Near Flagstaff, Arizona
“Welcome to where your dreams are realized,” exclaimed the attractive, trifold brochure of the Spacenix facility just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. And indeed it was true: for a small segment of mankind who were intrepid and farsighted enough to see the opportunity..
On a large, though sparsely populated area of yellowing grass, cacti and sand, one noticed first the myriad of handsome cottages arranged in rows extending out into the near distance. Connects by cement walkways, one could easily find friends and family members participating in simulated space missions.
On went the brochure, “…for only $2995, you too can log Spacenix simulator hours that will catapult you to the top of the list of citizen astronaut candidates for real space missions in the near future.” Past the cottages lay the Universities’ labs, constructed with the same design as the cabins and past these the simulator complex itself. Rather than a large building, all the simulators were free-standing much like the Embry-Riddle campus just south in Prescott.
Built in Spacenix’s early, and less capitalized, days, Mr. Heywood had designed and built the first buildings out of 2” x 6”’s and sheets of OSB. An engineer, not an architect, he had ingeniously impregnated the available building materials with arcane, but inexpensive, commercial,. Resins to impart greater weatherability and aging characteristics. The only lasting con being the unique smell that former clients of the Flag facility would joke about when returning to their points of origin.
Arriving clients would be greeted at the Welcome Center at the edge of (yet another of the facility’s endearing eccentricities) the extra-large parking lot, not paved but in gravel spread by enthusiastic University of Arizona volunteers. Whenever Floyd was pressed on when Spacenix would pony up the cash to pave the eyesore, he would unabashedly tell them “Never!” insisting that both he and the campus;s staff liked it perfectly that way. Even, and especially, the RV’s around the perimeter.
He could tell the newest arrival, checking his manifest for her name….a Ms. Jean Dautrive out of NAU, was nonplussed by her initial impression of the place. Her slightly whining voice giving away her home state; probably New Jersey. The Spacenix facility because it was privately funded and not part of an academic or government agency was home to a grand and sometimes idiosyncratic cross-section of the American society. Obviously some rich kid trying to discover herself in the arena of space travel, surmised Floyd.
“You’re late, trainee.” Floyd pointed out.
The main contingent of more of less eager “citizen” astronaut trainees had dutifully shown up on time and were already well into their orientation.
“I am sorry…Mister?”
Floyd internally rolled his eyes at this. CEO of Spacenix and people still didn’t recognize him at first glance. He wondered if Elon Musk at some point had the same problem. At least she got the Mister right.
“Mr. Floyd Heywood at your service. I’m the CEO of Spacenix, of whom this facility belongs to. I’ll escort you to the Welcome Center and you can check in there.”
Clutching her Gucci handbag while extending her hand, she at least had the civility and manners to introduce herself correctly. After inquiring if her lateness would in any way affect her stay and “grade” and getting a comforting “No.” they both proceeded to the Center.
Upon entering, Suzanna Horne spun her chair around to greet the new trainee.
Shocked at her blond good looks, Jean, cracked a half humorous, half irritated “Oh, I didn’t know the Delts were running the place.” Suzanna used to all sorts of comments (aerospace still being a male-dominated culture) smiled a half-patronizing, half polite face, retorting “Actually Sigma Lambda Alpha. And no I’m not a lesbian…that’s Gamma Rho Lambda. Floyd snickered to himself never heard that one before. Sigma Lambda Alpha was a women’s leadership sorority as so the humor didn’t escape him.
Jean wasn’t kidding about her loos. Suzanna was a perfect 10, blond and somewhat out of place looking here at Spacenix. She would have looked perfectly at home however on any school’s cheer-leading squad.
Suzanna produced the check-in paperwork had Jean fill our a few fields and sign it. She double-checked her reservation on her computer and whistled softly “Me friend, jean. It looks like you are signed up for the colonial program. I am impressed; you figure you are ready for that?”
“Yes, thank you.” retorted Jean. “I don’t pull out my checkbook for anything under a grand. You really should raise your prices, you know.”
Not the first time they had heard this reverse concern. In fact, their CFO, Chad Thompson, had suggested numerous times that they raise their fees but Floyd would always say be wanted the programs available to anyone that wanted to participate in them.
With that Suzanna smiled her fed-up grin and said “Alrighty then. I’ll just have the guys show you around the campus and then to your cabin for the night.”
“Thank you.” replied Jean quietly.
Floyd with his usual stand-offish wisdom let the two talk, but in his hear of hearts felt bad for Jean Dautrive. About a quarter of their trainees washed out, quitting their respective program before it was over. He feared that her apparent lack of discipline was an accurate indicator that she would be one of the trainees that left early. He believed in his work so completely that he felt terrible for those primarily young people that did this.
The “guys” (that’s just what they called them, usually campus volunteers) showed up and after happily greeting Jean, half of them proceeded to move her luggage to her cabin while the other half, Dan and John, started her orientation.
