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In Memory of Robert Farquhar, the Original Space Hacker

The man who helped hijack a long-dormant spacecraft from an abandoned McDonalds has died at 83.

Keith Cowing is editor of NASA Watch and a former NASA employee. Last summer, he partnered with Robert Farquhar, a NASA mission design specialist, to take control of the long-dormant ISEE-3 space probe as it flew past Earth. Their improbable mission captured the attention of lots of space enthusiasts, including me. Farquhar died last week at 83, and so I asked Cowing to write an obituary in memory of his friend and colleague. - Jason Koebler

Picture a student in the back row of a classroom back in the day where the professor was either Isaac Newton or Johannes Kepler walking up to the chalkboard and drawing this series of oddly-shaped orbits. They'd have both flunked him or kicked him out for being intoxicated or mocking their professor. Yet everything in this improbable graphic conforms to the basics laid down by Newton and Kepler. And it actually happened, albeit centuries later.

My imaginary student was Robert Farquhar. Bob was laid to rest the other day after 83 orbits around the sun. Bob liked to tinker with things—especially spacecraft and their orbits. Let me change that. Bob was a hacker. Since he actually was the smartest guy in the room, he always had the numbers on his side. And he was persistent—sometimes waiting months, years, or even decades to get something to happen the way he envisioned it. Everyone in and around NASA knew Bob. And just about everyone has their own story about being pulled aside in a hallway so that Bob could pitch one of his wacky ideas—wacky ideas that always worked, that is. I knew Bob for nearly 20 years. I met him as editor of NASA Watch. Our mutual penchant to misbehave is what drew us together, I suppose.

Bob Farquhar. Image: NASA

Perhaps the most famous of Bob's missions was ISEE-3 (International Sun Earth Explorer-3). Launched in August 1978 to study what we now call "space weather," ISEE-3 resided in a "halo orbit" around the L1 point between the Earth and the Sun. After its initial mission was accomplished, Bob and David Dunham came up with an intricate series of orbits and engine firings that would allow ISEE-3 to depart from the vicinity of Earth and perform the first encounter with a comet. Bob did not exactly have all of his permissions lined up when he did this, but once it started happening, NASA went along.

Re-christened as the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), the spacecraft made a textbook pass through the tail of Comet Giacobini-Zinner on September 11, 1985. ICE then flew through the tail of Comet Halley in March 1986. ICE was not only the first spacecraft to encounter a comet, it was the first spacecraft to do so twice. Its second mission now completed, the spacecraft performed some final maneuvers to set up an Earth flyby in 2014.

Occasionally, NASA would listen to the spacecraft but it was otherwise forgotten by everyone—except Bob. Over the years, he came up with plans for the spacecraft to do additional maneuvers to return to Earth orbit where it would be captured by a Space Shuttle and presented to the Smithsonian. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, that plan was moot.

Bob never gave up on ISEE-3, though. When the time came for NASA to do something to rescue the spacecraft, it had no money and no plan. In early 2014, a crowdfunded effort called the ISEE-3 Reboot Project was organized by myself and Dennis Wingo with Bob as a principal advisor.

He and his fellow retired engineers who worked with us reveled in being called "space cowboys" and "space pirates"

$160,000 was raised, old documentation (much of it written by Bob) was collected, and commands were recreated. The spacecraft was successfully contacted in May 2014.

The plan was to put it back into its halo orbit to resume its original mission. Bob had already figured out how to send it back out to encounter yet another comet. Against all odds and conventional wisdom several engine firings of ISEE-3 were accomplished, but it became clear that the propulsion system was not up to the task. The spacecraft flew past the Moon on August 10, 2014—exactly as Bob had planned decades earlier. A few weeks later contact was lost with the spacecraft.

This converted, abandoned McDonalds was the ISEE-3 reboot headquarters. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Bob was a hacker. He totally repurposed what ISEE-3 was supposed to do and how it did it. And a generation later when a new crop of space pirate hackers came along he was one of the first to sign up to hack it again. He and his fellow retired engineers who worked with us reveled in being called "space cowboys" and "space pirates."

Knowing Bob, that explicit "No" was actually a green light for him

ISEE-3 wasn't Bob's only rodeo, however. In 1997, the spacecraft tasked to encounter the asteroid Eros was supposed to end its mission. Bob came up with a way to land the spacecraft on the asteroid. One small problem—it was not designed to land on anything. Undeterred, Bob found a way to do it. When his management found out about it, they explicitly told him not to even mention the idea, let alone work on it. It was not going to happen.

Knowing Bob, that explicit "No" was actually a green light for him. NASA was afraid it would crash and make all the rocket scientists look stupid. Bob persisted and, well, the spacecraft, called NEAR, landed on Eros. Of course it did. Bob always had the numbers, and a plan for using them.

Google Bob's name and you will see that he was active for decades, right up until the end. Recently Bob was pushing his idea for the utilization of cis-lunar space.

I could go on. OK, I will. His original ideas for an innovative mission to Pluto ended up becoming the New Horizons mission that just flew by Pluto. Bob was fond of the number 12 and it shows up in so, so many of his projects. He was sentimental and caused NEAR to reach Eros on Valentine's day in 2000. He treated his missions as much as works of art as they were feats of engineering.

Bob leaves behind several generations of coworkers who were inspired by their own encounters with Bob and have gone on to try crazy things. He truly embraced that old saying that many people cite, but few ever actually follow: It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Exploring space is a risky proposition. Bob Farquhar stared that risk in the eye and he prevailed. We could all do well to learn from him.

Ad astra, Bob.