You’re right. We should all have jet packs by now. We should all be vacationing on the moon, dining at lunar satellite stations shaped like colossal roulette wheels that serve the best astro-burgers in the galaxy.
But just when things were heading that way people stopped caring about extraterrestrial endeavors, and the Space Age came to a whimpering end. In fits and starts, scientists who had set out with dreams of colonizing Mars long before 2001 tried to electroshock the American space program back to life, but even with the promise of the space shuttle it never regained its luster. Disaster and failure dogged NASA for years, and the agency’s pleas for funding met a public that considered the conquest of space little more than a dangerous vanity project; that there are more important things to take care of right here on Earth.
Even so, Michael Paluszek refuses to pull the plug on the Space Age. As president and founder of Princeton Satellite Systems, a systems and software design firm that recently moved from downtown Princeton to Market Street in Plainsboro, space science is not just his business, it is what keeps his neck perpetually craned toward the stars.
A software design firm, even one built for outer space, sounds far more pedestrian than what is actually going on here. For one thing, the room to the far left of this otherwise ordinary office is a repository for some of the coolest toys you could never afford to put your hands on. Rough-hewn, looking more like the patchwork assembly of spare parts than a finished product, these prototypes of hardware and delivery systems are the physical manifestation of minds fortunate enough to divine the cosmic through basic physics.
One intriguing-looking piece of hardware is the company’s optical navigation system, a small mock-up satellite that looks exactly like two 35mm SLR cameras pointing in opposite directions, mounted on an erector set. Its purpose is to channel an orbital path through stargazing — one lens looks at a star field, the other at a particular star.
This particular setup is being developed for NASA. So far, Princeton Satellite has one camera working and is trying to perfect the fully autonomous software the system will need to stay aloft and functional in space.
The company also is working on a two-stage orbiter system, one that will deliver smaller, lower-cost payloads and return them safely to Earth. While the romantic view of space is the manned flight, the majority of the space business deals with unmanned payloads. And given how expensive it is to put anything into space — “$237,000 is almost nothing” — any agency, public or private, wants to shave as much off the sticker price as possible, Paluszek says. Perfection of the two-stage model, however, seems to be a while away.
Less tangible are the bread-and-butter projects Princeton Satellite is working on and marketing — the software and the guidance systems. Here is where the company is working on things like collision-avoidance systems and its VisualCommander software, an integrated high-tech flight simulator and data collection program.
Princeton Satellite also is working on missile defense. You might remember the ambitious Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative. Well, the American military has never really let the idea go. The basic plan is for a network of satellites to pick off enemy missiles as they make their way here. Fundamentally, the plan has not changed. The technology just needs refining.
Refinement. This ultimately is what separates working space technology from abject failure. It also belies a paradox. While the technology needed for a successful mission — launch, payload delivery, and safe return — needs to be precise and dense, in the end, success is seen in very simple, black-and-white terms. A project either works or it does not. Pieces of it working do not count — a rocket that takes off and can’t come back is as useless as a parachute made of mesh. If any tiny part of a system does not work, the project could either not get off the ground, break down, or even explode.
Most of the science is known to everybody — college kids in Alabama or physicists in North Korea can buy college textbooks filled with long, dense equations built to untangle rocket science, Paluszek says. But even this much readily available information does not a successful mission make. Exact science, after all, is not always an exact science. It is actually a bit like cooking from a recipe.
You or I could follow the same recipe as Wolfgang Puck — we could even write it — and yet our chocolate chip souffle will not hold a candle to his. As a master chef who learned from other master chefs, Puck simply knows things even other top-notch cooks do not — how to tease delicate flavors from the same batch of seasonings; how to get just the right consistency. It is finesse built almost entirely through years of experience with ingredients, temperatures, and timing.
In rocket science finesse plays just as big a role. You wouldn’t think so, given that at its core mathematics is concerned with pinpoint precision, no matter how knotty the equation.
But, says Paluszek, the difference between a booster that fires and one that impotently sloughs away is something you just can’t learn in textbooks. Textbooks, remember, are academic. They are not designed to build rockets, they are designed to teach how rockets work. Scientists need to figure out the variables, the intangibles, and the unforeseeables themselves.
