NanoSail-D: Duplicate Exists, Needs to Fly

by Paul Gilster on August 19, 2008

Remember the great scene in Contact, when the fabulously rich S. R. Hadden (John Hurt), who funded the stargate device that has been destroyed by sabotage, says “Why build one when you can build two for twice the price?” He then reveals the existence of a second facility off the coast of Japan, which is what Ellie Arroway uses on her interstellar trip. So is solar sail expert Greg Matloff a ringer for S. R. Hadden? Read on.

Greg’s recent phone call may not have been as dramatic as that scene in Contact, but he was able to tell me that although NanoSail-D did perish in the SpaceX Falcon explosion, there is a second sail. Marshall Space Flight Center built two. So now we’re in the energizing position of having a second chance at a sail deployment in space, and it could be done soon via the next Falcon launch, if SpaceX will cooperate in the enterprise.

And here’s why they should: Launching a payload on the Space Shuttle costs approximately $10,000 per pound. That’s pricey, and the whole premise behind the Falcon is that it can cut launch costs to as little as a tenth of this. Now the NanoSail-D package is a scant ten pounds (it can be carried around in a suitcase!). If you were working with full Space Shuttle prices (and remember to factor in the fact that the sail has to be delivered to Kwajalein for launch), that still works out to something not terribly far over $100,000 dollars. Call it $150,000 to be safe.

But SpaceX aims to achieve a tenth of that cost. So let’s be extravagant and build in some margins, and we still arrive at no more than $15,000 to put NanoSail-D into space on the next Falcon.

Will SpaceX be willing to help out the doughty team of solar sail researchers at Marshall and elsewhere, especially in light of the $20 million infusion it has recently received from the Founders Fund? This is a chance for the commercial space business to contribute hugely to our solar sail effort, one that has stalled not because of technology — far from it — but because of funding issues. We need to get a sail into space for deployment tests and NanoSail-D is our best shot. A Shuttle launch may not be in the cards, but a new Falcon is going to be flying soon. Let’s hope SpaceX and NASA can get NanoSail-D’s twin aboard that rocket.