Spinning in Private Space

Private space is catching headlines lately – SpaceX regularly delivers groceries and other supplies to the ISS, Virgin Galactic is getting ready for tourist flights to suborbital space, Bigelow Aerospace even has plans for a hotel in orbit.  This past weekend, a flurry of stories extolled a plucky group of private citizens who were able to reactivate a satellite launched by NASA in 1978 and abandoned as space junk in 1997 by the space agency after an illustrious career.  One such story is here:  BetaBeat.com.  It is a great story, and an improbable one.

Working with second-hand and borrowed equipment, using an abandoned former McDonald’s as their base, a small group of retired NASA employees and space enthusiasts were able to reactivate the ISEE-3 satellite, which is sending scientific data to earth again.  On Sunday, ISEE-3 passed the Moon and the team shared the event via a Google Hang-out.  They also convinced Google to create a special website to share that data with everyone on the internet as it arrives.

It is a wonderful story, a PR agent’s dream, and it was dutifully covered by most major news outlets.  The only problem was that the press releases deliberately left out a major part of the story and the lazy news outlets failed to do any digging.  The ISEE-3 Recovery Team is supported by crowdfunding – which was faithfully included in almost every news story I saw.  But crowdfunding works best to finance successful projects.  And the ISEE-3 Recovery Project, while incredible, is overall a failed project.

The goal of the team was to slightly change the trajectory of the satellite so that its pass by the moon on Sunday would place it into orbit around the Earth, where it could act as a platform for science experiments until it failed to work.  But last month, when the time for the slight course correction came, nothing happened.  As it turned out, all the nitrogen had leaked out of the on-board tanks.  So this past weekend was a one-time event and not the hoped-for welcoming of a new (old) science platform orbiting Earth.  The Recovery Team is not likely to raise much money crowdfunding for a project that does not have any ongoing activity.  The next time ISEE-3 passes close by will be 17 years from now.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the ISEE-3 Recovery Team was its incredible work at spinning the news media such that the story presented didn’t talk about failure, but rather about how little money was spent.

What the ISEE-3 Recovery Team did show was that ingenuity is able to accomplish great things without large amounts of money.  That’s a lesson that NASA needs to learn regularly – it is the only way to battle the culture that naturally tends toward larger and larger (more and more expensive) mission plans.

I hope the ISEE-3 recovery effort is just the first of many similar activities.  When the government has spend millions to create scientific instruments and place them in space, let’s hand them over to the private sector once they reach the end of their missions rather than abandon or destroy them.


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