Space: the final frontier. This will be the voyage of the NSS Enterprise, an eight-foot-long recoverable spacecraft to be 3D-printed by Made In Space. Its one-week to one-month mission: to boldly orbit and return to earth with 100 worldwide student experiments and communicate with student teams using an artificial intelligence, just like the computer aboard the fictional USS Enterprise.
Star Trek and other science fiction classics may portray a future in which humanity has advanced to the point that the species’ efforts are directed towards, not war and wealth, but exploring the universe and understanding what it means to be alive and human. But as it stands, the utopian visions of these science fiction tales are far from being executed. The NASA budget has remained, until this coming fiscal year, stagnant since the 70’s. Global conflict rages amidst a worsening climate that threatens the livelihood of just about everyone and everything on Earth. Some 100,000,000 children, 2/3 of them girls, have no access to education of any kind. At this rate, it’s difficult to imagine how we could ever get to that world of tomorrow.
One man, however, has put together an expert team, from various scientific fields and backgrounds, that is laying the groundwork for such a future. And as unbelievable as it may seem, Shawn Case is committed to bringing the vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and other similar science fiction luminaries, into reality.
One of the many interesting things about Shawn and his Enterprise In Space non-profit, an international project of the National Space Society, is that he isn’t an astrophysicist or a rocket engineer. While he may be an amateur astronomer and cosmologist who’s studied the stars in his free time since the Moon landing in ’69, Shawn started out as a firefighter for the US Forest Service before becoming a professional chef for 15 years. After that, he worked as a webmaster for 15 years, while also acting as a health advocate for chronic digestive health conditions with expert universities and organizations. Nowhere on his resume is there a PhD in cosmology or a position as Chief Scientist for a jet propulsion laboratory.
When I asked Shawn as tactfully as possible what qualified him to launch a 3D printed craft into space, he told me, “I’ve always loved the quote from Wernher von Braun, ‘I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution.’ So, here’s the thing: I just went for it! I’m 55. I started watching Star Trek when I was six. And, then, when we landed on the Moon, that got me really interested in space. So, I studied cosmology and astronomy on my own for forty years.” I could tell that, although he wasn’t officially trained in these specialties, Shawn was clearly heavily involved in the sciences. Not just space sciences, but Earth sciences, as well.
He continues, “Then, four-and-a-half years ago, I was just flicking through the channels and Star Trek came on and I was thinking to myself, ‘Hey, they’ve flown Gene Roddenberry’s ashes into space, but there’s never been a ship bearing the name ‘Enterprise’ in orbit,” the space shuttle Enterprise having been an unpowered, drop-ship test model only. So, Shawn decided that he would remedy that— leading to the founding of Enterprise In Space. “The term ‘enterprise’ is doubly meaningful.” he explains. “First, it refers to the commercialization of space through the free enterprise process. Second, it is a tribute to all of the ships throughout history that bear the name ‘Enterprise’, real and imagined.”
And, over the course of the past four-and-a-half years, Shawn has assembled a massive group of individuals located on six continents hailing from such impressive companies and organizations as Deep Space Industries, Value Spring Technology, Made In Space, Global Aerospace Corporation, Prairie Nanotechnology, Terminal Velocity Aerospace, Janet’s Planet, SpaceWorks, the Center for Applied Space Technology, SPACE Canada, Horizon Space Technologies, Hoffman Management Partners, Yerkes Observatory, and the Canadian Space Society.
Working together, the members of Enterprise In Space have not only amassed $27.5 million in “in-kind” donations, which include everything from an artificial intelligence platform to protective heat shield materials, but they’ve also built the framework for a complete space-focused education curriculum (kindergarten through university and post-grad), made deals with major aerospace businesses, and even designed and built a scale model of what could become the first completely 3D-printed airframe to be launched into orbit.
The design for the NSS Enterprise spacecraft was developed in the spirit of Internet connectivity and community, through a crowdsourcing competition. Crafted by video game concept artist Stanley von Medvey, the NSS Enterprise will, when constructed at full scale, carry over 100 active and passive experiments, from students of all grade levels and from all over the world, in orbit around our Earth. The 1,000-pound spacecraft will orbit the planet for one week to one month, depending on the eventual extent of funding, before returning home with its valuable data.
In preparation, the Enterprise In Space website is home to a database now under construction that will include all of the necessary educational information associated with these experiments. “We’re setting up an online environment called the EIS Academy with lesson plans,” Shawn says. “The lesson plans will be standardized toward a global educational set of objectives, so educators can teach them anywhere. They will be available to teachers on a safe, password-protected platform. There will also be information and educational activities readily available to the public.”
