ISEE-3 Reboot Project Mission Patch

ISEE-3 Reboot Project Retrospective Part II: Team Building and Execution

Building the Team

Any engineering project of significant accomplishment is by far a team effort.  The ISEE-3 project is no different but how the team evolved was an incredible experience in crowd sourced distributed engineering that needs to be discussed as it has implications for other projects of this nature.  In the engineering world what we did, though much more common now, originally was called “distributed engineering”.  My first experience with this was with the Amateur Radio Satellite Organization (AMSAT) in the late 1980’s and early 90’s when we were building our student satellite at the University of Alabama in Huntsville that was an AMSAT-OSCAR (SEDSAT-OSCAR-33).  Distributed engineering is as it sounds, an engineering team that is geographically distributed, yet an integrated team.  AMSAT, being a mostly volunteer organization pioneered this means of effectively communicating and working together as a team in the era before the Internet.  Obviously now with the Internet in its current form this is far easier, but our problem was how to put this team together and successfully execute in a matter of days and weeks!

We were fortunate in many ways that were not immediately apparent when we started our serious efforts in early April of 2014.  First is that we had a small but very capable team, consisting of myself, Austin Epps, Marco Colleluori,  and Mackenzie (Casey) Harper.  We also had a large circle of people in the local engineering world that we could call upon.Second, was that the ISEE-3 mission was a very formative experience in the careers of several people at NASA who are now senior officials or technical leads at various locations around the country.  Third were the retirees such as Dr. Farquhar, David Dunham, John Spohr and others who had been waiting for this day since the 1980’s and had saved critical documentation regarding the spacecraft.  Fourth were people that I and others that were in the preceding groups knew who were able to come in and contribute to the project. Fourth were outsiders that we had no idea they existed, until we went public, but who in many cases provided critical support.  We also had the the members of the old ISEE-3 science team who for the most part were still around, and eager to help.  I want to delve into these groups and provide more information on our team and the magnificent work that everyone accomplished.  We also had the help of Keith Cowing’s NASAwatch for our publicity and day to day media interface, that was very important in allowing us to focus on the engineering.

Our Beginning Internal Team

Austin Epps

Austin Epps started working for Skycorp in 2008 when he was a student at San Jose state in aerospace engineering.  Austin was introduced to us in a summer internship program.  Very fortunately for us, he had a dad who was an engineer and thus Austin had grown up with a strong tinkering background that served us well in the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP).   Over the time that Austin worked with us, his unfailing good cheer and abilities were always appreciated.  He basically handled all the back end digital work as well for the LORIP project.  He supervised our students who helped and he and I were always the core technical team for LOIRP, along with Ken Zin. One of my motivations for doing this project was to give Austin experience in a real space mission.

When we started the ISEE-3 project Austin was made the lead engineer.  His responsibility was to work with the rest of our team as we staffed up internally and externally.  He worked very closely with Balint Seeber from Ettus research and was a crucial part of the team in Puerto Rico.  He did a fantastic job in this and he has a very collegial personality (the old school yard “he works well with others”) as he is far more focused on the task at hand.

Marco Colleluori

One of the great pleasures I have in working on engineering projects, is working with smart people.  Marco came to us in November of 2013 after meeting him at a space event in San Francisco. He was a graduate student at San Jose State in Aerospace engineering and he did his undergrad at the University of Maryland.  He started to work with us initially on the LOIRP project to help make sense of the cratering data from the LOIRP images and how that could be integrated into the larger world of lunar science.

Marco had a lot of other talents that flowered during our effort.  It turns out that Marco had done some work relative to on orbit servicing in his undergrad tenure at the University of Maryland and was doing work in propulsion in his graduate studies.  Marco was made the lead propulsion engineer on the ISEE-3 hydrazine system, which was a very good decision as Marco showed amazing talent in this area and was crucial to our success in that area for the ISEE-3 mission.

Mackenzie (Casey) Harper

Casey is another person who has been with us off and on since the beginning of the LOIRP project.  She started working with us as a sixth grader when her mother wanted her and her twin brother Chris and brother Travis to work with us to get them out of the house in the summer of 2008.  Casey, her brothers, and other students have helped over the years to do the detailed work that helps make the rest of the projects work, and for the ISEE-3 project she had the role of fulfillment for all of the stuff that we sent out for the folks that donated for crowdfunding.  She also helped with the operations team and was the countdown voice during mission ops.

New Team Members

It would have been simply impossible for all the work to be done on the inside by our little team.  Therefore we put out a small call for short time help for the purpose of digesting all the data about ISEE-3 that was being provided to us and to help make sense out of it.  This was a big task and we were fortunate to bring in some extra team members to help.

