These days at Midland International Air & Space Port, two types of sounds fill the air. There’s the all-too-common whine of turbines as airliners take off and land, and there’s the unfamiliar grunt of heavy equipment and their perpetually beeping back-up alarms. It’s quiet inside the Orbital Outfitters building at the under-construction Spaceport Business Park, but there’s a lot going on.
In a small office with large windows packed with science books and gadgetry, works a man with grand ideas to revolutionize the aerospace industry. He’s a lifelong lover of all things outer space and hopes to make it big on Earth so he can someday reside outside its atmosphere.
Dale Amon is an entrepreneur. While many look at the likes of billionaire businessmen Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson as the archetypes of those trying to do the impossible, Amon says they’re not the complete picture.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur most of my life. People see the highest point for the people that make a lot of money, but for every one of those high points, there are the times when you’re scraping for a peanut butter sandwich,” he said from the new home base of his company, Immortal Data, on a late January afternoon.
Immortal Data is one of a handful of space companies in Midland. The Midland Development Corp. in 2012 brought in XCOR Aerospace, which has high hopes to someday launch and land its Lynx suborbital spaceplane from Midland’s fledgling spaceport. There’s Orbital Outfitters, a spacesuit company also recruited by the MDC that has since partnered with the city to operate its Midland Altitude Chamber Complex that has altitude testing capabilities not seen outside of NASA.
The MDC partnered last year with LeoLabs, a company that will set up a space-debris detecting radar facility on city-owned land in Winkler County that otherwise sits idle as the source for water from the aquifer beneath. XCOR and Orbital received millions of dollars from the MDC, while LeoLabs received tens of thousands as part of a marketing agreement. Immortal Data and upstart Agile Aero, founded by former XCOR leader Jeff Greason, have so far had to find funding elsewhere.
Immortal Data has about 15 employees around the U.S., three of whom, including Amon, its CEO, live in Midland. Most are well seasoned aerospace industry veterans, and all are “1099” independent contractors who pay themselves based on the jobs they get to keep cash flow reasonable. Immortal Data makes most of its money through consulting work.
Amon is an expert in real-time data systems and understands both the hardware and software sides. Before coming to Midland in July 2015 as part of the XCOR staff, Amon was a consultant developing systems for the Lynx space plane. He and others were laid off last year after the Lynx project was put on hold indefinitely, so he went back to work for himself. He has survived so far. “We’re managing to keep enough cash flow here that I can pay the rent and buy my peanut butter sandwiches.”
Immortal Data currently is in search of venture capital to fund Amon’s patented, “why didn’t I think of that” invention that changes how flight data recorders work in order to give a clearer picture of the situation when an aircraft breaks up during flight. Normally, there are so-called black boxes in the nose and tail of an aircraft. His Distributed Black Box is an auxiliary replacement, and the system puts more boxes around the aircraft. But it’s more than just adding more data recorders for a better chance at recovery.
“Each box has GPS and wireless communication capabilities,” he said. “Our idea is that the GPS keeps track of where each box is, and they send that data to each other. If the aircraft breaks up in the air, they continue transmitting via battery power over Wi-Fi. They trade positions. If you collect any of the boxes, you’ll know what the debris pattern is.”
Amon said he was inspired by the space shuttle Columbia disaster. The craft broke up over Texas upon re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. “A video tape made it to the ground of the astronauts inside the orbiter just before re-entry. It struck me that if that could survive all the way from re-entry to hitting the ground and be recovered and shown on TV by just pure chance, then if you have enough of those, you can make chance more certain and do it cheaply.”
The project was entirely self-funded and was considered “new and interesting” by the Patent office, so Immortal Data was granted all of its claims. The hunt for investors is on, but this isn’t unfamiliar territory for Amon.
Amon is a Pittsburgh native who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in electrical engineering, with a computer option and minor in cognitive psychology. He did three semesters of graduate work under Nobel laureate Herbert Simon in a multidisciplinary program involving psychology, engineering and computer science but left to join start-up company Compuguard Corp., which has folded.
After going back to Carnegie Mellon to work in the computer science department, he joined another startup, MicroMed Corp., in 1989, which took him to Northern Ireland to work on medical instrumentation. There were high hopes to receive significant capital from both the United States and United Kingdom governments, along with other interested parties, but funding issues killed the company, and Amon was forced to find work elsewhere.
