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Microspace Paternity Denied

a microsat
by Rick Fleeter
Herndon - Jan 16, 2001
I have been introduced occasionally as the father of microspace, as have several of my colleagues. The first time it happened, I allowed myself to bask in the glow of that fantasy for a few seconds. But then my propensity to worry, that is, my immunity to any sense of pride or satisfaction, took over. Paternity is a mixed blessing in these days of DNA profiling and Deadbeat Dads.

If somebody's microsatellite mission fails, do we Moms and Dads have to bail out the kid? If the microsatellite is turned into a weapon, do we go to jail? Of course not - thus we are not parents. What are we - uncles, or maybe members of a family - a cosa nostra operating a ring of clandestine satellite programs, some of which, though occasionally rubbed out, are never pinned on us.

Fearing the real world, the one-bit world, might judge me as a responsible parent, I have constructed a defensive posture which, even if not a great defense, at least might land me admission to Law School if this whole aerospace thing doesn't pan out. I recommend this complex web of expurgatory reasoning to my fellow alleged parents, people like Sven Grahn at Swedish Space Corporation, Martin Sweeting at Surrey, Pete Worden at the US Air Force, and Jan King at Amsat.

1. The age of responsibility argument:
Space trends have short lifetimes. In the early '60s the moon race was kicked off by Kennedy and Kruschev. By the mid '70s, it was dead of old age. Nobody was interested in the dusty old moon anymore. Our naturally existing, completely free space station orbiting over our equator every 28 days became the VFW post of space - a quality character, now largely ignored.

Microspace caught on in the mid '80s, and while it hasn't died, it has matured from unruly 2 year old, to powerful but uncontrollable teenager, to its status today as a pleasantly pudgy middle aged guy who claims to have spent a daring, romantic and occasionally violent youth, though he exhibits no trace of his student activist past to anyone who would meet him today.

Every politically correct satellite of the 21st century claims heritage to the cult of small satellites - roots in the microspace movement is the AIDS ribbon of space - a nice sentiment, but hardly the defining statement of solidarity it once was.

Assuming a roughly 14 year characteristic lifetime, space trends age in dog years. This is a good thing for escaping paternity - microspace is way beyond age 18, and we're no longer responsible for its problems, budgetary, organizational or criminal.

2. The myth of creativity argument:
It seems ridiculous that when FedSat blows its budget in Australia, my wages could be garnered, age of maturity notwithstanding. Do I have so little to worry about that I fret over that fantasy?

Don't I know I should worry about suitcase nuclear weapons carried by infidel-hating suicide terrorists, anthrax, and suspension bridges in 7 Western States? As a certifiable aerospace engineering nerd, I prefer worry about big formal missions masquerading as microspace and then blaming us for their problems. And I wonder - why aren't we responsible for the disarray and questionable paternity of microspace?

If I stomp on your toe and you yell "OUCH!", is OUCH a creative expression? No, it's a reaction. If 1000 people complain to Amtrak that they don't like being aurally inundated with other passengers' cell phone conversations, and Amtrak institutes the quiet car, is that creative expression?

Maybe a little creative, but it's also reactive. The quiet car is the logical response to quell complaining passengers. If a bunch of aerospace engineers, instead of enjoying the development of a new space faring civilization, are bored, not to say completely anesthetized, trudging through years, decades of glacially slow progress and worry over pointless minutia working huge missions like Space Station and Hubble, eventually revolt and start or join tiny organizations that want to build simple satellites quickly and informally, is that creative?

In the West we have the cult of the individual - Brittany, Cindy, George W., Rudy. We believe that individual creative people, people somehow different from the rest of us, mold our world. They have special gifts, special powers, special intellects and special personalities.

People Magazine is a pantheon of these gods. Sometimes they die as gods - Elvis, for example, and Einstein. Others fall back to earth - the fate for example of most athlete gods, from Diana Niad, gold medalist in diving now a 100% ordinary reporter on NPR's "Savvy Traveler", to Mark Spitz, 7-time gold medalist swimmer turned real estate nobody, to Tera Lapinski, now failing to capture the hearts of any teens or 20-somethings. Newt Gingrich attained god status for a while, as did Al Gore.

