What Happened When 'Planet Money' Went On A Mission To Adopt A Spacecraft

Jan 30, 2018
Originally published on January 30, 2018 10:20 pm
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Private companies have been spending big on a new space race. Silicon Valley startups are launching satellites, and it seems like every billionaire has his own rocket company. So our Planet Money podcast team thought, if everyone's going to space, why not us? NPR's Robert Smith begins our journey.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Even 10 years ago a Planet Money mission to space would have been impossible. Satellites were the size of school buses. They cost a half billion dollars. Not anymore. Now you can hold a satellite in the palm of your hand. The man responsible for this tiny spacecraft revolution is in Kentucky. And when we met him, he was surrounded by small children. It's field trip day to the Space Science Center at Morehead State University.

BOB TWIGGS: I think you ought to interview them.

SMITH: Professor Bob Twiggs has white hair, looks a little bit like an owl in a Disney film. And he offers to be our guide to space. Back in the 1990s, he was at Stanford teaching graduate students how to build large satellites. And it was taking forever.

TWIGGS: The thing that I found out is that the bigger it is, the more things that they want to put in it. And they just keep designing, oh, we can add this and we can add that.

SMITH: And Twiggs thought, we have to give these students a size constraint. So he goes down into a store in Mountain View, Calif., like a container store, looking for a tiny cube.

TWIGGS: I saw this box that I'm showing you here, which is a 4-inch box. And that - at the time, you know, there was the Beanie Baby craze. So that was the box that they put the Beanie Babies in.

SMITH: And professor Twiggs told his students, if you want to build a satellite, you have to fit it in this cube. They called it a cube satellite. Now, this might have stayed a student project. But then smartphones were invented. All those tiny transmitters and cameras fit easily into the Beanie Baby box. And this 4-by-4 cube became a sort of industry standard. It allowed satellites to get cheaper. Twiggs remembers recently being in San Francisco and visiting a satellite company called Planet.

TWIGGS: It's fun to go in there and see a shelf with 50 satellites sitting on it (laughter). Never thought I'd see that (laughter).

SMITH: How long would that have taken you back in the day?

TWIGGS: Oh, my, at the rate we were building them almost 50 years.

SMITH: Twiggs says maybe they have an extra satellite they could let us borrow.



SMITH: Oh, thanks.

So I went to San Francisco. The company called Planet is down the street from Twitter and Uber, and it has the same Silicon Valley vibe except with space hardware.

MIKE SAFYAN: We have satellites lying around everywhere. And so...

SMITH: Wait. There's, like, four or five of them in a cabinet here.

SAFYAN: Yes. And that's just for starters.

SMITH: This is Mike Safyan, the launch director. He explains that each of these satellites is essentially a big camera that can be sent into space to take pictures of the Earth. Planet now has roughly 200 of these in orbit staring down at us, so many they could take pictures of the same spot on Earth every day. They send new ones up all the time. So we asked, can we get in on that? And they said yes. Go see Chester Gillmore down in the lab.

CHESTER GILLMORE: And this is Planet Money's satellite. This is your adopted spacecraft, so they tell me.

SMITH: I don't know what to say. I mean, it is gorgeous. Look; it's shiny. Oh, OK, so how do you normally describe the size of this?

GILLMORE: About the size of a loaf of bread.

SMITH: Or, you know, maybe a shoe box for, like, ballet slippers.


SMITH: Technically it is three Beanie Baby units, the standard that professor Twiggs helped invent. We're going to name this thing Pod-1. And when it gets to space we can use the camera for our own mission. But first we have to hitch a ride. Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we go rocket shopping. Robert Smith, NPR News.