Gil Moore is a dapper and startlingly energetic man with a black patch over his left eye. He is retired from a long career in the space industry, but don’t bother telling him – he is way too busy and is moving far too fast.
For the past several years, Moore has worked with kids around the world, hoping his Starshine projects will accomplish two things: inspire kids to get involved in space technology and to do real science, studying the results of atmospheric drag-on objects in orbit – ranging from a small satellite to the ever-growing space station.
The Starshine project involves assembling a small satellite covered with precisely ground and highly reflective mirrors. Kits containing materials to make the mirrors are sent to classrooms around the world. Students’ hand-grind three mirrors, keep one as a souvenir and send the other pair back to Moore’s Monument home.
He and his wife inspect them and they are forwarded to Huntsville, Alabama, where a protective coating is applied. Later the Naval Research Laboratory attaches them to the satellite.
The voyage that brought Moore to Colorado Springs is a bit convoluted, but he ended up teaching at the Air Force Academy after working for 25 years at Thiokol Corp. That is the Utah Company that manufactures the solid rocket booster motor that provides the bulk of the power to put the space shuttle into orbit. A defective joint seal on one of those motors caused the shuttle Challenger to explode.
“After I retired from the Air Force Academy, Phyllis (his wife) asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Moore said. “I told her I had this experiment in mind, and she said let’s do it. She has supported me every step of the way.”
The work might reap giant benefits for the United States. America’s space brain trust is aging. Enthusiasm for space travel stirred up during the Kennedy administration is a dimming fire, and to many American youth, space no longer spells a glamorous future.
That means there could be a serious shortage of scientists to create the next generation of space vehicles, experts recently told the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry.
What makes the problem urgent, said Sean O’Keefe, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is the “extremely mature workforce” in his agency and private industry. “Almost one-third of NASA’s workforce will be eligible to retire within the next three to five years,” he said.
“That’s exactly the reason we’re doing this,” Moore said. “To bring a new round of kids into the space program.”
Through earlier work at Utah State University and Weber State University, Moore sponsored the launching of five “get-away specials.” The specials are canisters of experiments built by university students, then launched into orbit on the shuttle.
To date, more than 150 “get-away specials” have flown. Moore and his wife Phyllis personally paid for five “get-away specials” at a cost of about $10,000 each.
A completed Starshine satellite looks a lot like a disco dance ball. The quarter-sized mirrors covering it, about 1,000 in number, reflect sunlight back to observers on earth. By tracking the satellite’s position, researchers can monitor changes in atmospheric density due to solar heating of the atmosphere’s outer reaches.
So far, over 100,000 students from 43 countries have participated in Project Starshine by meticulously grinding and polishing the mirrors by hand. Some are from West Middle School in Colorado Springs.
This isn’t busy work for kids, said Moore. “The idea is to measure the density of air in the upper atmosphere,” Moore said. “That data is used to find what impact sunspots have on spacecraft drag… so they are doing some real science.”
The satellites are easily visible on earth with only the naked eye. Starshines 4 and 5 are next in line and will launch early next year.
Eventually the satellites burn up in the atmosphere before striking earth. The relatively short life of the Starshine satellites doesn’t bother Moore. He’s far too busy thinking of ways to use the data his projects generate.
“Our goal is to continue monitoring the thermosphere throughout the remainder of the current Solar Cycle… using Starshine satellites launched every year or so,” Moore said.