Tim Reyes

Tim is an engineer who at the time was unemployed in the bay area.  We were very fortunate in that he has a lot of experience in spaceflight operations and had been working some flight missions at NASA Ames.  Tim is also a fellow University of Alabama in Huntsville graduate.  Tim did some of the very detailed work that had to be done to accurately translate the command codes and telemetry system from pdf’s into excel where they could be used by the rest of the team. Tim also helped to write some Labview code for commanding the spacecraft that we used as validation of some of the commanding by the team.  Tim also had a talent that we did not know about, as a writer.  During the crowd funding Tim wrote several articles in publications that we otherwise would not have had articles placed in them.  This really helped us in the early days of that activity to spread the word quickly.

Cameron Woodman

Cameron is another experienced spacecraft operations engineer that came to us not too long after we started the crowdfunding effort.  He had worked in spacecraft operations previously and came in with a diligent manner.  Cameron worked with Tim, Austin, and other team members helping to decode the command codes, making sense of the conflicting information from the documentation, and helped to make sense of the science instruments details.  He was made flight director and in that responsibility he helped to organize the data and work with team members to make sense of the telemetry from the engineering and science side of the system.

Jacob Gold

Jacob originally came to us in the beginning of the LOIRP project as a high school student.  He was here as part of the NASA academy and played hooky from that and came over and help with our first months of work on the tape drives.  Jacob had returned in the summer of 2013 as an engineering student, starting at the University of Arizona.  He was brought back for the ISEE-3 project due to his ability to dig into the details of a topic.  He helped Cameron and Austin decipher the telemetry system and helped to develop some of the software routines that were used for displaying the telemetry.  With every person I could state that they played a crucial role and this would be correct.  This was a project to where crucial contribution was an every day event with everyone, and Jacob was no different.

External Team

This is where it gets difficult for me.  We had a tremendous outside team of people, who just like the internal team, all provided either crucial support, a crucial tip regarding something we needed or who were every day crucial part of the team.  I fear that I may miss someone but I am going to try and get as many as possible here.


Keith Cowing and NASA watch, who had been a long time collaborator, threw in with us on this project.  Keith handled the vast majority of the media, allowing me to focus on the technical activities.  Keith did the vast majority of the heavy lifting of maintaining our twitter feed (@isee3reboot), as well as putting our content on his non profit website (  Keith also handled the majority of the day to day tasks related to the crowdfunding effort such as working with journalists who covered our story, giving interviews with print, web, and television media.  Keith also published my technical updates from this wordpress site to NASAWatch.  For a project like this the public relations aspect is as crucially important as the technical aspects and in this Keith did his part.


Of course this project could not have happened without the support from NASA.  This was truly a team effort, not just from NASA Ames, but NASA Goddard in Maryland, NASA JPL and the Deep Space Network, and NASA headquarters.  This was from everyone up to and including the Associate Administrator for Science Dr. John Grunsfeld down to the folks like Mark Newfield here at NASA Ames, who always helps to make sure that all the things that need to get done, get done. I am going to call out a few for the special help that they provided to us in our efforts.

NASA Headquarters

First of all it has to be stated that NASA took a big chance with our effort.  They really did not like not being able to do this themselves, which I understand.  Dr. Grunsfeld knows me and my previous work with on orbit servicing, on orbit assembly and the LOIRP project.  Thus we had a good technical rapport and he had a reasonable idea that technically this could be pulled off.  However, this was being done literally at the last second.  The lunar flyby was going to happen on August 10th 2014 and there was nothing that was going to change that.  NASA gave us permission to attempt to put something together on April the 12th and our crowdfunding did not start until April 14th.  This was literally the last second as for what we knew at the time, here is the plot of the propulsion maneuver that would have been needed to change the course of the spacecraft for the flyby to put it into Earth orbit:

Figure 3: dV required for Earth Capture Course Correction
Figure 1: dV required for Earth Capture Course Correction

The tyranny of Sir Issac Newton basically said that if we did not do the maneuver by about July 14th, there would not be enough fuel to do it.  If we wanted to have any fuel to do anything with it after Earth orbit was achieved then we would have to do it by no later than the end of June, barely ten weeks after we started the project!  This was both a bad thing and a good thing.  The bad thing was of course time, the good thing was that this helped us with NASA in cutting through a boat load of otherwise bureaucratic actions that would have slowed things down.  Frankly I don’t think that NASA thought we could pull it off, but after three days of crowd funding and we had already raised over $20,000 NASA started to pay attention and as the total headed toward $100,000 they were convinced.

There were a lot of helpful headquarters folks but people like Geoff Yoder, Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs was who we all reported to as part of the Space Act that was developed was especially helpful.  There were other technical folks from headquarters on some of our teleconferences but their names escape me now.  One that stands out is David Folta from NASA GSFC who is a highly regarded senior flight dynamics engineer and he also worked the ISEE-3 mission in the 1980’s.

Now is also the time to talk about our Space Act Agreement.  These agreements are built into the enabling law for NASA from its founding.  These are what is called “Other Transactional Authority” that allows NASA to do things outside of the strict Federal Acquisition Regulations.  Here is the link to that agreement, which is a public document.  The document was signed by NASA on May 19th and us on the 16th.  This is a minor miracle in that this was only 33 days after the start of our project!  Anyone who has done one of these with the agency knows that this is almost unprecedented to get one that fast, but such was the nature of the project and a the willingness of the agency to cooperate and a lot of hard work at NASA Ames and at headquarters.

