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Testing for Catastrophic Capacitor Failure

Ground Sphere Mk2 PrototypeSometimes what would appear to be a great idea turns out to be not-so-great. I had a concept of bedding the Software Defined Radio (SDR) and pre-amplifier for the Ground Sphere Ground Station in Greatstuff foam to make it more resilient to shipping and other mishandling, similar to the way delicate equipment is shipped in a two piece conformal foam mold.

Jeremy Wright asked a very simple question that I had not considered… what would happen if something electronic fried? That’s not entirely true… I did think of that, and so I selected Greatstuff Fireblock. Then he asked “Did ya test it?” The simple answer is no, I had not.

ODE Project Spotlight: Photosynq

Back in March, we had our first Open Design Engine (ODE) Project Spotlight, a Google+ Hangout where we talked with the guys behind Photosynq. The project is aimed at bringing data collection about the health and growth conditions of plants out of a few greenhouses and into the hands of crowd-sourced researchers everywhere.  In our hangout, we not only talked about what Photosynq is, but also how the project developers are using ODE and other tools to manage the project. You can watch the video of the hangout through YouTube:

We got a lot out of speaking with Greg and Robert.  It was great to learn how others are using the tools available in ODE, but we were especially excited to learn about some of the technologies they were leveraging.  Jeremy and I found the data analysis tools they’ve developed, with some 3rd party libraries, something great that we might be able to leverage for the Shepard Test Stand.

We hope to have other Project Spotlights with other projects hosted on ODE in the future.  If there’s one in particular you’d like to vote for, please leave a comment! Thanks again to the guys at Photosynq for spending the time to hang out with us and talk about their project.  You can learn more about Photosynq on

The Front Range Open Source Hardware Symposium

Front Range Open Hardware Symposium FlyerAfter a successful “hail mary” push to get the satellite simulator working, software installed into the borrowed Windows 7 laptop, and testing the Ground Sphere Mk2 prototype, we left Walsenburg around 10am on Thursday, heading to Boulder for the Front Range Open Source Hardware Symposium.  Attending as presenters rather than just attendees, We got the opportunity to show folks what we think open hardware is all about.  Congressman Jared Polis was  there as well as some of the companies that do Open Source Hardware (OSHW), such as SparkFun and others.  This was too good of an opportunity to pass up showcasing Ground Sphere, the Cubesat ground station receiver that we’ve been working on for months as a collaboration between Southern Stars and Mach 30. (more…)

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.