It used to be cute when the kid next door would grab a couple of cardboard boxes and go build a spaceship in the backyard. Now I'm beginning to wonder whether it will be long before the neighbor kid will take to the backyard to build a real spaceship.
Space is all around us. Really. And Silicon Valley is one hotbed of a second space race that's featuring everyday people designing satellites and experiments for outer space while looking to commercial companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace to one day blast them toward the heavens.
"Commercial space means the democratization of space," says Sean Casey, a space program veteran who started the Silicon Valley Space Center to promote that idea. "It means everybody can participate in space exploration in some way."
No, not everyone can strap on a helmet and blast off tomorrow. But with commercial space on the rise, everyone has a better chance of doing it someday, if that's their thing.
Just how down-to-earth has space exploration become?
Two NASA Ames scientists are shooting smartphones into space to see whether the omnipresent gadgets -- which come packed with myriad sensors, a camera, audio recorders and more computing power than the Apollo capsule -- have potential as off-the-shelf satellites. They can, after all, track and record all kinds of data on Earth. Why not in space?
And a San Francisco startup called NanoSatisfi used crowdfunding site Kickstarter to help pay for the planned launch of two nano-satellites -- each weighing about 2 pounds -- carrying measuring devices that will transmit data back to Earth. The idea, at least at this point, is to conduct experiments and connect students with the data-spewing orbiters.
NanoSatisfi cofounder Peter Platzer sees business possibilities ahead for the company. But for now, he says, think of the potential for engaging kids and encouraging them to pursue classes and careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
"Kids who do projects are twice as likely to go to college doing work in some kind of STEM field," he says.
No question the buzz about space is on a crescendo reminiscent of the space race. Astrophysicist Casey talks about the democratization of space creating citizen scientists -- the curious and courageous among us; the tinkerers and thinkers; the same sort of people who came up with the personal computer, the Internet and the endless number of apps we run on our earthbound smartphones.
He, along with Edward Wright, of the Dallas-based nonprofit Citizens in Space, is hosting his first Space Hacker Workshop this weekend at the Hacker Dojo in Mountain View. They expect nearly 100 participants to pay up to $150 for a two-day series of lectures and hands-on sessions showing how to go about creating meaningful experiments for space. The lessons will focus on deploying an international standard, which calls for building small, relatively inexpensive experiments that test, say, how weightlessness affects fluids, materials, biological systems, etc.
The idea, Casey says, is to get bright, creative people to start thinking about not only what can be done in space, but what will be needed in space as more people go there -- and maybe live there.
"What is the technology that is needed in the next decade as we move out, in a commercial sense, off the Earth and into lower orbit and to the moon and Mars?" Casey asks. "I would like to get people to think about and understand what are the technologies that need to be prototyped and developed."
Wright's organization is adding a little inspiration. Citizens in Space will pay for 10 citizen astronauts with compelling experiments to take one of the early space tourism flights once they start. Details are on its website, www.citizensinspace.org/call-for-experiments.
I get that the idea of frequent trips into space by large numbers of people might seem out of this world to you. But those working in commercial space see that reality as almost inevitable. XCOR and Virgin Galactic are both selling tickets (think $100,000 to $200,000) for space tourism flights more than 60 miles high. Those trips should begin taking off in the next year or two. When they do, says Khaki Rodway, XCOR's director of payload sales and operations, outer space is going to become a lot less foreign.
"Suddenly, you're going to have a lot more people who have seen the Earth from space, and the dark sky above them, and the stars," says Rodway, who will present at the weekend hacker workshop. "It's pretty exciting."
And from the pace of activity, it seems the prospect of space has become pretty exciting for a lot more of us, no matter where our feet are planted.
space Hacker workshop
Tickets for the Space Hacker Workshop at the Hacker Dojo in Mountain View on Saturday and Sunday are $125 for early registration and $150 for walk-in registration. See http://spacehacker.eventbrite.com for details.