The Great Wooden Satellite

A few years ago the American Space Society was going to build its first satellite.  It was back when America had to start competing with dogs in space, etc.  They had this crew of engineers there debating, “what material shall we build the satellite out of?”  The satellite’s mission: to take killer photos of everything from stars to America The Beautiful.

There were two schools of thought.  The first thought, you know what, space is like the sea, and ships were traditionally made of wood, and people 1,000 years ago sailed around the world in wooden ships, so let’s make this satellite out of wood.  These were the Woodsmen.

The second school of thought had only two engineers in it.  One was this madcap Jewish intellectual cum weightlifter named Kreve Stashen, a man who literally could not function without coffee.  He would shake and vibrate without it and had joked about having an intravenous caffeine drip installed in his arm, and was actively looking into a Barstucks sponsorship.  Stashen had had a remarkable insight one day, when, overcaffeinated even by his own high standards, and driving down a Pomona freeway, looking at old buildings, he  noticed that wooden structures– old farm shacks and barns– warped and twisted in the dry California heat, while metal buildings looked a bit worn but were otherwise 100% serviceable.

Stashen wrote up his insight into a book called “Principles and Practices in Satellite Photo Acquisition,” which argued that satellites should be made of metal, not wood, and which received some accolades but was otherwise either mocked or ignored.  This book was read by a Mormon engineer named Laine Bray who,  for religious reasons, had literally never tried even a single cup of coffee.  The coffee irony was probably not lost on someone, somewhere.  Bray, who had built many wooden satellites, all of which had crashed, decided to make all of his subsequent satellites out of metal.

Stashen and Bray called themselves Thinking Pragmatically with Research about Space.

At the materials design meeting, the TPRSers proposed a totally radical idea.  “Let’s build the satellite out of metal,” said Bray.  “Research shows that metal does fine in dry, cold space-like conditions,” said Stashen, reaching for the day’s 27th espresso as Bray wrinkled his nose.

“You guys,” said Chief Woodsman Ace Tofl, who moonlighted as president of the American Space Society, “are nuts.  Wood has always worked fine for ships.  OK sure, it will be harder to seal.  Take a lot more wood than metal.  Need a bigger rocketship.  But it will be fine.”

Seeing no support from the A.S.S., Bray went to his workbench and started fiddling.  $300 later he had a metal box big enough to hold a radio, a basic telescope and camera, and a crude solar panel.  He strapped an old Army parachute to it, added some heat-resistant tiles, and presto! satellite.

The A.S.S. meanwhile had crews of engineers from companies like McHill-Graw and Moughton-Hifflin beavering away, and finally built a wooden satellite.  Like schooners and clippers of yore, it had sails and keels and even a rum barrel so that errant Martians could grab a nice drink should they run into the A.S.S.’s masterpiece out in the aether.  But it turned out that there was an unanticipated problem.  The wooden satellite needed an enormous set of never-before-built boosters to get it off the ground, bigger than expected.

Luckily, the U.S. and Canadian forestry industries were right there egging the A.S.S. on, ready to cut down a few million trees should the wooden satellite program get off the ground, and so Tofl sent A.S.S.’s crew of diligent private contractors back to work building the boosters.

Meanwhile, Bray used an old rocket that he found out behind a garden shed at Cape Canaveral to launch his crude, ridiculous metal satellite.  The satellite went into orbit, took lovely photos of Earth and the Milky Way (and a few selfies, because Instagram!), then returned in one piece to Earth.  Bray’s mission, Stashen calculated, cost $26,300: $20,000 for an old booster rocket, $300 for the satellite, and $3,000 for fuel. It generated 3,141 excellent photos (and got 100 Instagram followers) at a cost of about 13 cents/photo. Also $3,000 for Stashen’s coffee habit.

The A.S.S. then launched its wooden satellite into orbit.  When it came time to do satellite work, numerous problems came up…but thankfully these had been anticipated by the cunning engineers. Because it was wood, and wood shrinks and warps, the wood had to be enormously thick, and covered in many layers of insulation. This meant that the camera housed inside the wooden satellite was deep inside the satellite– it had to be, as wood, unlike metal, was a poor shield against cosmic radiation– basically peering through a tunnel of wood, and had limited range to take photos, and so the Great Wooden Satellite took only 173 photos.  And no selfies.  (However, NASA knew that it was important to keep the American Pubic up to speed, so they had cleverly launched a public-relations campaign on twenty-seven social media platforms which boasted amazing shots of the satellite sitting in the hangar, magnificent in its wooden artistry.)

