Incubating Bright Ideas

Randy Villahermosa knows that innovation and technology are part of the Aerospace DNA. (Photo: Eric Hamburg/The Aerospace Corporation)

Printing 3-D rocket motors.

A Mars lander.

Rocket plume analysis.

What do all these topics have in common? They were all supported by the Aerospace Technical Investment Program (ATIP).

Aerospace considers it vitally important to stay on the cutting edge of research and technology, and ATIP is one way it accomplishes that goal. ATIP is an internal company program that allows Aerospace scientists and engineers to complete research and development on a variety of important topics that might otherwise be neglected.

“The ATIP program serves multiple objectives, from innovation to supporting a responsive technical staff,” said Sherrie Zacharius, vice president of Technology and Laboratory Operations. “Leveraging technology and innovation to help our customers overcome today’s and tomorrow’s challenges is critical and ATIP investments play a crucial role.”

Mark Goodman, principal director of Strategic Planning at Aerospace, agreed on the importance of ATIP.

“The ATIP program is important because it is a key source of innovative ideas at the company, and because it gives the technical staff the chance to work with advanced technologies in their fields,” he said.

Types of ATIP Projects

  • Independent Research and Development (IR&D): IR&D projects are targeted research and development projects that often lead to the invention of novel technologies or new technical capabilities. IR&D projects vary in length, but are typically less than four years.
  • Engineering Methods (EM): Like IR&D, EM projects are shorter-term, focused development efforts. The emphasis in this case is on the development of software and engineering tools.
  • Sustained Experimentation and Research for Program Applications (SERPA): The goal of the SERPA program is to carry out research in broad technology topic areas that are continually advancing and are of critical, ongoing importance to the corporation and the national security space enterprise.
  • Long-Term Capability Development (LTCD): LTCD projects focus on the development and/or maintenance of technical capabilities and tools for which there is a sustained corporate need.


ATIP is managed by the Research and Program Development Office (RPDO), with Principal Director Dr. Randy Villahermosa at the helm. Villahermosa, with the help of senior scientist Dr. Terence Yeoh, has the exciting, yet challenging, task of sorting through competing research proposals and generally managing the ATIP budget.

“We are stewards of this precious corporate resource and see it as both a privilege and a responsibility. We’re never satisfied when it comes to finding ways to nurture and support research and development at Aerospace,” Villahermosa said.

In order for ATIP to be as effective as possible, it consists of four different programs (see sidebar). This portfolio of options allows ATIP to be both responsive and far-looking.

RPDO is currently administering about 300 different ATIP projects involving approximately 700 Aerospace employees.

One of those employees is Dr. Eugene Grayver, a senior engineering specialist who is working on an IR&D project trying to send a strong signal and receive a weak signal simultaneously on the same antenna at the same frequency.

“This is a very exciting [project] because the expected result has been considered impossible for many years,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about this problem for a few years now and it started to seem less ‘impossible’ than some sources claim.”

Grayver considers ATIP essential. “Having employees work on these ‘out-there’ projects … keeps our skill current and exposes us to the latest and greatest developments from industry and academia,” he said. “We have to be able to see novel solutions to the problems faced by our customers and the contractors.”

Dr. Allyson Yarbrough, a principal engineer, is working on an IR&D project assessing a commercial capacitor for possible use in spacecraft. She also expressed the importance of ATIP.

“Our ATIP program is an incubator for innovation,” she said. “Four of the five of the patents I have earned have been associated with an ATIP project.”

An individual ATIP project can certainly be valuable and interesting. However, ATIP is also valuable on a larger scale. An example of this is the propulsion capabilities at Aerospace. Dr. Tom Curtiss, director of the Propulsion Science Department, explained that his department has benefited greatly from ATIP.

SERPA money has been used to build up the electric propulsion, chemical propulsion, and multipaction facilities. IR&D funding is also used to look at new technologies. Most recently, ATIP has supported the development of a new Propulsion Research Facility. The propulsion labs are used to support DOD programs (e.g., AEHF and WGS), as well as civil and commercial programs. Clearly, they would not be what they are today without the contributions of ATIP.

Of course, ATIP is not the only way for employees to do research and development work at Aerospace.

“There’s actually quite a bit of R&D that happens outside of ATIP that’s directly funded by customers,” Villahermosa said.

Nonetheless, ATIP plays an important role at Aerospace, supporting innovation and enhancing the company’s technical reputation. It also provides an important outlet for scientists wishing to do research.

“This isn’t just about allocating funds and reviewing proposals,” Villahermosa said. “It is about people wanting to pursue these endeavors that mean a lot to them.”

If you’re interested in reading more about those endeavors, check out these articles featuring projects that had ATIP support:

—Laura Johnson