsibility to make sure that the requirements of our satellites are being met. So, we have to look at interface documentation to ensure that requirements are satisfied going both ways, and that the verification evidence is there to ensure that we fly safely. We also have a schedule to manage jointly, making sure that all the pieces show up at the right time and the right place and come together before flight.

There’s also a teaching aspect to my job, where we help educate budding satellite developers on what it takes to build and integrate and launch a satellite.

10 CubeSats are set to fly on LauncherOne around the end of the year — the 20th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa XX) mission. How were those payloads selected?

NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) has been selecting spacecraft from academia, nonprofits, and government entities for 11 years. What we’re looking for is spacecraft that meet NASA’s strategic objectives in science, technology development, and education.

What started all this in the first place was the very first CubeSats, which were built in the U.S. but launched on Russian rockets. Here in the U.S., some visionaries at NASA said, “Y’know, why don’t we set up a mechanism by which we can take care of the launch piece?” So, nowadays, if an institution meets some strategic objectives of ours and commits to building the satellite, we’ll commit to launching it. The satellite provider funds the development of the satellite, but we pay for the launch — because back then, and even still today, the cost of building a satellite is an order of magnitude lower than the cost of launching it.

The educational value is huge. We’re trying to build the next generation of satellite builders, and in the end, for some of these schools, it’s about the journey as much as it is the destination. The benefit students get just from building the satellite — designing it, fabricating it, testing it — gives them a lot of experience in different aspects of project management and engineering.

Small satellites have been around for a couple decades at least, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun receiving more attention and investment. What’s changed?

The explosion in microelectronics is what has allowed this to happen. Initially, CubeSats started out as a tool for educational exercises… but then, people started to realize they could actually do some useful missions with them. Also — and you can’t really put a finger on when — at some point, businesses started realizing there was money to be made in this market. So, a whole new marketplace has been developed in an amazingly short period of time.

The other thing that happened is that NASA caught on to the fact that we can do some serious science in small packages. We started looking at the investment you can make in a CubeSat versus what it costs to build a washing machine-sized or SUV-sized satellite, and we realized that the economics work really well for some missions. If you want to collect temporal data over a large area, using a swarm of small satellites is the only real practical way to do it. So, people are coming up with lots of novel ways to conduct science.

It took a period of demonstration for both industry and the science community to realize that CubeSats are not just toys anymore.

Do you have any words of wisdom for students who want to launch something into space one day?

Well, first of all, you can do it, because it’s been done. And it’s been done by elementary schools. Now that said, it’s not easy: you need resources to buy your parts, to get a lab to work in, and to get professional advice. That’s where the institution comes in. The effective teams are the ones that have a partnership with their school’s engineering department that can give them both the facilities and the equipment to make the magic happen.

And then you need a team. The important thing to remember is that you don’t just need a bunch of engineers. The best teams I’ve seen are ones that have people from all backgrounds, because that’s how you can address things that not all of us engineers are good at. For example, for managing a budget, a business major would be great for that. You’re probably also going to want to solicit funding, so you need some people that are good at public relations. And then you’ll want to advertise what you’re doing, so you might need some communications majors to help with your website or to collect imagery.

I know from my own engineering training back when I was an undergrad, we focused on the technical things all day long and there was very little focus on the other things that are important to be successful in the business world. It’s important to build a team that has all those characteristics.

Probably one of the best ways to go learn what it takes is to talk to somebody who’s done it. Meet with other institutions and learn from them what it takes to be successful. And then you can start steering your own path.

Do you have any thoughts on what the space industry as a whole can or should do to get more people involved? How can we expand the aperture a little bit?

First of all, people have to be excited about space. And some people come with that, like I did as a young kid. But not everybody is sold on space. Industry has to make this career look interesting and exciting. Media helps — I mean, Star Wars helped me, and there’s lots of other good sci-fi that gets people wound up. But even then, that’s not quite enough.

If everybody in the space business would put more time and energy into telling their stories, I think there’d be more of a groundswell of fundamental interest and support. And when that happens, money follows.

Back in the 80s, I had to go to the library to get books. I couldn’t just look up anything I want to on the computer. But we have the power now to reach people in underserved areas or in areas that have less means — and there’s talent and interest there. If we can ignite that spark, we can get them ready to come along with us into the future.