Mars is on their minds

A Tampa-based team is in the fi­nals of a NASA con­test to cre­ate minia­ture satel­lite tech­nol­ogy for a space mis­sion.

Tampa Bay Times - - News - BY PAUL GUZZO Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — It’s a rag­tag group of 17 would-be space ex­plor­ers look­ing to do its part in send­ing hu­mans to Mars. And it’s mak­ing progress.

For over two years, a group called Team Miles — based in Tampa but spread across the country — has been com­pet­ing in a NASA con­test to de­velop minia­ture satel­lite tech­nol­ogy that’s seen as key to any suc­cess­ful mis­sion to the Red Planet.

Now, it’s emerged as part of the fi­nal five in the con­test and will learn June 8 whether it will be se­lected as one of three teams to see its de­vice sent aloft in fall 2018 as part of the in­au­gu­ral voy­age of NASA’s Space Launch Sys­tem — the most pow­er­ful rocket ever built.

Only 13 teams en­tered the tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing com­pe­ti­tion, most of them from elite in­sti­tu­tions like Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity and the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute

of Tech­nol­ogy or teams of peo­ple with ad­vanced de­grees in fields such as en­gi­neer­ing and aero­nau­tics.

One team is made up en­tirely of NASA in­terns. Team Miles? It’s a hodge­podge of pro­fes­sion­als — a teacher, an artist, an in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy pro­fes­sional, a few soft­ware de­sign­ers, most of them with de­grees from lower-tier schools like the Uni­ver­sity of Tampa, Michi­gan’s Gen­eral Mo­tors In­sti­tute and the on­line Uni­ver­sity of Phoenix.

Their knowl­edge of satel­lite en­gi­neer­ing is largely self-taught.

“We’re like the is­land of misfit toys,” said team leader Wes Faler, a 47-year-old soft­ware de­signer with a man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tems en­gi­neer­ing de­gree from the GM In­sti­tute who now lives in Tampa.

“We’ve been re­warded by do­ing and not a piece of pa­per. We’re hands-on.”

•••

Each team is de­sign­ing a CubeSat, a satel­lite made up of in­di­vid­ual units each 10 cu­bic cen­time­ters in size. They’re eas­ier and cheaper to de­ploy than tra­di­tional satel­lites yet de­signed to broad­cast data from deep in space back to Earth.

Satel­lites now used for such work can be three sto­ries high, Faler said, and cost bil­lions of dol­lars.

Team Miles’ CubeSat will mea­sure 10-by-20-by30 cen­time­ters, just un­der 12 inches on its longest side and about the size of a bread box. It would cost around a half-mil­lion dol­lars to fully de­velop.

No one has at­tempted to send a CubeSat into deep space.

If Team Miles is cho­sen, its pi­o­neer­ing de­vice would be re­leased near the moon — a mere 289,000 miles from earth — then pro­pel it­self as far as 28 mil­lion miles far­ther. Propul­sion along with com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the project’s key tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenge.

The cost of the CubeSat’s NASA ride, Team Miles es­ti­mates, will be about $2.5 mil­lion.

“It’s an ex­pen­sive Uber,” quipped team mem­ber Alex Wingeier, 40, who runs an IT firm in Tampa.

Teams se­lected for de­ploy­ment will com­pete for $5 mil­lion in prizes. The per­for­mance cat­e­gories in­clude whose CubeSat can com­mu­ni­cate fastest and from far­thest away.

Called the Cube Quest Chal­lenge, the con­test started in 2015 as part of NASA’s Cen­ten­nial Chal­lenge Pro­gram to in­spire peo­ple from all walks of life to con­trib­ute to the space pro­gram.

One past win­ner un­der the Cen­ten­nial Chal­lenge ban­ner cre­ated astro­naut gloves that re­duced the ef­fort re­quired to per­form tasks dur­ing space walks.

On­go­ing Cen­ten­nial Chal­lenges in­volve putting hu­mans on Mars.

CubeSats would en­able them to send data or com­mu­ni­cate with Earth quickly. A sig­nal now can take any­where from three min­utes to 22 min­utes, de­pend­ing on the dis­tance be­tween the plan­ets at the time.

An­other com­pe­ti­tion seeks ways to use 3-D print­ers in cre­at­ing hous­ing that can sur­vive the harsh con­di­tions of the fourth planet from the sun.

