R enewed access to space for student experiments is essential to attracting the best and the brightest to fulfill U.S. objectives in space. For the 28-year period from 1973 to 2001, NASA provided free or low-cost rides into orbit for hundreds of high-school and university student payloads.
The Skylab Student Experiment Program, the Shuttle Student Involvement Project, the Get Away Special Program and the Hitchhiker Project were great successes, permitting large numbers of America’s students to design, build and fly their own experiments in Skylab modules and space shuttle mid-deck lockers and cargo bay canisters. Small satellites were even deployed into their own orbits from some of the canisters.
The motivation and training that the students participating in these programs received were invaluable in preparing them for careers in our nation’s space program. Many of those former students now occupy responsible positions throughout the space industry.
Unfortunately, this proud NASA legacy came to an abrupt end following the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident. All secondary payloads were de-manifested from shuttle missions, and all enabling hardware was declared surplus to the agency’s needs. An internal attempt to fly some of these payloads on NASA expendable launch vehicles was terminated just last year. As a result, dozens of university space experiment programs have been lost , and many of the students interested in space have moved on to careers in other fields.
Frustrated by the inability to fly satellites on U.S. launch vehicles, the CubeSat Project (http://cubesat.calpoly.edu/) was forced to turn to foreign launch vehicles for university payloads. Today, the only way that this group can get rides to orbit for their CubeSat satellites is to pay for them to be flown on Russian rockets launched from Kazakhstan. That is not easy, especially when taking into account the additional expense and time involved in obtaining export licenses and jumping through the hoops of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, as well as going all the way to Kazakhstan to integrate payloads with the launch vehicle.
The fact that our own students’ are not able to launch their payloads on U.S. vehicles seems anachronistic to some of us in the space field, when our national civilian, industrial, military and political leaders have been warning us for years about a developing space program work-force gap, as our experienced engineering and management personnel retire in ever-increasing waves.
These leaders quote alarming statistics that show how far we are falling behind an array of other nations in turning out talented engineers and scientists to fill this gap. But while they are talking about the problem, our government is simultaneously eliminating or under-funding programs that have historically provided our students with the opportunity to actually build and fly their own experiments in space, which has been a major impetus to young people pursuing careers in the space field.
Fortunately, the U.S. military has picked up the leadership role from NASA in re-establishing access to space for student experiments. For example, the U.S. Air Force, through its University NanoSat program (http://www.vs.afrl.af.mil/UNP/), conducts a series of biannual competitions in which it funds about a dozen universities to design and build prototype spacecraft and compete for the opportunity to have one of them considered for deployment from a military expendable launch vehicle. This commendable program could be substantially improved if it were expanded to provide additional funds and launch slots, so that it would not be necessary to turn away all but one of the competing universities at the end of each selection cycle.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is taking yet another approach to revitalize university space experimentation. It recently issued a Request for Information (http://www.darpa.mil/STO/Solicitations/RFI-SN07-13) to identify innovative spacecraft components and technologies that might exist on college campuses and in small research laboratories. If enough interesting ideas emerge from responses to this solicitation, the agency is thinking of funding the integration and launch of numerous small spacecraft aboard various U.S. launch vehicles, both large and small. The space heritage achieved in this manner will certify these components for use in government spacecraft, and the program will re-establish access to space for university payloads.
This agency also has sponsored an initial attempt by Space Exploration Technologies to launch its low-cost Falcon 1 vehicle into orbit and is sponsoring a second attempt that will take place in the near future. When this family of vehicles is certified, the CubeSat team will be able to offer a much more desirable option to its university collaborators.
In another encouraging development, Joe Rothenberg, a former NASA executive who is now the president of Universal Space Network, has offered to work with student spaceflight programs to develop opportunities to downlink data and uplink commands on a capacity-available basis for university spacecraft. This will complete the link in the chain for our university students to test their unfettered ideas in space once again.
An informal coalition of concerned aerospace educators, engineers, scientists and administrators, believing that there is no substitute for the hands-on approach to producing the talent that this country’s aerospace community needs, has suggested a set of actions to build upon the momentum discussed above:
Work with U.S. launch vehicle companies to add provision for secondary educational payloads to all their vehicles.
Investigate the use of tax credits to reimburse these launch vehicle providers for the cost of integrating each educational payload they fly.
Encourage the U.S. Department of Defense to increase the funding for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s University NanoSat program and support DARPA’s initiative to provide launch allocations dedicated specifically to innovative university payloads.
Encourage NASA and industry to include accommodations for student payloads in all new launch vehicle designs.
Encourage spacecraft manufacturers to make their surplus and prototype flight hardware and test facilities available to student experimenters for building and flight-qualifying their payloads.
Create a bridge between university-level space experiment programs and K-12 science, technology, engineering and math initiatives under way across the country.
Our coalition for re-establishing access to space for student payloads is steadily building its membership to support the programs discussed above and ensure that they do not wither away through inattention.
If you have additional ideas on how to keep our universities active in space experimentation and care to join our group, feel free to contact the authors of this article and/or meet with us at the 23rd National Space Symposium this April in Colorado Springs for our fourth brainstorming session.
Gil Moore is
director of Project Starshine in Monument, Colo.
and David Yoel is
president of American Aerospace Advisors
Inc. in Philadelphia