We have entered an era of accessible space. Space that is accessible to life-long learners, makers, and students. Getting tools and experiences into the hands of curious explorers today is not only fun and engaging, it will make for a better world tomorrow as we face significant challenges on our Earth habitat. A lot has changed since the beginning of space exploration. The profound changes occurring today become the opportunity for the dreamers, tinkers, thinkers, explorers, and makers of tomorrow.
A big factor has been cost. For $3.4 billion (in 2019 dollars), the Surveyor missions from 1966-68 put five working spacecraft on the surface of the moon. This year a group of Israeli engineers launched the first privately funded mission to land on the moon for just over $100 million; it crashed upon descent but they remain undeterred. The trend is clear: While still difficult, space is substantially more affordable today. Welcome to the
New Space Age.
Significant changes in technology and accessibility mean that payloads that meet stringent NASA criteria can make their way to the International Space Station for under $50,000. This is a big deal. Eventually the moon, Mars, and beyond will be approachable as viable opportunities. The Billionaire Boys Club (Bezos, Branson, Musk), along with dozens of small launch vehicles, make the era of New Space a perfect set-up for ‘Making Space.’
And keep this in mind: Students in middle school today will be of astronaut recruitment age by the time we have humans on the Martian surface. Why wouldn’t you want to make something for that?
Ted Tagami sent me the above note as we engaged in a series of discussions around the exciting new developments in the DIY space arena to plan for this issue of Make:. As co-founder of Magnitude.io, an initiative that offers students access to space and near-space research opportunities, Ted is passionately plugged into this new space community, and loves bringing others along for the ride. Our conversations revealed new ventures happening on almost all sides of this community, from projects that bring the cosmos to the classroom, to startups and venerable players pursuing innovative and beneficial commercial endeavors. Takeaway: There are more ways now for anyone to get their projects orbital — or near to it — than ever before.
Here are some of the fascinating new ways you can connect to space, whether you’re amateur or pro. And there are many more — we encourage you to explore and share your journeys too.
ISS NATIONAL LAB
It’s hard to imagine space research without the International Space Station. When the first ISS module settled into position 18 years ago, it created a whole new model for accessing space. The ISS’s commercial research aspects are countless, but perhaps more importantly, it’s open for educational and public access.
In 2011, NASA awarded a multi-year contract to the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to manage the ISS National Lab, allowing them to implement educational and commercial research in the lab. It’s been a success. “We’ve launched hundreds of student experiments to the space station,” says Dan Barstow, senior education manager for the ISS National Lab.
It’s through the ISS National Lab that programs like Magnitude.io exist. Other activations include EarthKam (students set coordinates for aerial photos and receive the images after the ISS flies overhead) and ARISS (classrooms speak with ISS astronauts via radio as they pass by). The lab approves half of the cargo that heads to the ISS through NASA launches, and gets half of the astronauts’ time to operate the experiments that comprise that cargo. And they’re looking for more, especially from hobbyists. “In my opinion, the maker community is the biggest growth area that we should approach now,” Barstow says. “The ISS is open for makers.”
ASTROBEE AND ZERO ROBOTICS
Various robots have occupied the ISS through the years, including three floating, bowling ball-sized polyhedrons called SPHERES. MIT developed these semi-autonomous robots and in 2006 placed them on the space station “to study guidance and control, formation flight, in-space assembly, in-space construction,” says Jose Benavides, NASA’s project manager for the program. After years of use, they are now being replaced with a next-gen version called Astrobee, which will feature more tools and sensors, including display screens, a laser pointer, and a “perching arm” that extends out from one side and can grab onto items like handrails, to help the astronauts with inventory and housekeeping — a vital need as we push our space outposts further into the solar system, including NASA’s proposed moon orbiting station, Gateway.
Although the ISS robots are changing, one of their coolest programs will remain — a twice-yearly international student competition that requires middle- and high-schoolers to program the robots to navigate various challenges. Called Zero Robotics (a play on First Robotics, on which it is based), the first few rounds of the competition are played using virtual robots in a simulated environment. The finalists then get to send their code to the ISS, where the astronauts load it onto the actual robots and have them enact the instructions in the real zero gravity environment to determine the winner.
The high-level Astrobee software is based on Android, and NASA has open-sourced the software stack and simulator (grab them at Github). “We want to provide as much help as we can to both students and academics so they can simply focus on their research,” says Andres Mora, robotics and electrical lead on the Astrobee program.
Putting research projects on the ISS requires some assistance, and that’s where Space Tango has focused its energies since being established in 2014. The Kentucky-based group is a flight integration supplier to the ISS through the NASA Space Act Agreement. On board, it operates two automated cargo lockers, called TangoLabs, that accept and operate standardized research containers. This lets everyone from students to Fortune 500 companies conduct education and R&D projects in a simplified manner.
To expand those opportunities, Space Tango recently announced plans to launch its own unmanned, orbiting vessel, ST-42, in the mid-2020s, for microgravity research and even manufacturing. CEO Twyman Clements says, “We have stem cell, organoid, chemical production, and other really interesting projects on our manifest.”
With new maker-friendly tools, there are now low-cost ways to interface with space from your workshop or classroom. In 2013, software programmer Liam Kennedy designed and built a Raspberry Pi-based ISS notifier for his 3-year-old grandson Owen, to inspire him about space as the device blinked regularly. “The key thing about the space station, which I think often goes missed, is that it passes you by 5–8 times a day, somewhere in your sky,” Kennedy says. Dubbed ISS-Above, the device started getting interest from others. Kennedy’s local coffee shop, across the street from CalTech in Pasadena, asked if he could make them a unit too, then some friends suggested he show it at Maker Faire San Diego in 2014. This led to a successful Kickstarter later that year.
