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Small Payloads, Big Science

Season 1Episode 335May 10, 2024

A nanosatellites expert explains the process of how CubeSats are selected, scheduled for launch, and eventually deployed from the International Space Station. HWHAP Episode 335.

Houston We Have a Podcast Episode 335: Small Payloads, Big Science

HWHAP Ep. 335: Small Payloads, Big Science

From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.

On episode 335, a nanosatellites expert explains the process of how CubeSats are selected, scheduled for launch, and eventually deployed from the International Space Station. This episode was recorded on April 2, 2024.

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Host (Kenna Pell): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 335, “Small Payloads, Big Science.” I’m Kenna Pell and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, and astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight and more. Cargo deliveries to the International Space Station are pretty significant missions in themselves. Thousands of pounds of science, research, hardware, and supplies, including food, all have to come together to not only hitch a ride on board the launch, but keep on schedules so they don’t miss that ride. Now, think in a more granular sense. There’s sometimes hundreds of different payloads that make up the cargo deliveries each have their own missions involving researchers and students that make up teams across the world that work together to make them happen.

Some of that research is conducted on station. Other times the station serves as a platform to deploy capabilities. Fresh off the heels of NASA’s latest cargo delivery to the International Space Station that carried more than 6,000 pounds to the orbiting lab, we sat down with Max Brummel, the mission manager for Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer 27. This involves seven different shoebox size missions in one that were deployed from the station into low Earth orbit. But don’t let that shoebox size reference fool you. These small but mighty payloads are called CubeSats, and each have big science mission and objectives of their own. We dive in today on the end-to-end process from how missions are selected, scheduled for launch, then eventually deployed. And good news: while we recorded this episode shortly after launch, all seven CubeSats have now deployed successfully from the International Space Station. Let’s get to it.


Host: Max, welcome to the show.

Max Brummel: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Host: So fresh off the heels of CRS-30, which are cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station. How was launch? I like to ask everyone that cause there’s this known saying in the space industry that it never gets old.

Max Brummel:  Yeah, it was a beautiful launch. We got to see it from OSB 2, which is a really cool viewing opportunity. We actually got to accommodate some of the people that developed the satellites on that mission at that viewing opportunity. So we got to see it go up and really cool. We got to see it come down as well, which was a first for me. And no, it doesn’t get old.

Host: I’m surprised that was a first for you. Because it seemed like you go to a lot of these launches. And you know, you’d mentioned you brought along probably some students. What’s it like seeing their reactions?

Max Brummel, mission manager at Voyager Space. Credit: Max Brummel
Max Brummel, mission manager at Voyager Space. Credit: Max Brummel

Host: And not only the launch, but seeing that first stage booster stick, the landing is always so exciting. And, you know, what’s funny is here, so part of my job with the International Space Station here is coordinating the launch viewing at OSB 2. I think I saw your name on the list once. Once upon a time. So that’s cool. We had a lot of interest. It was actually around spring break, so we had lots of people there and we always do a quick VIP briefing and just try to make it fun, but I’m so glad you got to see that. And you know, I came from KSC, and it truly does not ever get old. But I understand you were the mission manager for what we’re talking about today. Which is this very long—I won’t put it in acronym form—but the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer Mission 27. Is that right?

Max Brummel: That’s correct, yeah. NRCSD-27 for short.

Host: You said that so quick. I guess you’ve had some practice. But I understand, you know, we were emailing back and forth and I saw something in your email signature. And it had mentioned that mission manager was it for all things exploration at Voyager, but could you explain your role exactly what you do for Voyager?

Max Brummel: Yeah, so I’m a mission manager at Voyager Space. Some of your listeners may better know us as Nanoracks. Our company was acquired by Voyager Space about three years ago. And as of this year, we’re going to start just be classified under their umbrella and we’re in the exploration segment. So, what I do as a mission manager is I manage payloads as they come into our portfolio all the way until they get deployed into space. There are mission managers all throughout our company. I mainly focus on Cube Satellites, but there are other mission managers that manage experiments that go onto station and conduct their experiments directly on station and then come home.

Host: And so we were talking about before we started recording, he’s from Chicago. And so say you’re back at home and you’re talking to family or friends, and how would you explain to your job to the everyday person that maybe isn’t in the space industry?

Max Brummel: Yeah, definitely. So the best way I can say it is if you wanted to develop a spacecraft, so you go ahead and do it, you have a satellite in your hands, your next logical step is how do I get it into space? That’s where I come in. I make it very easy and accessible for you. I tell you everything you need to get that thing into space because there’s a lot of requirements. There are verifications involved, there’s licensing, there’s safety. There’s a whole host of problems that you have to solve. And that’s kind of what we do. That’s our bread and butter. So we make that a quick and easy process for you.

