CubeSat 101

Les Pinter

A CubeSat is a little cube about 4 by 4 by 4 inches, filled with a microprocessor, some little electronic devices and sensors, maybe a few tiny hydrogen peroxide/platinum thrusters to orient the little sucker, a transceiver, and a photoelectric panel for power. It's the standard form factor for the little satellites that NASA calls CubeSats, and which they will launch for a reasonable price if a school's proposal is accepted.

I think that we should build one at Granite Hills High School and launch it four years from now.

What should our little satellite do? I don't know. What technologies will our students have to master in order to design, build and test it? I don't know. Will the proposal be accepted? I don't know. Can we raise the money to pay the launch fee? I don't know. Will it blow up on the pad? I don't know. Will it work once in orbit? I don't know.

So it sounds like the perfect research project.

There are dozens of web pages with CubeSat project ideas, and there are even better ones that no one has thought of yet. Maybe a young girl or guy at GHHS will think of one. Maybe we'll argue endlessly, present opposing points of view, search the Internet for evidence to support our ideas - just like you have to do to propose and research a doctoral dissertation.

There are technologies to master: The little Arduino microprocessor kit that I bought a few months ago uses a C++ dialect that none of us knows yet. I'm not sure how many young people would sit still for a semester of C++. But when you need to solve some programming problem so that your little satellite will do what you want it to do, you're not laying bricks; you're building a cathedral. At that point, it doesn't matter what it takes, because it's what you want, and you're not stopping until it works, darn it to heck.

Will it be approved? After all, it's NASA who decides who flies and who doesn't. It will take good writing skills, good presentation skills, and good argumentation skills to make our case. When you say quod erat demonstratum, you had better be darned sure that it was. There's no room for specious argumentation when you present to NASA. So they'll learn to make sure something is true before they say it. And after that exercise, we can only hope that they'll hold our political leaders to the same standard.

They'll probably have to raise money, not just for the launch fee, but to attend regional and national CubeSat conferences, hobnobbing with their fellow wizards. That means putting on your Sunday best and visiting people with disposable income and appealing to their civic pride. It means honing your interviewing skills, speaking with confidence, and selling yourself, not just your product, as every salesman knows.

Money isn't the problem. I have a few neighbors up in Springville who could write a check to fund this thing without even getting their wife's permission. And there's always CrowdFunding. The money is not the hard part; doing something that people think is worth paying for, and being proud enough of it to overcome your stage fright and make your pitch is the real goal. After learning to sell their CubeSat, their Harvard application essay will be a snap.

I fully expect a few of them to be told to come back after they graduate. And I expect every one of them to remember the experience for the rest of their lives. The communication skills they will learn may be the real benefit.

What if we fail along the way? We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get back in the saddle. That's an inevitable lesson that every Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had to learn. We can do that, too. We can probably fail dozens of times. I hope so; it builds character.

There are a thousand things that can go wrong in this project. But if it works, if it actually works, our kids will learn something priceless: That they can do things that they never thought they were capable of doing.

And isn't that the purpose of education?