His next effort was nothing short of pioneering. In today’s interconnected world, the internet is ubiquitous, but in the early 1990s, it was still largely the domain of governments, academic institutions, large businesses and hobbyists. Amon brought connectivity to the masses through the Genesis Project, Northern Ireland’s first true commercial internet service. It was bought in 1997 by Direct Net Access.
This spawned his next company, Village Networking Ltd., whose products included mobile web-casting stations, hotel internet access systems and a private financial trading system prototype. The company closed in 2003, and Amon has been a consultant ever since. He loves startups and being his own boss.
“The only jobs that I’ve had that weren’t startups after college were when I worked for Carnegie Mellon as research staff and at Queens University,” he said. “Other than that, everything has been out in this dicey world where your job is to keep your job alive and make money for the company.”
To help pay the bills, Amon worked many years as a professional musician in Northern Ireland, but he ultimately had to make a big life decision.
“I was at the level where I probably could make a living as a guy going out to bars and such. I was doing some touring. I knew a lot of the major people in Ireland. I’ve been onstage with some of the best known musicians in Ireland. But I wasn’t going to that next level,” he said. “I have friends who are recording artists and are very well-known. They’re making a living; they have a house. But if the music business wasn’t just so much fun, it wouldn’t be a lifestyle you’d want. As they’d say over there: The craic is mighty.”
Space is clearly his first love.
“I’ve always been into space. I think I was imprinted on aviation when I was 6 years old. I grew up under the pattern for the greater Pittsburgh airport. My mother rented out apartments to stewardesses, pilots, air traffic controllers and Air Force guys, so I grew up with aviation people all around me,” he said. “This was also the time of Disney and Von Braun’s thing, IGY, Sputnik and going on into the Mercury program. That was my youth. There was no doubt in my mind if you would have talked with me when I was a teenager that I was going to be on Mars by the time I was in my 30s.”
Amon has long been a part of the space industry. He started an L5 Society chapter in Pittsburgh in 1982 and has been closely associated with the National Space Society. He oversaw the International Space Development Conference for 16 years and was the chairman of the Space Settlement Conference in 2016.
As for Midland and its venture into the space industry, “You’re in early days, but it’s looking positive,” he said. “You’re creating more companies, but you have to hit a critical mass where there are enough companies around that everybody is feeding off each other, and if someone gets laid off at one company, they get picked up at another. There are an awful lot of great people who left (XCOR) because there simply wasn’t enough work here. The people who stayed are the entrepreneurs.
“I suspect you’re going to see some quite large buildings here (in Midland). You’re going to see a fair number of launches and landings of horizontal craft. I would like to hope the Lynx spaceplane comes back from suspension and is flying out of here. These things have a tendency to grow around nuclei. The place on Earth right now is still Mojave.”
Amon said what Midland needs most is more venture capital and a greater focus on small companies.
“Midland Development Corp. is there to pour concrete, build buildings and attract companies. They’re not really encouraging the little companies like Immortal Data. It’s the little companies that grow up in the environment that really make an area a major facility. XCOR was started by four people who got a little bit of help getting into a hangar and were just about selling T-shirts and lemonade to keep the doors open when they were starting up.
“You can’t expect to bring in just the large companies. A large company can come in, but they can leave just as fast. If you help the small companies in the field grow, you get an ecosystem of people who are interconnected and part of the community. They’re going to stay and grow in this area. They’re going to attract other startups.”
He gave XCOR’s 2016 layoffs as a prime example.
“XCOR came in and laid off a couple of people. The layoffs caused two more startups in Midland. If you look at what’s in Midland, (there’s) Agile, Immortal Data and XCOR. There’s Sierra Nevada coming in for some things, LeoLabs and Orbital Outfitters. Three out of those six are from one source. That’s the family tree.”
Today, Amon is doing consulting work for the federal government, EXOS Aerospace in Caddo Mills and Excalibur Almaz in Houston. His expertise takes him around the nation, and the entrepreneur wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m just too bloody independent. It’s being a pioneer. I want to be on the cutting edge, even if I get cut.”
As for his dream for space, he hopes to “make enough money, live long enough and leave Earth. I love the quote from Elon Musk: ‘I’d like to die on Mars — just not on landing.’” Until then, he’ll continue working diligently on his home planet, a pioneer in Midland helping the city’s promising future as a critical hub for the space industry become reality.