The Space Act Agreement set the conditions for our formal cooperation with the agency.  There was a series of milestones that we had to achieve in order to move forward.  Each milestone that we reached (with agreement that it was reached by NASA HQ) would allow us to take the next step in the process.  We were perfectly happy with this approach and Dr. Grunsfeld and others at NASA also crafted this with the future in mind.  Our Space Act Agreement was to be a template for future efforts.  NASA has a lot of scientific spacecraft that last much longer than the funding lasts to operate them.  We were the first to do this type of Space Act with NASA and thus the goal of the agency was that we become the template for future agreements for other spacecraft.  Dr. Grunsfeld took a chance with us due to my previous work that we could pull this off and I really appreciate the vote of confidence, without that vote, the project simply would not have happened.

The way that this worked is that we had a series of “Authority To Proceed”, or ATP milestones, and each one had to be achieved before we could embark upon the next.  These are in the agreement linked above if the reader is interested.  It was Geoff Yoder and David Folta who were our principle technical interfaces at headquarters make the decision on whether or not we could proceed.  It was really no different than any other engineering team activity that I had been involved with before and our team did a great job and the NASA folks were extremely professional, even when we said things that at first were not believed!  Next is NASA Ames…


This project simply would not have been possible without the continuing and dedicated support of the folks at NASA Ames.  It has been wonderful to be associated with this NASA research center since the beginning of our LOIRP project in 2008.

Greg Schmidt

Greg Schmidt is not only a great human being but a great NASA employee.  His unfailing good nature and interest in all things space is a credit to the agency.  We first came to him in 2008 regarding the LOIRP project after getting our blessing from center director Dr. Worden.  Greg was unfailing in his help, tireless in his support, and even took a few bullets for us when things did not go completely as planned.  Greg led the effort to get the ISEE-3 Space Act Agreement through the Ames process first, then to NASA headquarters.  He was there in critical meetings when there were serious doubts voiced about our ability to do something that some earlier in the year at NASA said would be impossible to do (contact the spacecraft).  Greg was our liaison with NASA headquarters, worked with the frequency coordination officer at NASA GSFC regarding our license to transmit to the spacecraft, and provided the facilities here at Ames under the Space Act that we operated in.  There are some that say that NASA is not helpful to outsiders and on occasion they can be correct.  However, NASA Ames and Greg was always there to help and to support crazy ideas.

Joe Minafra

Joe is another NASA employee that does amazingly good work at NASA Ames.  Joe is also one of those people who are unfailingly kind, good hearted and willing to help make crazy projects happen.  He worked with us when we needed (almost every day) to get our license to transmit to the spacecraft as well as help to organize our meetings and to take the time to help with other centers when Greg was doing other things.  We have known Joe also since the early days of the LOIRP project and his support has always been great, and was especially helpful during the crunch times on the project.

Dr. Simon P. Worden

I have known Pete Worden since I was a student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.  In the military he was known as a maverick, and managed the only military mission to ever orbit the Moon.  Pete has aways been interested in the Moon and in 2007 when I originally asked him about bringing the lunar orbiter tapes to Ames he was all for it.  Well Pete was no different with the ISEE-3 project.  Pete just asked me if I could pull it off and when I explained my plan he threw his support behind it.  Pete was the background support for the Space Act Agreement and he and Greg helped to convince the local NASA and headquarters attorneys that this was a good thing.  There were issues that did have to be overcome in negotiating the final document and we and NASA both had to make compromises to get it through the process in record time.

Other Ames Folks

There were a lot of other Ames folks that helped like Mark Newfield, Greg’s boss Yvonne Pendleton, and for any that I forgot to mention thanks!

NASA GSFC (Goddard Spaceflight Center)

NASA GSFC was the original project management for the ISEE-3 mission in 1978 and operated the spacecraft through its active years.  The mission was an amazing accomplishment and the fact that the spacecraft survived for 36 years is a testament the engineering by Fairchild Space (Now Orbital Sciences) and GSFC.  As I wrote earlier a lot of NASA people who are now senior, started their careers on the ISEE-3 spacecraft.  We had a lot of help from GSFC even though at first some were very skeptical of us as an outsider group coming in to do what some said was impossible.  It would have been impossible for sure without Leonard Garcia, who after I first contacted him and others in March, graciously allowed me to join with them on some informal lunch teleconferences they were having regarding the possibility of saving the spacecraft.

There was a guerrilla effort at GSFC to try and raise the funds through the agency to rescue the bird.  However, with NASA in danger of turning of existing high science value missions like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity on Mars, and Cassini, there was simply no way that the agency was going to pay for the ISEE-3 rescue.  I think as March turned into April things were getting desperate and it was only the act of the Associate Administrator telling the folks at GSFC and APL, who were working with them, that there was no agency money for this that finally turned the tide for them to start informally helping us with data about the spacecraft.  Leonard had a pretty good library of information about the spacecraft on a cloud based drive and that helped us and pointed us in the right direction for the rest of the documentation.  Without that, it would have been really hard to make this happen.  Another great ISEE-3 Alum was Tyco von Rosenvinge.  He was a great help in getting us information about science telemetry formats and how instruments operated at the lower bit rates.

