To Save A Satellite, Former NASA Guy Takes Crowdfunding To Space

Apr 28, 2014
Originally published on April 28, 2014 4:18 pm

Keith Cowing discusses his campaign to save an old 1970s NASA spacecraft from becoming space junk. ISEE-3/ICE is a satellite that was once used to monitor space weather, but it's been unused for decades. NASA doesn't want to spend the money to bring it back to life, but Cowing and his colleagues are determined to do it. If they can raise $125,000 on a crowdfunding site called RocketHub, Cowing says they'll contact ISEE-3/ICE, wake it up and put it back to good use.

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Now for a crowdfunding campaign that is definitely not about the next big thing. The story starts back in 1978. That's when a spacecraft called ISEE-3 - International Sun Earth Explorer No. 3 - went into space, orbiting around a point between the Earth and the sun. That's called a halo orbit. Its job was to measure what we now call space weather.

Well, then years later, through some NASA wizardry, it was moved. It was renamed ICE, International Cometary Explorer. And in 1985, it became the first spacecraft to fly past a comet, confirming that comets are basically big, dirty snowballs. Well, now - long story short - ICE has been little used since the 1990s. There's been only intermittent communication with it for decades. And NASA does not intend to spend any more money on it.

Well, enter a couple of former NASA guys and the crowdfunding site RocketHub, where they are trying to raise cash to bring ICE back to life for its original purposes.

Former NASA employee Keith Cowing is here to explain. Hiya.


SIEGEL: NASA has basically given its blessing to you to revive one of its satellites. How's that?

COWING: Well, but they haven't said no and they said yeah, we'll help. But they're sort of in a predicament here, where they do have budget issues - which are real. And we just saw this opportunity to grab something that might still work and with a little hackery and MacGyvery, bring it back to life.

SIEGEL: And what's the point of doing that?

COWING: Well, A, because we can; B, because it still works; and C, can actually do something useful. Our slogan is: Make me do science again.

SIEGEL: But this is a long shot, I gather. One blogger back in February wrote that it just was impossible to re-establish communication. You disagree with that?

COWING: I absolutely disagree. They also said that the radio telescope dish that we use to listen to it at Morehead State couldn't hear it. Well, we keep hearing it every day. We'll know if we can't do it if we try to do it.

SIEGEL: And you have all of the manuals and all of the instructions for working with this late '70s vintage craft?

COWING: We are reassembling that collection. We've got a good start. We're talking to a lot of guys in their 70s and 80s who say that, you know, my wife said I have to get rid of this stuff - after 30 or 40 years - and we're happy to take it.

SIEGEL: I gather that you are trying to raise $125,000, which to my ear, for anything connected with NASA or a satellite, sounds ridiculously little.

COWING: Yeah, and we actually thought maybe we're asking a little bit too much. But we did the math, and that's what we need.

SIEGEL: To do what? What do you do with $125,000?

COWING: Well, we - first of all, we need to buy some transmitters that we have to hang off some radio telescopes; that's real money. We have to get a couple of guys to stop what they're doing, to do some re-creation of the hardware that no longer exists. And of course, there's a fee for the crowdfunding. But at the end of the day, it's pretty bare-bones.

SIEGEL: How far are you towards that goal?

COWING: Well, we have guys working on the software radio right now. We've assembled documents. We've got people rebuilding a lot of the command systems that were used.

SIEGEL: But you need $125,000. How much has been pledged so far?

COWING: As we speak, it's about $52,000.

SIEGEL: Almost halfway there.

COWING: Yes, sir.

SIEGEL: Now, when I asked you what's the point of this - is, your first answer was you want to do it because you can do it. But to somebody who's not part of the team, what's the benefit of getting this spacecraft communicating again?

COWING: Well, after you go from because we can, the spacecraft probably does have a number of its original instruments still in operation. And NASA said well, you know, we can't afford this but if you guys get that back into the orbit that it was in, and it can start sending data again, that data has usefulness.

SIEGEL: Given that you say this 1978 satellite doesn't deserve to be declared junk just yet.

COWING: Oh, heavens no. Like finding something in your garage, and you dust it off and you plug it in, and it works; and then your wife says, well, where are you going to put it? And say, well, how about in the spare bedroom?

SIEGEL: Although sometimes you say, well, where are the records to play on that thing that's been in the garage all...


SIEGEL: Well, but I mean. when would it naturally die? I mean, does it have another 30 years in it?

COWING: Well, you know, the thing has had its transmitter on nonstop since 1978. It's like the Voyagers, which left Earth about the same time. And they're a little hard of hearing, but they've left our solar system and they're still working. So odds are if it's on, if it's been working this long, it'll continue working for quite some time.

SIEGEL: Well, Keith Cowing, good luck with it.

COWING: Thank you, sir.

SIEGEL: Astrobiologist and former NASA employee Keith Cowing, now editor of the blog NASA Watch; speaking about his effort to re-establish contact with a dormant satellite. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.