Some people dream of curing cancer. Some dream of writing the Great American Novel, or being the first black president, or riding the greatest thoroughbred in history straight to the Triple Crown. Mark Hurwitz' dream was to be the first person to analyze the spectrum of extreme ultraviolet radiation emitted by low-density gas that drifts just beyond our solar system.
In the late 1990s, directors at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had a dream as well. For years, NASA had mostly focused on massive, high-profile missions whose cost ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. They were fancy and ambitious, sure — but they were also expensive, time-consuming, and very embarrassing if they failed. But what if they could design and launch smaller satellites, built by university tinkerers and graduate students at a fraction of the usual cost, to perform critical experiments in orbit? The notion could be revolutionary, sending a small army of modest satellites into space to explore the universe on the cheap. Critical discoveries could be made for pennies on the dollar, and a completely new model of space exploration would be born.
In 1997, Hurwitz and NASA found each other and set out to make history. NASA gave Hurwitz, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley Space Science Center, a $10 million grant to build a small ultraviolet spectrometer, a telescope that would piggyback on a satellite, to explore the undiscovered continent known as hot interstellar gas plasma. Hurwitz would pioneer a new means of expanding the world of human knowledge, and lead the way for a new generation of small satellites zooming through high orbit.
Eleven years later, Hurwitz watched his baby go dark, as NASA cut off the last of his funds and forced him to turn off his satellite for good. He'd been to hell and back to get to this point, dancing through a comedy of errors that nearly destroyed his project, only to see the one discovery he yearned to make elude him in the end. Bureaucrats, terrified of a new round of public scrutiny, subjected his small project to an unexpected array of bizarre safety reviews that were never part of the plan. The intrigues of trade protectionist politics killed his first launch just before it was due to take place. Technical details he had never anticipated delayed him for years.
Although Hurwitz was hardly a rookie in the world of space exploration, midwifing his satellite transformed him from a simple tinkerer to a master of the world of space science politics and grant-writing. He never got to see the spectrum of extreme ultraviolet radiation emitted by low-density gas that drifts just beyond our solar system. But by the time it was over, Hurwitz would upend an important piece of theoretical astronomy — just not in the way he ever expected.
Then again, there's always next year.
Mark Hurwitz always knew he wanted to explore space. He got his undergraduate degree in physics from Rice University in 1982 and his Ph.D from Cal in 1990. But if you want to learn something interesting about space these days, he realized, you have to actually get into space to do it.
"In astronomy, it's not easy to come up with good science that's inexpensive," he says. "You're beyond the day when you can just slap something together with very little cost and do good science. Most of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked. ... In space, you don't need a ten-meter diameter telescope."
Hurwitz soon fell in with the UC Berkeley Space Science Laboratory, and began building orbital telescopes, working with some of the most talented people in the field. He designed instruments that were placed on sounding rockets, which lift just high enough to get into the upper atmosphere but don't settle into orbit. In the early 1990s, he led a team that built two telescopes that were used in the space shuttle. Will Marchant, who designed the software in Hurwitz' space shuttle instruments, marvels at the talent and ambition he came across back then. "He's a smart guy," Marchant says. "There aren't too many people who can be on the faculty of the Space Sciences Lab. There are astronauts, Nobel Prize winners. I'm kinda tired of being the dumbest guy in the room."
Up to that point, NASA was either funding massive projects that cost half a billion dollars, or small experiments that would serve as part of a larger mission. There was no room for small, self-contained missions that would be autonomous and cheap. Then NASA conceived of the University-Class explorers.
The University-Class Explorer Program, or UNEX, was designed to dramatically expand the number and scope of orbital science missions floating around the Earth. Whereas NASA's prior missions took years and hundreds of millions of dollars to accomplish, UNEX missions would be launched for as little as $10 million each, which would give NASA the chance to fund as many as ten a year. Individual universities would control the operation, freeing NASA to focus on the high-profile missions while getting a lot of good science done on the cheap. In addition, the program would train a new generation of scientists by letting graduate students play with millions of dollars in satellite money. Even if their project failed, an army of smart scientists would still be trained by learning how they failed. It was, it seemed, win-win.
When Hurwitz heard about the new line of grant money coming down the pipe, he immediately applied for a piece. He proposed to attach a small spectrometer onto a satellite and study the UV emissions of interstellar gas. The space between solar systems isn't pure vacuum, but is filled with low-density gas drifting in a bubble around each star, superheated to about a million degrees Kelvin and emitting an extreme range of ultraviolet radiation. "Imagine living inside a fluorescent light tube filled with glowing hot gas," he says. "The gas between the stars is also glowing, but very faintly, because it's at extremely low density."
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