Techno-Archaeologists Used an Abandoned McDonald's to Hijack a Satellite

"We're mostly dumpster diving for science."

Aug 11 2014, 8:25pm

Image courtesy Keith Cowing

From an abandoned McDonald's in the backyard of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, a dozen or so volunteer scientists and engineers have taken control of a decommissioned, still running, 70s-era space satellite, currently some 20,000 kilometers away, by using discarded vintage space computers and a few sweet eBay finds. 

The so-named "McMoon's" Control Center is some sort of bizarre testament to human ingenuity and what a bunch of very smart people with virtually no budget or proper authorization can pull off.

A bit of context: The International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) satellite was launched on August 12, 1978, and was originally meant to study the Earth's magnetosphere from the L1 Lagrangian point between the Sun and the Earth, where the gravity of both bodies cancel each other out. 

In the past 36 years, the spacecraft has circled the Sun 31 times, encountered and sent back data about passing comets, and was renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) in 1983. But by 1997, NASA had stopped routinely checking the status of the craft, and abandoned any future use for it.

In early 2014, Keith Cowing, an ex-NASA space biologist, set up a crowdfunded and crowdsourced project to make contact with the 36-year-old relic and to potentially bring it back into Earth's orbit as it approached the Moon for the first time in nearly 20 years. 

From their headquarters in an old fast food restaurant, Cowing's team raised $160,000, and after tinkering with literally tons of decades-old surplus NASA technology, and facing a strict August deadline, they made contact with ISEE-3 on May 29, 2014.

This past Sunday, the satellite made its closest approach to the Moon, and in honor of the event, McMoon's held a Google Hangout with a "live feed" of the satellite's relative position. I gave Keith Cowing a call after the festivities had died down some to find out how he went from working at NASA to working out of a McDonald's.

Motherboard: Today's been a big day for you guys, huh?
Keith Cowing: Yeah, our spacecraft made its closest approach to the Moon, so we were sort of symbolically waving goodbye to it, and also beginning a new mission phase.

What happened to the plan to bring it into Earth orbit?
Um, the main issue was that when the spacecraft was coming back to the vicinity of the Moon, we had hoped to fire its propulsion systems to put it in an orbit near Earth. Unfortunately, we weren't able to because it only had one tank left operating. So instead it's going to go around the Sun. Other than that one disappointment we're going ahead as we planned.

Have you lost contact with it?
Not at all, we're actually going to be talking to it probably next week. We're still listening. But for now we're waiting for the data to come back. When we went out to raise the funds, we had a little slogan on our logo, "Make Me Do Science," and so now we've made it do science and we're getting data since we've turned the instruments back on. 

We're trying to rekindle the language that this craft is speaking, and understand the numbers, and then we're going to post the data online as soon as we get it, which is unusual for a spacecraft like this. Normally scientists hold onto [data] for years.

So you guys have full control over this spacecraft, you're not just collecting data from it, you're actually manipulating it?
Yeah, we're in complete command of the spacecraft.

Image: Jeffrey Inscho

From an abandoned McDonald's in Mountain View.
We're into repurposing. We call this McDonald's "McMoon's," and it's actually located on an NASA base.

How'd you end up there?
Well, the McDonald's closed a number of years ago when, you know, they just couldn't make a business of it, and the building is owned by the government, so it's just been sitting here. We did another project where we were recovering images from old Apollo-era lunar missions, and since we were using NASA data, we were given this building because it was free. 

I mean, who else wants to work in a McDonald's? We did. And the doors lock, which is pretty much all we needed. This was in 2007.

How did you go from image recovery to space hijacking?
Well, just as we were finishing up that program—using hardware from another era, old scientists, old data, old documents, stuff like that—this other mission, the ISEE-3 mission popped up, and we were like, "Well that sounds easy by comparison." I mean, we'd known about the satellite for a while. To be honest, we just started talking casually about it and then one thing led to another.

What was the hardest part of the project besides finding the money?
It took a great deal of effort getting our new technology to talk to the old technology in just the right way so that the spacecraft would cooperate.

Who's on your team?
I'm one of the two in charge, I'm the co-lead. The other person is Dennis Wingo, and we've got a core team of about a dozen people ranging in age from mid-20 to guys in their 80s. We've managed to take a page from the Blues Brothers, as they say, "we're getting the band back together." And we've got a lot of the original researchers from back in the 70s pulling out their old documents and helping us understand what the spacecraft is saying.

