Making a Difference | Jeff Manber and Garrett Lee Skrobot

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Anybody who has followed the career of Jeff Manber will appreciate the irony of NASA honoring the pioneering space entrepreneur with its Exceptional Public Achievement Medal, as it did Aug. 20 in a ceremony at Johnson Space Center in Houston. 

In 1999, just one year after NASA and the Russian space agency laid the cornerstone of the international space station (ISS), Manber joined with Walt Anderson — who was released from prison this past December after doing seven years for tax evasion — and RSC Energia to form MirCorp, which leased Russia’s old and ailing Mir space station and marketed it as a commercial alternative to the ISS. Under pressure from NASA, Russia deorbited Mir in 2001.  

Twelve years later, Manber is managing director of NanoRacks, a Houston-based company that offers customers a low-cost way to test miniature payloads aboard the ISS. NASA, in bestowing the Exceptional Public Achievement Medal, praised Manber for enabling the commercial utilization of the ISS by providing a backbone to integrate cubesat-based payloads into an ISS research rack. NanoRacks has flown 96 payloads to date, including projects from 39 different high school districts that have now conducted research on the ISS without any NASA funding. 

NanoRacks currently has 100 more payloads in the pipeline, 50 of which already are under contract.

NanoRacks’ success in moving 1-kilogram experiments from concept to flight in nine months on average would not have been possible without the nearly 15 years of trial and error that has made professors Bob Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari’s cubesat design the go-to standard for a large variety of increasingly capable nanosatellites.

One man currently doing his part to make sure free-flying cubesats make it into space is Garrett Lee Skrobot, mission manager for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. In its first two years, ELaNA has flown 13 cubesats on two United Launch Alliance rockets. Thirty-six additional cubesats are scheduled to launch during the next two years with 34 additional cubesats looking for rides.

It wasn’t all that long ago that universities and other organizations were abandoning aspirations to conduct space-based experiments because getting even the most modest payloads to orbit was cost prohibitive. Today, thanks in large part to the efforts of people like Manber and Skrobot, the sky is no longer the limit for an increasing number of researchers throughout the world.