The Promise and the Peril of Being in the Public Eye…


Going Where I Never Had a Clue I Would Go

This week I am 55 years old.  Reaching this age sometimes gives one reason to look back over their life.  An amazing thing to me as in my family my mother had six children, only three of which reached adulthood with my 8 year old sister dying 18 days before I was born.  My mother was incredibly overprotective, fearing that I would go the route of at least two of my siblings who had a much more severe form of heart malady (mine was just a hole in a heart valve, not that uncommon) that I had.  Thus there were never a whole lot of expectations for me and my mother never pushed me in any one direction for life.  However, being born in the closing 42 days of the 1950’s and living in a family with many  who were in the United States Air Force and Army, I gravitated toward loving space exploration.

Growing up as a kid in Alabama, within shaking distance of the test stand in Huntsville where the mighty Saturn V was built, and Wernher Von Braun worked, my love of space was turbo charged.  When I was six years old, we visited my uncle John who was stationed at Patrick AFB in Coca Beach Florida, next to Cape Canaveral as it was called then.  Since he was a senior non commissioned officer working in the area of space, and knowing my love of space, he managed to get us into the cape, and we literally drove right by the launch pad for Buzz Aldrin’s Gemini XII Titan II launch vehicle setting on the pad a few days before its launch.  To say I was hooked was an understatement.

I, as did almost every other kid in the nation, and most in the world, saw the landing of Neil and Buzz on July 20th 1969, but unlike many I continued to watch every single other launch, newsfeed, and anything written on the subject. I also wrote to NASA and they sent me cool stuff in the mail to read as well.  After the last Apollo mission in 1972 I was very upset but hopeful for the Space Shuttle.  Not so for the rest of the world.

To be a teenager in the 1970s was for the most part a depressing time.  Our national retreat after Vietnam, the stupidity of a Vice President forced to resign for tax evasion (Agnew), Nixon’s own disgrace, and troubles at home in our family, basically turned me wild.  I was very fortunate during and after high school to have my brother to gently guide me toward electronics (I took three years of electronics in high school) and arranged for my first interview in the computer industry in 1978.  I ended up working for many of the leading edge companies of the 1980’s in California but never lost my love of space.

During the late 70’s and early 80’s a person skilled in computers and electronics was in high demand and I was able to work on most of the leading edge computer systems in Artificial Intelligence (Symbolics), massive document storage (Alpharel), and microcomputers networked together (Vector Graphic Inc).  After learning all the things I did working in the industry, I wanted to apply that to space where NASA was showing  signs of stagnation.

We jumped around a lot job wise as was the norm for those in demand in that era.  So, on occasion I would go and apply for a job at Rockwell, Boeing, or other aerospace company.  Universally I would get rejected for a job as an engineer because I did not have a degree (though I had been a key member of many design engineering teams and had several designs out in the world).  I did get a job at Lockheed Martin in 1984 working on the Hubble Space Telescope, but I had applied in March and I did not get the call for the job until September!  I had to tell them no thanks as it was stupid to expect me to not already have a job somewhere else.  However…..

By 1987 I was thoroughly bored with the industry.  I had taken a job in the television industry but space was calling and I was 27 years old and had to make a decision.  On my 28th birthday I chucked everything, left California, and moved back to Alabama to begin my undergraduate student career in engineering physics.

I was extremely fortunate that I did this at this particular time as the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) had a fledgling Center for the Commercial Development of Space called the Consortium for Materials Development in Space (CMDS).  I was doubly fortunate in that I was also able to work as a researcher there and at the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research.  Dr. Charles Lundquist, a Von Braun confidant, and Dr. S.T. Wu, who is a world renowned solar physicist were my bosses and mentors.  Below is a picture of Dr. Lundquist Briefing Wernher Von Braun and Herman Oberth on the dynamics of America’s first satellite, Explorer 1.

