Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ignoring Innovation While Waiting for Augustine

Michael Swartwout, an Assistant Professor of Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering at Parks College, St. Louis University has written a fascinating article on "The promise of innovation from university space systems: are we meeting it" for the October 12th issue of online publication, The Space Review.

In the article, he states unequivocally that:
The first university-class spacecraft was launched in 1981; satellite number 119 was launched in September 2009. At present, an average of 12 university-class spacecraft are launched each year.
Just off the top of my head, those numbers seem to be more than the CSA (or even maybe NASA) has launched lately and the genesis of these prolific little spacecraft are traced back to one specific location:
Faculty and students in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Surrey developed the first two university-class spacecraft: UoSAT 1 (1981) and UoSAT 2 (1984). After those successes, they spun off a new company, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).
This new firm almost immediately became among the very first and most successful of a number of small satellite companies. After a long and varied independent history portions of the firm were sold to SpaceX in January 2005 and then a controlling interest was brought by EADS Astrium in April 2008. The company still functions today as a subsidiary of EADS Astrium and has recently opened a US office.

Swartwout believes that this specific small satellite company is a case study for future space focused ventures and even makes some observations on where the next breakout organizations will come from:
...we now speak of the “Surrey Model”, whereby a university (a) develops an in-house spacecraft capability, (b) advances to more-capable missions, and (c) spins off the program into a profit-making entity. This approach has been adopted by several other programs, including: the University of Toronto Space Flight Laboratory, the Satellite Technology Research Center in Korea, the Technical University of Berlin, and the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. All are actively building highly capable space systems for national governments, and several have international customers.
The next Surrey Satellite might not even be a satellite company but could perhaps be involved in a number of other space focused areas. It might even be developing engines or components required for manned space flight

Essentially, space advocates have a variety of options available for moving forward in space exploration and don't need to wait by the side of the road for next weeks expected formal release of the Augustine Commissions full report on NASA human space flight (or for its hoped for Obama administration follow-on offering lots of money to maintain the existing NASA infrastructure and jobs).

It's good that we're not sitting by the side of the road under a tree waiting for someone else to solve our problems.

Just ask these people if you don't believe me.

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