Host: Do you ever go by the nickname Max Q? I just thought of that. I’m so sorry.

Max Brummel: Max Q? No, I have not heard that one.

Host: Your payloads will be safe. And ready to go all the way through max Q to the space station.

Max Brummel: I’ve not heard that one. No.


Host: Well, you know, you’d mentioned some stuff here that I want to go back to, cause I think it’s interesting how you might be assigned to a certain CubeSat or a mission investigation, right? But say then later, you are the mission manager for say, the 27th mission that you have. What if one of your payloads, or what if another one of the CubeSat, maybe it belongs to someone else, that they’re seeing it all the way through? Or do you oversee all of the CubeSat missions?

Max Brummel: So I oversee all of it. I have a small team under me. We work as a team to determine what CubeSat are going to be ready for what launch. And it is kind of a game of Tetris where you’re building missions based on what CubeSats are ready, how big they are, if they can fit together, can they deploy together. We then target several missions a year. The cargo resupply missions, there’s roughly three, four, a year. We will target two to three of them for CubeSat missions, that is. We’ll have Nanoracks hardware or Voyager hardware on every single mission going to the space station though.

Host: Now, what led you to where you are today? We talked about Chicago. Where did you go to school? What did you study? And then did you do any internships or how did you land this really cool job?

Max Brummel: So I spent my undergraduate and graduate degree at Western Michigan University, specializing in mechanical engineering. On the side, I was actually running a cube satellite design team. The exact same thing we’re talking about here, but from the student perspective. So I got a really awesome perspective of what it’s like to be a student going through these programs and launching something through the space station or just off of a rocket. And now I get to manage it. So it’s been an incredible experience. My graduate thesis was even based around Nanoracks structure design to fit in one of our deployers that are currently being used. So that helped on the application. But it’s been a journey and I’m extremely excited to be here.

Host: You know, it’s funny that you’d mentioned that your thesis was on, you know, Nanoracks and CubeSats and I was looking up, I was just googling some stuff for this episode, and I kept coming across something. It was some sort of, you know, white paper and, you know, maybe we can cite it for this, get you an extra citation on that thesis.


Max Brummel: We’ll see.

Host: But that’s really cool that you can see both sides, right? And so you can serve as a mentor to students maybe when you go meet them at launches and let them in your shoes. So I guess, just to bring it down to a level for, you know, people have heard of CubeSats, but what is the easiest way to describe what is CubeSat?

Max Brummel: Yeah. The best way I can describe a CubeSat, it’s the smallest form factor of satellite that you can make. It’s extremely modular. It’s all the spaces of a form factor of one cube. So a cube is 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters, and you can continue to stack these cubes to create larger and larger CubeSats. So a lot of times in the industry, we’ll refer to them as 1U, 2U, 3U, all the way up to 12U CubeSats.

Pictured here are CubeSats being deployed from the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer as part of NRCSD-27. Credit: NASA
Pictured here are CubeSats being deployed from the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer as part of NRCSD-27. Credit: NASA

Host: And a U is the square, the 10 by 10 by 10?

Max Brummel: That’s right. And in those larger configurations, like a 6U or 12U, you might be able to stack those cubes in somewhat of a unique configuration that that is really good for your mission specifically.

Host: Sure. And so that’s just a sizing reference, right? So you would take, you know, one 10 by 10 by 10 and what would you call, if it say it’s four of them? That’s a 4U?

Max Brummel: Yep, exactly. Yep.

Host: And that’s just one solid structure. That would be a, do the math a 40 by 40 by 40?

Max Brummel: No, it isn’t that easy. No it’s 20 by 20 by 10, I think.

Host: Thanks for doing that. You’re the engineer and I’m the comms person’s, right? That tries to make sense of it.

Max Brummel: The best sort of down-to-Earth representation that I like to give is the basic most standard. CubeSat is a 3U. It’s just 3U’s in a line and it resembles a loaf of bread, that’s about the size of it.

Host: Perfect. We love the conventional size references. So it’s cool that there’s a standard or universal size guideline to these. When did that all come about? Because it sort of seems like a new thing, but maybe not necessarily.

Max Brummel: Yeah, it’s taking off in the recent years, no pun intended.

Host: Or it was.

Max Brummel: Maybe. We’ll see. But so, 1999 was when it was first invented and standardized, part of Cal Polytechnic University and Stanford University. And then they produce this CubeSat design spec, which is still heavily referenced in every piece of documentation today as the standard sizing for CubeSats. Since then, it’s been pretty much the Bible and, in our industry, and that’s what people use to develop and build their satellites.

