I grew up on Long Island near John Steinbeck’s home in Sag Harbor. I remember when Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie was published I had to get to the library. I found reading Steinbeck the perfect experience. His written voice took me away from crowded, grey and cold Long Island. The Pearl and Grapes of Wrath were favorites. I traveled to China, then to depression era Oklahoma. I saw the open barren landscapes his characters struggled in, where subtlety and small fragile loves snatched attention away from famine and poverty. That is where I lived, small loves that burned and persevered. Reading got me off that small little island.
I know I came late to the space business. The glory days of the Apollo era were well behind us when I started. From the President on down, we kept hearing that the Apollo days were the defining moments of the space industry. The days we needed back to reinvigorate our country’s love of space. All that looking back was pretty annoying for me, space used to be about the future, looking out, ahead. What was ahead of the space industry in the late 1980’s? Just work. It was only the government doing the job. Grinding it out. Figuring out all the costs of routine access to space for humans and cargo. The public did not care. Until satellite TV.
In a nutshell, we started sending satellites to orbit, out of which the telecommunication industry grew which also forced the growth of computing then voila – something space related the consumer could use. Satellite TV. Yet human spaceflight still persisted, a small love that burned. We built the Shuttle program. Human spaceflight persisted. Since 2000, humans have been living on the International Space Station. Big government program.
Enter small start up companies. Scaled Composites built a spaceship that sent 2 humans to space in two weeks. A few years earlier, small satellite companies began to start up. Small loves persisted. More small satellite companies kept starting. Even in our own state, we had the Operationally Responsive Space office at Kirtland Air Force base, and a group of cubesat researchers were growing at Los Alamos too. Cubesats were invented by Bob Twiggs. When I met Bob in 1998, I saw it. His burning perseverance turned a small 10centimeter cube – the size of a Beanie Baby Box into a satellite industry.
The country lost touch with the space industry, like Steinbeck lost touch with the America that won him the Pultizer Prize. So like Steinbeck – sort of, I have been on the road, looking for the new space industry. Steinbeck took Charlie the poodle and hit the road in search of the new America. I take students and faculty in search of the new space industry. Soon we will have Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo occupying their permanent home at Spaceport America.
There is much more to this new industry. Two NMSU faculty and 2 graduate students accompanied me as we toured the small satellite manufacturing facilities at Ames Research Center in San Jose last week and at Planet Labs in San Francisco. At Ames we were greeted by Paul DeLeon the integrator for the program that uses Spaceport America for its research programs. Two people on the trip had an experiment on the last fight from the spaceport.
NMSU’s Steve Stochaj and students completed a satellite tracking station in December. Steve is also building small satellites. Planet Labs, co-founder, Dr. Chris Boshuizen met with us after our tour of Ames. He is a former NASA Ames Research Center employee. His lab and manufacturing facility are on the first floor of an office building in downtown San Francisco. No gates, no big installation. Just great work by a small team. One outcome of the meeting will be to work to install a small ground tracking station to track the Planet Labs “flock” of 28 satellites currently on orbit. It will be next to our ground tracking station. These satellites are in low earth orbit and will provide earth imaging at a 5 meter resolution. The firm plans to build and launch enough satellites to image the entire earth to help farmers and land use planners better plan and use earth resources. Anyone with a computer will eventually be able to log into determine the state of their crops – some may be miles away. Small loves that persevere are building a new space economy and we are a part of it.