There was a time when such finesse was commonplace. Back in the 1960s, when the American and Soviet space programs were the only two kids on the block, the concentration of minds here and in the U.S.S.R. was at its zenith. But as the public lost interest and NASA lost funding, the scientists who knew the subtleties of space technology started leaving the field, retiring, and dying, Paluszek says. The resulting loss of experience did to space science what the destruction of the library at Alexandria did to some of the ancient world’s most important documents — wiped it away in toto.
Paluszek is not self-impressed enough to see himself as one of the keepers of knowledge who managed to save at least a few of Alexandria’s tomes from extinction. But he is trying to rebuild the knowledge of his NASA predecessors, from much of the same information base as was available to those predecessors. His generation is just doing it a little more fragmented and with a lot less money. Advances, he says, come incrementally, as improvements over existing technology, and as a matter of practice and routine, like an athlete
Or a ballet dancer. Michael Paluszek has been both. Born and raised mainly in White plains and Rye, New York, Paluszek relocated to Ontario when his father, a mechanical engineer for large construction firms such as Bechtel, was reassigned.
Following in his dad’s technically oriented steps, Paluszek enrolled in MIT, where he did his undergraduate and graduate work in the 1970s. Here he rowed crew as an undergraduate, and met his wife (Marilyn Ham, manager of the music department at Princeton University).
Michael and Marilyn had met as undergrads, but she was dating someone else at the time. When Paluszek moved onto graduate school, where he studied helicopter systems — a course taught by Ham’s father — they met for real. A dancer at MIT, Ham helped convince Paluszek to try ballroom dancing. He had done crew to get around his physical education credit, but soon learned he had a love for dancing.
Now he spends four to five days a week studying at Princeton Ballet, which has open classes and an atmosphere Paluszek finds refreshingly “not snooty.”
Among the high-tech tomes, mini rocket models, and posters featuring everything from propulsion systems to the iconic image of the hammer thrower from Apple Computers’ “1984” commercial, it seems incongruous to hear the president and founder of Princeton Satellite Systems say that he dances ballet.
But he apparently is the norm among male ballet enthusiasts. Something about ballet’s precision draws the athletically inclined scientist, mathematician, and engineer — which make up the bulk of his male co-students.
Paluszek also is captain of the supernumeraries (non-singing actors) for the Opera Company of New Jersey. As such, he has even coaxed Princeton Satellite’s chief engineer, Pradeep Bhatta, who earned his doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton in 2006, into doing opera with him.
The performing arts, particularly music, have for millennia been linked to mathematics. Pythagoras, in fact, was the first to publish details on tuning stringed instruments using math. “At Princeton University, half the people in the orchestra are engineers,” Paluszek says.
As if through genetic endowment, Paluszek has passed on the love of dance and a love of math and science to his son, Eric, now in middle school. Eric, he says, has been studying ballet for a few years and also is a competitive chess player who looks to follow his father’s footsteps into engineering. Or not.
Like a true science whiz, Michael Paluszek doesn’t see math as complicated. Our daily lives are rife with calculus, we just don’t recognize it, he says. Knowing when to apply the brakes, where to put your mitt when the ball is heading for you, when to jump for a rebound — these are all calculus equations, rating velocity and acceleration.
Like the space program, Paluszek says, math has a bad rep for a bad reason. People perceive it to be something only the gifted and so-inclined can do. “I hate that,” he says. “People always say, ‘I’m not good at math.’ No, you’re not good at what you’re being taught.”
Why this irks him so is because kids who flop at math stay as far away from it as possible as they age. And the world, not just his profession, needs scientists and mathematical thinking. The more kids get turned off by what he says are idiotic ways of teaching, the more will never enter the sciences. Which could always use a fresh perspective.