Host: Awesome. And so I just want to go back, you know, tying in the fact that these carry science and research investigations, they’re small but mighty. And going back to your experience as a student, so you had mentioned, you worked on some CubeSat and went to station. What exactly did they study?

Max Brummel: So mine actually didn’t make it quite yet. And that’s the harsh reality for a lot of students is depending on what program you’re with, your funding might get cut at certain parts of the journey. And it’s a lot of years down the line. And if you can’t meet deadlines, you end up getting cut. And so we see this time and time again, a lot of our CubeSat are either first time builders or we might also see universities that build satellites for the sixth, seventh time, and they really got it down pat. So that’s part of my job is also understanding the difference between these universities, helping the less experienced universities to understand how to do things and what’s important, what’s not, how to meet certain deadlines.

So traditionally, our company has always been in the works with universities. We have a long history of working with middle school to high school to university students, both internal experiments and external. We have a bunch of different programs that help out with that. So we have a really good understanding of how to work with universities and how that might differ from a professional company.

Host: Sure. And then I love the background that you have having done it. Like no one better to do this than you. That is so cool.

Max Brummel: Right. I’m extremely passionate about it. And I love working with university students because I was on the other side. And, you know, I never got to see my satellite launch. So, in a way, I get to experience that through other students and other universities as I watch their satellite launch. So, it’s kind of an emotional part for me for sure.

Host: And especially seeing it firsthand, getting to see these students watch their own launches. That is so true. Where you’ve had, you know, exactly what we’re talking about, the challenges, and so you can say, “Hey, deadlines are important here.” That’s really cool. So one thing, you know, we’ll talk about, you know, from manifest to liftoff. And then of course, like your job doesn’t end there. You know, we started the show with on the heels, or we just launched SpaceX 30 or CRS-30. So I know there’s more that goes into it, and we’ll talk about that whole timeline. But something I want to understand is do you have a set weight U’s, or do you have a set number of investigations, or does it matter basically how big they are, how much you can fit into, you know, the Tetris game of getting to station on one of these cargo missions? What are the specifications for that?

Max Brummel:  Definitely. So, I think to answer that, I’m going to answer what exactly our deployers look like and how that fits into the role. So, a traditional deployer that you might see on a rideshare mission usually accommodates a 3U-long CubeSat. The standard, yeah. Our deployers are built to be twice as long as that, so we can go up to 6U’S in length. Then if you want to do a double wide configuration, so think about two across and then building out in the length, if we’re talking U’s, same difference. A standard deployer might go two by three. And that’s the biggest CubeSat launch. Ours go two by six.

Host: Was that something that the ISS program or it was something that was, you know, for every cargo mission, we know that your deployer’s this big and it’s going to fit there. And so you’ve just already had that kind of manifested.

Max Brummel: Yeah, it’s kind of an advantage. We were able to take by being sent to the space station in pressurized cargo. So I’ll talk about that a little bit. So once we integrate these CubeSats and send the deployers up to eventually be deployed off station, we get up there through pressurized cargo in either a Dragon capsule or a Cygnus vehicle. And then it docks into the station, and then the astronaut pulls the deployer out of those vehicles and installs them into the Japanese Experiment Module side or their Kibo airlock. And from there, the Japanese Robotic Arm grabs it out of the airlock and then puts it into a deployed configuration. So since we don’t have to attach our deployers directly to the outside of a rocket, which is what you would typically see on a rideshare mission or direct insertion into orbit from a rocket, you know, we can make our deployers bigger and fit more CubeSats inside, because of just basic engineering principles.

Host: Specifications required by each. So do you all do rideshare missions where it’s just direct orbital insertion?

Max Brummel: Yeah. We definitely do. I think people know us for, in our bread and butter, is those ISS launches. But yes, we’ve done rideshare missions.

Host: Okay. One thing I do want to mention is Nanoracks does have a host of platforms on the space station, such as the Bishop Airlock. I remember when that launched a couple cargo missions ago.  I don’t know if you want to talk about just some of the other services that you provide to the ISS?

From aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick captured this image of CubeSats being deployed as part of the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer 27 mission. Credit: NASA
Aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick captured this image of CubeSats being deployed as part of the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer 27 mission. Credit: NASA

Max Brummel: Yeah, definitely. And Nanoracks, Voyager, you’re going to see a lot of this interchanging because we’re very much the same since the name change. So we have things like the NREP, which is Nanoracks External Platform. That’s where you can send up an experiment to station, bring it outside and expose it to the space environment, then bring it back inside, and then down to the ground. There are some really awesome advantages to that. There’s MixStix, which is small, little, kind of glow stick shape, those are really good for outreach with young students K-8 who want to do some sort of experiment of mixing in space. We have DreamUp, which is an awesome program, again, dedicated through K-8 and the younger generations. We manage the HUNCH program, which is this amazing program that—

Host: I did not know that.

Max Brummel: Yeah. Yeah. We’re the managing body for HUNCH. And that’s that program where high school students get an opportunity to machine hardware that goes to station and yeah. It’s been really amazing to work with them as well. And then we do custom payloads, you know, if you have an idea and want to put it on station, we can be that person for you. And then of course, as you mentioned, the Bishop Airlock. We’re constantly finding new ways to utilize that. We’ve done some trash deploys recently off of it. We’re eventually going to do CubeSat deploys, but right now we’re sticking with the Japanese Experimental Module deployments.

Host: So what happens once these are deployed, right? Do they sit in orbit for a couple years? I’m guessing they probably burn upon reentry and so no space debris, but how long can students gather data or keep getting data from these?

Max Brummel: Right. So it really depends on a number of orbital factors, but anywhere from one to three years is what we would expect for an ISS orbit. But we do a lot of work with the trajectory operations office or TOPO and the VIPER folks at NASA and other teams and we analyze to see how much the CubeSat weighs, what way it’s going to be pointing while it goes around the Earth. Does it have deployables that’s going to affect its drag? Does it have propulsion that will change its orbital characteristics? All these things feed into how long it will be in space. And we have agreements and contracts in place before launch to ensure that these CubeSats are safely being operated in space and deorbit within a reasonable time or, you know, that five year mark of, you know, you have to be burnt up into the atmosphere. We’ll even do orbital debris assessment reports, which will tell us, “Hey, let’s make sure nothing touches ground.”

Host: You know, you mentioned that this stuff is your bread and butter and ISS is mine. And so I just get so excited to talk about it and these things are just really cool. So going back to, you know, you send the deployer up. Does the deployer come back empty? The shell comes back empty, say on the Dragon spacecraft?

Max Brummel: That’s right. We down mass our deployers. So we have been using the same deployers. They have a lot of history since we started doing this in around 2009. So the CubeSats that are being deployed today have seen a lot of history with past visitors and the same exact deployers. And we continuously reuse them. They’re really robust deployers. And we made that with the intent of reusing them.

Host: It’s all about reusability, right? What about the Cygnus cargo spacecraft, because that one we use, it does burn up in the atmosphere upon, you know reentry. And so a lot of times we use that for disposable items and things like that. So do you only return on the SpaceX Dragon right now?

Max Brummel: That’s correct.

Host: Okay, that makes sense. So the deployer itself, how big would you say it is in comparison? Like, I loved your loaf of bread.

Max Brummel: Yeah. And I can expand on it. So how, I like to think of the deployer. Think of just a standard mailbox, like a cartoon mailbox, and then you just extruded that out and made it really long. It operates the exact same way. It just has one hinging door right on the front. And when that hinging door opens, there’s a spring in the back of the mailbox that just pushes the satellites out. So think about like, my job as loading these CubeSats into the deployer are putting those loaves of bread into the mailbox and closing it.

Host: I love how you make it sound so easy from the engineer, the comms person. No, that makes a lot of sense. We could talk this, maybe I can move it over to the next section, cause I do want to talk, you know, going through  manifestation or getting manifested on a certain launch to that orbital kind of launchpad from the space station. But quick question, and I think you had mentioned this was, do these CubeSat missions happen on each NASA cargo resupply mission? So we’ve got, like you said about, what is it about two to three on average per year, and right now over the summer, we’re going to have a nice break.

Max Brummel: Yeah. No, we’ll target around two a year. Two a year is pretty standard. And, you know, the average amount of CubeSats we might see on each mission is nine. But it really varies just depending on who’s ready and who’s not.

Host: And so do you have a sort of agreement in place with NASA? Does Voyager have that agreement in place where there’s going to be room on every cargo mission or sometimes not in case they need to send something bigger?

Max Brummel: Yeah, that is a conversation that takes place. The majority of the time we have no issues getting on and there’s room for us, but there has been instances where we’ve had conversations saying, “Oh, we can’t make this launch.”

Host: We just got bigger hardware and okay.

