by William Rauscher
In the spring of 2014, former NASA employee Keith Cowing and a crew of volunteers successfully hijacked the ISEE-3, a NASA spacecraft in solar orbit launched in 1978. Operating independently from NASA, the “citizen scientist” crew adopted a “spacecraft for all” approach, carrying out a space mission that was entirely crowd-funded and open-source. The ISEE-3 reboot team set up their mission control in an abandoned McDonald’s restaurant (renamed “McMoon’s”) in California complete with pirate flag, where they still currently operate. Material spoke with Keith to get a sense of where the ISEE-3 reboot is headed and how it began.
Material: What’s the latest on the ISEE-3, where are we now?
Keith Cowing: As it stands now, the spacecraft is moving away from Earth and it won’t be back until 2029. We’re still listening to it, although we’re having a few issues with getting the antenna just right. Eventually it will get so far away that it will become expensive and time-consuming to get a high data rate. The engines did not cooperate with us so we were not able to put it into the closer orbit that we had planned. We had hoped to have it in a halo orbit so that anyone with a 1-2 meter dish could hear it. The propulsion system on the craft was the one thing that we couldn’t control. It pretty much flew past the Earth and the moon like it was gonna do anyways, except now it’s sending science back to us.
M: So the further away it is, the more effort it takes on our end to stay in touch with it?
KC: You need larger radio telescopes, since the further it gets away, the more precise you need to know its location. If you aim exactly where it is, you have no problem hearing it. But if you’re off by even a very small amount, you can get a rapid drop in signal. That’s the challenge now, and the craft is moving faster than a bullet shot from a bullet shot from a bullet, so it’s still rocket science.
“It was like a high school prank that got out of control when it actually worked.”
M: You work with Arecibo in Puerto Rico?
KC: Right now Arecibo is the largest telescope that’s helping us out, we bought them some hardware and they donated some time. We also have an observatory in Japan, in California at the SETI institute, and we’re trying to get a group up in Canada to listen, so it’s basically whoever has a big dish and some spare time.
Arecibo Radio Telescope, Puerto Rico
M: When the satellite was very close to Earth, what would I have needed to listen in, could I have set up a dish in my backyard?
KC: Yeah, we had one guy in Sweden with a dish that was a little bigger than your average TV satellite dish and he was listening to it all the time. That’s when it was close, and we wanted to keep the craft in this closer orbit. The basic plan was to try and wake the thing up, and we did absolutely everything except the final propulsion burns. So we got 95% of the way there.
M: How did this get started, I was reading that it came out of a project about digitizing some Apollo lunar mission images?
KC: It really started with Robert Farquhar, who’s in his eighties now. Bob was the guy who back in the day came up with ways to reuse the ISEE-3. The running joke was “I stole the spacecraft from NASA and Keith stole it from me!” When they were done with it in the eighties, NASA issued one final command so that it would come back on August 10th, 2014, and so Bob spent the next thirty years trying to get people to pay attention to it.
Then in 2007 Dennis Wingo and I started working on the Apollo imaging project. We read something on the internet about some photos in a box and some crazy lady with stuff in her garage. We pursued it and it ended up that it was mostly true. Nancy Evans, who had worked in NASA back in the day, wanted to take a second look at the Apollo lunar orbiter images. These five lunar orbiters were in essence giant Polaroid cameras: they took pictures of the moon, they developed images in lunar orbit, and then the images were scanned and the data was sent back to Earth where the images were printed out. This was almost fifty years ago. After the missions were over, they were promptly forgotten.
So we wanted to bring them back using 21st century technology, which is also called a Mac laptop, to look at this stuff. We had to go through some amazing hoops which prepared us for the ISEE-3 project: we had to find a bunch of people who were either dead or elderly, a bunch of technical specs that had probably been thrown out, hardware replacement parts that didn’t exist anymore, somebody who knew how to work on the tape drives, with people at NASA saying this is impossible, it’s gonna cost six million dollars to do, you’re nuts, go away, and who cares.
Finally we ended up restoring some iconic images at resolutions that blew people’s minds. We were having a wrap-up party for that project and Dennis and I had been hearing about the ISEE-3 mission through Bob and we said “Alright, what does this entail?” NASA no longer has the hardware to talk to the spacecraft, they don’t have the command codes, they don’t have any of the documentation, they don’t have any money, most people who worked on it are dead or dying. It was like a high school prank that got out of control when it actually worked. Before we knew it we were raising tens of thousands of dollars a day, we had people at Arecibo, the largest radio telescope on Earth, hanging hardware we had built two weeks before in Germany. We had barely stopped the funding campaign when we took control of the spacecraft.