Feburary 1958 Dr. Charles Lundquist Briefs Von Braun and Herman Oberth on Explorer 1 Attitude Anomaly
Feburary 1958 Dr. Charles Lundquist Briefs Von Braun and Herman Oberth on Explorer 1 Attitude Anomaly

It was an environment that I loved dearly.  Dr. Lundquist, Dr. Wu, our VP of Research for the University, Dr. Ken Harwell, and our Interim University President Mr. Joseph Moquin (former CEO of Teledyne Brown Engineering), were all incredibly supportive and I got to do a lot of space missions, leveraging what I had learned in the computer industry to build a lot of flight hardware.  All of this began in a state of anonymity, I was just another student and researcher.  However….

In 1989 The National Space Club in Huntsville had a “Space Summit”.  George Bush Sr. had just announced the Human Exploration Initiative and exclaimed that we were going to go back to the Moon “To Stay”.  The Space Summit was called to bring NASA, DoD, and Academic leaders together to discuss NASA’s future plans.  I of course went to this event.

At this event I began to get incredibly frustrated.  Instead of telling us what we were going to do on the Moon and how to get there, there was what I call a lot of blah blah blah, regarding rational’s for going that even then I understood was not going resonate with the nation.  I was so frustrated that for the first time in my life, that when they asked for questions from the audience, especially students, I got up and ranted at NASA’s leadership.  I castigated them for not telling us reasons that we were going to go that made any real sense (just science, not any real development) to our generation and to quit talking about things and to start doing them.  (I haven’t changed much, nor have the reasons for our continued failure to execute in exploration).

I had no thought that anyone in the press might have an interest but I was quoted in the local paper and I gained several friends who were old timers who had worked for Von Braun that cheered me on and who thought as I did.  There is still mention of me in the official memorial program under “voices from the future” that memorialized my rant.

I had never thought for an instant in my life about public speaking prior to this event.  However, as I always wanted to put into practice what I preached, I, along with a student friend, started a satellite project with some old timers from NASA who wanted to help students.  This became our SEDSAT-1/OSCAR-33, which became the first student satellite that NASA financed the launch of in the 1990s.

As a student who does research you are expected to write papers and give presentations.  We had (he is still there) a wonderful professor named Dr. John Gilbert who had a remarkable flair for doing presentations and he taught us students how to excel doing them.  As part of the student experience at UAH you are expected to do more than just class work, so on top of class work, my research work, I joined the American Society of Civil Engineers and the IEEE, and did papers and worked on our favorite quasi engineering activity, the Concrete canoe.  This was a regional and then national event where we would have to compete against much larger and well funded schools for championships in concrete canoe design and racing, balsa wood bridges and especially the student paper presentation.

For some reason the student paper presentations carried an inordinate weight in determining the winning school, both for the Civil and the Electrical Engineering competitions.  I ended up on the presentation teams and we received extensive tutoring from Dr. Gilbert on how to excel, including things like the color theory of presentations (red makes people mad, blue background with yellow letters is soothing).  We had to practice, practice, practice our presentations as well.  It must have worked because we almost always won these events.  I won an individual paper competition as well in the IEEE as well for topics like a global satellite network for the Internet (before Wi-Fi existed).

We did a lot of papers, presentations, and the like for our research projects as well. Additionally, since our student satellite was only partially funded by NASA we had to make presentations, write papers, meet with donors, and do public events.  This led to getting on the news more as well.  Our team created the first non NASA satellite built in our state and it was newsworthy.  Here is a link to a 1993 local television station interview of me when we returned to the school with our $100,000 worth of solar arrays that had been donated to us by TRW and Applied Solar Energy (now Northrup Grumman, and Emcore).

After I graduated from College with my degree in engineering physics (taking twice as long as normal due to all of my outside activities), I started my company Skycorp because I no longer wanted to work for NASA or a large aerospace company.  I wanted to bring the things that I had learned in the commercial computer industry in the 1980’s, along with all of the flight experience that I had gained at UAH, to do space differently.

This required a lot of public relations, television interviews, and public presentations, conferences, more papers, etc.  We hit it pretty big with a partnership with Steve Jobs and Apple Computer and I started getting national attention, press interviews, and more time in front of the camera.  In the mid 2000’s this increased to an international venue when we were doing our business for satellite servicing in Europe.

