Satellite reboot is about reconnecting with an old friend
By Monte Morin | Los Angeles Times | Published: June 25, 2014
His wife calls him an egotist, NASA calls him a genius, and his friends call him a sore loser and insufferable winner.
Bob Farquhar says they're all right.
"I not only want to get things done, I want to be in your face at the end," the 82-year-old spaceflight engineer said. "And yes, I have a big ego, but it's not as big as Buzz Aldrin's."
The former Army paratrooper with a Stanford PhD is legendary for making spacecraft do things once thought impossible, and maybe even unwise. The only rules he followed faithfully during his 23 years at NASA were the laws of physics.
Take the time he had brass plaques commemorating his first and current wives affixed to one probe, and commanded the vehicle to land on the asteroid Eros on Valentine's Day. (It may bear mentioning that the spacecraft was neither designed nor intended to touch down on anything.)
And then there was Farquhar's fixation with scheduling mission milestones around birthdays, anniversaries or dates that featured his lucky number, 12.
"I tried to get twelves in everything," he said. "I drove everybody nuts."
Now, decades after his retirement from the space agency, Farquhar is plotting another crazy stunt.
After years of lobbying NASA, he and a group of self-described space cowboys have won permission to be the first privately organized group to take control of a retired government satellite and change its orbit.
And it's not just any satellite: Farquhar helped send the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 into space 36 years ago — at 12 minutes and 12 seconds after the hour on Aug. 12.
While other team members say they're simply attracted to the sheer technical challenge of "rebooting" a Cold War-era satellite, ISEE-3 holds a special place in Farquhar's heart.
After he and the craft both nearly died just days apart in 1981, he came to believe they were connected.
"I always thought my life is tied to this spacecraft," he said. "I thought that when it came back to Earth, then that's when I would die."
By today's technological standards, ISEE-3 resembles a spinning half-ton coffee can. "Your toaster is smarter," quips reboot team member Keith Cowing, a former NASA astrobiologist.
But it was state-of-the-art in 1978 when it blasted off from Florida's Space Coast to measure the relentless stream of charged particles emitted by the sun.
Its flight plan was actually an elaborate proof of Farquhar's doctoral dissertation on the use of so-called libration points for spaceflight.
Instead of orbiting Earth or the sun, ISEE-3 became the first satellite to "park" in a region where the two bodies' gravitational fields balanced.
But its real moment of glory would come as the world's space-faring nations planned a 1986 rendezvous with Halley's comet. When NASA failed to decide on an American plan, Farquhar and others proposed sending ISEE-3 to a lesser-known — but much closer — comet, Giacobini-Zinner.
With ISEE-3 rebadged as the International Cometary Explorer, or ICE, Farquhar devised a flight path that rounded another libration point on the opposite side of the planet, boomeranged repeatedly around Earth and the moon, then used lunar gravity to sling the spacecraft through Giacobini-Zinner's plasma tail. From there, it would orbit the sun for eternity with a brief swing by Earth on Aug. 10 of this year.
None other than science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke described the stunt as a mind-boggling feat.
"ICE's track looks like a plate of spaghetti, dropped from a considerable height," Clarke wrote in his autobiography, "Astounding Days."
One day as he planned this route, Farquhar was playing basketball with his daughter, Patty, when a crushing pain radiated through his chest.
Days later, as he recovered from the heart attack, he got word that ISEE-3 had also experienced a life-threatening crisis. The spacecraft's only battery had failed, leaving it entirely dependent on the solar panels that surrounded its barrel-like body.
Ever since, Farquhar has said he shares a "supernatural connection" to the vehicle.
Farquhar is a guy who likes to have fun, whether he's ribbing colleagues for being "nerds" or belting out military songs such as "Blood on the Risers" while driving around town. He wears a mischievous smile much of the time, and his easy speaking manner makes it hard to believe he has long wrestled with a stutter.
His two favorite topics of discussion are women and himself, though not in that order.
Recently, he was holding forth on one of those subjects at a Chinese restaurant when a reporter cracked open a fortune cookie and pulled out the message: "Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century."
Farquhar screwed his face into an expression of horror as he contemplated a lunar existence.
"That would be awful," he said. "Who would want to live on the moon? I can't imagine anything worse."
That might sound like an odd response coming from a former NASA engineer, but Farquhar is a collection of contradictions.
Even though he once dreamed of becoming a pilot, and has jumped from aircraft as a paratrooper, the engineer said he's struggled with a deep fear of flying for most of his life. (Having a parachute made him feel better, he said.)
"I hate being a passenger," he said.
The celebration of ISEE-3's 1985 cometary mission was barely over when Farquhar began dreaming up its next adventure.
There were discussions about using the space shuttle to pluck the satellite from orbit and placing it in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, but NASA administrators cooled on the idea.
Next, Farquhar lobbied the space agency to return ISEE-3 to its original so-called halo orbit at an Earth-sun libration point. But NASA said it already operated two newer satellites there that provided similar observations and that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration planned to send up a third.
It seemed as if ISEE-3 was destined to continue its lonely orbit around the sun forever.
Then two of Farquhar's associates came up with an idea that would overcome NASA's reluctance to use taxpayer money on the old spacecraft.
Dennis Wingo, chief executive of the small space engineering firm Skycorp Inc., and Cowing proposed a crowd-funded effort to take custody of the orphaned spacecraft. With ISEE-3's orbit approaching its window of proximity to Earth, there was no time to lose.
"Bob had been an evangelist for this reboot mission for years," Wingo said. "We helped force the issue."
The effort has touched a deep chord with the public, said Cowing, who also edits the website NASAWatch.com. Supporters have contributed $160,000, mostly in increments of $10 or $50.
The reboot team, which includes other former NASA employees, has quite a bit of spaceflight experience. Skycorp even maintains an office — albeit one in an abandoned McDonald's restaurant — at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
"They know what they're doing, and they're responsible," said David Chenette, director of NASA's Heliophysics Division in Washington. "More power to them if it works."
Farquhar was perched on a kitchen stool in his tidy, brick-face colonial home enjoying his usual lunch: a slice of lemon meringue pie. In between bites, he sipped tea from an "Occupy Mars" mug, and listened to a telephone conference call with Wingo and other members of the reboot project team.
There was good news, and not-so-good news.
First the good news: Members of the reboot team had used the massive radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to establish contact with ISEE-3.
And then the not-so-good news: It was not entirely clear where it was. It seemed the spacecraft might be 150,000 miles off from where they thought they'd find it — and perhaps on a collision course with the moon.
It was also spinning about one revolution per minute more slowly than it should be. If its spin isn't within specifications, it's less stable, and its spin-calibrated propulsion system might not work properly.
"If we pull this off, it will be a miracle of the highest order," Farquhar told them.
After a little more talk, Farquhar hung up the phone and got a second slice of pie.
"If we do manage to get it, I want to send it after another comet," he said, stabbing the pie with his fork. "I really don't want to put it back in halo orbit. That's dullsville."