Hacking Humanity to the Stars: The DIY Space Program

by Paul Gilster on November 20, 2013

Among the numerous groups now emerging with an eye toward space exploration, SpaceGAMBIT has been the one I knew the least about. It was a pleasure, then, to hear from Alex Cureton-Griffiths, who is UK Project Lead for SpaceGAMBIT. Alex was more than happy to offer this description of SpaceGAMBIT and its plans for the future. He tells me he spends his time traveling and talking to people about our future in space and how they can get involved. In his spare time he “hunts for good coffee and hacks on steam-powered satellite thrusters for fun.” Alex, I buy coffee green and roast my own beans. If you’re a coffee guy, we need to talk, man.

by Alex Cureton-Griffiths

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When I mention to people that I’m trying to help build humanity into a spacefaring species, I usually get the same reaction: “ I don’t believe it – that’s so cool!”

I’m with them all the way on the second part of that reaction – it really is amazingly cool. It’s the first part that gets me – the “I don’t believe it” part. For so many people, getting to the stars is literally unbelievable. Because it’s assumed to be too difficult, too far off, or too big for individuals to make a difference. People watch movies like Star Trek and imagine we need to have shiny starships to get there, without thinking about the greasemonkeys who build the technology to get us to starships in the first place.

My organisation, SpaceGAMBIT, is a group of those greasemonkeys, and we aim to prove the doubters wrong by getting humanity hacking on hands-on, practical projects that will help us one day live amongst the stars. We’re not alone – we’ve got half a million dollars in funding from the US government to do this, and we’re working with many organisations to Make Things Happen.

How We Make a Difference

Now, it’s no good hammering away on a starship chassis if we don’t even have warp drives yet. Or for that matter, if we don’t even know that warp drives are a possible or optimal technology. Since we’re all about hands-on, just putting together plans and models for interstellar settlement doesn’t really float our boat. Instead, we focus our projects on:

    1. Building near-term technologies that will get people thinking about space and settling the stars. Things like a partial space suit and 3D printed planetary rover components

    2. Educating and inspiring the public about the need for getting to space and how they can get involved now. These include a range of space badges for Hacker Scouts and workshops for building Cubesats

    3. Off-world habitat technologies which also have applications here on earth in disaster relief, developing countries and sustainability. Includes bioreactors and a prototype closed-system underwater habitat

Why focus on the here and now? If the public can’t see a near-term use for space technologies, they go back into “Star Trek” mode. The thing that gets people’s blood pumping is seeing it’s a “real thing” and that they can make a difference.

All of our projects are brought to life by the maker movement through hackerspaces, makerspaces and other community spaces. Basically, an ad hoc worldwide network of passionate, hands-on tinkerers with the tools, community and mindset to Get Stuff Done. Makers aren’t limited by the norms of the engineering industry, so they’re more likely to get something bodged together quickly and rapidly iterate to make it work. And since many don’t have a formal engineering background there’s a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, resulting in off-the-wall designs that might just work anyway.

There are now thousands of such community spaces around the world, including in formerly-wartorn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and even NASA is getting in on the act, opening their own makerspace at Ames. And if there’s no space near you, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you getting together with a group of friends and building your own!

Another key point is that all of our projects are open-source, open-hardware, open-documentation, open-everything. Anyone is free to take the projects and replicate, re-use, build on or modify them as they wish. We believe that if we’re to make it as a spacefaring civilization we’ve got to share what we know, not lock it up.

Get Involved

The fantastic thing about the maker community is that anyone can get involved. Hackerspaces and makerspaces are open for anyone to join for a small fee, and no qualifications or background are needed. Whether you’re an engineer, an artist, a kid, or whoever else, you’re free to roll up and start hacking together your own projects. As UK Project Lead for SpaceGAMBIT, I’m a walking, talking case-in-point. I have no formal engineering or space background. In fact, I flunked high school maths and majored in Chinese at university. And here I am, running a space program. If I can get involved, anyone can.