All told, there's probably 20 people working on the project, and mostly everybody is just volunteering their time, which is what you get with a crowdfunded, crowdsourced, open data sort of project. The hacker crowd is willing to do things because they're cool, and you know, it's nice to get paid, but it's not a requirement.

Image: Jeffrey Inscho

Where did you crowdfund?
Rockethub, actually. We like them, and this time we raised $160,000, so they like us.

How does this compare to working at NASA?
Most people at NASA usually work in a nice building on their nice new computers, they want nice furniture, and you know, here we are, working in an abandoned McDonalds that still smells a little bit like French fries. Part of the floor is cracked, all of our office furniture is used, discarded by the government. Sometimes the chairs break.

Where do you guys get all that equipment?
Well, any government base or facility, when they replace old furniture or tech they just send it to a surplus outlet on the base, and then once a month they put it out for auction. But any government project working for the government can go in there before it goes up for auction and say, "Hey I want this, I could use that." 

We're mostly dumpster diving for science.

So we just go in there, we call it "The Toy Store." We got a flat panel TV that was tossed out because it didn't work, and one of our engineers just fixed the power supply and we got a free TV.

We use last year's computers, because you just dump a little RAM in them and they work just fine. And we don't really like to buy things. We're mostly dumpster diving for science. So, you know, some people look at that and would say "That's not how real scientists work," and we're like, "Well, if we had an unlimited budget, I guess new stuff would be good." 

But you know, it used to be that you had to use a little ingenuity to make things and to fix stuff, and we just use a little bit more of it. And, of course, they're found resources. If nobody wants stuff that's pretty much free and paid for. People are happy to give us stuff. There's a lot of documentation from 30 to 50 years ago coming from people who are retired who say, "My wife told me to get rid of this crap, do you want it? I told her it was important." And it is!

We get a little ahead of ourselves sometimes in what we attempt, but the plus side is that I think we do more with a lot less, and I would challenge everybody else to start thinking that way. I think a lot of people get soft when you don't have to be creative. And the easiest way to be creative is to have to get by with less. You know, "necessity is the mother of invention," and you know, when all you have is old computers, you have to make them work.

Image: Wikipedia

Ostensibly, it sounds like anyone could get government auctioned parts and hack together a team to hijack a satellite like you guys did.
Well, yeah. People ask us, "Why are you doing this?" Because we can, it's fun, we get to learn how to do it, and because at first NASA never actually said we couldn't. 

But then, what is the benefit? Well, we got a spacecraft actually doing science, and anybody who wants to do some science can take part. And how we did it, using crowdsourced money and information, I'd like to think that other people say, "Hey, if they did it, we could do it too."

I think a lot of people get soft when you don't have to be creative.

Are there other abandoned satellites that this can be done with?
I mean, there are other spacecrafts that are retired and not being used that conceivably somebody could take over, but it's not just about space. There are other projects.

I mean, we crowdfunded $159,602, and that's a number that any medium-sized or small-sized town could potentially raise and do something spectacular with. It's not lost on us that we've just done something that's fundamentally absurd, but luckily we have an army of evangelistas giving us money to do this kind of science.

Do you have a name for yourselves?
Yeah, we have a word we made up: "techno-archaeologists." We're digging up old stuff, we go dumpster diving for science—and I mean, I've actually jumped in a dumpster when we saw a cable that we needed, so it's not just a name. You know, techno-archaeology is just the studying of old technology.

And making it work.
Exactly. And we have fun too, because at the end of the day, it's fun. This whole thing is just about a bunch of people who were told something is impossible, and we said "Fine, we'll do it. If there's no money, we'll get it." And it just shows you that you really should challenge assumptions, when somebody says something is impossible, you really should say "Why do you say that?" 

It may be that the person who is asking is totally right, and you're just stupid to try, but you won't know unless you do try. I don't want to be too profound or anything, but sometimes things that people have tried before fail because they weren't doing it right. If there is a value to this, scientifically, at least the fact that the spacecraft was left on for 36 years and still works is pretty cool. Like, do you watch Star Trek: The New Generation?

Well, you probably wouldn't get the joke, but there's an episode where the Enterprise comes across a bunch of aliens who look like they're kinda dumb, and they've got a very old spaceship they're trying to fix, so Riker asks them "What brings you so far from home?" and they reply, "We look for things… things that make us go."