When money is tight, creative solutions make all the difference. NASA, no stranger to funding woes, has made the brilliant tactical decision to essentially crowdsource work that once upon a time it might have done itself, or work that otherwise might not have happened. One example is the Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team, which hopes to grow plants on the moon. Another is the ELaNa IV (Educational Launch of Nanosatellite) mission and the cubesat Launch Initiative, which involved over 300 students. Nine teams from universities and one high school team got to launch their work — nanosatellites, otherwise known as cubesats — into the cosmos.
Cubesat launch initiative started in 2010 and has since chosen over 90 cubesats from universities and colleges, as well as government labs; the upcoming launch will be the fourth. The cubesats hitch a ride up on commercial rockets, and they’re tiny — about four inches long with a weight of less than three pounds. While researching for their projects, students get to learn all kinds of awesome stuff and often snag aerospace experts as mentors. On November 19, the cubesats launched on an Orbital Science Minotaur-1 rocket. Everything went well, and that rocket brought up 29 satellites in total — a record for a single rocket. We’re making satellites like crazy, y’all!
While all 10 schools and their students are psyched beyond belief to have something they worked on make the journey to space, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, has to be feeling especially good. While NASA has launched cubesats made by college students before, this was the first time NASA has ever sent up a cubesat made by high schoolers. I have to admit, I’m pretty jealous. I’m still waiting for my selfie from space.
Such initiatives help the space industry in general not suffer from having all its eggs in one basket. All the competitions and challenges run by NASA mirror the influx of private companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Science that have stepped boldly into the industry. Because they’re not nearly so caught up in politics, private companies have proven themselves impressive and efficient when it comes to advancing the frontier of aerospace sciences. The net gets cast wider with the students NASA gets to design structures such as self-deploying greenhouses.
Maybe some of those students will grow up to work for NASA, or maybe they’ll work for Virgin Galactic. Wherever they go, the odds are decent that they’ll do something to help advance the space frontier, which must be one of NASA’s overarching goals. Hook the smart science geeks when they’re young, get them into contests, award some prizes—the University of Mexico says that the honor has resulted in $1 million worth of funding for future projects — and then hope they do more awesome space stuff. All of these students are signed up for the next few months at least, monitoring the data they receive from their satellites. I don’t know exactly what kind of data that will be — perhaps they’re spying on behalf of some kind of evil alien race. Wouldn’t that be a twist?