Don’t worry about coding a killer app, knowing how to wire a plug or building a 3D printer from scratch – these spaces are where you can learn from each other, and learning means failing now and again (and celebrating that failure). I was completely clueless on my first day, but over time (and many wonderful failures) I’ve learnt from the other members and developed my skills. Here’s how:

    1. Find your local hackerspace. Many big cities have several.

    2. Most hackerspaces have an open night or social night. Try to attend one of these to see what it’s really like. Each one has its own vibe, and words can struggle to do them justice!

    3. Get involved with a cool project, or just start your own. Instructables has plenty of space projects to get you started off, and we promote many more projects in development through SpaceGAMBIT.org. When it comes to starting your own, you don’t need to ask. Just bring stuff and get working!

    4. As soon as you’ve got a project going, you may need funding to continue it: SpaceGAMBIT offers funding for certain types of projects, and there’s always Kickstarter or Indiegogo, both of which have successfully funded space projects.

    5. If you have kids (or if you’re a kid yourself), there are lots of great programs out there to get started. Curiosity Hacked (formerly Hacker Scouts) are based in the USA, and Code Club offer after school coding classes around the world.

What’s Next for SpaceGAMBIT?

We’re now working with NASA on the asteroid grand challenge, because we can’t become a starfaring species if we’re wiped out by death rocks from outer space. In a few months, we’ll launch a new round of project solicitation, focusing on how to spot dangerous near-earth-objects and figuring out how to divert them. We’ll also run a couple of competitions to get more people scouring the skies, with the aim of making telescopes cheaper and easier to use.

Like last year, we plan to continue funding projects focused on space and maker education, habitat technologies, and small satellite technologies. For projects we fund, we emphasise rapid iteration and getting things done on a budget. All projects have a funding limit of $20,000, should take 3-4 months to complete and be totally open-source, open hardware and open everything. For now you can check our previous project submission announcement for more information, and get in touch if you have a project you’d like to submit!

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{ 23 comments }

David Cummings November 20, 2013 at 11:33

What a great way to get people — especially young people — involved and thinking about these things. A friend of mine has a teenage son who is active in the Maker community, especially interested in robotics.

Alex Tolley November 20, 2013 at 13:07

1. Building near-term technologies that will get people thinking about space and settling the stars. Things like a partial space suit and 3D printed planetary rover components

2. Educating and inspiring the public about the need for getting to space and how they can get involved now. These include a range of space badges for Hacker Scouts and workshops for building Cubesats

It looks like you are following in the footsteps of the early British Interplanetary Society. Cash-strapped, they couldn’t build a space ship, so they built components of one – a coelostat that was shown at the Science Museum in London in 1939. They designed ships, spacesuits, space stations and off planet bases. Arthur C Clarke, in particular, wrote books on space travel aimed at the general public.

While they were early, they caught a wave that would break with the moon landings barely 30 years in the future. (Unfortunately Britain withdrew from that wave early). In a sense, their aim was almost near term. It was possible to imagine space as being ready for human exploration with technologies just beyond the reach of 1930′s technology. Starships are a bigger stretch, at least with human occupancy. Worse, even if we had an STL ship just about ready ready to leave its orbital dock today, very few people would be alive to receive a message about a successful landing on a planet of a nearby star. Without FTL, those who view the launch are shooting into an undiscoverable country.

So aim for things that are achievable in the short term, especially with technologies that offer Moore’s Law-like rapid improvements in capability and cost, to hold attention with demonstrable achievements. May the Force be with you!

David Cummings November 20, 2013 at 15:14

“So aim for things that are achievable in the short term, especially with technologies that offer Moore’s Law-like rapid improvements in capability and cost, to hold attention with demonstrable achievements. ”

Which is why I prefer space probes and robotic rovers to manned flight at this point in our history.

