Sunday, August 26, 2007

Reality Check: Zen & the Art of Space Hacking

There was a great article in Wired online about space hackers: DIY types using weather balloons to get their ultralight payload to the very edge of space around 100,000 ft. It helped me realize that it was that perspective I had to consider as a working plan to do this.

As of right now, before even beginning to write up the PDR, HempSat is a commercial failure.

If this were a straight-up commercial venture this would completely suck. However, according to Fleeter, an astounding 98% of all satellite missions fail for the same two reasons:

1) Lack of engineering
2) No money. Especially no money.

After all, I’m not an engineer, nor do I have the financial backing to hire any talent let alone serious talent. Or money to have HempSat professionally designed, fabricated, tested and launched. Nor do I have a ground station & all the legal ducks in a row that it requires to establish & maintain one. In the real world, starting from scratch, that’s looking at around $ 2 million.

For me, when I really started approaching this concept, the first thing I had to get over was 'sticker shock'. Two million dollars is busfare for the commercial satellite industry. But for everybody else, this is ponying up the cost of several average sized homes in order to construct something the size of a small microwave oven.

And speaking of realities, even should all the former setbacks get resolved; there’s always the payload itself to consider. Can anyone within the continental US legally launch it in the first place? True, I will have to petition the DEA for a hemp cultivation license, at a cost of around $3000 I’m told. And all the paperwork & inspections that entails. Unfortunately, that could very well be the simplest problem to solve.

But would that license allow the LV vendor to accept the payload containing live hemp seeds, or be able to secure insurance without all parties facing federal threats of a RICO felony? And, launch vehicle aside, you can’t launch anything within the USA without insurance. So to get answer to those questions, I will have to add in attorney fees into the bottom line costs.

Also, launching outside the US is out of the question: on top of FAA & DEA involvement, they’d be another three letter agency involved: the DoS. The Department of State is responsible for enforcing ITAR ,the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. And shipping a satellite from the US to be launched elsewhere in the world may be a violation of Federal arms & munitions regulations.

It could be argued that as a science-oriented and not a communications satellite, it is not considered a restricted technology that cannot be exported from the US. But the same may not be the case for the satellite sub-systems; i.e. the commercially produced operating software that’s been modified for space flight, or believe it or not, just the expansion nozzles on the attitude control thrusters themselves could make this an arms issue.

So that means even more attorney fees.

Of course there’s the possibility this will be easier and less costly than I think it will be. I keep thinking of those space hackers I mentioned earlier on.

Sending their balloons aloft, cobbling electronic bits together to track their payload, or to be made into the payload itself. They too have little or no engineering experience, no real money to speak of, and could very well face negative governmental intervention.

I also keep thinking of a title of a book on Buddhism called Start Where You Are.

And keep going.