One thing to state here is that NASA is not that good at keeping data regarding the spacecraft from these old missions.  This is not specific to one center, but it is agency wide.  We had the same problems with Lunar Orbiter technical information, and it was that experience that really helped us here.  Realizing that we did not have all the information that we needed, we started contacting the retirees related to the project.  Bob Farquhar of course was a co-conspirator and he helped get us in contact with many of the former spacecraft team members.  It seems that many of them had information of one type or another that was useful.  Turns out that some of the science meetings had some detailed engineering information that was invaluable to us.  Between Bob Farquhar, Ed Smith, now at JPL, John Spohr, and others, we were able to assemble a fairly complete set of documentation.

Some of the folks sent documentation in paper form, some had scanned pdf’s, and others had paper that they were unwilling to part with, which we understood.  Keith Cowing made numerous trips across the Washington DC area to get documents, scan them, and then return them to their owners.  These were all put into our library.  There were some documents, like command codes, telemetry decode matrices and the like that NASA GSFC was not going to turn over to us until we got the Space Act Agreement signed.  As related above, that did not happen until mid May.  If this had truly been the case, it would have been much more difficult for us to operate and contact the spacecraft when we did. Fortunately, and we did not tell anyone at the time, we already had the data that was being withheld, from the retirees, and thus we were able to move forward with the project.  After the Space Act was signed we did get some really good data from them that was crucial downstream to our task of evaluating the health of the spacecraft.


We had a lot of help from JPL from people working on their own time as well as some official work.  Jon Giorgini is one of the mavens taking care of the JPL horizons spacecraft ephemeris database.  It was from this database that AMSAT DL (Germany) got the ephemeris for the spacecraft and were first able to receive the raw carrier signals in Feb of 2014.  After Arecibo started doing passive observing and when we finally got Deep Space Network (DSN) support and ranging, Jon continued to update the ephemeris for the spacecraft.  This is part of his normal job, but he was very responsive to the updates.  Another JPL person was Edward Smith, who was one of the original principal investigators on the ISEE-3 mission.  He was one of the ones with documentation on the spacecraft that was very helpful to us.  Warren Martin was already retired from JPL and the Deep Space Network, but he had been part of the ISEE-3 team and he helped us navigate some of the early issues of working with the DSN.  Another DSN guy was Stefan Waldherr.  Steve was a stand up guy who was our interface to the DSN after NASA decided that they needed to know where the spacecraft was after our plots showed that there was a possibility of hitting the Moon.   Stefan and the folks at the DSN were a lot of fun to work with and together we figured out a way for the DSN to command ISEE-3 without having any of the normal equipment to do so!  That is one that will be talked about for quite a while there I bet.

Arecibo Radio Telescope

It should be obvious to even the most casual observer that without Arecibo telescope we could not have pulled this off.  It was just a fortuitous set of circumstances that allowed for this to happen.  First was physics.  The ISEE-3 spacecraft was in the plane of the ecliptic during its interplanetary journey coincident to the Earth’s path as you might expect as ISEE-3 started out as an Earth orbiter.  This meant that the Arecibo telescope could see the spacecraft for at least a couple of hours a day.  Also, the time of day was perfect for the use of Arecibo (when we started it was at about 4:30 in the afternoon) as it was near the end of their maintenance shift and thus did not conflict with any of their science observations and they normally finished maintenance a bit early.

The Arecibo telescope is a national treasure.  Its super narrow beam width (130 arc seconds) and high gain (73 db at S band) was the only telescope we could practically use in the limited amount of time that we had.  The reason is that the high power transmitters are all with the DSN, and we simply could not order and receive a high power S band transmitter in the time that we had to gain control of the spacecraft.

The third part is the people who work there.  We started talking with Mike Nolan, who is the head of radar astronomy as soon as I figured out that the only transmitter that I could get on time had to use a telescope of the size of Arecibo or another big dish around the world.  Mike, and his boss, Bob Kerr welcomed us to come down and use the telescope on a non interference basis with their observation schedule.  Another thing that was in our favor was that the telescope was not quite back to its full observing schedule due to some damage the facility suffered in an earthquake a few months prior.

We had also started working with Phil Perillat in early April as he had, on his on initiative and interest, recorded signals from ISEE-3. His observations on April 9th and 14th formed the basis for improving the ephemeris from JPL for the bird, which was from 2001 and errors were creeping in.  I should have thought about this but the Arecibo telescope has a beam width that is extremely narrow, about 130 arc seconds. What this means is that if you have a transmitter in space, and multiple receive sessions over several days you can plot the orbit of the spacecraft.  This is also aided by the extremely accurate timing of the hydrogen maser at the site.  Phil is a master at operating the telescope and thus we were able to markedly improve the ephemeris (along with the help of Jon Giorgini at JPL).