I’m looking forward to the day when the first non-governmental lunar robot is making tracks in the lunar dust.

Enzo November 20, 2013 at 16:41

I think that the only vaguely practical projects, at this stage, are cubesats.
Cubesats could do some interesting missions to various space rocks. They could even go as far as Europa, arriving there when JUICE has nearly finished and hopefully use it as a relay to reduce power requirements.
Another area is transit observations like Sara Seager’s exoplanetsat :
http://seagerexoplanets.mit.edu/exoplanet.htm

Yet another could be intensity interferometry with multiple cubestas.
Paul, we had a brief mail exchange about intensity interferometry and you mentioned asking around and maybe do an article about it. Maybe I missed it if you did. If it really works, it’s something within reach of amateurs.

NS November 20, 2013 at 18:41

I agree that to sustain the interest of both the voting public and private enterprise in space, we need projects that give a return in less than the 50+ year timescales that have often been discussed on Centauri Dreams. This also obviates the problem of projects based entirely on guesswork about what may be useful decades from now. Instead we create something that is useful to us and which may in the longer term be useful to our descendants, the right way to proceed in a field with so many unknowns.

Enzo November 20, 2013 at 19:49

Fairly recent, brief and interesting intensity interferometry presentation :
http://www.altazinitiative.org/IADSO/MIDSCDocs/Elliot-Horch2.pdf

From what I read the quality of the mirrors does not need to be good : Cherenkov light telescopes or even inflatable optics have been proposed.

Christopher Phoenix November 20, 2013 at 21:48

Hey, this is very, very cool… thanks to Alex and Paul for sharing this!! I had not heard about the maker community and Makerspaces, even though this is exactly the sort of thing I would love to get involved in. All my life I’ve always wanted to get involved in cool, hands-on projects but didn’t have the facilities and tools to do so. I love the idea of an open-everything space where anyone can learn to build literally anything they can imagine, with the help of other experienced people.

Speaking of cool projects, I’ve been thinking about making my own Newtonian-style reflecting telescope more some time now, but while the materials and tools needed to shape and polish a primary mirror are surprisingly simple, other stuff… like woodworking… is needed to build the body and tube. And, a lot of advanced ATM projects benefit from metalworking equipment, or even electronics and computer programming. But now that I know makerspaces exist, and there is one nearby, not only can I have access to the tools, but also proper instruction so I don’t wind up shy a few fingers.

And I’m sure that I can come up with more interesting projects- particularly those related to space. I’ve always been interested in robotics, perhaps there are cool projects related to that…

Again, thanks for sharing, this is possibly the coolest thing I have heard about all year.

Michael Turner November 21, 2013 at 3:08

“… technologies that offer Moore’s Law-like rapid improvements in capability and cost” –

I’ve argued that you’re not likely to see these in space, especially not for Earth-to-orbit propulsion, which is strongly ITAR-constrained anyway.

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/180/1

Almost ten years later, that essay doesn’t look very dated to me.

Every factor behind Moore’s Law is near (or at) an extreme; for most or all of these factors, space technology is at the opposite extreme. Some of these factors may be true factors: multiplicative, not additive.

The one major exception is space technology that actually benefits by Moore’s Law. Over on my desk near the computer I’m typing this on, there’s a KickSat Sprite (minus a recent revision). It’s roughly equivalent to AMSAT satellites (OSCAR series), but, at about $100 in parts and labor, it’s several orders of magnitude cheaper. It’s also several orders of magnitude cheaper to launch — but not because going to LEO on SpaceX CRS-3 / ELaNa-5 is dramatically cheaper per pound than going up on that old NASA Thor Delta that launched the first OSCAR. No, it’s cheap to launch because it’s tiny and weighs almost nothing — again, because of Moore’s Law.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/zacinaction/kicksat-your-personal-spacecraft-in-space