“We thought it was a demonstration that space isn’t just for space geeks with computer tans. This is what happens when you just utterly open things up.”
So Bob became the pirate in chief. It was Dennis and I, and Bob had the people he had worked with back in the day at NASA who called themselves the space cowboys, they’re all retired now. I would go from house to house in the Washington area, into people’s basements, and the wife would say “Oh welcome young man! My husband’s been keeping this crap for thirty years!” The guy would say “I told you it was important and look, it is!” Dennis and I are in our fifties, Bob has these kids in their twenties and thirties volunteering for him. It was fueled by a crowd-sourced, crowd-funded, hacker ethos. It was like those old Mickey Rooney movies: “Hey! I’ve got a garage, let’s put on a play!”
Virtually everyone thought this was impossible. The only way to do it was we had to strike an agreement with NASA because the spacecraft was abandoned, and there’s an international law that says the craft is like a ship at sea that can be salvaged. But we knew more about the craft than NASA did because we knew where to dig. Instead of rebuilding the hardware, we used software-defined radio where you tell a computerized-radio to pretend to be something, and we used GNU software which is open-source. We posted everything online as it happened. I would tweet our command sessions live, and people were complaining they were missing class or missing work because they were watching the twitter feed. We did all of our fundraising through social media, with virtually all of our donors giving us between ten and fifty dollars.
M: So you made it a big group project, and chose to ignite people’s excitement and get them involved in a way they wouldn’t ordinarily.
KC: You know the guys at NASA, they all wear ties, they sit at mission control and they’re all very calm and collected, and we were out there, getting in people’s faces, we made jokes about ourselves, we used every open access thing we could find. At one point we publicly solicited help when we had a propulsion system issue, and people from all over were writing in and telling us how to fix things.
You remember the Woodstock movie, when they go “it’s a free concert!” We never put up a pretense of being stodgy or whatever. Google built us a website about the ISEE-3 reboot, because they want to promote open-source, open-access, citizen science projects like this. We thought it was a demonstration that space isn’t just for space geeks with computer tans. This is what happens when you just utterly open things up.
M: What drives people to want to do this, to want to work together to contact an old spacecraft?
KC: Because we can and nobody can stop us and it’s cool and why not? It’s definitely the hacker ethos. It’s people who want to fix stuff. Everyone knows exactly what we’re doing. We had people give us one dollar. One guy sent us an envelope full of coins. I don’t think there should be an entrance exam to explore space. If somebody can give a penny to support a spacecraft, they should be able to participate in what it sends back. The fact that people don’t understand that their tax dollars do this, yet they feel utterly connected to something like our homemade reboot project, should make NASA sit up and take notice.
I mean, hijacking a spacecraft, how cool is that? It’s like we’re pirates! Our mission control is in an abandoned fast food joint. How much more bare bones can you get? We thought it was funny and everybody else just got it.
M: If something is that small scale, people can relate to it, while they may find it more challenging to relate emotionally to a NASA project, or a SpaceX launch.
KC: We ended up raising $160,000. If you were to throw a dart at a map of the USA and pick the closest town, that town can probably raise $160,000, which is the same amount you need to build at CubeSat satellite and put it into space. But it doesn’t have to be about space. Maybe the dam outside of town can use a low-head hydropower turbine. All you have to do is tell a story. Be honest, open and engaging.
M: Is McMoon’s open seven days a week? What’s the crew like?
KC: McMoon’s is actually an abandoned McDonald’s restaurant. Ordinarily they get torn down because McDonald’s doesn’t want people to see when one of their restaurants has failed. This building in particular was on Moffett Naval air station, which is now NASA Ames Research Center, so it was owned by the government. During the Apollo imaging project they offered us either the old barbershop or the McDonald’s. A week before, somebody crashed a truck into the barbershop, so I said, how about the McDonald’s? A friend of mine said “We’ll call it McMoons!” We hung a pirate flag in the window which is what clandestine ops in NASA or the Air Force often do.
We’ve been there since 2007. If you went in there right now Dennis Wingo would be sitting there with Austin Epps, they’re finishing up the lunar orbiter stuff, we’re just shipping out all the thank you letters and posters for ISEE-3, Ken Zinn, he’s working on the tape drives. Other than that it’s just a sleepy former Air Force base, there’s a few trees, asphalt, and a couple of NASA buildings. You wouldn’t know it’s there, it’s hiding in plain sight.