Good-bye Mr. CHIPS 

After years of struggle, Mark Hurwitz beat the odds and launched this humble satellite. So why did the folks at NASA eventually make him pull the plug?

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NASA took the bait, and threw Hurwitz $9.8 million to build his telescope. His Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer Spacecraft, or CHIPSat, was underway.

He recruited Marchant to build the software, assembled the rest of his team, and went to work. They cut a deal with the communications satellite company Final Analysis, getting permission to attach their spectrometer onto one of its satellites. They built everything to precise specs, figured out how to piggyback it onto the Final Analysis satellite, and were all systems go by January 1999. Then, after almost two years of work, they got a phone call: the deal was dead.

It turned out that what Hurwitz had hoped to do was actually illegal. In 1994, American aerospace companies were growing worried about international competition in rocket manufacturing. In addition, there were growing fears about Chinese espionage in rocket science. So NASA, in a move that was partly motivated by national security and partly by trade protectionism, announced a new rule: no government-funded satellite or orbiting scientific instrument could be launched from a foreign-made rocket. Since Final Analysis planned to use a Russian rocket, CHIPSat had to scrub its launch.

"No one had dreamed that this would apply to a little project like ours," Hurwitz recalled. "But some American rocket builder made a stink, and we were way too small a project to win a political battle with Lockheed or something like that. ... Basically, NASA said, 'Sorry, Hurwitz. We approved you, but you can't do what you said you were going to do.' So we had designed a spectrometer, but how were we going to get it into orbit with a war chest of just a few million dollars?"

His team had no choice but to start cold-calling other government-funded satellite projects — at NASA, the National Science Foundation, even the military — begging them to let him attach his little spectrometer onto their baby. But no one wanted a remora attached to something they had worked so hard to design. "We're cold-calling, we're trying to tell NASA don't cancel us yet," Hurwitz recalls. "But generally, satellites are hard to build, engineers are busy solving their own problems, and the idea of taking on someone else's project as well was about as welcome as a pig in a wedding, frankly."

In addition, Marchant says, NASA began rethinking the whole UNEX program altogether. Administrators didn't do it consciously, he says; rather, they reacted to a series of high-profile missions that went terribly wrong. As the public and Congress started complaining about the screw-ups, NASA reflexively went into cover-your-ass mode, subjecting all new missions to an intense new level of safety and procedural scrutiny. This was antithetical to the very philosophy behind UNEX, which was designed to accept a certain level of risk and to give academic researchers the freedom to make mistakes if that's what it took to do something interesting. Since the amount of money involved was so relatively small, no one cared at first. But once the political climate changed, CHIPSat had to jump through new bureaucratic hoops that Hurwitz' team never imagined.

"Whenever anything bad happens, it seems that NASA gets a black eye," Marchant says. "So even though these UNEX missions weren't NASA's responsibility, we got caught up in this larger review process. ... A Mars mission that fails, that is a big deal, and you can't really allow that to happen. But it seems like there should be a mechanism to allow us human beings to fly more small missions in which you're allowed to have enough risk to keep cost and schedule down."

As project after project said no, Hurwitz' team began to get a little annoyed with him. In addition to designing and hustling to launch CHIPSat, Hurwitz had an idea: why not go be a lawyer too? He got into Boalt Law School and began studying for the bar, but his teammates felt Hurwitz was starting to sacrifice the satellite for his extracurricular interests. Fortunately, NASA came to the rescue. Since you can't find a satellite to latch onto, they said, why don't we give you some money to build your own?

"NASA did feel guilty about funding us and then telling us a few years later we couldn't do it," Hurwitz says. "So they would say, look, if you build your own satellite, maybe we could just send you up in the space shuttle and throw you overboard."

And just like that, Hurwitz had another $5 million to play with. But the team had to scramble to find a partner capable of building a satellite on such a small budget. They eventually retained a small San Diego firm called SpaceDev, and CHIPSat was ready to go once more. But then they ran into yet another problem. The shuttle, they realized, was going to fly too low.

"The space shuttle usually stays very close to Earth, and we realized that if you deployed a small satellite this close to Earth, the air friction would have been just enough to cause it to reenter the atmosphere and burn up in just a few months," Hurwitz says. "CHIPS was not going to be able to tell the space shuttle to go into a higher orbit. We just had to take what we could get." No problem, the smart fellers at SpaceDev said — we'll just rig a canister of pressurized nitrogen, dump CHIPSat overboard, and release the gas, pushing the satellite into a higher orbit. But when NASA heard about this, they said no way. Nothing zooms past the multi-billion-dollar space shuttle without years of safety reviews. The shuttle gig was dead in the water.

The CHIPSat team had one last card to play. A booster rocket for the current generation of global positioning satellites had a little extra room at its tip, and CHIPSat could squeeze into a little cranny and piggyback its way on the next GPS launch. But then NASA declared that it had just figured out a way to expand its GPS satellite capabilities. By the time CHIPSat would be ready to launch, NASA would probably need the extra space. So once again, no go.

Hurwitz was reduced to lurking around other satellite projects, hoping that one of them would fail so he could jump into their Delta rocket launch schedule. It was a ghoulish enterprise, one he likens to "looking like a vulture, circling over the dying throes of another mission." But he had run out of options.

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