Remarks at the funeral of NASA’s Get Away Special Program – An open letter to Dr. Michael Griffin

By SpaceRef Editor
March 20, 2005
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Remarks at the funeral of NASA’s Get Away Special Program – An open letter to Dr. Michael Griffin

Dear Mike,

On October 12, 1976 (Columbus Day in our nation’s Bicentennial Year), the NASA Administrator at that time, Dr. James C. Fletcher, and his Associate Administrator for Space Flight, Mr. John Yardley, jointly unveiled the Small Self Contained Payload Program in Long Beach, CA at a conference of the International Astronautical Federation. Yardley’s main idea (for it was he and his assistant, J. Michael Smith, who actually thought up the concept) was to make available the unused nooks and crannies of Shuttle cargo bays for leased canisters full of private space experiments to try out ideas for manufacturing unique products in weightlessness. Yardley and Smith figured that small companies and principal investigators from experienced universities would learn how to use weightlessness in simple, low-cost experiments and then come back later to reserve major chunks of Shuttle cargo bays for full-fledged manufacturing facilities. Yardley dubbed the program the “Get Away Special,” after an airline promotional fare to Hawaii that TWA had going on at the time.

I presented a paper at that same IAF conference on some student space experiments that my Thiokol team had flown in sounding rockets at NASA’s Wallops Flight Center in Virginia and Sandia Corporation’s Barking Sands Test Range at Kauai, Hawaii. I also described in my paper several student experiments that astronauts had performed aboard the recent Skylab missions, together with an optical experiment that a high school student had performed as a passenger aboard NASA’s Convair 990 aircraft flying over Alaska’s North Slope, courtesy of the Director of NASA Ames, Dr. Hans Mark. The main plea of my paper was for NASA to make Skylab-like provisions for educational flight opportunities in the forthcoming Space Shuttle program.

After Fletcher and Yardley had described their Get Away Special concept in the plenary session of the conference, I implored them and Chester M. Lee, Director of Space Shuttle Utilization, to allow university undergraduate and high school students also to participate in this program. They agreed and allowed me to reserve Get Away Special canister Number One for educational purposes. Six years later, GAS-001 flew in orbit in Columbia’s cargo bay during its STS-4 mission from June 27 to July 4, 1982, carrying ten student experiments from Utah State University, Weber State University and the University of California at Davis. After spending several years preparing their experiments and packaging them in the GAS-001 canister, our team of student investigators and supporting faculty drove across the country to Florida to watch Columbia take off from the Kennedy Space Center, carrying their experiments into orbit. We then drove back across the country to join President Ronald Reagan at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California to cheer Columbia back to earth at the end of its one-week mission.

From that auspicious beginning, the Get Away Special (GAS) Program, and its lineal descendant, the Hitchhiker Program, have carried hundreds of canisters into orbit, thus permitting thousands of students to participate directly in space experimentation and to learn for themselves some of the fundamentals of what it will take to go back to the Moon and on to Mars. Many of the graduates of the GAS and Hitchhiker programs are today working at NASA and elsewhere in the space industry, helping to keep the dream alive and preparing for the next surge into space.

As merely one example of the effect that GAS/Hitchhiker missions have had on the youth of this nation and the rest of the world, let me say a few words about Project Starshine. In this all-volunteer project, during a six-year period, over one hundred thousand students in 43 countries have ground and polished aluminum mirrors that have been installed on four small spherical Starshine satellites. By agreement with former Administrator Dan Goldin, NASA has launched three of these satellites into orbit for free, as a service to the international educational community. Our Starshine student teams have then visually tracked sunlight flashes from their mirrors as the satellites have swept across the sky after sunset, descending and speeding up a little every day, due to aerodynamic drag, toward a fiery vaporization high above the earth. The students have provided us with timed position reports over the Internet, to be combined with professional radar and optical tracking results. Atmospheric density data resulting from these three completed Starshine missions are being used by NASA and the U.S. Space Command to refine their orbit prediction computer codes, to account for density fluctuations resulting from solar flare variations during the sunspot peak of Solar Cycle 23. We have now completed an improved Starshine 4/5, which was originally manifested on STS-113 and then bumped to STS-114, and as a result of the tragic Columbia accident is now in limbo, awaiting its turn to further our knowledge of solar effects during the sunspot trough of Solar Cycle 24.

But now, without so much as a “by your leave,” the Get Away Special and Hitchhiker programs have officially been relegated to the trash heap by NASA, there to join the highly successful but short-lived Shuttle Student Involvement Program, in which astronauts conducted mid-deck locker experiments conceived by competitively selected high school students in the early 1980s.

Now, we all understand that every bit of Shuttle cargo bay volume and up-mass are needed to finish construction of the International Space Station, so I won’t try to turn back the clock and plead that these three wonderful student programs be reinstated. I know that the SSIP, Get Away Special and Hitchhiker personnel at the various NASA Centers have long ago been reassigned, and the program support hardware has been mothballed, so that’s the end of that.