As the late 2000’s were trundling on there was a lull.  The great recession was upon us an no one was investing in space.  On a very weird chance, I saw a blog post about a lady (Nancy Evans), who had these tape drives that she wanted to give away.  These tape drives were for running the original tapes from the Lunar Orbiter program.  I knew about these tapes as a friend had given me a set of microfilm when I was at the university working on lunar relate research in the late 1980’s that were another version of the archive.  I knew from my research that the tapes had far better quality data than what I had with the microfilm or what was stored at the U.S. Geological Survey at Flagstaff.

Thus started the crazy ride that became the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project or LOIRP.  Myself, as well as a famous space internet blogger from NASA Watch named Keith Cowing decided that this was a great project and we put our time and resources into making it happen.  With the support of the NASA Ames center director and a decision to use space at an abandoned MacDonald’s on the NASA Ames Research Park begat an amazing chain of events and media interest.  We found a retired engineer named Ken Zin who knew how to fix the drives that we had acquired, and we had the help of some great students from San Jose state (Austin Epps), and very young kids (Casey, Chris, and Travis Harper), children of a NASA employee, Lynn Harper.

We were able to get enough funding from NASA and the support of the Ames center director (who had first helped me as a student when we were doing SEDSAT-1 when he was a Colonel in the USAF almost 20 years before) to get the drives running and produce the first stunning digitally restored image of the world’s first “Earthrise” picture of the Earth rising against the foreground of the Moon in 1966, taken from Lunar Orbiter 1.

In November of 2008, three months after starting a project that one competing NASA center said was impossible, we unveiled our “Earthrise” image to national and international acclaim.  It made the front page of the LA Times, we had a special op ed written about us in the New York times.  As we continued our work at recovering these images (a task that has taken six years due to minimal funding and gaps in between funding as this was never an official NASA project), we have had documentaries made about our preservation efforts.  I was honored to give a speech in front of over a thousand people as a lunch keynote at the Apple Worldwide developer conference in 2009.  We have even been cast in an incredible documentary about historical preservation and the demise of printed media in a digital age (digital amnesia link), along with the director of the new Library at Alexandria, the head of the Internet archive Brewster Kale, and other luminaries.   Additionally, we had a marvelous short documentary done by the Carnegie Museum of Art. All of this has been a wonderful experience, universally positive, and yet a mere foreshadowing of what happened this year (2014)

Media and the ISEE-3 Project

This year Keith and I were talking after I saw an article online where the Bochum Radio Observatory in Germany had heard the signals from the ISEE-3 spacecraft, launched in 1978 by NASA.  Having worked for Dr. Wu in solar physics at UAH I understood the historical importance of this spacecraft and thought it wonderful that it was still alive.  In 1992 at the World Space Congress, (where we students had slept ten to a room in the hotel) I had been mesmerized by a talk by Dr. Robert Farquhar regarding the complex orbital dynamics of the ISEE-3 spacecraft’s trajectory and the equally bold plans to send a small spacecraft to the asteroid Eros.  It is my strong opinion that Dr. Farquhar and his associate David Dunham deserve the nobel prize for their work in orbital dynamics.

Well it annoyed my sense of the work that these guys had put into getting this spacecraft back to the Earth after its historical comet Gacobini-Zinner flyby in 1985 and the Halley’s comet distant flyby in 1986 that it seemed that nothing was being to to even contact the spacecraft.  NASA had thrown out the hardware to talk to it and so Keith and I talked about doing a crowd funding effort to save the spacecraft.  Keith has a tortured yet marvelous relationship with NASA and through a lot of effort, we got clearance from NASA, followed up with a Space Act Agreement, to attempt to take over this spacecraft.

In the process of the crowd funding effort something marvelous happened.  We gained worldwide support and the donations of people’s hard earned money, to the tune of $159k.  During the crowd funding effort the farm was bet and we were able to get the equipment together (with the amazing support of many wonderful individuals, companies, and academic institutions like Arecibo Radio Observatory, the Bochum Radio Observatory, Ettus Research, and too many others to list here), and in six weeks we amazed ourselves by gaining control of the spacecraft!

