Swinging by earth next month.  Source: NASA
Swinging by earth next month.  Source: NASA

Can a group of citizen scientists working out of an abandoned California McDonald’s re-energize U.S. space exploration? Thirty years ago, that question would have been the basis for a science-fiction novel, at best. Today, however, not only are the scientists and the McDonald’s real, but the group has also commandeered a 36-year-old NASA space probe bound for an August fly-by of the Earth and moon.

International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 was revolutionary long before the geeks in the McDonald’s -- located on the NASA Ames Research Center's grounds -- got hold of it. Launched in 1978, ISEE-3 (later renamed the International Cometary Explorer) was the first spacecraft to monitor an Earth-bound solar wind, as well as the first spacecraft to visit a comet. In 1997, NASA terminated ISEE-3 operations (even though most of its scientific equipment was still operating) and off the craft flew with a carrier signal that could be detected from Earth. Fortunately, in 1986 far-sighted NASA engineers had fired the probe’s rockets to place it on a trajectory that would pass by our moon on Aug. 10 of this year.

Since then, scientists and space aficionados have kept an eye on the low-tech probe with hopes that it might be either retrieved (highly unlikely) for study of the dust on its surface and eventual display at the Smithsonian, or commandeered and sent into a scientifically valuable orbit. But in February, any excitement waned when it became clear that around 1999 NASA scrapped the communications hardware necessary to contact ISEE-3. Replacing it -- though possible -- would probably be prohibitively expensive.

In a universe where NASA set the parameters for what Americans can accomplish in space, that would have been the end of the matter. But that’s no longer the universe in which American space scientists and entrepreneurs live. Private space companies (such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX) now compete for contracts to launch satellites into orbit, and high school students can build a small satellite that successfully orbits the Earth.

Enter the folks in the abandoned McDonald’s. With NASA refusing to allocate funds to ISEE-3, the citizen scientists and engineers (including a retired NASA engineer who worked on the probe) devised a project that would direct ISEE-3 to an orbit where it could continue gathering the data it had been launched to collect in 1978. To pay for it -- and for software to mimic the scrapped communications hardware -- this group set up a crowdfunding effort that has raised about $160,000. (Full disclosure: I was an early donor.) And in late May -- with NASA’s express permission -- they contacted and took control of ISEE-3.

It's uncertain what will happen next. Last week the probe’s engines didn’t fire as hoped and thus plans for a stable, data-gathering orbit are now in jeopardy. But even if the probe doesn’t make it into the desired orbit, it’s already collecting data and will continue to do so as it cruises past the Earth and moon, and back into interplanetary space. Meanwhile, the ISEE-3 is crowdsourcing advice on how to fix the engine problem -- surely not science as usual when it comes to space exploration.

Of greater importance than any science is the excitement that the mission has generated. Perhaps more so than any U.S. space event since the daredevil landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover in 2012, the ISEE-3 reboot has energized a space community that seems demoralized by stagnant funding and leadership. To some extent, such excitement comes at the expense of NASA administrators who acknowledge that ISEE-3 will “engage a new generation of citizen scientists,” but couldn’t find money in its almost $18 billion budget to do it itself (in fairness, NASA overhead -- including salaries -- would consume the ISEE-3 project’s $160,000 in short order). Surely, NASA has more significant missions to concentrate on than ISEE-3. But if the agency hopes to build public support for its far more ambitious and expensive initiatives, it needs the inspirational and educational benefits that a gamble such as the ISEE-3 reboot project can bring.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.