Updated May 14 at 11:42 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — A pair of space geeks quarterbacking an effort to bring a derelict NASA spacecraft back into orbit around Earth expect NASA to legally bless their privately funded project to recover and restart the 36-year-old International Sun/Earth Explorer (ISEE)-3.

“We expect the Space Act Agreement to be signed tomorrow,” Dennis Wingo, president of Moffett Field, California-based Skycorp Inc., wrote in a May 12 email.

That did not happen. NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown confirmed that a deal was in the works, but that it remained unsigned, as of press time on May 16.

That piece of paper from NASA is a definite nice-to-have, given that “a private entity cannot legally salvage U.S. government property in space,” according to Mike Gold, a space law expert and attorney who works full time as the head of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace, the North Las Vegas, Nevada, company developing inflatable space habitats with technology licensed from NASA.

But practically speaking, it appears NASA could have done little to stop the ISEE-3 Reboot project from moving ahead with its plan to take over the old spacecraft — an Earth-sun observatory that launched to the gravitationally stable Earth-sun Lagrange point 1 in 1978 and is now swinging back toward the home planet in the heliocentric orbit NASA nudged it into in 1982 to chase comets.

Prior to getting the Space Act Agreement, Wingo and his partner on the ISEE-3 Reboot project, NASA gadfly and Internet publisher Keith Cowing, had already secured the use of four enormous non-NASA ground radar dishes, the help of about 20 volunteers, and the loan of a $200,000 transmitter that should allow controllers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico — one of the four radar dishes — to contact the vintage Earth observatory May 19 and command it to enter telemetry mode. 

If that exercise is successful, it will clear the way for the real test in June. By then, the spacecraft will be in position to fire its engines and break out of solar orbit to return to the Earth-Moon system, with a little help from the Moon’s gravity. Precise details of the new orbit have yet to be decided, the ISEE-3 Reboot team says, but the spacecraft will have to be on its way before mid-July, by which time its engines will no longer be strong enough to divert course into a useful orbit.

Meanwhile, Cowing and Wingo on May 15 hit their fundraising target of $125,000, thanks to some 1,800 donors who contributed funds through the crowdfunding website RocketHub.com. The duo chose RocketHub.com over crowdfunding poster child Kickstarter.com because, Cowing said, they liked the name. 

In a phone interview from his Reston, Virginia, home where he publishes the widely read NASAWatch.com blog, Cowing told SpaceNews the crowdsourced cash will be used to cover the ISEE-3 Reboot project’s operating expenses. That includes the cost of sending personnel to Arecibo and shipping the donated transmitter to the observatory. The freight bill alone exceeds $1,000, Cowing said.

Financially speaking, the ISEE-3 Reboot project does not depend on NASA at all. 

And yet the ISEE-3 Reboot project would not be possible without NASA, built as it is upon a cornerstone the agency laid at taxpayer expense.

This is quintessentially “new space”: Maintain a trendily appropriate distance from the stodgy old space agency and its thicket of government procurement rules, but play up any NASA-like aspects of your project in hopes that some of the agency’s Coca-Cola-caliber brand recognition will rub off and attract investors, media and adoring masses.

Anybody, Cowing said, but the usual crowd of inside-spaceball experts who make their living in or around the U.S. space program — “space weenies,” Cowing called them, lumping himself without hesitation into the category.

When he put on his public relations hat for ISEE-3, Cowing said, he used Twitter to target potential donors he reckoned had never have even heard the word “heliophysics.” In 2014, NASA’s Heliophysics Division — which builds and operates solar-observing spacecraft — represents a roughly $600 million chunk of the agency’s $17.6 billion budget.

NASA’s own cost-benefit analysis came down on the side of letting ISEE-3 fly by this summer without trying to hail it.

“NASA looked into the feasibility of communicating with ISEE-3 in 2010 and found that commanding the spacecraft was based on a method that is obsolete and too costly,” Brown wrote in a May 9 email. “Current NASA spacecraft are providing more comprehensive data and of higher scientific quality than ISEE-3 reflecting the progress that has been made since ISEE-3 completed its mission.”

ISEE-3, rebadged the International Cometary Mission after three years of studying the sun’s influence on Earth’s magnetosphere, encountered two comets and ultimately returned to part-time sun-watching duties before finally being shut down in 1997. NASA threw out the 1970s-vintage communications equipment used to talk to ISEE-3. That has left the ISEE-3 Reboot sifting through 40-year-old NASA documents to figure out how to talk to the aging spacecraft from what will be its main ground station, should the reboot succeed: not Arecibo but the so-called big dish at Morehead State University in Kentucky.

As for mission control, that will be in Mountain View, California, in a long-closed McDonald’s restaurant at the NASA Ames Research Center — “McMoons,” Wingo called it. Use of the facility is also part of the Space Act Agreement Wingo expects to be signed.

If the whole scheme works and ISEE-3 starts piping data back to McMoons, the Reboot venture might again turn to crowdfunding to raise the money it would take to put ISEE-3 data on the Web, Cowing said.

“If the spacecraft is there, and the data is there, it has value,” said Cowing.

Wingo and Cowing have used McMoons before, for the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery project that began in 2007. In that project, the two sifted through old NASA tapes from the 1960s to digitize images gathered by five Lunar Orbiter spacecraft in the lead up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing. 

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...