Well at the same time, the publicity poured in.  After our initial success in talking to the spacecraft, the publicity that we had received regarding the LOIRP project was exponentially exceeded.  Maybe it was the time pressure, the money pressure, the engineering pressure, all of these things made for drama and the public responded, far more than I ever thought possible.  We have been on the BBC live radio at drive time, on multiple television newscasts, another documentary and we have even been approached and have a budding contract with a major hollywood player regarding something that I still can’t talk about directly.  The outpouring has been amazing and we had an amazing team to pull it off.  However…..

With the Light Comes the Dark

During the middle of our effort when we were getting a lot of publicity we were contacted by a fellow who was a writer for Playboy magazine.  He stated that he knew nothing about what we were doing but had been hired to write an article and asked to spend a few days with us.  The August 10th flyby of ISEE-3 of the Moon was coming up so we invited him to participate with us then, when everyone would be here and our activity at its peak.

The writer showed up as we were getting ready for the event and we were in the middle of working with the science teams after we recommissioned some of the experiments and were operating the spacecraft almost every day.  We had recently revealed that we were working with Google Creative Labs and they had done marvelous work documenting our activities.  This was going to peak with a two hour online special with famous scientists brought together virtually from around the world to discuss the historical importance of the ISEE-3 spacecraft, its current status, and what we hoped to be able to do with it.  This was after we found out that the propulsion system was dead and that we were transforming the mission into an interplanetary science mission.

We worked with this writer, just as we have worked with everyone else who has ever come through our doors.  The offhand decision that we made to move into the building (the recently abandoned MacDonald’s had always provided a convenient hook for documentarians, journalists, and writers about our efforts.  The American people and people around the world have identified with our efforts to save, preserve, and to present the history of the space program of Apollo (LOIRP), along with the adventure of the pressure of our saving of the ISEE-3 spacecraft.

The writer interviewed me as I spent time away from my family at night to go to dinner with him to talk about life and the project.  We provided people for him to interview, talk to, and to be there with us during the amazing live online effort put together by the wonderful people from Google Creative labs.  So, one would expect to see an article that reflected what went on with our project, maybe the writer, who had interviewed hundreds of celebrities and who is the step father of actress Meg Ryan could provide a perspective about our project not captured by others.  However….

What came out in an article published in the December Playboy was the polar opposite.  In dealing with the article I will first go through and correct the factual errors and then provide a bit of context about what was written.

Factual Errors

1. The guards…

The guard at the gate put his left hand up to stop my car. His right hand was on the pistol on his hip.

I have been coming into the NASA Ames Research park daily since July of 2008 and I have yet to see a guard there be threatening or put his or her hand on their pistols when someone comes through the gate, especially a 70+ year old guy in a rental car.  The process is to simply provide a drivers license and tell them where you are going.  This is not the NASA Center gate which requires a badge issued by the agency that you don’t get unless you have business there.  Make no mistake the guards and the NASA police are professionals but in all of my experience with them they have been consummate professionals and genuinely nice people.

2. The Science Fair

There was a big grassy square with tents and hundreds of people milling about. I stopped, looked inside the tents and saw young men and women standing as if they were in front of their exhibits at a school science fair. They were explaining their areas of expertise to older men.

This is a gross perversion of that day.  The science fair was part of the lead into the 75th anniversary of NASA Ames and the hundreds of students who come to Ames every year were presenting the fruits of their research.  Rather than explaining their areas of research to older men, with the unstated implications thereof, there were thousands of people there, local school children, families, and local engineers, programmers, and others from the tech companies that dot our Silicon Valley landscape.

3. Abandoned Spaceship Hanger

I passed an abandoned spaceship hangar with steel girders, an F-18 fighter plane, a U-2 high-altitude plane and an abandoned nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile with a collapsible hose dangling from its belly like an umbilical cord.

The writer of this article could not even bestir himself to find out a little history of the place he was using as the canvas for his article.  The abandoned spaceship hanger is actually Hanger 1, built in the early 1930’s to house the dirigible Macon at the historical Moffett federal Navy base.  Below is a picture of the Macon inside of the one of the largest structures built before WWII in the country:

The Airship Macon in Hanger 1 Circa 1937.
The Airship Macon in Hanger 1 Circa 1937.

If the author of the article was too lazy to do even this small due diligence to get this fact right, what else is wrong?

