Cubesat co-inventor Jordi Puig-Suari sails into the sunset

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Jordi Puig-Suari, the California Polytechnic State University professor who along with Bob Twiggs, now a professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky, invented the cubesat in 1999 as a university teaching tool, is preparing to head off into the sunset. Literally. After his annual trip to Logan, Utah for the Small Satellite Conference, Puig-Suari along with his wife and 15-year-old son will head west in a 50-foot sailboat across the Mediterranean Sea on a trip around the world.

It’s a voyage he’s always dreamed of making and the time feels right since cubesats are “All Grown Up.” That was the theme of the 15th annual CubeSat Developers Workshop April 30 to May 2 at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. With about 2,000 cubesats launched by schools, companies, government agencies and organizations worldwide, Puig-Suari no longer feels the need to help shepherd the cubesat community and the cubesat standard. SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner spoke recently with Puig-Suari, who was in Greece preparing his sailboat for the journey ahead.

Where are you headed?

We are headed west. We are sailing into the sunset. The idea is to go around the world.

 How long does that take?

If you are racing, you can do it really fast. For normal people, it takes a couple of years. We’ll probably take a little longer than that. We are in no rush.

 Is this retirement or a leave of absence?

It’s more like dream fulfillment than retirement. Right now, I’m a retired person and we’ll see what I do next. There are a few things that will happen along the way. At times when we have to stop for the weather, to ride out the hurricane season for example, there may be opportunities to teach somewhere or work for a while. It will always be shorter-term things that sound like fun.

As you prepare for your trip, are you looking back over your career and the invention of the cubesat?

Yes. To some extent the timing of the trip is not necessarily random. For a long time, there was a group of people nurturing the cubesat standard and the community to make sure it flourished. That has happened already. It’s doing very well on its own. It’s no longer something that needs the kind of tending that it needed at the beginning. To some extent that’s extremely satisfying. It was also cool to be the center of the universe when Cal Poly was launching all the cubesats. But it’s a huge success that now everybody can do it and everybody is doing it.

 I often see them launched from the International Space Station.

All the time. For a time, I knew every single cubesat that was launched. I gave up when we had a week with 50-something launched. That’s when I said, “I cannot keep up with it.”

What is important about the cubesat? How did they change the space industry?

To me, a few things are important. Some are obvious and some not so much. It is important for universities and people to be able to put a satellite up without the kind of risk NASA and commercial companies faced. They could try some crazy thing. Before cubesats, we were so conservative nobody was willing to try anything out of the ordinary. When we did, we discovered some of the things everybody said would not work, did work. The fundamental change was that there was a mechanism to go try to those things. Some will work and some will not, but it allows us to try them and that was very infrequent before cubesats arrived. That was really important. That was the big change. Commercial electronics were exploding at the same time. It was serendipitous, and we demonstrated that they did work fairly well in space, at least in low Earth orbit. That was a huge change in the capability of the small spacecraft. When Bob and I started, we really wanted a Sputnik. We didn’t feel like there was much more these things could do until students started pillaging cell phone technology and all kinds of other stuff. Next thing you know the National Science Federation is interested in smallsats.

Now, in addition to students, companies, NASA, intelligence agencies and governments around the world are launching cubesats.

That’s another thing that has been a game-changer. Once the price dropped so dramatically, lots of entities — companies, countries or schools — that would never have considered launching a spacecraft on their own or being involved with space systems, had access to space. So we started to see countries in Africa get serious about space and a Columbian space company. In Finland, the cubesat team from Aalto University started Iceye, the first company to launch a synthetic aperture radar microsatellite. That is very satisfying. It used to be space was a very small club because it was so expensive. Now, all these young students play with it in school, build a cubesat, make a bunch of mistakes and then say, “I could do XYZ with a cubesat.” They do it as a commercial entity. The success rate is pretty high, surprisingly so.

 Has it also changed the workforce because the students have designed, built and operated a small satellite?

Yes and they come out of the experience with very high self-image. It’s very satisfying and empowering because they have done the whole thing. Some of them continue to work on smallsats, some of them start their own companies. Even the ones that go work for Boeing and Lockheed come in with a different perspective. We see them asking more questions. They ask, “Why do we have to do it this way? That’s not the way I did it and it worked.” Many times there is a very good answer on why industry does it this way. But every once in a while, industry considers changing the way it’s done it for 20 years. I think that’s an important question to ask yourself every once in a while. 

Lately, I’ve heard about new standards like the Aerospace Corp.’s Launch Unit. Is it useful to have more standards?

Access to space is very important. What is critical is not simply mass to space, a lot of rockets have excess capacity, it’s making it easy enough for whoever is putting a rocket together to incorporate a secondary payload as painlessly as possible. Once that is accomplished, they will do it. We saw that going from 3u to 6u was a relatively simple step because things looked similar and the mission managers and launch providers were familiar with it. It was another box-like thing. We went to 12u. The idea that it is a standard and everybody is going to follow the same constraints and it is going to be easy for the integrators to put it in the rockets is key. For any standard, one of the important things to ask is, “What is the minimum service that the satellites require.” Don’t give them any more than that because that makes it complex for the launch vehicle. Make it as simple and as easy as possible. We also learned that these things take some time. When we went back and looked at launch activity, It took about ten years for things to really take off. There were a few launches before that but it wasn’t instantaneous. People needed to gain some comfort that these standards are going to be around for a while. They are going to exist when I finish my satellite in a few years and then they started building.

What else are you thinking as you embark on this journey?

It’s been a hell of a ride. It’s been fun but it’s a good point for me to take a break and do something that we’ve been dreaming about doing for a long time. It’s also something that we don’t think we can do when we get to a certain age. We want to do it now and we’ll see what we do next. I don’t think that’s the end of the road. It’s going to be good to think about other things and think about the world in a slightly different way; to see places that don’t function the way we do in the U.S. and see what comes out of that.

The other thing I was thinking is that space people always talk about exploration, how humans were meant to explore and that’s why we should go to Mars. I agree whole-heartedly but I’m not going to go to Mars. I’m going backwards. I’m not trying to relive what the first explorers did because I have GPS and AIS but get a better understanding of what the first explorers were thinking when they embarked on their journeys. Maybe that will help me think about the next level of exploration as cubesats go to Mars and Venus and other places.