The student projects remain at the heart of the initiative, but the technology that will take them into space and maintain them while they’re there is just as important. For that reason, Enterprise In Space has partnered with numerous companies and organizations that have lent their expertise and equipment to bring this project to life, which includes space 3D printing experts Made In Space.
Made In Space co-founder and chief engineer Michael Snyder has joined the EIS Board of Advisors, where he will head up the educational Enterprise Center for Excellence on Aerospace Additive Manufacturing based on the project. Snyder will also oversee the 3D printing of the components used in the spacecraft, with Made In Space as the primary contractor.
The company has just launched a NASA project that will see the company 3D printing large-scale structures in space and, having proven the ability to print in a vacuum and sent the first 3D printer to space already, the firm is an ideal one for the 3D printing of the NSS Enterprise. Snyder says in a recent press release, “The Enterprise In Space vehicle itself is an incredible technical challenge that will push the barriers of additive manufacturing and spacecraft design. The fully integrated vehicle will be unique and truly groundbreaking for the type of mission that is being undertaken. Made In Space is excited to be a part of this great effort to engage with students from across the world through real experiments that will be flown in space on the NSS Enterprise spacecraft.”
Not only could this be the first 3D-printed airframe in space, but the NSS Enterprise could also use the first artificial intelligence to be connected to a spacecraft, thanks to Value Spring Technology, a company that develops cognitive computing data analytics solutions. The firm will be adapting its enterpriseMind™ software, a cognitive computing platform, for the project. Shawn says, “We’re partnering with them so that our spacecraft could be one of the first that has a connection to an AI computer, if no one flies one before us.”
Once aloft, some of the student experiments aboard the orbiter will be in the care of ‘Ali’, Value Spring’s artificial intelligence program. As the voice and mind of the spacecraft, Ali will be in charge of both communicating with the Enterprise In Space crew back on Earth, and also managing the active experiments aboard the NSS Enterprise. She’ll also teach students on Earth and communicate with them about the status of their experiments in orbit. In the case that, say, a box of seeds must be watered for a 6th grade class in Romania, for example, Ali could be commanded by the students to unlock a mechanism that exposes the seeds to an accompanying H20 bath.
In their recent press release, EIS Program Manager Alice Hoffman describes the artificial intelligence: “Ali will be the voice and mind of the NSS Enterprise, communicating with her virtual crew just as the computer aboard the Star Trek ships did, in natural language, through the student teams’ own internet terminals. Through the EIS project, we hope to demonstrate that Ali can become a personal tutor and mentor to every student, allowing them to see the vision of a brighter future and providing them with the education to fully participate.”
For those that wonder if Ali might pull a HAL aboard the NSS Enterprise, not to worry: Shawn says that they’ve isolated the AI to controlling non-vital functions of the mission. All actual spacecraft control will be handled by the crew on Earth. Shawn explains, “One of the things we’re working on with the AI is that we’re not breaking the machine language barrier, so it can’t take over. There will just be an Internet connection to the spacecraft through which the AI (which runs in the cloud on Earth and communicates with students wherever they have internet access) will help control some of the experiments on it. Ali will also be the voice of the orbiter. It’s basically right out of Star Trek. You’ll say, ‘Ali’, and ask it a question and it will answer.”
And, on Earth, Ali will also be a tutor for the students in the program’s EIS Academy. “Enterprise In Space will develop and demonstrate a personal tutor for STEAM education and motivate teachers and students to participate with the design, build, fly, and recovery of a recoverable spacecraft that will orbit and return to Earth.” Shawn explains, “The ultimate goal there is, once that’s completely developed, to have the AI in an educational role as a personal tutor to every kid on the planet that has a 4G connection.”
Since its inception, Shawn says Enterprise In Space has always had an educational focus, which played a key decision-making factor for the National Space Society when they took the project under the non-profit’s wing. “From the beginning, I wanted to fly this as an educational tool. So, I reached out to Fred Becker, who works for the National Space Society. When I got a hold of Fred, he said, ‘I love this idea. Let’s work on it.’ “
“Fred is our Chief Engineer and has worked on a number of NASA missions,” Shawn continues, “including the Space Shuttle, Space Station, X-33, Atlas, Delta, Pegasus, Taurus, Spitzer Space Telescope, Lunar Prospector, Pluto New Horizons, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Gravity Probe B. He was part of mission control for the first Shuttle flight and has made one flight aboard the NASA Zero-G Aircraft. He’s got an electrical engineering degree and has done graduate work in physics, futures studies, and space systems engineering. And he’s also a NASA encyclopedia.”
Soon, the connection with the NSS and Shawn’s many contacts linked Enterprise In Space with space veterans of all backgrounds. Among them was Lynne Zielinski, Vice President of Public Affairs for the NSS, who has joined Enterprise In Space as their Technical Adviser and Science & Educational Outreach Director. And her credentials as an award-winning educator and scientist are outstanding.
