During my recent two years as NASA’s Chief Technologist, I worked to establish ties between the Maker community and NASA. I see this connection as a means to energize the public to undertake private, individual investment in space and to solve technical problems that will enable our future in it. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has been eager to create public/private partnerships and sees the Maker community as a potentially powerful ally in growing the economy through innovation and entrepreneurship. I worked closely with OSTP on a number of Maker-related initiatives during my time there.
As a Cornell professor I led a team that created the world’s first crowdsourced spacecraft, Kicksat, so-named because of the successful Kickstarter campaign that gave hundreds of backers their own five-gram “Sprite” satellite. Our team launched 104 of these Sprites in April 2014, the first time that a Kickstarter campaign has funded a mission. We expect to launch a follow-on spacecraft next year.
I believe that encouraging everyone to put their creations into orbit is a key step in accelerating progress toward a future of human settlement of the solar system.
Although I am pleased that the Kicksat spacecraft has been successful, my favorite homebuilt spacecraft is rover that hops vertically to travel across, say, the surface of another planet. It uses a repurposed hard-drive platen for gyroscopic stabilization and a pressurized air piston for vertical hopping. I built this thing in 1999, before we thought that there was such a thing as a Maker movement.
When in doubt, I reuse mechanical and electrical subsystems from commercial products: old printers, VCRs, CD drives, and hard drives are my favorite source of high-precision and low-cost mechanical components.
For me, electronics is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Digital electronics had been my Achilles heel for a long time; now, with low-cost circuit-board layout software and the fact that one can simply send schematics out for fabrication, that problem is far less of an impediment to building what I want. Also, working with students enables me to delegate these electronics problems, as long as I successfully communicate my preference for cleverly adapting off-the-shelf solutions rather than seeking optimality through in-depth science projects.
Makers reject the limitations in creativity and customization that industrial-scale production and profitabilty place on innovation, preferring to take matters into their own hands and build the world they would prefer to live in.
Students tend to think bigger now than they did a decade ago. The distinction in expertise among electronics, mechanical, and software subsystems is less important for these students, and multidisciplinary problem solving has benefitted from this Maker perspective.
Taking responsibility for the success of a creation comes from working as an individual Maker and as someone on a small team. Large projects of the traditional variety sometimes suffer from the fact that individuals rarely see the big picture and almost never feel that sense of responsibility for the big picture. So, I believe that Making teaches the all-important habit of doing whatever it takes to accomplish the goal.
Most university faculty do not recognize much theoretical or intellectual value in the skills or culture of Making. This failure puts Makers at odds with the more familiar practices and expectations of academia. Furthermore, faculty who supervise Maker-related projects can rarely find the financial resources to support these projects, making the projects necessarily lower in priority for faculty who also perform funded research.
More and more, the familiar technical skills of engineers are becoming automated. For example, it is no longer necessary for all students to gain detailed knowledge of manual methods for structural analysis, fluid mechanics analysis, and electronic circuit analysis. Understanding the “why” of these physical behaviors will always be important, but now students ought to be learning how to synthesize new ideas, informed by automated problem- solving tools. Making is an example of how one can solve a problem using components, design tools, and other approaches that already exist, filling in the gaps where necessary with custom hardware and software. It also encourages seeing the big picture and understanding the steps one needs to take to achieve it. For that reason, a Maker perspective leads students down the path of Systems Engineering, a skillset that contemporary engineers must be familiar with.
Pick something you already do well, and come up with something new to create in that general area. Learn what you need as you go.