Q&A with Lance Carter, Apex GNC Engineer

Published on
May 23, 2023
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Lance Carter joins Apex as a GNC Engineer. Lance brings over two decades of GNC experience to the Apex team. Lance's background includes both traditional aerospace experience from General Dynamics, Orbital Sciences, and Bigelow to new space experience at Firefly, ispace, and Skyryse.

Q: What is GNC? Why is GNC important?

GNC stands for "Guidance, Navigation, and Control." It refers to the field of engineering that focuses on designing and implementing systems that enable vehicles or spacecraft to navigate and control their motion accurately and effectively. A typical GNC subsystem for a spacecraft includes both hardware (sensors, actuators, and flight computers) and software to achieve those design requirements.

GNC is important because it enables accurate navigation, vehicle control, safety, reliability, mission success, and autonomy. It is a critical engineering discipline for various applications, including aerospace, defense, robotics, and autonomous vehicles.

Q: Satellites to helicopters… now back to satellites. Tell us about your career trajectory.

After completing my graduate studies at The University of Texas at Austin, I embarked on a career in the space industry. I began at Orbital Sciences Corp, where I focused on developing GNC systems for spacecraft. During my time there, I had the privilege of contributing to various missions, including science, Earth-imaging, geosynchronous communications satellites, and the Cygnus ISS resupply vehicle. These projects presented unique engineering challenges, allowing me to expand my expertise.

After nearly 15 years at Orbital, I decided to pursue opportunities at smaller companies and startups where I could make a significant impact. I worked at Bigelow Aerospace, where I contributed to space habitat projects, and Firefly Space, where I was involved in the development of their Alpha launch vehicle. Additionally, I contracted at ispace, inc, a Japanese startup focused on lunar exploration that has attempted a Moon landing.

Seeking a new direction, I joined Skyryse, an aviation startup specializing in advanced fly-by-wire systems for general aviation aircraft. Over a span of four years, I played a key role in designing their innovative "FlightOS" system, successfully demonstrated on a prototype Robinson R44 helicopter. This experience allowed me to gain invaluable knowledge in aircraft flight controls while collaborating with an exceptional team.

Nevertheless, my primary passion has always been in the space industry. Joining Apex presents an exciting opportunity for me to contribute to the development of their initial GNC system. I am thrilled to leverage my expertise and dedication to further advance the field of space technology.

Q: What are you most proud of from your career?

I take great pride in my contributions to the successful development of numerous spacecraft that have operated effectively in orbit. One accomplishment that stands out is my involvement in two spacecraft that have been simultaneously attached to the ISS, namely Cygnus and BEAM.

Furthermore, a significant source of pride for me is the work I undertook at Skyryse developing their innovative FlightOS system. Witnessing the exhilaration of non-pilots, such as actor Jon Hamm during his visit to the company, as they experienced the thrill of flying a helicopter using our system has been immensely gratifying.

Q: What was the most nerve-wracking moment of your career?

Without a doubt, the most nerve-wracking moment of my career was when we first engaged the initial version of the Skyryse FlightOS system in an R44 helicopter, assuming control from the pilot during a hover. Even though I had extensively simulated and analyzed the system, an engineer understands that analysis only goes so far. The true test lies in real-life scenarios. Although our exceptional test pilot could disengage the system and regain control if needed, there was always a lingering concern he could not act quickly enough. The moment of engagement was filled with absolute terror, yet it turned into pure exhilaration when the system operated flawlessly as designed.

Q: If you weren’t a GNC engineer, what would you be?

Playing music and strategic games have always been significant passions of mine. For many years, I have actively played bass guitar in gigging bands, and I am also an avid player of various strategy-based games like poker. At certain points in my life, I seriously contemplated pursuing and even attempted to play music and poker professionally. However, I discovered that both paths are much more difficult than doing, shall we say, “rocket science.” It's safe to say that sticking with my day job as a GNC engineer is the best choice for me.

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