4. Data…

Skycorp’s raison d’être is data for its own sake. Its members are true believers who worship data like an ancient god, even if at the moment the data has no significance in the modern world.

If the author had done any research or even understood anything that he was told, he would have understood the significance of the data that we are preserving and the spacecraft that we have brought back from the dead, to the modern world.  We work with the library of congress, to whom we have just donated our tape drives, and the national archives, where we continue to assist in telling the story of the history of the space program with our data.

We found with ISEE-3 that the solar arrays, the communications system, and the data system (no computer), were all still intact after 36 years.  This finding alone will have an influence on how spacecraft are designed for long term operation, lowering costs and saving the taxpayers money.  We have had worldwide acclaim for both of our activities and I would weigh that against the opinion of someone who admitted to us that he had no idea why he was there but he was getting paid to do an article.

5. ISEE-3 Orbit Change

And in four days, if all went according to plan, Skycorp hoped to coax ISEE-3 into returning home like a prodigal son—first into Earth’s orbit and eventually to Earth itself.

The four days that the author has written about was the August 10th flyby of the Moon that the ISEE-3 spacecraft successfully accomplished.  If the author of the article had bothered to listen to our explanations to hm he would have noted that more than two weeks before his arrival we had found that the spacecraft’s nitrogen pressurization system had failed and that there was no chance of recovering the spacecraft into Earth orbit as per our original plan, much less to the Earth itself.  There had never been even a discussion of plans to bring it back to the Earth.

6. Bad Math and Garbled Understanding

“NASA said it was impossible to bring it back,” said Wingo. “It would cost $6 million. We told them we could do it for $150,000. So we raised the money from private investors, and NASA turned ISEE-3 over to us.” That was unprecedented.

The author is confabulating our two projects, LOIRP and the ISEE-3 project.  There was never a cost estimate by NASA on recovering the ISEE-3 spacecraft as the agency had been in the difficult position of possibly turning off multiple operating spacecraft, there was no serious thought given to resurrecting ISEE-3 by the agency.  The $6 million number came from an estimate to recreate the technology of the FR-900 tape machine that our team, and our engineer Ken Zin brought back to life for about $120k for the LOIRP project.  Also, NASA didn’t just turn the spacecraft over to us.  there were a series of technical performance gates that were part of an agreement between NASA and my company.  The writer could not bother himself with comprehending any such detail.

7. The NASA Lodge

Late in the afternoon I checked in to Building 19, where I would be sleeping. The woman at the desk gave me a key attached to a metal disc with my room number on it, like a dog’s rabies tag. I went down the narrow, musty hallway to my room. It looked as if it hadn’t been touched in 80 years. There was an old white refrigerator with a 17-inch television on top. Its picture was fuzzy. The garbage pail didn’t work. How could a garbage pail not work?

A note to any who may visit the NASA lodge, it is not the Ritz Carlton.  The sad part about the writer’s rant about the lodge is that he suffers terrible from eczema/psoriasis or some other skin malady, he did not want to talk about it.  With a very mild version myself, I can readily understand the pain he must be in every day, but it was simply petty to take it out on the really nice people and place that the lodge is.  Thousands of people from all over the world stay at the lodge every year.  Students, researchers, international visitors from all walks of life who come to visit NASA Ames.  I stayed their myself for the first few months of our project until we moved out here from Alabama.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion on these things.  However, his request to the front desk person to make his airline reservations is outside of what they do in their jobs, something he would have found out had he bothered to ask first.

8.  My Life

As for my life, I don’t apologize.  Yes, I did have a girlfriend that as best I and someone else who knew her well figured, was the woman caught with Jimmy Swaggart in Baton Rouge LA in the mid 80’s.  That is very sad as she was a very nice but wild and several years older than I when I knew her, though before anything really nefarious happened to her. I was young and wild and in Birmingham in the 1970’s no one looked at your ID in a bar.   I learned a lot about life and what the difference is between someone who builds people up and helps them vs one who lives to tear others down, a lesson that has served me well, especially here.

9. Attack on Keith

Dennis Wingo and his smaller cohort, Keith Cowing, run Skycorp Incorporated, a small group of civilian aerospace scientists who play with the space stuff NASA has abandoned.

