Monday, February 06, 2006

SuitSat Coughs, Rolls Over

SuitSat had a rough weekend. NASA declared it dead two hours after the International Space Station astronauts set it free. Now, radio enthusiasts are reporting faint signals and the hint of a voice, but it is, apparently, difficult to make out the content of the message. One problem is that SuitSat is spinning, which creates a pulsing signal in and out of reception.

This project excited me for several reasons. Even when I cannot rationalize the spending in the face of domestic (read: Earth) problems, I am drawn to space activity. I’m excited that New Horizons got off in time to slingshot around Jupiter. Anything coming from the International Space Station also has a nice feeling of unity to it.

This project, though, had some special elements on top of that, the first being creative conservation. NASA has been good about reusing items effectively. I’m reminded of that moment in the Apollo 13 affair when the engineers figure out how to fit the rectangular filters into cylindrical slots (by the way, why did they bring the wrong kind on board in the first place?). Making satellites from unusable space suits that will inevitably burn in the atmosphere has to be cheaper than another Sputnik.

Then there was all the attention given to citizen involvement. That I could use the police scanner from work to pick up messages from outer space was exciting. Finding ways to include non-astronauts in the space process will likely be what saves and propels NASA in/to the future. Sending down messages to ham radio enthusiasts is much cheaper and more democratic than sending Lance Bass to the Moon. The site dedicated to tracking the project has already received more than two million hits. There might never be another space event like Apollo 11 to capture the broad imagination, but NASA’s reputation gets better whenever it shows that it cares what regular people think.

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