tesh November 21, 2013 at 3:59

I have a couple of issues with a large portion of the comments being made here:
1. I think that it is ok for missions to take longer than a generation and indeed a lifetime. Most believe that just because the people who launched the crew (and possibly the crew itself, as their decedents may be the ones to broadcast the “we’ve reached planet Y”), won’t be alive to receive the message, then no one will care about going through with it, is wrong. We as a species have always thought in the long term when conditions allow. The voyages of Drake, Megellan and Columbus (to name but a few that were successful) were, for their time, for intents and purposes one way tickets and fairly long term.
2. Wishing and waiting for a FTL spaceship to appear before embarking on such a mission is just ludicrous. There is nothing to suggest that we will ever achieve such a feat. Our best chance for reading other systems within a lifetime is through longevity. Many scientists believe that someone will been born within the next 20-40 yrs that will likely live to 150 yrs of age. Once this has occurred, it will not be long before 1000 yrs lifespans become common.
3. The apathy towards space travel is nothing new. Explorers throughout history were a vanishingly small percentage of the population as a whole. Our generally espoused spirit to explore is usually practiced by these vanishingly small percentage of the population – albeit them being the focal point of rather large and multi-lifetime spanning mega-organizations with a whose only interest lies in survival (kingdoms/empires). This suggests that the likeliest way we are going to reach the stars is through the private sector/companies. Kingdoms and countries are by and large dead and stagnating entities. Companies in many cases, are mega organisations, with wide ranging interests, multi-lifetime spanning and perpetuating itself at any cost is their main goal (e.g. Banks, Auto industry and petro/chemical industry).

Brett Bellmore November 21, 2013 at 7:42

My first reaction to the phrase “hacking humanity”, was that it was a reference to the need to alter human biology so that we can more naturally exist in space. Increased radiation resistance, freeing us from biological dependence on gravity, maybe changes so that suspended animation is easy.

There are a lot of changes we’ll need to ourselves, before we’re a fit species to take over the galaxy.

Securis November 21, 2013 at 11:04

Very interesting! I just found a hackerspace near me! Another interesting example of a DIY Space Program is Copenhagen Suborbitals. Their test flights look really promising.

http://www.copenhagensuborbitals.com/

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3-q-s79KXM

Alex Tolley November 21, 2013 at 11:14

@Brett
The greatest problem seems t be radiation damage and resulting cancers. This is often cited as a show stopper for even mars missions. The usual thought is that we need better protection, e.g. mass shielding, or gene engineering to improve our DNA repair mechanisms.

Recent successes with using viral carriers for anti-cancer treatments suggest a more reasonable approach. If the cells that are damaged by GCRs and turn cancerous by uncontrolled proliferation, can be detected early, they might be removed completely by these techniques. If so, moderate radiation exposure might be tolerable as the increased risk of cancers can be treated.

If this speculation is correct, it is a good example of how an unexpected technology in a different field can facilitate an endeavor in another, in this case human spaceflight.

Alex Tolley November 21, 2013 at 12:23

@ Michael Turner. That is the point really. The hacker and maker community cannot build spaceships. What they can do is build small technologies that can contribute to space and stir the imagination. They can also build working scale models, much like we used to do with boats, trains and planes. I see no reason why makers cannot build tiny satellites, thrusters, light sails, etc that could be launched relatively cheaply. JP Aerospace has a pongsat program for high altitude balloons that could be utilized for near vacuum experiments. The biohacker community could engineer organisms for nearly closed environmental systems and perhaps even work on Rachel Armstrong’s ideas for closed habitat organisms.
Other ideas – wirelessly charged cameras and thin oled screens to replace windows in structures and spacecraft. The Mars Society has constructed analogs for testing Mars exploration activities – this could be a model for some makers, even for small scale. I personally think that a Russian Sokol type spacesuit design is well within the capabilities of the maker community. It sorely needs updating with snap fits instead of lace ties, and perhaps hard surfaces instead of all fabric. Nasa might be persuaded to test it at one of their vacuum chamber facilities. Self healing ice/water hulls for habitats and spacecraft. The list of potential ideas is as big as imagination, and much can be done that is innovative, even high risk, as long as costs are low and failure is acceptable.