First of all, as was explained to the writer, I am the CEO of Skycorp Incorporated.  Keith has a company, SpaceRef Interactive.  We collaborate off and on regarding projects that interest us, with our principle mutual interesting being space and historical preservation of space age data.  This was clearly explained to the writer but he could not be bothered to allow us to fact check the article before publication(Playboy Enterprises during pre-press did send several emails seeking clarifications which were provided but nothing regarding these egregious errors).

Everyone who knows Keith knows that he is an intense personality.  I am going to quote from a book I am reading, by the Mayor of London about Winston Churchill (The Churchill Factor) [ highly recommended by the way].

“that he had all of the unruly combativeness of a bulldog, or of John Bull himself.  It wasn’t always to everyones’s taste; but in time of war you wanted someone so incorrigibly cheerful and verbally inventive so he could really stick it to the Nazi’s” [or in this case NASA, Congress, and or the White House regarding NASA policy]

This certainly describes Keith, and just to be crystal clear, I am not equating NASA or the  government of being nazi’s,  just pointing out that sometimes our government and its agencies need a swift kick in the rear and Keith has been masterful in this for almost 20 years, since he left the agency that he knew, and yes loved, so well and began blogging about it before the word was invented.  Some people at NASA think that Keith is the devil incarnate, as did many think of Winston Churchill.  However, I think, as Churchill was indispensable to the British people, Keith has been an indispensable voice of conscience to NASA for a very long time, its greatest fan, as well as probably its greatest irritant.

It must also be understood that Keith broke ground that has benefitted our entire online world today.  Keith was the very first online journalist in history to be certified as a journalist by NASA and the federal government.  This is after literally being tossed out of meetings, curtailed in his ability to talk to NASA civil servants, and blocked from attending press events by the agency.  He became so adept at filing FOIA requests that finally the agency gave in, and ever so reluctantly allowed him into the media fold.  Thus he became the template for all future online journalist who today have no idea who he is and his contribution to their success.  Though Keith has, as do we all, his negatives, he is a stellar individual who has done much for NASA and through his media acumen, helped make both the LOIRP and ISEE3 project successful.  The writer of this article and Keith were oil and water from the start, but a true journalist would have risen above petty sniping about a person’s height and maybe learned something about Keith’s contributions to our national fabric.  I have always admired his tenacity and unwillingness to give up a fight once joined, though like Churchill he has had is own Gallipoli’s.

As an aside, Keith has never done any modifications on the building of any type whatsoever, that was an invention of the writer.

9. Attack on Ken Zin

It is an absolute fabrication that I said anything about bringing Ken Zin in after he fell on hard times.  We tell the story often, and had during the student tour that the writer witnessed but could not bestir himself to listen to, that Ken is a subject matter expert who had retired from an amazing career in the television industry.  Ken was an expert in reconditioning old video equipment, especially from AMPEX, the company that built the tape drives that we have captured the lunar orbiter tapes on.  Ken was referred to us by the CEO of one of the contractors at NASA Moffett where Ken’s brother had worked for 40 years.  Ken has materially contributed to preserving our nation’s history and has been a consultant to the Library of Congress for many years.  Ken is the one, that when no one else even knew what the tape was, was able to capture and digitize for posterity the only copy of the very first color video broadcast in history by President Eisenhower at the Sarnoff labs in 1956.  We were fortunate to get him on our team.

I did state to the writer that Ken did not really have anything to do with the ISEE-3 project as his role was to maintain the FR-900 tape drive for the LOIRP project   Though we have completed the digitization of the tapes, we are doing the final quality control checks on our digitizations and Ken is still keeping the tape machine in working order (a continuing task that in the 1960’s required a full time field engineer with a working factory to provide parts that no longer exists).  The writer was informed that Ken was on the LOIRP project exclusively and as he was hired by Playboy to write about the ISEE-3 project, he should not even have been interviewed.

