Gerhard Van Vuuren comes to E-Space from Planet, where he was a senior guidance, navigation and control (GNC) engineer working on the Tanager and Pelican spacecraft. He says what attracted him to make the move to E-Space was the vision outlined by Founder and CEO Greg Wyler.
“I follow the news and I was reading about E-Space and its focus on sustainability in space,” he says. “The company is passionate about making space a resource available planet-wide for hundreds of years to come, and that really appeals to me.”
With E-Space’s mission to make its satellites sustainable and less likely to end up — as many other satellites do — as orbital debris, it was an ideal match for an engineer who specializes in the hardware components for controlling spacecraft.
Being in the startup world was also part of his decision.
“There is an underlying excitement – a collective feeling of urgency – when working in the early development phases of a company,” he says. “There are opportunities to be part of the architecture design up front and be part of critical decisions that will drive future company endeavors. I thrive on engineering teams where we’re all working on the edge to solve challenging problems on the fly, at all levels of the engineering process.
Van Vuuren says he sees the orbital debris problem as similar to that of climate change.
“If no one does anything, then it becomes everyone’s problem,” he says. “I’m proud to be part of a global team, led by a satellite pioneer like Greg Wyler, that’s doing something tangible; a company that is not afraid to confront the issues of orbital debris head-on.”
His path to E-Space
It only took Van Vuuren a few months into college to realize that a business degree wasn’t for him. By switching to electrical and electronic engineering (EE), he set in motion a relatively quick path to where he is today: working on the hardware of control system components for the E-Space satellites.
The space industry wasn’t initially on the radar for the native South African, but when he decided to pursue post-graduate work, fate stepped in.
“The professor leading my undergrad project, Herman Steyn, is a specialist in the field of satellite control systems. He and one of my other professors had a great way of explaining control systems to make it relatable to everyday life,” Van Vuuren recalls. “Like the cruise-control system in your car or automatic climate control — you measure something, and you use that measurement to change your input to the system. An even simpler way to think of it is in a car where you’ve got the gas and the brake as the inputs, and your eyes are the sensors as you adjust speed to keep the right distance from the car ahead of you.”
That dynamic sparked his interest immediately.
“It’s something that’s applicable to just about any industry, but the fact that this was the space industry just made it so much more exciting.”
After gaining his bachelor’s and master’s EE degrees from Stellenbosch University near Cape Town, Van Vuuren joined Professor Steyn’s post-graduate research lab. Along with several other research engineers, they spun out CubeSpace, a small company specializing in nanosatellite control systems.
A few later, Van Vuuren left CubeSpace and South Africa for a job as a control systems engineer with ISISPACE in the Netherlands, followed by taking a position as a senior engineer at Spire, based out of Glasgow, Scotland, where he got his first taste of working with a whole constellation of satellites.
Van Vuuren followed his interest bringing constellation-wide GNC depth to Planet where he was a senior GNC engineer. Planet is an Earth imaging company that seeks to deliver daily images of Earth to monitor changes and pinpoint trends.
Now with E-Space, Van Vuuren will work remote from South Africa with regular travel to the E-Space office in Los Gatos, CA. This has enabled him to find the ideal work-life integration to his growing family — both his expanding E-Space engineering family and his family at home (Van Vuuren and his wife welcomed their second child in June).
“Working at E-Space is a great fit,” he says. “It matches the need to balance my family life with my interest to be engaged in the excitement of an early startup company. And the fact that E-Space can help the world fight what could be one of its most pressing environmental challenges, space debris, makes it even better.”