That same year NASA switched on a new capability on the ISS to broadcast live views of Earth from orbit, which inspired Kennedy to update his device.“I very quickly realized this Raspberry Pi gizmo that I put together, I could reprogram it to also stream live video from the space station,” he says. The second version of his device now does just that, plugging into a monitor to show live footage and other ISS information. There are now over 3,000 units in classrooms, offices, and elsewhere.
Another great maker-friendly activity is sending a tracker to the edge of space via high-altitude balloon (HAB), a concept pioneered 30 years ago by NASA electrical engineer Bill Brown. Ever the tinkerer, Brown has continued advancing on the concept over the 500 launches he’s done. “My latest projects have been to design PicoHAB payloads as lightweight as possible,” he says about his trackers, which weigh in at a svelte 12 grams. “I had the PC board manufactured at about one-third the normal thickness, used a very lightweight brass tube from a modeling specialty store to support the solar panels, and used guitar string for the antenna wires.”
Totally solar-powered, and with the ability to transmit over very long distances, the lightweight systems use an ordinary flotation method. “I use a very inexpensive 36-inch silver foil party balloon made by Qualatex for best success, which will float around 29,000 feet and will stay aloft upwards of three weeks,” Brown says. “Students learn about weather patterns, buoyancy and lift calculations and experience the thrill of operating a mini-space program as their payload flies around the world. They can track their experiment in real-time with their smartphones on tracking maps which display the location, altitude, solar panel voltage, and temperature.”
While hobbyists and students find new ways to do research in and near space, engineers are also building new commercial endeavors, getting incredible programs off our planet and creating the designs that will allow humans to go further than ever.
One of the most interesting new space business successes comes in the form of an array of 120 camera-equipped satellites that circle the Earth every day to provide daily updated images of the planet’s entire landmass. The company behind it, Planet (planet.com), began in San Francisco in 2011. The foundation of the business is leveraging small, cheap electronics to make satellites that are essentially disposable; their short lifespans allow for frequent replacements that feature newly updated technology, as opposed to the classic NASA model of building large, long-life satellites that are only upgraded through tricky space rendezvous. “The design gets updated roughly every three to six months,” says Mike Safyan, Planet’s VP of launch, of their primary CubeSat Dove satellite series. “Whenever there’s an improvement in battery technology,
or faster processors operating at lower power, or different sensors we can include or improve, that gets folded into the next generation.”
Through multiple launches, and a few acquisitions, Planet now controls a network of satellites that give daily aerial updates and can zoom in on areas of interest. This has led to successful partnerships with groups that need that data, including agriculture and government. But it’s also been a boon for crisis management, such as with rescuers helping after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. “By looking at our imagery they were able to see there were two villages that were not on any of the responders’ maps,” Safyan says. “They were able to deploy aid to places that would have likely been forgotten.”
There are a number of new firms making commercial-grade rockets, most famously SpaceX and Blue Origin with their self-landing boosters. Not far behind is Rocket Lab, delivering its first commercial payload in November of last year. Then there are groups taking new approaches to putting cargo in orbit.
Relativity Space is leveraging 3D printing to build its rockets much faster than current manufacturing can — and therefore, allowing for much cheaper payload deliveries. To do this, they’ve had to build the world’s largest metal-based 3D printer, dubbed Stargate. Currently doing ground-based tests, they aim to do their first launch in 2020 and their first commercial flight in 2021. From there, the idea is to go interplanetary. “Where we really see 3D printing going, in our long-term vision, is to 3D print the first rocket made on Mars,” says co-founder Tim Ellis.
Another alternative rocket concept comes from an offshoot of Virgin Galactic. Called Virgin Orbit, the company’s mission is to help put the new style of small satellites, like Planet’s CubeSats, in place. Realizing that fixed launch sites limit possible rocket trajectories and are subject to weather delays, they designed LauncherOne, a 70′-tall, 16,000-pound, two-stage rocket that straps under the wing of a 747. The plane flies to high altitude, then drops the rocket far above the ground. A few seconds later, and a great distance away, it ignites and blasts into space. “In many ways those first couple tens of thousand feet are the hardest part of space flight, because that’s where the atmosphere is the thickest,” says Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit’s VP of Special Projects. They too are in the testing phases; the first orbital flight is slated for mid-year 2019.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, space enthusiasts have been awaiting NASA’s return to putting humans in orbit. Those plans are now underway with Orion, a NASA/Lockheed endeavor, along with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner.
Kavya Manyapu is one of the Boeing engineers hard at work on the Starliner, helping develop the flight crew operations and human systems integration. But she’s also an aerospace sciences Ph.D. with patents on a high-tech spacesuit material, and she’s applying that research to make what may be worn by the Starliner crew as the craft takes flight. With recent announcements of new lunar missions, there’s a very good reason for this material focus. “When we went to the moon back in the 1960s and 70s, we didn’t realize how bad the impact of dust could be on mission operations, hardware, spacesuits, and the health of the astronauts,” Manyapu says. “Now that we have plans of going back, it’s important that we address it.”
Her carbon nanotube-based material is currently undergoing dust-defeating tests in the laboratory, and will soon be subjected to the rigors of outer space as part of the MISSE-X program, which places samples of materials outside the ISS for extended periods — up to four years. If that goes well, it’s possible that suits employing her material will be used for the proposed human moon landing slated between 2028–2030, and on Mars and beyond after that.
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These students, hobbyists, and specialized engineers are creating and leveraging the new opportunities that have emerged in recent years. And with them come amazing new moments, which in turn birth even more excitement.
The ISS National Lab’s Barstow sums it up: “Apollo 11 was so inspiring, but now we have a whole new era where we’re inspired by what we can do ourselves — participate in the space program, not just watch it — and that’s the fundamental shift.”