Another absolutely smart and helpful person was Dana Whitlow.  Dana, the microwave receiver specialist at the observatory.  Dana helped us get the Software Defined Radio (SDR) from Ettus Research hooked into their system and to the system clock (driven by the hydrogen maser) there at the site.  We had a pass soon after we hooked everything up and we were able to receive the signals from the spacecraft, verifying our basic setup.  Dana also worked with us to do something else I had no idea could be done, which is to hook up the second SDR, which was our transmit SDR, to a fiber optic cable, which carried the transmitter power from the SDR to the dome, where it would then drive our transmitter.

Another person that has to be mentioned is Victor Negron, who is a transmitter specialist at the observatory and he also works with the electricians.  Victor handled the logistics of getting the transmitter from Germany physically delivered to the dish and then up to the transmit dome.  Dana and Victor and their team of guys installed the transmitter and hooked it into the main waveguide system for transmitting there at the site.

Our time at the observatory was absolutely amazing, including riding out an earthquake on the dome!  This truly was an effort where people all over the world wanted this to happen and it was also true of the Arecibo folks.  We donated to the facility the SDR’s, a laptop and the transmitter that we purchased.  I really wanted to give them some cash as well but our poor project just ran out of money too fast.  The folks there helped us all the way until the spacecraft was too close and moving too fast to use the telescope.  They wanted to help after but the problem was that the observation time for looking at the spacecraft shifted from the afternoon to the evening, and thus it we were in conflict with their observing schedule.

Ettus Research

Ettus Research and its engineers also played a very crucial role in our project.  We first went to Ettus after Ken Biba, Andy Filo, and Matt Reyes all pointed us in their direction, and for good Reason.  Ettus makes the USRP line of Software Defined Radio’s (SDR’s), that are leading edge systems and were perfect for our application.  Not only is their hardware and software great, their people are as well.

Matt Ettus, their CEO was in Germany doing a new product development, but they graciously lent us their top SDR employee, Balint Seeber.  Also, right at the beginning John Malsbury was involved and he did the base work for the receiver and transmit section of the SDR for our application.  Balint went with myself and Austin Epps down to Puerto Rico and spent the entire time with us at the telescope.  John came down for a few days right before we made first contact.  With these guys and the folks at Arecibo, we were able to, within a very short period of time develop, test, and prepare for the contact with ISEE-3.

John left Ettus right as the project was getting started but continued to support the effort.  Balint went far above and beyond the call of duty to continue to work with us almost constantly as we developed the telemetry software and decoding schemes to be able to both reliably transmit and receive the data.  All of this was done on a volunteer/loan basis as we could have never afforded the labor that Balint put into the project.  Our hat is off to Ettus Research for the role that they played in our project.   We did get to pay them back a bit with some global exposure, including at one of the largest telecom events in Asia.  So if software defined radio technology is your interest, Ettus is the place to go.

AMSAT-DL (Bochum Radio Observatory)

There were two stars at the Amateur Radio Satellite Germany (AMSAT-DL) group at the Bochum Observatory near the city of Bochum and the state of Nordrheim-Westfalen Germany. Mario Lorenz and Achim Vollhardt were our contacts there and they were just incredibly smart, helpful, and interested in the success of the ISEE-3 reboot project.  It was the reception of the first signals from Bochum in February of 2015 that inspired my first serious interest in the saving of the spacecraft.  This is shown in figure 2 below.

Figure 8: ICE S-Band Transponder First Reception (Down Converted)
Figure 2: ISEE-3/ICE S-Band Transponder First Reception (Down Converted)

Bochum was one of the first contacts I made to discuss the possibility of our working to save the bird in March of 2014. Their can do attitude and their professionalism made it clear that they could be counted on going forward. It was the folks at Bochum, backed up by the SETI Allen Array in California who first found out that both carriers from ISEE-3 were being transmitted, something at first vehemently denied by NASA.  These guys spent an inordinate amount of time supporting us, both when we were in Puerto Rico and when we returned.  Figure 3 shows the system setup that we used to utilize the transmitter at Arecibo, the receiver at Bochum, and our control center at NASA Ames Research Park in California.

Figure 3: Arecibo/Bochum/Internet Triplex Mode
Figure 3: Arecibo/Bochum/Internet Triplex Mode

The above setup I think is unique in the annals of deep space communications.  We thought this arrangement up when it became clear to us that in order to test out the ranging capability of the ISEE-3 spacecraft, we had to have a continuous carrier sent to the bird.  The problem was that due to the way that Arecibo’s transmit/receive system is set up, it takes up to twenty seconds to switch from receive to transmit and back again.  In a later post I will delve into the way we did this in detail but what is important here is how we were able to use the Arecibo dish as a transmitter and the Bochum dish as a receiver in real time, aided by our ability to in real time communicate over the Internet.  This also was a necessary evil due to the way that ITAR works in that we could not transmit in Germany due to the command codes having to be sent over a German transmitter to a U.S. spacecraft.  We could have solved this over time, but it was not possible to deal with the ends and outs of ITAR in the limited time we had.  Bochum stayed with us, devoting several hours a day on many days to record data from the spacecraft all the way through the flyby.  They to had conflicts with paying customers after the flyby due to the several hour shift in the time of day for reception.  It was quite exciting to put together the above architecture in such a short time and use the power of the modern internet to have a global ad hoc communications network.  Later we were able to tie in the dish at Morehead state as well, and they are next on our list of hero’s.

