Rick on MPR — the cost of space, CubeSats, Space Hackers

If you caught my interview on MPR, then you were probably wondering…  “What is he talking about?? The guy should slow down!!”  So I’ll try to supplement the interview with some written notes here so you can sense what I was trying to say.  (As for the rest of you… you’re wondering… “whaaaa??? What did Rick do?“)

Friday morning, I was interviewed by Doug Turnbull for MPR (not NPR).  We were planning a 15 minute interview, but managed to go for over 30 minutes.  So the interview is being broken into two pieces. MPR is “Mars Pirate Radio“.   Doug is bringing together space science fact and fiction.   I was his “rocket science” guest for Episode I.

Now, I happen to know that my thoughts get ahead of my mouth or my fingers.  With writing, I get to go back and fix what I wrote to make it more understandable.  With interviews, you get the full brunt of zigzagged thought patterns with minimal mercy.  So this time, I tried to organize my thoughts beforehand.  But alas, it is what it is. In any case, here are some notes.

In part 1 of the interview, we talked about the following subjects:

  1. reducing the cost of space flight
  2. CubeSats and nanosatellites

Because time is short to register, in this blog post, I’m also going to talk about Space Hacker Workshop on May 4-5.

Reducing the cost of space flight

Doug made reference to Alan Stern, a former associate adminstrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Stern had postulated that emerging private launch systems could put payloads into orbit for one-third the cost of NASA’s traditional contractors. Doug asked what I thought about this.

First, I need to say a few words about Alan Stern. He is one of the most energetic people I know of.  He’s a driving for behind:

  1. suborbital research in the Commercial Space Flight Federation
  2. Uwingu, an attempt to marry space research and consumer products
  3. Golden Spike, an attempt to build a translunar economy

He’s also the principal investigator of New Horizons, which is currently on it s way to Pluto.

Stern has observed that other scientific endeavors, like medical or green energy, can go to a variety of sources for research money — private foundations or companies, as well as the Federal government. Space is not like that. Virtually all of it is from the Federal government. So he’s trying to change that. He’s trying to build commercial revenue streams which sustain themselves but will then support space research as well.

Do I agree with Stern? Ultimately, yes. I don’t know if my reasoning is the same.

Why would emerging space companies get the cost down where NASA’s traditional contractors haven’t?

When NASA’s traditional contractors began working the space business, there was no commercial market. One did quickly form for communication satellites, but that was pretty much the only market.

Delivering goods to the Federal government, whether it is NASA or DoD or any other agency, tends to be mission-oriented. There are often special requirements. You cannot simply offer commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products. Designing or bending to these requirements adds cost. And if only the government can buy the service, the market will never grow sufficiently to drop the cost.

Left to its own devices, private industry will design a product to appeal to the largest possible set of customers. In fact, it may choose to forego customers for which the requirements are too difficult to satisfy. Instead, the customer will adapt his/her/its practices to fit what vendors in the market have to offer. Thus, development costs are spread over a broad base of sales. The product may be improved incrementally as feedback comes from a large spectrum of users.

Private industry also doesn’t have its mission re-purposed every four years. It also doesn’t endure as much second guessing by members of Congress as Federal agencies do. These interruption to programs ensure the costs stay high.

This is not to say that commercial companies never have to change their mission or practices. They do. If they find they’re not doing what the customer wants, they lose profit and die. But they are typically not blindsided by this. When it does happen, it usually means a change of CEO or other top exec of the company.

But ultimately getting the cost of space flight down depends on a building sustainable economic ecosystem. This is a little like building up little towns on the frontier of a new land. Small businesses interact, support each other, find ways to live off the local land rather than have everything imported. This is the kind of transition we’re in now for the emerging space economy.

CubeSats – a standard nanosat form factor

Doug asked me about CubeSats and nanosatellites.

A CubeSat is a kind of nanosatellite. It is 10 cm on a side, for a total of 1 liter in volume. Maximum mass is 1.33 kg. (This defines the standard 1U CubeSat. There are also 2U, 3U, etc.) It has a standard shape and a standard deployment mechanism.