When his son was in elementary school Paluszek used to go into Eric’s class to teach kids new ways of thinking mathematically. Primarily, he taught problem solving — in other words, applying mathematical and analytical thinking to real-world scenarios. Groups of kids would be broken into different aspects of a car company, for example. Each would devise ideas for design, or technology, or whatever else. Nobody was taught graphs (“Those are only used by statisticians”) or mixed numbers (“No engineer uses mixed numbers”), they just learned to think.
“The kids really responded,” he says. “They loved it. You couldn’t tell who the ‘weak’ students were.”
The staff at Princeton Satellite has even written a book — “Learning Algebra, Trigonometry, and Calculus through Physics for Fourth through Eighth Graders,” available as a free PDF on the company’s website, www.psatellite.com. And it contends that learning how to solve interesting problems, rather than being taught about “math,” is key. After all, the book avers, math was created to solve engineering problems in the first place.
Getting kids excited about math and science will go a long way toward rebuilding the Space Age, Paluszek says. With luck, excitement over space might reach the level he experienced when he was a kid. After all, when he was a young man astronauts were rock stars and the belief that a moon landing would soon become a Mars landing was a gimmie.
After college, as the space shuttle program was working out its last major kinks, Paluszek was content to stay at MIT. He was working on rocket propulsion at Draper Laboratory there, not at all looking for a job. But a recruiter from GE AstroSpace brought Paluszek to GE’s East Windsor facilities. Here he worked for six years, moving up from basic rocket operations to dealing with satellite operations.
His tenure at GE taught him a dynamic he didn’t expect, though — the more you move up in a given field, the further you get from what drew you to it in the first place. “When you get more seniority you end up in more meetings and doing less engineering,” he says.
Still, at GE Paluszek did some engineering, including on the GGS (or, Global Geoscience Satellite) Polar despun platform controller, one of the first applications of active vibration control on a satellite there. He also managed the ACS (altitude control system) analysis unit and was lead attitude analyst on more than a dozen satellite launches.
Paluszek started Princeton Satellite in 1992. By 1997 he had designed the ACS system and ACS flight software for the Indostar-1 satellite, which has been flying since 1997. He led the effort to develop the momentum management system for the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (known by its phonetic nickname, pronounced “TEE-dris”), one of a network of communications satellites used by NASA for communication to satellites or the International Space Station, for Hughes. Paluszek is especially happy about this one. “It’s one of the few pieces of software that worked with no problems,” he says.
Princeton Satellite is not concerned solely with the extraterrestrial. The company also is working on some very inner space projects, including guidance and control systems for high-altitude airships, autonomous underwater vehicles, and a deep-sea navigation system.
Princeton Satellite’s core thread is in controls. Like space, the deep sea is an alien environment to humans, and shares many traits with space — weightlessness, extreme cold, pressure issues, and lack of oxygen. Their shared inhospitality to man is leading science to find ways to crack these environments without risking human lives.
Princeton Satellite deals with autonomous systems that need to be navigated and remotely controlled, whether single vehicles or, as is becoming more common, fleets. Much of the firm’s controls are aimed at coordinated formation “flying,” in the air, under water, or in space.
Unmanned vehicles, by the way, are the foreseeable future of space exploration. Just as unmanned deep-sea vehicles have led to discoveries of entirely unheard-of ecosystems clung to the sides of boiling volcanic vents, so will unmanned spacecraft help unfold the wonders of space, Paluszek says. If Princeton Satellite is doing anything to keep space exploration alive it is in allowing us to navigate the near reaches of space without risking the lives of humans.
But, Paluszek says, there will always be a place for people in space. “We’ve sent unmanned spacecraft to Mars and we still don’t know if there’s any life there. If we had sent people, we’d know.”
The earthbound project with the most broad potential is a mobile wind turbine setup for the U.S. Army. Princeton Satellite recently submitted its proposal for the project, which came out of a conversation with two veterans of the Afghanistan campaign. The army is looking for a standardized, 5 kilowatt power station that it can mount on the tops of desert vehicles.