Morehead State University Space Science Center

Along with Bochum dish, we had the Morehead State University Space Science Center on our team.  Due to a very long time association with professor Bob Twiggs, we contacted him and he put us in touch with Dr. Benjamin Malphrus, Chair of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the Space Science Center.  Dr. Malphrus runs the center and with that has the responsibility over the 21 meter dish that this there at the University.  Benjamin Kroll is the guy in charge of the dish and we worked with him and his team to bring an 800 watt transmitter (loaned to us by AR Research) to Morehead, get it installed and have the location to be the backup and supplement for Arecibo.  Morehead was eventually able to get everything up and running and they also installed one of our Ettus USRP’s and operated both in transmit and receive mode in cooperation with Bochum and with the SETI institute out here in California.  Everyone worked together and on some days we had as much as 16-18 hours of data from the spacecraft.

SETI Institute

The SETI institute was also very helpful in the ISEE-3 project.  The Allen Telescope Array (ATA), is a string of 42 moderate sized radio telescopes in a mesh configuration that is called a sparse aperture by those knowledgeable in the art.  Jon Richards was absolutely fabulous in helping us with the project, and it helped them as well as they used the signal from the spacecraft to calibrate their system.  They already had their own USRP and other hardware and they became a vital west coast ground station for receiving the science data in the days before the flyby and providing backup support during the passes from the other stations.


Kinetx is a small aerospace company that does a lot of work with NASA.  Several of the ISEE-3 retirees work for this company.  One that was very helpful was Craig Roberts.  He had been deeply involved with mission planning for the ISEE-3/ICE mission and had written some of the software for mission planning.  Craig was invaluable both for some of the information he provided, but also as a trusted second source of insight into the propulsion system, which helped Marco develop his version of the thruster firing software.  Craig’s independent derivation of the number of pulses were close enough to Marco’s that it gave us confidence that Marco had successfully recaptured in Matlab.

Kinetx dedicated resources and staff to help Jon Giorgini at JPL derive the position of the spacecraft based on the data provided by Phil Perillat and the NASA Deep Space Network when they did their ranging.  Craig and David Dunham, the main mission planner with Bob Farquhar was/is also a Kinetx employee and an ISEE-3 alum that worked together to make sure we did not make any mistakes with reawakening the propulsion system.

(Correction: Craig Roberts is a NASA Goddard contractor working for AI Solutions)

Applied Defense

The folks at Applied Defense, another small company that does a lot of work for NASA were incredibly helpful.  Tim Craychee, Lisa Pollicastri, Craig Nickel, as well as John Carrico (who in the middle of this took a job at Google), helped us process the data from the Deep Space Network passes that were then also fed to Jon Giorgini at JPL for inclusions in the NASA Horizons database.  Tim, Lisa, and John were the core of the team that came up with the very creative trajectory for the LADEE mission to the Moon a couple of years ago and their expertise, and familiarity with the DSN was of incredible worth to the project.

I learned a lot about deep space operations from both Kinetx and Applied Defense.  It is part of the fun of a project like this to work with very smart people and I had a lot of fun with these guys.

Space Exploration Engineering (Mike Loucks)

Mike Loucks is a very long collaborator of mine in developing low thrust trajectories for our solar electric propulsion systems.   Mike is a whiz at Analytical Graphics Astrogator software (he is a certified instructor) and all around nice guy in the business.  Mike got the folks at Applied Defense interested in directly working with us and helped to coordinate all their activities as well as to provide us with graphics related to the spacecraft.  Most of the pretty graphics from our presentations to NASA and on the web came from Mike.  Mike also worked closely with the Google Creative lab folks to get the technical part of their web graphics for the spacecraftforall website correct.

Google Creative Labs

Last, but certainly not least, are the folks at Google Creative Labs.  These guys were awesome to us.  Suzanne Chambers, the lead of the group, and Asa Block came to us in late April as we were doing our crowd funding and wanted to help.  Here is their ad for what they do….

Google Creative Lab is a team of creatives thinkers and makers who work across all of Google’s products and help connect users back to the Google magic. In the past we have done projects like Chrome Racer and Google Web Lab. We are fascinated (obviously) by space and your project is extra amazing as it allows people direct access to something new that they might not have ever gotten to play with before. 