•••

The suc­cess of Team Miles could be con­sid­ered an anom­aly, said Monsi Ro­man, pro­gram man­ager for NASA Cen­ten­nial Chal­lenges. Com­peti­tors are be­ing asked to de­sign ground­break­ing tech­nol­ogy, which is why the re­sumes of other teams are so im­pres­sive.

But Ro­man prefers to see Team Miles as a tes­ta­ment to the in­tent of the Cen­ten­nial Chal­lenges.

“We wanted to in­volve peo­ple who are not within our cir­cle,” she said. “We want the house­wives from Ok­la­homa and the ranch­ers from Mon­tana. We want every­body to con­trib­ute to our jour­ney to Mars.”

To make it this far, Team Miles had to place in the top five in at least one of three com­pe­ti­tions, each re­quir­ing hun­dreds of pages of re­search de­tail­ing how its CubeSat will work.

Team Miles fin­ished first, fifth and then first again, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing $80,000 in prize money, all of which has been rein­vested in the project.

When team mem­bers learned of their ini­tial vic­tory, dur­ing live an­nounce­ments via Skype, their cheers were so loud that NASA asked that all teams turn off their mi­cro­phones for later an­nounce­ments.

“See, we’re al­ready chang­ing NASA,” said Team Miles mem­ber Bill Shaw, 50, a Uni­ver­sity of Tampa grad­u­ate with a de­gree in man­age­ment in­for­ma­tion sys­tems who teaches ro­bot­ics at lo­cal high schools and founded the non­profit Tampa Hack­erspace.

Hack­erspace pro­vides equip­ment, classes and men­tor­ing for tech­nol­ogy driven projects and ini­tially brought the team to­gether.

Six of the mem­bers vol­un­teer at the Hack­erspace head­quar­ters, 4931 W Nas­sau St.

Yet only Faler and Syd­nie Pierce, who lives in Cal­i­for­nia, have any real-world ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with satel­lites, and even that is lim­ited.

Team Miles mem­bers Don Smith of Michi­gan and Frank Fomby of South Carolina have tin­kered with satel­lites for fun.

Pierce has an aero­space en­gi­neer­ing de­gree from Embry-Rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Uni­ver­sity, but Faler, Smith and Fomby picked up their knowl­edge over the years by read­ing books and at­tend­ing sem­i­nars.

•••

Some other team mem­bers have learned as the con­test pro­gresses and found ways to in­te­grate their own unique skills into the process.

J. Kent, for in­stance, a Uni­ver­sity of South Florida grad­u­ate in the fine arts, has been re­lied upon for turn­ing vi­sions into highly tech­ni­cal schemat­ics.

Gior­gos Pa­pabeis, con­sid­ered an as­so­ciate team mem­ber, has a de­gree in com­puter an­i­ma­tion from the In­ter­na­tional Academy of De­sign & Tech­nol­ogy and pro­duced a video for ini­tial fundrais­ing.

IT pro­fes­sional Wingeier, with the de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Phoenix, helps with in­fra­struc­ture plus ground com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Dig­i­tal jan­i­tor,” he calls him­self.

Their short­com­ings in pedi­gree are not lost on Wingeier.

“Af­ter that first com­pe­ti­tion, I kept say­ing, ‘We beat Cor­nell. We beat MIT,’ ” he said. “We have a real shot at this.”

Team Miles still must raise $500,000 through in­vestors to com­plete a pro­to­type if it is cho­sen on June 8, though the team doesn’t think that will be an is­sue con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­ble prize money if it wins a spot on the rocket.

Plus, it will own the patent, not NASA, so the tech­nol­ogy can boost the com­pany that team mem­bers re­cently founded: Miles Space.

Ul­ti­mately, though, it’s not about the money, they said.

“I don’t care if I make mil­lions or go broke,” Wingeier said. “This is about my 7-year-old daugh­ter know­ing that her daddy played a role in some­thing his­toric.”

For the en­tire team, it’s also about re­al­iz­ing a child­hood dream of space ex­plo­ration. That’s what in­spired them to find their team name in a sig­na­ture line from a beloved poem.

“‘I have prom­ises to keep and miles to go be­fore I sleep’ — Robert Frost,” de­clares team leader Faler. “Space is classy. You choose a waltz, not techno.”

OC­TAVIO JONES | Times

Alex Wingeier, from left, Wes Faler and Bill Shaw are part of Team Miles, a group tak­ing part in a NASA chal­lenge that aims to send hu­mans to Mars.

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