In 2014, NASA announced the CubeQuest Challenge: a contest for homegrown teams to build their own small satellites—cubesats—and compete against each other by demonstrating technological feats. Five million dollars in prize money will be divided among teams who can get into orbit around the moon, maintain a stable orbit for a long time, or make it almost all the way to Mars’ orbit while still communicating with Earth.
Among those who answered the call was Wesley Faler of Team Miles (named for Robert Frost’s “miles to go before I sleep”), who jumped at the chance to demonstrate a new type of thruster he had developed as a hobby. Talking to friends at the local hackerspace in Tampa, Faler quickly found himself leading a team of citizen inventors. “I got excited about that and started talking to friends, and they said, ‘We like your excitement — let’s do this. How hard can it be?’ It’s just snowballed from there.”
Across the country in Flintridge, California, high school senior Braden Oh heard about the contest from his father and, together with classmates Laura Ratliff and Sonya Kalara, put together a team of interested high school students to tackle the challenge. “We were working to build our own satellite,” says Ratliff, “and then after the first tournament that we entered in, we got a call from MIT saying that that they were also entering a satellite that looked very similar to ours and they suggested we merge.” That marked the beginning of team KitCube, a collaboration between graduate students at MIT and the high school contingent in California.
So far, both teams KitCube and Miles have made it through three “ground tournaments”—rounds of evaluation by NASA judges to assess each cubesat’s potential to both meet its goals and stay within strict safety guidelines. At the fourth and final ground tournament, scheduled for February of 2017, three teams will be selected to ride on NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS. Once they get to space, they’ll compete against each other — and against any teams hitching a ride on another rocket — to strut their stuff. What does NASA get out of it? “It’s a beautiful part of crowdsourcing, an industry boot-up, essentially,” says Faler. “You end up with a much more viable industry, with lots of companies able to survive even if they didn’t win the contest.”