The story of Mach 30 – Part 3: Mach 30 Is Born

This post is part of a special series celebrating the origins of Mach 30 in recognition of our fifth birthday.  Read the beginning of the story in part 1 and part 2.

Bench Top Satellite from AFIT Coursework

Bench Top Satellite from AFIT Coursework

Thanks to Maureen’s gift of my first Moleskine notebook and many discussions about its content, the central themes of Mach 30 started to come together.  With a clearer vision of what I was proposing as a path to sustainable space exploration, I managed to convince Maureen, Andy, and Bekah to help me make my dream a reality. And the four of us became the first leaders of what was then the Space Council, and would later become Mach 30. At first, not much changed. We met infrequently (quarterly or when someone had an idea to share, and that someone was usually me), but we could not get any traction on how to go from my notebooks and a few meetings to something more concrete.

In the mean time, I applied for the graduate program at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and Maureen and I moved to Dayton. Once we got there, I started to feel out the faculty and some local professionals to see how our ideas sounded to members of the aerospace industry (by then, we were already incorporating group work into the ideas of the Space Council). And, unsurprisingly, the results were disappointing. No one who could be considered part of the establishment could wrap their head around the concept of non-profit, open source space exploration. In order to not rock the boat at school too much (I did still need these people to support me long enough to get my masters degree), I became more selective in who I shared these ideas with.

As luck would have it, in the fall of 2008, I took a satellite design class with Greg. This was the first time we met. He was still a Lieutenant and was taking classes at AFIT part time during his first tour in the Air Force. I can still remember the day I first told him about the Space Council. We were working in the labs running a day long thermal vacuum test on a small bench top satellite, and had nothing but time to kill.  Being two geeks obsessed with space exploration, both professionally and personally, it did not take long for us to start talking about what got us interested in space.

Slowly but surely, we crept toward what in some ways could only be considered heretical ideas. NASA and the Air Force were not going to bring us into a spacefaring future in our lifetimes. We both desperately wanted to go into space, and the only way to do so was to build our own space ships. But how could that ever happen?

We needed to think outside the box.

Somewhere during the conversation, I realized Greg was a kindred spirit, and so I started to tell him about the Space Council. In those days it took me a long time to even get that far in a conversation. And I ran out of time before I could get into the whole story. But, Greg was intrigued, so we agreed to meet for lunch later that week. I believe it was over smoothies and sandwiches. And over lunch, I gave him the whole spiel. After nearly and hour, he was asking how he could help, and I invited him to a meeting.

It turns out, Greg was just what we needed. He has a very no nonsense, get things done attitude and almost from day one he pushed for incorporating the organization and applying for 501c3 status. It’s amazing what incorporating and having to actually run an organization will do for encouraging people to get things done. By January 2009 we had become an Ohio not for profit and Mach 30 was born.

J. Simmons wishing Mach 30 a Happy Birthday

J. Simmons wishing Mach 30 a Happy Birthday

So, now we are five years in, and I couldn’t be more thrilled at our progress and our future.  We have a website dedicated to hosting open source hardware projects, a strong and very active task force to address export controls, and two very exciting open source spaceflight hardware projects (Shepard Test Stand & Ground Sphere Ground Station).  And later this year we will be inviting our volunteers and supporters to join us for a multi-day planning and celebration event we are calling Apogee (stay tuned for details).  Here’s to another five years and more!  Many, many thanks to all of those who have helped get us to where we are today and to those who are helping build the future of Mach 30.

You too can help build the future of Mach 30.  Show your support for open source spaceflight by joining the Catalyst Club and then helping spread the word about Mach 30 and its programs on social media and at your local makerspace/school/scouting troop.

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The story of Mach 30 – Part 2: The Ideas Behind Mach 30 Take Shape

This post is part of a special series celebrating the origins of Mach 30 in recognition of our fifth birthday.  Read the beginning of the story in part 1 and continue the story with part 3.

Columbia Accident Investigation Board Final Report, credit NASA

After growing up with NASA’s Space Shuttle program and dreaming of becoming an astronaut for more than a decade, I started to lose faith in NASA during the early years of this century. Their human spaceflight program had stalled out in the wake of the Columbia accident, and I learned more and more about why the shuttle program had failed to live up to its expectations. This led to my eventual conclusion that waiting on NASA to create the opportunities for space exploration I was dreaming of was the wrong approach. Modern history had shown Congress was unlikely to dedicate the time and funds necessary to build a long lasting space exploration program.  And, NASA’s history, while full of great accomplishments, is one of fits and starts, not sustainable growth and expansion.