ljk November 21, 2013 at 12:49

I think it would be fascinating to deposit a collection of CubeSats in the rings of Saturn. Imagine what we could see and learn from such a vantage point. And unlike say losing one big one-shot space probe like Cassini, losing a few CubeSats during exploration as I assume would happen bouncing around in the rings would not end the mission.

tesh – Total agreement with all of your excellent points. The current society is too much into wanting everything RIGHT NOW. Patience on an interstellar time and space scale may be just the thing to help our species better appreciate their true cosmic surroundings. If we do not try to work on building a star vessel now, the FTL technology that some keep thinking will one day magically appear in our future will not happen.

Brett Bellmore November 21, 2013 at 16:13

Alex: Radiation damage is likely the easiest obstacle to hack. Gravity goes back a long ways in our evolutionary history, but that early history was experienced under a higher radiation environment than today’s. Plus, as you note, there are independent reasons for tackling some of the radiation related issues. Modifying humanity to be capable of staying healthy and reproducing in zero G could be a remarkably tough challenge. Ditto for enabling us to expediently enter states of suspended animation. But both are, I think, critical to our long term success in the galaxy.

But these problems will have to await a greater capability in the area of germ line genetic engineering. Designing organisms to assist us, such as space tolerant crops to minimize the complexity of closed life support systems, seem a better match to the current capablities of bio hackers.

NS November 22, 2013 at 4:02

IIRC the voyages of Magellan and Drake took about 5 years, those of Columbus far less than that. And in economic terms they more than paid for themselves. Nobody so far has found anything in space that pays for itself, certainly not in that kind of time frame.

That said, I don’t have a problem with longer-term projects. But I doubt that they will be publicly supported and/or privately funded unless they produce some sort of return (data, new tech) in roughly the same time frame as current space missions. And a truly long-term mission that produces nothing until the end of its duration runs the risk of becoming an expensive time capsule rather than an important scientific effort.

Of course if humans begin to live drastically longer lives all bets are off. But even they may want returns in similar fractions of their lifespans.

Alex Cureton-Griffiths November 22, 2013 at 8:14

@AlexTolley – it’s funny that you should mention BIS, since I’m becoming more involved with them, especially with their habitats group. Do you have any involvement with them yourself?

Alex Tolley November 22, 2013 at 11:56

@Brett
“Radiation damage is likely the easiest obstacle to hack”

We certainly have examples of organisms that are remarkably radiation proof, although none even close to our evolutionary clade. Mole rats don’t seem to get cancer which may be a more promising direction to hack.

Modifying humanity to be capable of staying healthy and reproducing in zero G could be a remarkably tough challenge

Could be. But we don’t need to. Technology solves this by the simple use of rotation surfaces. Acceleration towards the the surface you are on has many desirable features :)

Designing organisms to assist us, such as space tolerant crops to minimize the complexity of closed life support systems, seem a better match to the current capabilities of bio hackers.

I agree. Should those crops turn out to be principally algae, then suitable food processing and preparation would be useful. This would be suitable for any advanced cook to attempt. Maybe there should be a cooking challenge to convert Chlorella into tasty cooked dishes?

Alex Tolley November 22, 2013 at 12:10

@NS.

I don’t have a problem with longer-term projects. But I doubt that they will be publicly supported and/or privately funded unless they produce some sort of return (data, new tech) in roughly the same time frame as current space missions. And a truly long-term mission that produces nothing until the end of its duration runs the risk of becoming an expensive time capsule rather than an important scientific effort.

Exactly. Imagine if European explorers looking for gold in the Americas took 500 years to return with treasure ships. By the late 20th Century, gold was no longer the source of wealth it had been, as currency, or later as backing to fiat currency. The exploration would have been almost futile. The mind reels at the opportunity cost. People often forget that very distant returns, even very large ones, have very low current values when discounted.