In the past, a larger satellite required virtually all of it to be custom built. While the situation is starting to improve, they have not progressed as far as CubeSats.

CubeSats have a standard frame. There are a few commoditized parts now on the market, like solar panels, or batteries, or data computers. This means that satellite designers don’t have to worry about all these infrastructure details. This is good for university students as well as business and research. Payload builders focus more quickly on getting the payload designed and built. Businesses can shorten their development cycles. The cost of a CubeSat is currently around $60K to $100K, including launch costs.

This started about 1999 when Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Stanford Univ collaborated on the CubeSat spec. I believe Prof. Bob Twiggs at Stanford University came up with the idea of a standard nanosat infrastructure. Prof. Jordi Puig-Suari and his students came up with a spring loaded container and mechanism which would hold and then push the satellites out into orbit.

Due to improvements in microelectronics, CubeSats are getting to be increasingly practical. Just to see how far this can be pushed, NASA Ames will be launching a CubeSat called PhoneSat later this year. It is, in fact, a Google Android phone. Smartphones todaty have GPS, accelerometers, cameras — a lot of sensors that experimenters want.

The problem with CubeSats right now is that rockets are too large for them. They are sized for huge primary payloads. Often the customer of the primary gets only one shot at getting this particular payload to orbit, and spent hundreds of millions or billon of dollars to make it reliable. As a result, the customer can dictate any rules that secondary payloads must follow. CubeSats frequently hitch rides as secondary payloads. In most cases, it means they cannot have any propulsion, because a propulsion accident in a CubeSat might damage a multi-billion dollar primary payload.

This reliance of CubeSats on secondary payloads is not good for business. You are limited in what you can do, and the primary payload may slip its launch date, all the CubeSats on that launch slip as well.

A small rocket dedicated to CubeSat launches would provide immense flexibility that doesn’t exist today.

Interest in CubeSats and small launchers is currently very high. DoD would like to replace complex monolithic satellites by a formation of nanosatellites and microsatellites that have common structures and communication mechanisms. The component satellites might each have a different function. When that satellite breaks down, a spare can be positioned in its place from orbit or launched from the ground. This creates a demand for launchers that can deliver nanosatellites to precise orbits on a day’s notice.

Space Hacker Workshop

I’m helping the Silicon Valley Space Center (SVSC) and Citizens in Space put on a Space Hacker Workshop on May 4-5. Here’s what’s happening.

Citizens in Space has purchased 10 flights on the XCOR Lynx two-seat rocket.  They intend to fly close to 100 experiments built largely by citizen scientists. To make building payloads easy, the Silicon Valley Space Center is training workshop participants on ArduLab, a CubeSat-sized laboratory module which was originally designed for the International Space Station.

Using components available at Radio Shack or Fry’s Electronics, citizen scientists can build instruments and experiments with more power than a NASA satellite from a new years back. The Space Hacker Workshop will provide hands-on exposure to a variety of microcontrollers, sensors, imaging systems, and other components that you can use to design and build microgravity, fluid-physics, life-science, and engineering experiments.

We’ll be meeting across the street (literally) from NASA Ames Research Center at the Hacker Dojo, one of the premire hacker spaces in the world. The Dojo is home to many successful start-up efforts. It has a robotics lab with lots of used and donated parts. There is a continuing stream of talks and workshops there, including the ones I help organize for SVSC and AIAA San Francisco. (AIAA is the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, of which I am a member. It is to aerospace what IEEE is to electronics.)

The current early bird registration is $100; this will expire on April 18. After that, it goes up $125, and then to $150 at the door if there is space.

Here are some links about the workshop:

If you’ve ever dreamed of putting an experiment in space, here is your chance.  It is in the Lynx, and experiences 5-6 minutes of micro-gravity.  But given that Citizens in Space has already arranged for the rides and is basically looking for worth payloads to fill slots, this is the best opportunity most of us will get to have hands on an experience for something that will fly to space.

One thought on “Rick on MPR — the cost of space, CubeSats, Space Hackers

  1. Pingback: Rick on Mars Pirate Radio (round 2) | RocketSciRick

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