I realized the only way my dream of space exploration could become a reality was to take matters into my own hands. So I started mulling over why NASA couldn’t accomplish the goals I dreamed of and what would need to change to make those goals possible. And I talked about my thoughts to anyone who would listen, which mostly turned out to be Maureen, Bekah, and Andy (all of whom would eventually become founding members of the Mach 30 Board).

I think Maureen must have gotten a little tired of listening to my constant monologues. And I’m sure that she knew I needed to do more than talk about my ideas if they were going to go anywhere beyond arm chair quarterbacking the space industry. So, she bought me a Moleskine notebook and told me to write down what I was telling her and Andy and Bekah. She also started buying me very select management books she had seen in her MFA Arts Administration program.

So I wrote, and I read, and I wrote, and I talked, and I repeated the entire process. I still have the old notebooks that I used to gather and sort and refine my ideas. At least a year went by before things started to come together a little. Ideas that came out of this period included:

  • Space is too expensive and too long a payoff to implement the fundamental work we need to do in a for-profit enterprise, so we needed a non-profit organization to do this work
  • We needed to open source spaceflight so we could do for space what open source software had done for the computing industry
  • This is too big a problem for one group to tackle. Could there be something like an arts council for space exploration? For many years this idea had such a tight hold on the group of people involved that we called the project the Space Council. Nowadays, I think a better model is the Apache Software Foundation, but this post is more about yesterday than today.
  • The vehicles, stations, and other hardware we need to explore our solar system effectively do not yet exist, and developing this hardware is a very distinct process from actually exploring space. It seemed that we would need two very distinct groups to accomplish the dream: the builders and the explorers. Sometimes called “developers” and “operators”
  • Everyone involved should be able to come down to see the fruits of the organization’s labors so they could connect with the dream personally. And there is strength in interdisciplinary sharing. So we need a single base of operations where developers, operators, business, support, and all teams can come together to work and share. Many times this has been envisioned as a campus-like facility that blends nature, work, life, and technology seamlessly
  • We need reusable launch vehicles if we are to truly open space access for all

Many of these themes are probably familiar to Mach 30 volunteers as they form the core of what Mach 30 is today. And those that are not yet visible are probably hidden mostly due to our not having reached the stage where we need to implement them.  But rest assured, the day will come when Mach 30 will proudly announce the development of its headquarters and the beginning of a reusable launch vehicle program.

Mach 30′s Vision circa 2008

This post is part of a series.  Read the beginning of the story with part 1 and continue the story with part 3.

The story of Mach 30 – Part 1: My Personal Motivation

Today is Mach 30′s fifth birthday. On this day in 2009, the founding members of the Mach 30 Board received confirmation of Mach 30′s incorporation. Join us over the next three days for a special series of blog posts which tell the tale of how Mach 30 came to be.

J. at Spaceport America

J. at Spaceport America

There is an element to Mach 30′s story that is really my story.  To say that I have been interested in space my entire life is a dramatic understatement. Obsessed is probably closer to the truth. And I really mean my whole life. My earliest memory is sitting on my mother’s lap as a very small child (somewhere around the age of 2) at a drive in movie theater watching the original Star Wars. All I really remember is images of space ships and light sabers, but from that moment on, I was hooked on Star Wars, and by extension space. You can imagine my disappointment as I grew older and came to realize the Millennium Falcon was not real and that we could not visit other planets, let alone other star systems.

Fortunately, around the time I started to understand Star Wars was just fiction, the Space Shuttle program was really getting going (I was about 8 or 9, the Challenger accident had not happened yet), and my parents pointed my obsession in the direction of NASA. For a time I was hooked. I cut out newspaper clippings about shuttle missions and did school reports on NASA probes and the astronauts. And even through the Challenger accident and the gap in US human spaceflight that followed, I stuck with NASA. They were the ones who were supposed to bring us our future in space, and someday take us to Mars.

Somewhere along the line, Mars became the ultimate focus of my obsession with human spaceflight.  Like many space exploration enthusiasts, I believe Mars is the obvious destination for the next set of “first footprints” (though I do not believe we should jump straight to a Mars mission).  So, it should come as no surprise that I want very badly to go to Mars.  And, for a time (junior high school and high school and possibly through part of college) I assumed the best path, the only path to get to Mars, was through NASA and the astronaut core.

I mention this little detail because notes from the earliest days of Mach 30 talk about the mission being to “send J. to Mars.” It was mostly meant in jest, but there is no doubt that my personal motivation for founding Mach 30 is in part from a desire to build the kind of organization that can build a sustainable approach to exploring the solar system and that will ultimately send me to Mars.

Continue the story – read part 2 and part 3.