Both were rejected and fell to earth as mortals. It happens. We are smug learning about the Greeks, many of whom we are told seriously believed in gods of beauty, wine, the oceans and less concrete concepts like love and speed. We dismiss Shinto's gods of the tree, the brook and the creatures of the forest.

But we take our own gods seriously - paying $100, or sometimes $1000 per ticket to join tens of thousands of other religious zealots to see them from a thousand feet away, and hear their "live" voice processed digitally and amplified as tremendously as it is nonlinearly.

Any item ever in their possession - a napkin from their private jet, a golf club or sweater they once wore - brings a 5 or 6 figure bid at Christies, even without price fixing.

Our gods do not live among us - you won't find Bill Gates at White Flint mall during breaks in his congressional testimony on how Microsoft's Monopoly is good for America, or grabbing a quick Vente at a Seattle Starbucks.

Gods have their limousines, private jets, heavily guarded estates - their worlds are in some way similar to ours, but elevated above it. And like the Greek, Roman and Shinto gods, they look down upon us and affect every aspect of our lives - how we work, how we dress, what we eat, and how we define beauty (how else to explain the Madonna god?).

Interviewed for a documentary, a real world VFW post inhabitant, during his 15 seconds of fame, said that what he did, saving his troup from annihilation by the Germans in France, losing one leg in the process, was not heroism. It was doing what had to be done under the miserable circumstances they found themselves in. Heros are made and not born.

In defending our Western civilization, that soldier learned the fallacy of the real religion of the West - the religion of celebrity. And, as in Greece, as in the Bible, he paid for his enlightenment. His celebrity wings were clipped and he fell to earth eventually to become an old and unremarkable man content to be no more than the fading patriarch of his large family, a family composed of people unaware of his potential for god status. Tom Hanks took his seat at the throne.

Microspace has no creator, no father or mother, and no heros, because like many war heros, engineers, given the opportunity for fame, know too much to accept it. Engineers I would bet, are not responsible for buying most People magazines either, and we're mostly skeptical of paternity. Al Gore learned that with his claim over the internet.

I don't believe the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, or Edison the light bulb, or Watson and Crick DNA. Engineering and science are Darwinian selection of the approaches and ideas which happen to be best suited to a particular program or product environment. Innovation is a reaction to a set of circumstances.

Boredom, lack of money, short schedules, lack of facilities and in some cases lack of familiarity with traditional space techniques, created the ecosystem for microspace to flourish. Now that defense spending is wildly popular and money is flowing in possibly even faster than the major contractors can bid on it, we will test how deep the roots of microspace have penetrated.

There is paternity, but not of microspace - it is of a family of engineers trying to build a new, accessible, relevant reality in space. Unaware and uncaring about any miracles a fading generation of old engineers, who occasionally still put on their lodge hats and meet for overcooked peas, mashed potatos and meatloaf, might have conjured, they are kept busy doing missions, micro or otherwise, awaiting an opportunity to react to the space realities of tomorrow.

OK guys, we're off the hook. We're not going to pay for the $5B overrun on Space Station which I'm sure Boeing claims is being done better and faster and cheaper than ever before.

We didn't cause the failure of Roton, Scorpius, Beal and ten other "cheap" launch vehicles to revolutionize space transportation. They can't pin Mars Observer, FedSat, Luis, Clarke or TERRIERS on us.

We can move to Florida, play golf, and if we want, claim to be dedicating our lives to finding the villains that killed these microspace programs. In a world where any program failure is a career train wreck, dead (and even walking wounded) programs can be assured to tell no tales. It's a wonderful world, especially since we had nothing to do with creating it.

Rick Fleeter is President and CEO of AeroAstro Inc a supplier of microsat services based in Herndon, VA USA Rick can be contacted via (rick @ aeroastro.com) - (remove spaces)

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