While it sounds out of character for a satellite software company to build a two-bladed turbine — a model of it is in the same room as the two-camera optical navigation system — the principles of the technology are well-aligned with those needed for satellites. They must work in harsh environments, yet be sensitive and delicate while generating power. Paluszek is pleased with how the prototype has come out. If it works as it should, he says, it could have far-reaching effects on poor, dry countries like Kenya, where small, portable sources of power could be of great benefit on small farms or in areas far-removed from the grid.
As a power generator, the turbine project shows much promise. As an income generator, it could lay new trails for Princeton Satellite.
The company makes much of its money the contractual way — research grants from the National Science Foundation, government accounts through the General Services Administration, and software sales to overseas markets.
Most of the company’s outright software sales, in fact, go to markets in Europe and Asia, Paluszek says. “We had to learn that ourselves,” he says.
Swedish Space Corporation is a major buyer of Princeton Satellite’s guidance software, as is China. Were Princeton Satellite to stick with the domestic market, revenue would be trim indeed. “The U.S. doesn’t lead in any aspect of space anymore,” Paluszek says. In fact, no one nation or entity really does. China looks to be a big spender, but Paluszek says “they’re not there yet.”
The company also must do business amid an inverse relationship — while space is infinite, the pool of customers for the technology could fit into a small room. “Our first software was a spacecraft control toolbox,” Paluszek says. “It’s used by everybody in the space market, but that’s only 50 customers.”
Let us not forget, too, that not every possible customer is a good one. Princeton Satellite, after all, deals with technology that is used for national defense. It must pay attention to its buyers and must carefully watch what technologies are allowed outside American borders. Remember how North Korean physicists can buy textbooks on rocket science? Well, they cannot buy a thing from Princeton Satellite. And it isn’t just because Paluszek doesn’t want to sell to dangerous nations, it is outright illegal for him to trade with certain nations.
Not many terrorists can afford to build anything that could use the company’s technology, of course. To say it is expensive to develop space technology is a major understatement. Space technology costs billions to research and develop, much less put into the final stages. And even projects that get to the launch pad offer no guarantee of actually working — a cursory glance at the fiascoes of the American Apollo missions and space shuttle program, not to mention those of the Soviet Soyuz program, will bear that out.
And for those projects that do manage to get off the ground and do what they are supposed to do, maintaining them is an investment in time and money unlike anything short of a lingering war.
Like all dreams, the one about conquering space starts out with wild enthusiasm and quickly notices what’s left in the check book. Dreamers and sci-fi writers have painted endless magic, but in the end, only filmmakers have spent any money on bringing such dreams to life.
This bothers Michael Paluszek because he knows it doesn’t have to be this way. Those sights we see in the movies not only could have been, they should have been, he says. The film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” for example, is not far off from what that actual year should have offered.
Stanley Kubrick’s vision of life in 2001, from his looking glass in 1968, was based on where futurists figured technology would be by the new century, based on contemporary spending of space projects. Had the American space program continued receiving comparable funds, Paluszek says, competition would have driven innovation, would have created a whole sub-industry, and would have given us all those weird and wonderful toys floating out there above the ozone layer.
Actually, Paluszek goes one better: Had we invested in space exploration in the 1970s to the extent with which we had invested in it the decade prior, “We’d have gone to Mars in the ‘80s,” he says. “It’s just a matter of spending the money.”
Between 1963 and 1969, the peak years of the moon race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., NASA received between 2.1 and 5.5 percent of the entire federal budget. In 1970 that share went down to 1.7 percent and continued to sift away until it reached 0.8 percent of the federal budget by 1980. The agency’s share has continued to erode in the ensuing decades — NASA’s budget has been reduced by Congress seven times since 1994 alone — and now sits at a little more than half a percent.
In raw dollars, the U.S. government allotted about $17 billion to NASA in 2009. In 1966, when NASA’s budget reflected 5.5 percent of the national economy, the agency received almost $6 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that appropriation today would total more than $32 billion.
It is little comfort to Paluszek to know that the United States still spends more on space technology than every other nation combined. This century, which has witnessed the demise of the space shuttle program and one brief flirtation with the resurrection of the Mars mission, the United States has spent an average of about $55 for every American citizen on the space program. The governments of Europe, Asia, Brazil, and Russia, combined, have spent about $35 per person.
