In 2003 Dr Armin Ellis saw the launch of two space missions he’d been working on an ultra-violet space telescope and a Mars lander. Since then he’s managed, designed, and been the architect of many more missions, everything ranging from Mars rovers, suborbital sounding rockets imaging the aurora, high altitude balloons, CubeSats, SmallSats, and flagship NASA Missions. He’s also led scientific, educational, archeological and artistic expeditions on earth.
Growing up in the UK, Armin had always been fascinated with exploration of earth and space. Scott, Shackleton, Cousteau, Leonov and Armstrong were his childhood heroes and he was mesmerized by the idea that there are places waiting for us to know and to see until some comes along
With his heart set on space exploration, Armin know that the United States would be the place for him to sink his teeth into substantial missions so at the age of 10 he decided that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the place famed for it’s deep space and earth science activities, would be his eventual goal. He decided to study engineering at one of the leading aerospace universities in the UK. As a student he started working with space engineering companies working on mechanical and systems designs and applying theory from his classes to actual projects. By the end of his undergraduate degree he’d started his first company, AstroPioneer Ltd, a small outfit to develop exploration technologies. Eventually AstroPioneer would be acquired by an automotive engineering company trying to break into the space industry.
He first moved to the United States to study for his PhD, at Dartmouth College. He spent 4 years designing rocket instruments to study the aurora, launching them out of the arctic regions and imaging the aurora from above, in space. Also in the field of optics he invented an instrument for measuring all the fundamental qualities to characterizing femto-second laser pulses – essential to gaining a deeper understanding of how light changes as it travels through different mediums with applications in medical imaging and laser communications. This invention was seen as a substantial progress so Dartmouth College has protected it through an international patent.
Nearing the end of his PhD, Dr Ellis started VentureKits, a non-profit organization to excite all students about science and technology, whether they were seeking to become science professionals or not. VentureKits developed a high altitude balloon, and launched a series of them in school trials in New Hampshire with students, taking pictures and wirelessly transmitting them to a student’s laptop as it climbed to 100,000ft! The students would see the entire process of assembling their balloon kits, designing their experiments, and seeing the data come in – almost an entire space mission done from a local school. Most powerfully, the series of images coming would shape their understanding of the world – seeing themselves in their school yard, then their school, their town, county and eventually the curvature of the earth and the black of the sky, from above 99% of the atmosphere. This change of perspective is what causes students to understand technology in any field they choose to go to, rather than to fear it. After all, fear of technology will inevitably lead to fear of the future.
In 2008 Armin had achieved his childhood goal of working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At first became a mission architect on Mars missions then he moved to earth based missions. He worked on a large number of missions but of note are his work as lead architect on NASA’s National Imperative Flagship mission, Aerosol Cloud Ecosystems and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 mission bound for the International Space Station.
Armin has always studied new developments and better ways to solve problems, and alongside his work on very large and important missions he was also working on advanced concepts. He was an early adaptor of low cost and high performance mission architectures known as SmallSats and CubeSats and he developed a forum for industry innovators and space startup companies to visit JPL so that there would be a mechanism for cross pollination of ideas and the innovators could create alliances with NASA. Many new missions, proposals and contracts became possible due to the Forum, demonstrating that sometimes only a small amount of effort can lead to tremendous outcomes.
Throughout his professional career, Dr Ellis has had a fascination with the foundations of true innovation. What is innovation vs improvement? Why is it that some experts can’t see a glaring solution and yet an outsider with a non-exhaustive understanding can? And what are the fundamental forces that lead a team to work well and to effectively solve problems? Not all solutions are or can be elegant, but when it’s possible and worthwhile then innovation will lead to breakthroughs!
While at JPL Dr Ellis learned three important things
The world is more amazing and beautiful that we can imagine…but the only way to truly appreciate it is to explore it.
Innovation is best helped along with curiosity, simplicity, empowerment, and a positive emotional state.
The future will be very different from the past…and very few are prepared for it.
After 8 tremendous and productive years Dr Ellis decided to leave his beloved JPL, to create Exploration Institute and to apply his insights to challenges beyond the space industry. Being at JPL was an incredible learning opportunity to understand everything from public policy and systems engineering through complex management of advanced projects. The intensity of JPL and the complexity of space missions has been the most rigorous environment to test many of the ideas, which are now improved and presented through Exploration Institute.