These guys went all out to help.  They showed up in Puerto Rico with a film crew and proceeded to document our entire effort there.  This eventually led to an amazing documentary that is the heart of a website called   The Google team were there sweating with us in the Puerto Rico humidity and the bugs and were incredibly professional in how they operated.  They provided the van that we needed to go get the transmitter from the Fedex office at the western end of the island.  After we got back they were still there for us and it was this Google team that put together the two and a half hour global online broadcast of the lunar flyby of ISEE-3 after it was determined that we could not save it due to the propulsion system failure.

We were going to do a lot more with the spacecraftorall site but after the flyby, several days later the spacecraft went into safe mode and we could not get time on a dish with the right transmitter, despite trying with several dishes, to turn the spacecraft back on.

To us the most funny and ironic part of this is that these guys hail from New York City, and not the 30,000 strong Google presence in our backyard.  Here are the names of the folks that were with us and worked with us on this project.

Richard The
Suzanne Chambers
Asa Block
Glenn Cochon
Philip Stockton
Isaac Blankensmith
George Michael Brower
Igor Clark

Thanks to all of you guys, you helped make the adventure more exciting and preserved it for posterity!

Individuals from Outside Who Helped

There were several individuals who helped out during the ISEE-3 project, some if not most were absolutely crucial to our success.  The reader might wonder about my characterization of so many people as absolutely crucial to the project, but this is in fact the case.

The ISEE-3 Retirees!

Dr. Robert Farquhar and David Dunham

This project would have never existed without these guys.  It was their foresight, perseverance, and stubbornness in the first place that kept ISEE-3 alive for all these years.  After the flyby of the comets Gacobini Zinner and Halley, the bird could have been put out to pasture.  However, the spacecraft operated for several more years, this time in concert with the Ulysses spacecraft, the first one to ever orbit the sun in a polar orbit.  While this was happening ISEE-3 recorded similar data in the solar equatorial plane.  This went on for years, but in 1987 these guys made the plans, and aimed the spacecraft for an Earth return in August of 2014.  After a 24 billion mile journey, their target was only off by a thousand km! The only thing that they could not have planned on was that NASA would throw out the equipment to talk to the spacecraft in 1999 and that budget cuts would kill any opportunity for NASA to recover the spacecraft.

It was Bob’s persistence that first alerted me to the possibility of saving the spacecraft in 2013, but at that time we could not see it.  In early 2014 I think that Bob had pretty much forlornly given up any possibility of doing anything with the old girl.  However, fate intervened and Bob and David were instrumental to us in rounding up as much of the old team, or putting them in contact with us, as possible.

John Spohr

John Spohr is an ISEE-3 Alum who provided us with some crucial documentation regarding the spacecraft.  The crucial docs were the command list.  These, as far as we could tell, were the latest versions of the commands before flight.  This is probably not correct as there were some commands that we never knew about related to reformatting the telemetry system, but it was close enough.  This could not have been more crucial as NASA was holding this information back until we got the Space Act Agreement signed.  However, this stuff was never classified and it turns that that NASA also got the information from John!  This is one of the sad things about how NASA does business.  There is no requirement to archive the engineering and design data for a spacecraft.  So if one falls off the active list, the documents end up going poof.  I knew this from our work with the Lunar Orbiter as there was very little engineering data left about it.   Also the Saturn V launch vehicle and many other examples of spacecraft that are simply forgotten after their mission operations budgets are exhausted.

Phil Karn KA9Q

Without a doubt, our project was crucially helped  by an old acquaintance of mine from our student amateur radio satellite days, Phil Karn.  I did not know it when we started the project, but Phil was already working with the folks at AMSAT-DL and the Bochum radio observatory on a decoder for the signals from the spacecraft.  NASA had all of these rules in place about what we could and could not release, but what they did not know was that long before we got involved in the project, significant amounts of key data about the modulation scheme of the spacecraft had been leaked into the public domain.  Due to our own paranoia about ITAR we could not release what we had, but that did not present a problem for Phil, who volunteered to help us as a means of keeping his mind active during chemotherapy that he was going through.  (he is doing good now)

Phil has a long history in the AMSAT world and I remembered him from my student days when we built our SEDSAT-1/OSCAR-33 spacecraft.  He is a genius in the design of complex signal processing systems and was/is a top engineer working for Qualcomm.  He did a lot of work designing systems for decoding the signals from the early 1990’s microsats and had designed a Viterbi decoder for the Cassini mission.  For the ISEE-3 project he outdid himself in designing a Viterbi decoder (k=24) that enabled us to decode and display, in real time, the telemetry data from the ISEE-3 spacecraft.  Basically Austin, Phil, Balint, Jacob, Marco, Tim, and Cameron put together a system as a group effort in just a few weeks time that was the equivalent to the entire suite of ground station software that the ISEE-3 project team had in the 1980’s on mainframes and mini computers. It was a masterful thing and Phil’s decoder was the heart of the system, spitting out decoded bits from the waveforms provided by the USRP-210 from Ettus.

It was a testament to how far technology has come that Phil’s largest (k=24) Viterbi decoder could work in real time on a laptop when there was a decent signal margin.  This kind of thing could probably not have happened even 7 or 8 years ago, but the march of technology moves forward, and so do the folks that work in this area.  We will forever appreciate Phil for that key contribution.