Alex Tolley November 22, 2013 at 14:18

@Alex – I don’t really have any involvement with BIS. I read their “Spaceflight” magazine, which is often very good. A colleague and I had an article published in JBIS about simple, low cost, spacecraft based on water for structure (as ice) and propellant, using high Isp, electro-thermal engines for propulsion. The idea was to conceptualize the “prairie schooner” for space. I also have a number of BIS publications as I have an interest in the history of spaceflight ideas.

IMO, space technology needs some really new ideas. It seems that very little new appears each decade, and old ideas are constantly recycled. Compare this to biology, where each decade is hardly recognizable from the previous one in terms of both tools and knowledge. The hacker community has come up with very interesting ideas and products in computing, and I think the same will happen in the biohacker space over the next decade. The maker community seems to be off to a very promising start too. Tim O’Reilly has opined in the past that we need to think more about solving big problems, rather than creating the next social app. I agree with him, and I believe that some of those solutions will appear from the garages and home labs of these communities.

Brett Bellmore November 23, 2013 at 10:07

” It seems that very little new appears each decade, and old ideas are constantly recycled.”

A natural consequence of the fact that they’re not being tried; Ideas change as a result of contact with reality, with no way to test interstellar travel concepts against reality, they don’t evolve. Rest assured, once we get out into space in a larger way, they’ll start changing.

Rob Henry November 23, 2013 at 21:10

I agree with Alex Tolley’s comment about the example of the naked mole rate offering true hope of reducing cancer rates in humans. The reason is simple.

There are many strange hallmarks about naked mole rat physiology, but there is good reason to believe they were due to the rapid transformation of a normal mammalian genome due to the imposition of a fresh equilibrium for pleisotropic genes. In fact it would have had to be very rapid since its current eusocial form (unlike any other know eusocial animal) seems to allow insufficient intermixing of breeding animals for sexual reproduction to work properly. Ie the species is probably so unstable as to be gone within a few tens of thousands of years.

tesh November 26, 2013 at 3:55

@ Alex Tolley – Exactly. Imagine if European explorers looking for gold in the Americas took 500 years to return with treasure ships. By the late 20th Century, gold was no longer the source of wealth it had been, as currency, or later as backing to fiat currency. The exploration would have been almost futile. The mind reels at the opportunity cost. People often forget that very distant returns, even very large ones, have very low current values when discounted.

I have a few issues with the above summary:

“Imagine if European explorers looking for gold in the Americas took 500 years to return with treasure ships.”

The flow of gold, from the New world to the Old took an eternity to establish, at least as far as time was concerned. From Columbus first seeking funds for his voyage (1485) to Cortez’s over throw of the Astec empire (1525) is 40 yrs. When you consider that most people lived on average to about 25, you’re talking almost 2 generations (2×20). For the riches then to filter down to the general population you’re probably talking another generation. 60 odd years then could be seen an eternity with not many of the initial investors (0r indeed their children) still being alive and seeing a return on their investment. The stability of the institution(s) (the state and church) that invested and oversaw the initial expedition survived and reaped the benefits – after some generations had passed and for scores of generation afterwards.

Not all investment has a direct return. The discovery of the Americas obviously did not as they were looking for a short cut to Japan/China/India. Drake went for gold and came back with a potato! Britain went to North America and unleashed the USA onto the world. Some may even argue that the development of the US, especially in the last 40 years, has seen the greatest leap in the how we live our lives. Filtering down further, the US has probably been the biggest investor in scientific research, ever. The reverberations of a mistaken assumption (by the initial investors and discoverer) has had far reaching consequences that none could have predicted.

p.s.
“By the late 20th Century, gold was no longer the source of wealth it had been, as currency, or later as backing to fiat currency. ” Gold is still a pretty good bet if you’re investing.

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