Qwaltec CEO, team behind stunning NASA satellite photos | Crain's Phoenix

Qwaltec CEO, team behind stunning NASA satellite photos

Back in high school, Qwaltec CEO Shawn Linam never dreamed she would one day be working on NASA space programs. | Photo courtesy of Shawn Linam

For Shawn Linam, the stunning images from the GOES-16 weather satellite this spring serve as a vivid reminder of a job well done.

The CEO and co-founder of Tempe, Ariz.-based Qwaltec helped NASA and NOAA send the satellite into orbit late last year and it's produced breathtaking, high-resolution images of the Earth's atmosphere in recent weeks.

"The first images from GOES-16 are like works of art," said Linam. In addition to providing more detailed images for meteorologists, she said, "they're absolutely beautiful."

Qwaltec, which Linam co-founded in 2001, provides systems engineering, mission-readiness services and technical training for various satellite programs.

“We’re a services company; systems operations is our specialty," Linam recently told Crain's Phoenix. "That means we operate and maintain satellites. We train ground crews to operate satellites and we develop mission-readiness products for those same ground crews. We also do systems engineering of ground systems."

The GOES-16 satellite does more than capture beautiful photos: Its true value comes from its ability to advance weather prediction and improve reaction times before and during natural disasters, Linam says. The GOES-16’s predecessor sent data to scientists every six minutes; GOES-16 sends data every 30 seconds.

While satellites are Qwaltec’s primary focus, the company also develops unmanned aerial vehicles and is readying itself for space tourism, though commercial space travel is not a reality at present. “We hope that’s coming soon,” Linam said.

Back in high school, Linam never dreamed she would one day be working on space programs with NASA. Initially, she thought she wanted to be a doctor, so she majored in biomedical engineering at Mississippi State. But when she graduated, Linam realized that medical school was not her calling. That decision shaped her life. As Linam puts it, she simply stumbled into a job at NASA.

“I met somebody who was already there, training astronauts, and told them that I was looking for a job. He told me they were looking for engineers to do training," Linam said. "So I applied and got the job.”

When Linam eventually left NASA, she joined Scitor Corp., which was developing training and mission readiness for Iridium, a satellite telecommunications company based in Arizona. That’s how she ended up in Phoenix, which remains her home to this day.

Arizona's aerospace industry 

While the aerospace industry is more readily associated with regions like Central Florida, Arizona's sunny skies have attracted such aerospace and defense industry behemoths as Raytheon, Honeywell, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics. But there are also smaller companies in the field, such as Qwaltec, which is doing scientific research and putting it into practice every day.

 According to a 2012 Deloitte study, Arizona ranks fourth in the nation in aerospace industry employment and fourth in aerospace revenue at $14.99 billion. There are more than 1,200 aerospace and defense companies in the state, making it America’s third-largest supply chain contributor. 

“When I tell people that I live in Arizona and work in the space business, they’re shocked,” Linam said. “People think of Florida, or Houston or Washington, D.C. They don’t think of Arizona. In recent years, ASU has started its School of Earth and Space Exploration and I think that has raised the interest of young people in Arizona in aerospace.”

Qwaltec is a private company, so it doesn’t publicly release information on annual revenues. However, Linam says the company has seen a steady increase in business every year since its inception, with the exception of one year after Congress' budget sequestration in 2013. 

“Since then, we have grown steadily,” Linam said. “Most recently, back in October, we won a prime contract with the Navy that increased our business significantly. We went from 43 employees to 60, almost overnight.”

Qwaltec is heavily reliant on tax dollars for its business. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is the company’s biggest source of funding and Linam is aware of how dependent her company is on Uncle Sam.

“However, we try to position ourselves to be nimble as funding sources change. With the new administration, there’s talk that there will be more funding for human space flight and less for earth observation and science," Linam explained. "So, we try to position ourselves to meet the needs of commercial customers and different sectors of the government. Time will tell if our strategy is successful. But at this moment, if NASA canceled all science and earth observation missions, our business would be hurting, for sure.”

With about 62 employees, Qwaltec remains poised for continued growth, Linam says. Its current contracts have all shown steady growth and she believes the company will add an additional five to 10 employees this year, which is significant for a company of that size.

Practical applications

Scott Appelbaum is an engineer at Qwaltec who worked on GOES-16. Since the November launch, Appelbaum has been immersed in post-launch activation and testing, attempting to validate the scientific data coming from the satellite. According to company officials, most of us will see the results of his work in the form of more accurate and timely weather forecasting, which will include better storm prediction. 

“When you watch your daily news and see the images from satellites, the resolution will be much greater and the time granularity of the images will be much finer,” Appelbaum said. “Instead of looking at choppy pictures from your local forecaster, they’ll show you nice, smooth, clean movies with a lot higher resolution.”

Those clean, clear images will have some very practical purposes. 

“More importantly,” Appelbaum said, “with this data, the forecast office at the National Weather Service will have much faster updates than they were getting in the past. That will definitely improve their ability to see how storm cells are developing, where they are and how quickly they’re developing. Overall, there will just be a general step forward in our ability to do rapid forecasting and, more importantly, emergency weather forecasting.”    

The GOES-16 program is by far the biggest project that Appelbaum has been involved with during his tenure at Qwaltec. 

The life-cycle cost of the program is $8 billion and will result in the production of four satellites. The next satellite in the program will launch a year from now and because they are such critical, national resources, each will have an identical backup in case of accidental damage or failure.

“You can imagine not having the capability to do the weather forecasting,” Appelbaum added. "There are trillions of dollars in our economy that are dependent, one way or another, on weather forecasting. So, if something were to happen to one of those satellites, you need to have the ability to replace it quickly. We’ll have at least one, if not two, as spares.”

April 17, 2017 - 4:05pm