Shawn tells me, “Lynne Zielinski is the only person to win the National Space Educator Award from the National Space Club twice, and she won the Astronaut Memorial Foundation’s Alan Shepard Award for Technology in Education from the Space Foundation in 2014. Through her student organization, the Glenbrook Aerospace Development Get-away Experiment Team (GADGET), Lynne has flown nine active and more than 200 passive experiments on six Space Shuttle missions, nine sub-orbital NASA rockets, and more. So, she started putting together all of the education experiment information for Enterprise In Space and then put together a team. And she’s got one awesome education team. And Lynne brought on Alice Hoffman, a director on the board for the National Space Society.”
Hoffman is also the President of Hoffman Management Partners, which oversaw the construction of a $6.2 billion expansion on the Chicago O’Hare airport and the $660 million conversion of a historical building into Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field. Because of those credentials, she was ideal for the role of EIS Program Manager. Shawn says, “I put her in charge because of her business and professional backgrounds to manage a massive project like this.”
The project then steamrolled into a massive endeavor staffed with some of the most qualified people in space sciences. “We partnered with Yerkes Observatory, the birthplace of modern astrophysics, which also has the largest refracting telescope in the world. And then we got the Senior Vice President & Senior Operating Officer of the National Space Society, Bruce Pittman involved, as well. Bruce is currently the founder and president of Profit Engineering Technologies. He’s also the Director of Flight Projects and Chief System Engineer in the NASA Space Portal and the Emerging Space Office at the NASA Ames Research Center. He’s worked on everything from orbital applications of the International Space Station to low-cost access to space.”
Shawn continues, “I knew I couldn’t do it on my own, but one person can make a big change when they’re working with other people towards a common goal. What I did was hook up all of these qualified people and we’ve been able to fully detail the project. There were no roadblocks and people just loved the idea and started saying, ‘Sign me up!’ I have a very dedicated team that’s been working for years on their own time to put it together. Right from the beginning, everyone’s been interested.”
And, while it’s been a long journey so far, the project continues to move forward and gather more and more interest from laypeople and professionals alike. But, despite the $27.5 million in “in-kind” donations, Enterprise In Space has so far been a volunteer project and the team has put in hundreds of thousands of man-hours. Now, in order to drive this historic and educational project forward, Enterprise In Space is officially in fundraising mode—large and small.
“A major part of this is that we’re working on our funding right now, and a lot of corporations and people are interested. But,” Shawn points out, “as much as we’re working on corporate sponsorship and things like that, I’d really like to see the people contribute and have this spacecraft be a vehicle of the people. This is kind of like starting a mini NASA.”
For that reason, anyone who donates $20 to the program will have their name flown on a chip aboard the orbiter when it goes into space, making them a “virtual crew member” of “the first real Enterprise In Space.” While those who make larger donations may get extra perks, Shawn says that he wanted to keep the donation amount as low as possible, while still enabling them to pay for the costs of building and launching a recoverable spacecraft into space. “$20 is the cost of going to a movie,” he explains. “Some people are saying, ‘Charge $100 minimum.’ And I say, ‘No, we’re charging $20 because I want it to be affordable to everyone.’ For $20, they get their name flown in space. After the spacecraft re-enters the Earth’s orbit, we’ll put it in a major museum. And then we’ll put a computer next to the orbiter there and people will be able to see their names alongside mission details and videos on the computer at the museum.”
These funds will go towards constructing the spacecraft, subsidizing the student experiments so that the students don’t have to pay for the flight, building Ali the AI, and funding the staff to maintain the longevity of the project. Other costs will continue to be taken care of through “in-kind” donations. For instance, the cost of catching a ride on a commercial rocket into space can reach as high as $60 million, so, Enterprise In Space is in talks with existing commercial launch companies to carry the NSS Enterprise as a secondary payload and release it into its own orbit.
For everything else, there will be individual and corporate donations—which means that, together, all of the contributions could send a number of firsts into Earth’s orbit: a 3D printed airframe, a connection to an AI computer, and the greatest number of student experiments in one payload, leading to what Shawn believes may be the biggest crowdfunded space project ever attempted. There are no technological roadblocks, so with enough virtual crew members and corporate support, the NSS Enterprise will be able to fly. On top of that, those $20, tax-deductible donations would lay the foundation for an educational program that will train the next generation of engineers and astronauts that will take us to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
So, as the virtual crew of the NSS Enterprise preps for a trip into Earth’s orbit, Shawn left me with this appropriate quote from George Bernard Shaw: “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’” And Shawn tells me that he’s looking for those visionaries who say “Why not?”