Pat Barthelow AA6EG

Pat is another ham radio operator that lives in central California.  Pat approached us after the project was going and offered to help.  Where he was really crucial was in helping me determine quite quickly in April that it would not be possible, for any reasonable amount of money that we could get our hands on, that a high power S band transmitter would be available in time to ship to Arecibo in time to contact the spacecraft.  Pat did make the initial contact with AR research that helped us put together the loan that they did to Morehead that allowed them to command the spacecraft while it was still in interplanetary space, giving Morehead a feather in their cap for this capability.  Pat has done a lot of work in antennas and ham radio and his input helped me decide which direction to go.

Dirk Fischer DK2FD

When it became painfully apparent that we were not going to be able to get a kilowatt class amplifier to transmit to the ISEE-3 spacecraft we started asking around in the amateur radio community for alternatives.  I can’t quite remember who turned me on to Dirk but I think it was Karl_Max Wagner, an Austrian ham operator.  Dirk has a small electronics company that he runs in Steinfurt Germany.  He normally makes transmitters for ham repeaters and for microwave ham operators.  The problem that we had, and everyone has in this just in time manufacturing age is that no one keeps inventory hardly anymore.  Even if a company wanted to deliver something quickly, its hard to get the parts in time to do it. Thus panic usually sets in.

When we contacted Dirk he said that he could not get a 400-700 watt transmitter in the time that we needed it (about four weeks), but that what he could do is to put together four smaller transmitters and then phase them together.  Phasing is a difficult thing to do for an S band frequency due to the short wavelengths involved but Dirk managed to pull it off!  It was a few days late, but his small team put in a heroic effort and then we found out just how expensive it is to ship overnight Fedex between Germany and Puerto Rico (About $1400!).  However, we got it, put it up in the transmitter room and it worked great!  A testament to German workmanship and diligence.  Again, another crucial part of the project that went right.

Karl Max Wagner OE4KMC

Karl is a ham radio operator from Austria.  He came to us, like so many did, after we were doing our crowd funding.  Karl provided a lot of invaluable advice and information to help me figure out a lot of the radio system for the ISEE-3 ground segment.  Karl is an enigma wrapped in a mystery but he was extremely helpful and was one of the ones that helped to point us in the right direction for people in the RF field to help.


My wife Nikki helped me out a bunch, as did the significant others of many of the other members of the project.  For many there were a lot of long hours and weekends and it simply could not have happened without their love and support for our crazy ideas!


In this day and age many would and will laugh at this, but providence moves in mysterious ways.  Just reading this, there were such a remarkable series of circumstances that came together for the good on this project.  For those who don’t believe, it was a remarkable putting together of an amazingly talented group of people.  However, sometimes the pattern extends beyond that, and in that context I am thankful.


These are not all the people involved.  The science team must be for a separate treatment that will come soon as well as some of the technical details (that are not ITAR) that can be shared.  The ISEE-3 project to me was remarkable for many reasons, and the above, with all of the incredibly talented people that contributed tops the list for me as the long term personal benefit.  Thinking back on all of the people involved and the things that were accomplished for what is really a pittance in funding reminds me of a saying, that when I first saw it almost 30 years ago was attributed to the great German philosopher Goethe, but in fact came from William Hutchinson Murray.  No matter, the sentiment fits our project perfectly…

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

The ISEE-3 reboot project absolutely without a doubt is the embodiment of the above sentiment.  These individuals listed here following, as well as those former that embody this brilliant observation.

I have thanked everyone individually, but I think that it is important for everyone to see everyone and how the tapestry was woven together to make a whole far greater than just the sum of its parts.  We were not able to get the spacecraft into orbit, but what we did was still historic.  NASA is using this as a template for future cooperation with citizen science activities and as a means to extend the useful scientific lives of their assets beyond congressional appropriations.

My company Skycorp was put on the global map, and doors have been opened that otherwise would not have been, some incredibly interesting that may become public in the next year.  Some of my team that had been with me a long time, like Austin Epps, went on to bigger and better things.  A long time collaborator, Keith Cowing from NASAWatch has likewise gone off in another direction.  Also, some of our new members, like Marco Colleluori blossomed into an incredibly talented engineer that I hope will be around for a long time to work on new things!  We do have new things coming, and that is the topic of my next post.

I personally learned a lot, not only about managing a far flung group of talented people, but about the nitty gritty of dealing with an interplanetary spacecraft.  It was amazing.  I also learned a lot about being a public figure.  What we had as publicity for the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project was multiplied by a factor of a hundred for the ISEE-3 project.  Even today, over a year later, I was interviewed by a German publication.  I got to be on the BBC during life drive time in London and even got to be on a BBC science and tech show.  Dealing with the press is very interesting and it has been a very good lesson in what to say and what not to say!

I apologize if I have left anyone off the list, I will certainly update this for anyone that I may have missed.  Again, thank you all for your help, it was great fun!