Suzanna, after Jean disappeared into the distance, turned to Floyd Heywood and scrunched up her nose and accusingly “Some of the people you let in here, boss.”
It was their corporate philosophy that everybody and anybody that wanted to fly a spacecraft could. Floyd knew she knew this so he just sighed affirmatively and left it at that. Hey leaned up against the door frame and rubbed his eye with his left hand.
Floyd suddenly remembered his promise to her and sai9d “OK, give me a minute or two to recharge. Its been a long day.”
“Are you taking your Zoloft like you should?” she ask looking genuinely concerned. Most of his close friends knew he had depression and Suzanna was jut checking up on him. Chad had made him promise that he would take his med as it affected his performance as CEO.
He just looked at her and nodded. They had been friends for only a year and a half and it occurred to him that she had been loyal to a fault to him. They met at ASU where she was bar tending on Mill Avenue simultaneously working on her business degree. She was a volunteer, but with some benefits like free room and board, and one of Spacenix’s oldest and best. Floyd never asked but knew she was doing some creative accounting with her student loans and online classes after work to make ends meet.
She would but in eight to ten hour days at the Center and elsewhere tirelessly and without complaint. Floyd was so thankful deep inside for her personally and other like her sharing his vision of interplanetary expansion.
“Here is the low-down on what we were talking about earlier…”
“Yes, I’ve already told you minimum wage is fine. I just need a little money coming in BUT I still want the benefits on top of that.”
“Understood and agreeable.”
Floyd reached behind her desk and pulled out one of his infamous dry erase boards; in addition PowerPoint presentations, he was hopelessly addicted. He started to write down some numbers.
“We have 5 kinds of simulators here. You already know which one’s we have so I’ll use the Colonial simulator as an example.”
“Right. Three grand for two months in the colonial,” pointing at the figure on the board.
“Now 2 months or 60 days seems like a long time AND it is to the trainee because of the harsh training schedule BUT a short time for us, so to speak.” She nodded knowingly totally into the mini-presentation.
“To explain what I mean: it costs us next to nothing to operate each one. With a little wizardry on the front-end, by wizardry I mean our choice of inexpensive materials, low land costs and more of the simulators’ coding being done by volunteers at University of Arizona gratis our only expenses are electricity and food.”
“I understand, initial costs versus on-going expenses.”
“Exactly. We only use about $250 per month in electricity and another $200 per person per month in food.. You remember those plastic trays we squirt simulated space food into?”
“Boy, do I ever. If you would remember, I spent 3 months preparing and boxing hundreds of those trays. I’m so glad Henrietta’s handling that now.”
Floyd laughed “One of the best parts of that goop we feed them is that its basically oatmeal, some meat product and a few other things we don’t pay much for at all. For the sheer experience, it almost seems the worse the food is the more it feels like real space travel to them. I’m being facetious.”
“Long story short: multiply the number of simulators by the number of trainee’s per, by six times per year by our net profit margin per program leaves us this number.” writing the number down. “Check it out.”
“Wow…Spacenix is making bank!”
“There are some other expenses and because our IPO hasn’t come through yet, and we fuel or in-house R & D with about a quarter of that, but yes we are ‘making bank’ as you astutely pointed out. In fact we are so far in the black that our CFO is a little concerned that we have too much cash on hand.”
To preempt any feelings of being taken advantage of Floyd continued quickly “But look at this: let’s say we were a typical aerospace company paying every person here let’s say an average of $50K per year. We have about sixty staff members, research fellows, grad students and volunteers. Multiply again…” writing down that number.
The two numbers almost canceled each other out. Still a solvent company but not the highly-profitable one he gave the impression of earlier.
“So you see the rub. Spacenix just exists. No R & D. No funds for prototypes or growth.”
Suzanna mischievously smiled and started “Yes, but how about if you give up you crackpot dreams of going to the stars, we keep volunteering and we make you rich?”
Knowing she was kidding, he looked upwards and said “That would work except for one thing. What keeps people signing up is the hope of being included on a read space mission. If we treated this like a big video arcade or amusement park, I doubt if we would get as many people signing up. So yet another reason why we couldn’t do that.”
“Just testing you Floyd. Good answer, and off the cuff as well. You know I believe in your vision.”
He gave her a disapproving yet gentle stare to which she continued “IO don’t know why I’m so happy here. I just wish it could last forever. Great people, no worries, stimulating activities and I have want for nothing even with very little money coming in.”
“I don’t even mind being with the black sheep of the private aerospace industry,” referring to Spacenix, “ its nice being alone in that respect. All of our trainees are ecstatic about our programs, you have all you little toys and friends to tinker with them. I guess I’m saying I’m just grateful to be part of all of this.”
Floyd touched her hand tenderly and said “And I’m grateful to you for all of your hard work, your loyalty and devotion to our vision. I don’t know how much I could have done without you and the other friends we’ve made here.”
At this she lowered her head, smiling and touched and have him a quick hug.