But what is the educational community supposed to do…just forget about the space program? Are only the physical and intellectual elite to have access to space, once again? What about the outstanding legacy GAS flight programs at Utah State University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Louisville, to name but a few, that were turning out generations of space-wise students, before the Columbia accident changed the entire landscape of educational space experimentation? Does NASA have a plan to provide an alternative avenue for students to do their own enthusiastic, creative and unfettered experiments with their own space hardware, as they have done for the past twenty years in the SSIP, GAS and Hitchhiker programs?

I’ve recently been encouraged by verbal statements I’ve heard (but not in writing) that NASA is working with DARPA to fly one or more Falcon expendable launch vehicles from the Wallops Flight Station, and that there will be an opportunity to fly educational satellites, like Starshine 4/5, for example, on at least one of those missions. That sounds like a great start, but how about making that an annual event? A group of us space-education old-timers recently participated in judging ten university proposals in the Air Force Research Lab’s University Nanosat 3 design competition at the AIAA Aerospace Sciences meeting in Reno. We had to whittle the winners down to one university, because that’s all the Air Force has the money to support through final integration and launch. However, all of the judges agreed that there were five satellites out of those ten that actually deserved to be flown.

It’s all well and good for NASA administrators and Air Force generals to make speeches deploring the “greying of the space industry” and delineating in great detail the workforce crisis that is nearly upon us, due to the rapidly looming waves of retirements of space employees. They warn us in sepulchral tones that our nation is in imminent danger of losing our technological leadership in space, following which everything else will go to pot. They assure us that the solution to our dilemma is to educate our youth and inspire them to enter the space program. A mantra that I have oft heard expressed is “Education is the third leg of the NASA stool.” Well, we in the education field agree totally with those good words, but it’s now time for the leaders of our country to put their monies where their mouths are. There is no, repeat no, substitute for actually letting students fly their own hardware in space. Giving them lectures and letting them follow government employees around in the workplace and showing them Earth images and webcasts of astronauts working in space and rovers working on Mars are all marvelous things to do, but they are not sufficient to motivate today’s youth to join us in the president’s announced program to go back to the Moon and on to Mars. They need to be able to fly experiments of their own.

There are several fledgling programs underway right now that deserve government encouragement and sponsorship, as initial steps to solving our looming space leadership crisis. To name just a few, Stanford University and Cal State San Luis Obispo have spawned “Cubesat” satellites on campuses all around the globe, but most of the schools don’t have the financial or administrative resources to jump through the export hoops required for flight on Russian launch vehicles. So they wind up being stymied by the lack of flight opportunity. How about your subsidizing a program to deploy Cubesats from converted camera pods on the outside of government and commercial ELVs, as proposed by a former GAS student who now runs his own aerospace company? Or how about the aerospace industry providing machining support to Cal State Long Beach and its struggling, small aerospace company partner to help them build a very small, nanosat launch vehicle to orbit Cubesat-class satellites. It seems only fair, since one of the nearby premier aerospace companies recently hired away their experienced shop machinist.

Consistency of flight opportunity is the key to keeping college and pre-college students interested in the space program as a career path. Utah State University has kept successive generations of students building Get Away Special experiments, year after year for the past twenty-three years, because they always had the expectation that their experiments were going to fly while they were still in college. That has all come to a screeching halt with the termination of the GAS program. How about NASA and DARPA and the Air Force Research Lab and the Space Test Program sponsoring development of a stabilized ELV bus with self-contained power, telemetry and video transmission, and maybe even a payload retrieval system, so the students can adapt their GAS experiments to the ELV world, and then giving them frequent repetitive launch opportunities, like they had in the GAS program. “Stop and start” just doesn’t cut it in the educational world, especially when graduate students are involved, as you well know from personal experience.

A number of us who have spent a few decades in the field of hands-on space education are available at any time to follow up with specific suggestions, if you are willing to listen. But, please don’t tell us that it’s not your responsibility, or that there’s no convenient contractual mechanism to provide this kind of opportunity. If it’s really necessary to kill off all the time-honored Shuttle-based avenues for young people to perform space experimentation, then NASA, the Air Force Research Lab, DARPA, the AIAA, the Space Foundation, the captains of industry, the Congress and anyone else willing to help should collaborate to provide annually repetitive ELV space flight opportunities to universities and K-12 groups at subsidized rates and with documentation requirements comparable to those of the much-loved and now much-mourned Get Away Special program. Unusual measures are required to solve unusual problems.

Say, maybe the incoming NASA Administrator would be just the man to spearhead such an effort. A great place to have an informal kickoff meeting would be at the Space Foundation’s National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs a couple of weeks from now. All the other players will be in attendance, so we’ll look forward to seeing you there, O.K.? And then you could flesh out the details this summer and announce the formal program at Utah State University’s annual Small Satellite Conference in Logan, UT in August. Is it a deal?


Gil Moore


Project Starshine

3855 Sierra Vista Road,

Monument, CO



SpaceRef staff editor.