The writer garbled the sequence of events about Ken as well.  His wife Pam, a wonderful lady, was alive and well when he started here. However, due to the recession and Pam’s incredible five year fight against cancer, Ken lost his home, his real estate holdings in commercial real estate, as well as his wife.  Ken’s home his hours away from Moffett field and he had brought his trailer down and his rescued boxer puppy, his last link to his beloved wife.  If in this life our sin is one of compassion for someone that this has happened to, then I plead guilty.  Also, on a practical note the irreplaceable value of Ken’s expertise in keeping these ancient machines alive has made him in demand for us and one of the nation’s top experts in old video equipment.  As the transfer from these old formats is a challenge for NASA and other agencies we continue to assist recovery projects.

10. MacMoons

To build his brand, Wingo chose to put Skycorp in a McDonald’s and not in a NASA barbershop, his other option. “McDonald’s destroys all its restaurants when it decommissions them,” he said. “But NASA owned this one and gave it to us. It’s an American icon. Being in McDonald’s has given us a ton of media play.”

Another complete misrepresentation and garbling of the facts.  It is well know, and had he bothered to read any of the material or look at any of the documentaries about us, that being in the MacDonald’s was an accident.  In 2008 when we were getting our first NASA funding for the pilot version of our project, there were two empty buildings available.  One was the beauty shop and the other was the MacDonald’s.  As we were familiar with the MacDonald’s building and a NASA civil servant mentioned the high power fans to draw out fumes from soldering, we chose the building.  We had absolutely no idea of the public interest value of being in such a location.  All we knew is that no one else wanted to be there and NASA provided it as GFE (Government Furnished Equipment) for the project, something that is codified in contracts and now our Space Act Agreement with the agency. It has been a source of continuing wonder the interest in us being in a MacDonald’s but there was never one ounce of forethought involved, we were not that smart or media savvy.

11. Young Admirers

Just then Wingo entered, trailed by a group of young admirers, nerdy-looking college kids for whom he is the pied piper of space.

It is truly sad how the writer completely misconstrued the visit by yet another group of students to our MacMoons location.  For several years our project has been visited by thousands of students, student groups, as well as professionals who are interested in the preservation of legacy space data.  Our team is exceedingly proud of the fact that consistently our operation has been mentioned as one of the best tours at NASA.  It has been my philosophy for over 20 years to involve students directly in the process of research.

When I was at UAH we had five students obtain master’s degree from that small satellite project.  Here at Ames we have a graduate student who is doing his master’s thesis (at least offhandedly mentioned in the article) on the failure of the propulsion system on ISEE-3.  Many times you can learn more from a failure than a success and his advisors have supported him in this thesis.  We have had over a dozen high school and undergraduate students who have done research here related to the Moon for our LOIRP project.  The White House has tasked NASA with being a leading advocate for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education, and our project has had students do work and write papers on their activities here.  This would have been a wonderful thing to write about, had the author cared about his task.

12. Attack on Dr. Farquhar

“But Dr. Farquhar is getting on in years. He’s in his 80s.” Another pause, then Wingo blurted out, “He’s a little bit nuts.” I thought he meant dementia. Wingo shook his head. Then he joked,….

I can’t swear one way or another whether the follow on quote about Dr. Farquhar is what I said.  For me, Dr Farquhar is one of the hero’s of the space age.  His masterful exploitation of the Earth and Moon’s gravitational fields wrote the book on this type of complex operation.  Dr. Farquhar has made incredible contributions to knowledge, including the world’s first comet flyby and the first landing on an asteroid with the NEAR mission of which he was a part.  This was done well over a decade before the landing of Philae on a comet recently.  I guess it is entertainment for some to denigrate such an individual.

13.  The Saddest Part

It was a strange reaction by a group of strange people. They had raised money, twisted NASA’s arm to gain control of a rogue satellite, given up any semblance of a normal life (though it’s unlikely any of them had normal lives to begin with) and spent most of their waking hours in a McDonald’s that couldn’t even muster a decent Big Mac. And more important, they had failed in their mission. ISEE-3 was in no shape to obey their commands. Thousands of man-hours had been wasted (unless through some miracle the data they’d collected and the data they might still collect yield some sort of scientific dividends). It was like a wedding party at which the bride and groom never showed. But the party went on regardless. Far from being broken and depressed, they were happy. Briefly, they had done the impossible. They had connected with ISEE-3. They had talked to it, and it had answered. Their childhood dreams had come true, and they had done it totally on their own.