For Paluszek, the lack of spending — indeed the steady and seemingly bottomless decline in the interest in allotting public money to space science — has preempted what he believes would be a bustling industry. A popular criticism of the space program, particularly in this economically troubled decade, is that spending money on space is at best irresponsible. And at worst reprehensible. With a surplus of homegrown ills to attend, say critics, spending billions to get five people to outer space for a few days is simply not the finest use of public dollars.
But, Paluszek asks, where would we be had people taken such attitudes toward, say, the computer? Or airplanes? Granted, the development of the technologies for those endeavors is a lot less pricey than those needed to slip the surly bonds of Earth (not to mention privately funded for the most part), but think for a moment about what he is saying. Had visionaries not invested in advances in flight and computers and medicines and cars and cameras, some of this planet’s most cornerstone industries would never have been.
Think of the size of the movie industry. Or sports. Or automobiles — how many people they employ. How much money they generate. How much recreation they bring, and how they have managed to tie pieces of the international community together. The car alone created side industries such as highway construction and safety equipment manufacturers, and popular use of the car ignited businesses from small roadside diners and motels to large travel-booking agencies and restaurant chains.
Space offered similar promise, and we blew it, Paluszek says. Not one to mince words, Paluszek imagines a well-developed space industry that would long ago have shed the miscalculations and growing pains and would have by now evolved into a safe, thriving business. What that industry would look like, exactly, Paluszek cannot say. He speculates that space at least would be a decent tourist attraction. But his best guess is that a space industry would have evolved in numerous unexpected ways. “First you get people there, and then they’ll come up with the industry,” he says.
So space might make a good destination, but Paluszek is convinced it wouldn’t stop there. Like the airline industry, he would expect the space industry to be one that has multiple support arms. Not just pilots, but technicians, food servers, security staff, suppliers of motion sickness bags, architects — the list goes on. It could still happen, he says, so long as we don’t look at it with the totality we have now, as if everything has to be done at once. It has to evolve. “The airline industry didn’t start with 747s.”
Patience, unfortunately, is often in shorter supply than money. What complicates things is the fact that perception dictates the supply of both. And the space program has suffered some of the worst PR of the past half century. Not just seen as clunky, expensive, and pointless, space technologies are seen as completely dangerous. Vivid still are the memories of Apollo 1, which erupted on the launch pad in 1967, the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, and the space shuttle Columbia crash in 2003 — the last coming just as the Bush administration was pushing for renewed interest in the moon and Mars missions. News of several gruesome Soviet deaths and a string of non-fatal failures from smaller space agencies worldwide over the years has not helped. Changing attitudes to the point where people will want to open their wallets is no small task, even for rocket scientists.
Paluszek wishes people would realize how much modern life is indebted to space science. Consider digital control systems, for example — mandatory on all commercial aircraft and standard on all late model cars. The first people to use digital navigation, though, were Apollo astronauts. Without that program, we never would have advanced in the private sector, Paluszek says.
“You could write an encyclopedia on the technologies NASA was working on,” he says. That planned trip to Mars was largely a matter of propulsion, and NASA had conducted extensive tests on nuclear propulsion systems. Had those been allowed to develop and not languish with scads of NASA’s other failed dreams, industries around the world might have been different.
People, he says, have an unfortunate habit of politicizing and criticizing, and they do not often consider the revenues government-funded space technologies have generated. The GPS network has generated hundreds of billions in revenues around the world. “I know many businesses that exist because of GPS,” he says.
If there is hope for a vibrant space industry, it might take the same route as almost every other major industry throughout history — private investment. A great many industries, from computers to television, have deep roots in the military. Were private investors to latch onto space science, Paluszek says, the technology needed to build that sweeping industry he dreams of could get rescued from the Dark Ages.
But it will still need heavy backing from the government and the public before it ever gets there.
Princeton Satellite Systems, 6 Market Street, Suite 926, Plainsboro 08536; 609-275-9606; fax, 609-279-9609. Michael Paluszek, president. www.psatellite.com.