Another GWS problem was reentry. The GWS was so big that it needed an enormous parachute to get back, and it then needed a couple of battleships to find it in the ocean and bring it back.

But Tofl, the forestry industry, the satellite design contractors, and a few dozen other hangers-on were undeterred, and finally when the GWS had been towed back to Cape Canaveral, its designers pronounced its mission a success.

However, Kreve Stashen, who never saw a data set he couldn’t grok out over, drank another cuppa Joe, and did a bit of number crunching.  The GWS program– by A.S.S.’s calculations– cost $3,289,000.  It had taken 171 photos.  Stashen then calculated the arithmetic mean, standard deviation, chi-squared function, theta-z correlation and the independent variability function, and concluded that each photo cost $19,233.

In terms of photo quality, Bray’s satellite crushed the A.S.S.’s, as the camera– mounted close to the edge of the satellite housing, and therefore capable of rotating and zooming at will– proved a much more flexible and accurate photographic instrument than the identical camera buried in the bowels of the GWS.

At the American Space Society’s convention, Stashen laid the facts out: Bray’s simple, improvised satellite was demonstrably cheaper and more effective than the A.S.S.’s G.W.S.

Following Stashen, Tofl appeared onstage, and delivered a paper entitled “Building A Better Beautiful Limitless Experience,” wherein he suggested that

  • engineers keep a portfolio detailing the GWS’s successes as a way to authentically reflect on their growth as engineers
  • iPads be used to track the GWS’s future launches and touchdowns
  • the GWS itself reflect on its own progress, and identify further areas for growth
  • the GWS be exposed to culturally rich stories about space travel, aliens, etc, so that its motivation to take good photos increase, motivation logically being a key factor in the GWS’s ability to take photos.

The American lumber industry, the Navy, an army of contractors, tech giants MicroApple and Soft, and a zillion wannabe amateur space engineers applauded.  Then came question time.

“Isn’t a satellite’s computer system intrinsically unable to self-reflect?” asked a diva named Vill BanPatten, “I mean, is it even alive? Can a computer do that?”

“How exactly is using an iPad to document the GWS’s launch going to help it?”

Tofl kindly responded with “a scaffolded, peer assessed authentically self-reflective process which leverages genius hour accountability into personalised evaluation.”

“Umm, I’m a blogger,” said this one total idiot, “and I am wondering why we are even talking about this GWS project.  The other one is cheaper and better, totally scaleable, simpler, you know?”

“We must respect ALL perspectives,” said the A.S.S.’s Tofl. “Everyone has something valuable to contribute. We need unity in the space community.  We must have respectful dialogue.”

Another audience member then said “well, we know that the Moon is made of green cheese, so could maybe GWS take some photos of it next mission?”

“The Moon,” said BanPatten, “is not made of green cheese.  We have spectroscopic data that disproves this absurd–”

Mr BanPatten!growled Tofl, “we must respect and value all A.S.S. members’ views. Everyone has something to contribute, and every view has merit.”

This meeting broke up acrimoniously.  For some odd reason, the fact that Bray’s dirt-cheap and very effective satellite massively outperformed the A.S.S.’s cumbersome wooden antique made no impression on Ace Tofl or on A.S.S.

Then suddenly it was 2015 and President Obama announced that, by golly, 1,000,000 American satellites needed to be launched into space to keep up with the Chinese (that would be one satellite per Chinese citizen, just keeping tabs, you know).

It was crisis time.  How would 1,000,000 satellites be launched?

Enter Werry Taltz, a Hawaiian engineer who had successfully used and tweaked Bray’s designs.  Taltz, addicted to both satellite design and drawing, sent the White House a message, stating that “if we want to make 1,000,000 satellites, they’ll have to be of modern design, efficient, and with actual tested results.  Given what Bray has accomplished, we should be able to do it for about $250 per satellite, or $250,000,000.”  A.S.S. was also asked for its views, and, instead of responding to Taltz, stated that “good old American derring-do and the forces of industry can launch 1,000,000 satellites at a cost of only $348,987,881,888,000.”

We all know what happened next: Donald Trump got elected.  And so our story awaits an ending:  will Taltz’s proposals win?  Will Stashen’s statistics and design ideas trump A.S.S.’s?  Will Bray’s dead-simple design become de rigeur?  Stay tuned.  On this day in 2018, we’ll check in and see and, as always, bring you alternative facts and truthiness.

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