If the writer of the article had been interested in anything beyond puerile vignettes of the imperfections of people’s lives, he might have asked us why we were happy.  He might have understood that in aerospace and science there are many successful failures that advance knowledge.  The ISEE-3 spacecraft literally wrote the book on heliophysics, or the study of the physics of the sun.  This is exceedingly important to our everyday lives now that is 100% dependent on communications and computer technology that could be wiped out with a single solar flare.  He was told this in our interviews, and it was a main subject of the two and a half hour global online live broadcast of the event.

If he had been interested he could have talked to the people that he mentioned seeing, including “Asian” STEM education experts who were looking at our effort for ideas in inspiring students and who we now collaborate with for space hackathons.  He might have seen the man who came to the door of the MacDonald’s with his 8 year old daughter.  He came over with her as they had been watching the live event online and was inspired to bring his daughter over both to see the MacDonald’s turned into a place for science and to talk to the people who did the mission.  He could have talked to another collaborator of ours and his assistant who were there and who are leading technology evangelists in the valley to bring the leading edge Silicon Valley world to hispanics.

When we went outside it was for the joy of saying goodby to ISEE-3 after its lunar flyby as it heads back out into the solar system, to return in 15 years.  We looked up for the cameras, then Dr. Farquhar pointed us in the right direction to look down to where it actually was.  The event was a party.  It was a celebration of science, and the ability of a small group of people to take and reactivate a veteran spacecraft for one more try at contributing to science.  My company is the first private organization in history outside of the government to control a spacecraft in interplanetary space.

Absolutely what we did helps to build our credibility to do bigger and more innovating projects.  Absolutely do we want to build spacecraft at the space station with more and better capabilities than anything out there.  We want to bring the world ubiquitous global internet, global weather forecasting, exploration to the Moon, the asteroids, and to Mars.  Everything that we as a company are doing and what NASA Ames of all of the centers does best, is to foster private space and private participation in that ultimate adventure.

It is sad that the writer understood none of what we explained to him, and sought only to find the lowest things to write about us.  We had reservations when a representative of Playboy magazine contacted us about doing an article.  However, over the years the magazine has had a very good reputation for factual, interesting, and sometimes important articles, bringing topics to a different segment of the American people, to inform them and to see beyond just the pretty pictures on their pages.

It disappoints us, the twists of words, and the half truths that are embodied in the article. We have been blessed with worldwide interest and participation in our admittedly outside of the box projects.  Playboy Enterprises should be concerned that demonstrably bad articles such as this lowers the perception of the journalistic quality of their flagship product.  People do buy the magazine for more than the pictures and our library shelf has a book that is a compilation of the obituaries from many issues of the magazine that are in themselves famous.

The people from Playboy Enterprises who we worked with directly beyond the writer were professional.  The fact checker asked some pertinent questions regarding the article that we answered and they corrected.  Their photography team was also professional. However, they cannot correct what they don’t know about.  What was missing from the article was far more than what was in there, and the saddest thing is that the writer left with nothing to show for his visit other what he wrote about when there is so much that is good, from the people involved, to the science, to NASA’s increasing interest in collaborating with the public.  These are good things to write about, and when we have images in the news every day of beheadings, mass murder, and war, the people need something that shows that the world is still going forward and that there is hope.  From an 18 year old female mechanical engineering student who wants to help people who have lost limbs to a 70 year old retired engineer who helps preserve the past for a better future, that is the human story of our little group.

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2 thoughts on “The Promise and the Peril of Being in the Public Eye…

  1. Thus started the crazy ride that became the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project or LOIRP.”

    I wish NASA policy was more concerned about archiving data, as compared the US government policy which is “apparently” concerned about numerous endangered insects.
    [Yes I know government isn’t really concerned about endangered insects, but rather use this
    “apparent” concern as a tool to apply governmental power to it’s citizen because they are bat crazy. But would still like NASA policy to at least pretend they are more concerned about data which cost taxpayers million of dollars to collect.]

  2. Dennis, a beautiful narrative written in a sensitive way, showing great reverence for the human experience and how Space is such a critical component of that experience, one that is misunderstood and mocked by shallow and willfully ignorant people. All the best, Haym.

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