Monarch: Space has been his frontier from the start
September 12, 2022- Originally From: https://issuu.com/odupublications/docs/monarch_magazine_summer2022
Eric Ingram ’13 was “a big space nerd” when he was a kid.
He devoured movies like “The Fifth Element” and “Independence Day.” He stared at the sky for long stretches. He even had G.I. Joe astronauts.
“I didn’t just want to learn it or look at it,” Ingram, 31, said. “I wanted to be the person to go there and experience it.”
Ingram, who majored in physics, worked at the Federal Aviation Administration for three years, evaluating whether launch technologies met licensing regulations. In 2019, he co-founded SCOUT (SpaceCraft Observe and Understand Things) to address a critical gap in space safety: Most satellites don’t have sensors to detect oncoming objects.
“Spacecraft are flying blind in orbit, almost literally,” Ingram said in a podcast last year. “That increases the threat of collisions with debris or other spacecraft. What SCOUT is doing is working to provide vision and awareness to spacecraft.”
The first satellite equipped with a SCOUT sensor launched in June 2021. A few months later, Ingram got a brief taste of what it would be like in space.
He went on a two-hour “parabolic flight” from Long Beach, California. It didn’t escape the Earth’s atmosphere, but it simulated short bursts of reduced and zero gravity.
“For the first time in my life,” he said, “I was standing unassisted, which was outside the scope of anything I anticipated.” He described the experience in a New York Times article as “legitimately weird.”
His dream burns stronger than ever. Ingram wants to be one of the first people with disabilities to go up in space.
Ingram molded his education around his dream. At Granby High School in Norfolk, he took nine AP courses, including physics, chemistry and computer science.
At Old Dominion, he got a D-minus in his first physics class. But that, he said, was because “I was discovering parties.” He got a lot better.
Charles Sukenik, professor and chair of physics, calls Ingram “one of the most enthusiastic and driven physics majors we have had in decades. It was an absolute pleasure to work with him because he was simultaneously excited about his projects, fearless about moving forward and clever in solving problems.”
Ingram gained practical experience co-founding a chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, or SEDS, which he led for two years and grew to 75 members.
As he would with other pursuits, Ingram also took on a national leadership role, serving as the chapter expansion manager. “It helped me get into the space industry and navigate it better,” he said. “I learned a ton about what different companies were doing.”
Eric Ingram had to work hard to persuade his parents to let him play wheelchair rugby when he was a teenager.
First, they said no. “Then they wanted me to wear a helmet,” he recalled. “But I wore them down.”
Ingram helped establish Virginia’s first team, the East Coast Cripplers, in 2005 when he was 15. He served as captain for eight years.
“The wheelchairs are battering rams that take the brunt of it,” Ingram said. He discounted the injuries he’s suffered along the way: “A lot of jammed fingers, little cuts and bruises, only a couple of concussions.”
He now plays for Medstar NRH United in the Washington area, which is ranked 20th in the nation.
For Ingram, the games relieve stress. “I’m able to turn into a bit of a crazy person, but in a controlled manner.”
He’s also been active behind the scenes, serving as president of the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Association from 2016 to 2020. Under his watch, he said, the organization achieved the highest surplus in its 30-year history.
Ingram has a relatively rare disease– Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome. He underwent more than two dozen corrective surgeries as a child.
His symptoms include club feet, scoliosis and unusually shaped joints. “I can’t move my legs much,” Ingram said. His fingers also have minimal flexibility, though he works out with 25-pound dumbbells.
Ingram stays active. He co-founded a wheelchair rugby team as a teenager and now plays on a team in the Washington area. He also earned a blue belt in jiu-jitsu at ODU.
Ingram has fought stereotypes and diminished expectations, such as the time at a restaurant when a waitress asked his wife, Andrea Jensen, a federal geologist, for his order.
At work, “If I’m able to seize the dialogue early on, that dispels it. Talking is probably one of my best strengths.” And, along with his analytical skills, it’s been crucial to his company’s success.
“As CEO,” Ingram said, “I have to be able to accurately and succinctly describe what we’re doing, whether it’s to an investor, a highly technical engineer or a general from the Space Force.”
Ingram lays out the problem in space: About 6,500 satellites and other objects are in orbit, but that number could be 40 times higher in 10 years. Space traffic is now monitored from the ground with radar and optical telescopes. But “adding more ground stations is not going to be a foolproof solution.”
SCOUT has two answers: First, a sensor – “It looks like a pair of binoculars with a small computer attached to the back” – that can be mounted on a spacecraft.
SCOUT also is developing a satellite the size of a shoebox equipped with the sensor. Ingram sees it acting as a space traffic controller, with the capacity “to develop the equivalent of a Google street view of space.”
Ingram said his products provide an additional plus: transparency. “There are a lot of things happening in space that we don’t have good knowledge of now.”
SCOUT, which has four full-time and six part-time employees, was named Startup of the Year in 2021 by Established, a national business consulting firm. It has received $200,000 in grants and awards, including $75,000 from the Virginia Innovative Partnership Corp., formerly known as the Center for Innovative Technology.
Its first grant – $15,000 – came from ODU’s Virginia Institute for Spaceflight and Autonomy. The grant, which supports promising new ideas, went through a highly competitive process, said John Costulis, the institute’s deputy director. “Eric and the team did an outstanding job with their proposal, and the fact that he is an alumnus was an added benefit.”
Orbit Fab, which seeks to deploy refueling stations in space, installed one of Ingram’s SCOUT-Vision systems on a tanker last summer. CEO Daniel Faber had worked with Ingram before, hiring him as an intern when Faber ran Deep Space Industries.
“He was young and keen and smart,” Faber said. In SCOUT, Ingram has built “a really good team. With Eric’s background and their experience working with technology, they’re proving their chops.”
Ingram said: “It’s been an uphill battle, but the last nine months have been good to us. I hope the momentum can continue.”
At first, Ingram didn’t apply for a spot on the zero-gravity flight.
He was already a board member of AstroAccess, which sponsored the mission, and didn’t want to create a conflict of interest. But the leaders of the organization heavily encouraged him.
Ingram rode on the flight with 11 people with disabilities – five others with mobility issues, four vision-impaired and two hearing-impaired. The plane, which flew 40,000 feet up, executed 15 parabolas, approximating either Martian, lunar or zero gravity. Each lasted 20 to 25 seconds.
Martian gravity, Ingram said, “felt mostly normal.” The lunar bursts gave him the first experience of standing.
“It was kind of surreal,” he said. “I pushed off the ground and went from lying to standing. I thought, ‘Can I actually stand?’ It just blew my mind.”
He felt the full effect with zero gravity. He rose, his head just inches from the plane’s ceiling. “It was really weird. I had the feeling of my clothing not having any weight. I was standing, and my shirt was around me, not on me.”
One of the key tests was whether the passengers could return to their spots on individual mats within a specified time. Ingram, using handholds, did it all but one time.
Now he’s more eager than ever to go up into space – but not everywhere.
“I’m not a big Mars fan boy,” Ingram said during a recent podcast. “I’m more moon-focused.”
Ingram applauds entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk for expanding the possibilities for space travel. But he says they’re getting the publicity all wrong.
The focus shouldn’t be on big-name passengers, but on “the benefits to society,” such as space-based solar power, biomedical research and even cancer treatments developed in space.
“We need to be looking at the infinite resources in space, so we don’t have to rely on the finite resources on Earth. A lot of that stuff doesn’t get talked about.”