NanoRacks CubeSats Deployed From Space Station
A set of Nanoracks CubeSats was photographed by an Expedition 38 crew member after the deployment by the Nanoracks Launcher attached to the end of the Japanese Robotic Arm. Credit: NASA

Max Brummel: Yeah. Just there’s more priorities, astronaut food, things like that, vital, whatever. That goes to station and can sometimes take priority and that totally makes sense. And, you know, we have to work around that. It’s about being flexible.

Host: Absolutely. It’s everything with ISS traffic is always flexible, right? You know, that’s a good point is these cargo resupply emissions serve as everything from grocery runs, I know in our last one where this mission that we’re talking about flew on, we had some fresh fruit, some coffee kits. We usually for holidays we’ll send up some treats. And, so it serves as that of course, grocery run, but then also, you know, resupplying them with all new science research to do sometimes hardware, new solar arrays. And so they’re packed. I mean, the last one had over 6,000 pounds of cargo on it. And so it’s a lot to unpack. And you may have seen, you know, sometimes we’re able to send some fun things up. And there was a photo posted yesterday, this was recorded before the total solar eclipse, and we got the crew some eclipse glasses. So we got some cool photos with them wearing those.

But let’s talk about those end-to-end services. So the start to the end of the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer 27 mission. It’s the process of getting a CubeSat launched into space using the ISS as sort of that orbital launchpad for deployment. Frst things first, when I’m saying manifested, so getting manifested, right? Means like we just talked about, there’s so many pieces of cargo research, you know, food, hardware that goes onto these missions. And, you know, there’s big teams in the ISS program that decide, you know, weight-wise how much every little thing weighs. Even those solar eclipse glasses that are made out of cardboard. So just down to the little bit, everything is weighed and make sure that it can fit. So I guess going back a bit, you know, there’s the selection of which investigations for upcoming missions happen. Do people apply, I know you also work with Launch Services Program. And I see you’ve got their sticker on your laptop. Launch Services Program based out of Kennedy. And so can you just, I guess, rewind and talk about that application process?

Max Brummel: Yeah, definitely. So there’s some incredible programs out there. The biggest one we work with is the CSLI program, Launch Services.

Host: And that’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.

Max Brummel: That’s right. That’s right. It is a pretty incredible program. That’s how most of the universities that we fly get the opportunity to actually launch into space. Occasionally, we’ll have a privately funded university, but for majority of folks, and, you know, getting sponsorship is a very important part of this. And CSLI can provide some really good resources and educational resources into designing and building your satellite. And you can go on their website and you can apply, they do new missions every year or every other year. They’re pretty constant. And they go through a selection process and evaluate your science, whatever you’re trying to achieve, and what your plans are to achieve them. And if they think you’re a good candidate, and your university’s ready and eager to learn, then you get selected into the program. Then you get a certain amount of time to develop your spacecraft. And then when you get to about the point where you’re just about done with the design and starting the build, that’s when I come in and they hand us off to integrators such as ourselves or some other integrator doing a rideshare mission. And we have conversations with the team to see when they’re ready to launch.

Host: And so Launch Services Program really does that sort of selection based on maybe what some of NASA’s long-term goals are and how it fits into that. But also, they’re typically education. Is it non-profit?

Max Brummel: Yeah, definitely. And, you know, they’re going to evaluate whatever your mission is to see how novel of science you’re trying to achieve, its usefulness. What are the educational aspects? Are you providing a lot of education? How big is your university that wants to participate? A whole bunch of factors go into it.

Host: And so Launch Services Program looks to you all and so does the ISS program as a contractor to, okay, we’ve selected these and so we want them to ride on your deployer.

Max Brummel: That’s right. So the Launch Services Program, once they make those selections, you know, they may or may not fly with the ISS it really depends on whatever the university’s trying to achieve. Sometimes satellites need specific orbits to do their science. So if the mission’s right for the ISS, then they usually come to us as we’re one of the larger companies that do deployments off the ISS. But if it’s something like an SSO orbit, a Sun Synchronous Orbit, then they might go to somebody else who has a mission ready in the near future to deploy Sun synchronous.

Host:  Okay. And so you’ve got your deployer going on say it was CRS-30, which just happened. And would all of those CubeSats on there be manifested or chosen by NASA and sent to you? Or do you all ever choose any as well? Do you have the capability to say, “Alright, we’ve got an open spot, we know this one’s ready.” You go to NASA and say, “Are you okay with this? Can you fill that spot?”

Max Brummel: That’s right. So we manage the manifests entirely on each of the cargo resupply missions. So we have a magnitude of CSLI CubeSats with us now that are in the works. And they’re developing their spacecrafts and getting ready for a launch. And we kind of evaluate their timeline and determine, okay, we have a launch coming up in eight months. These good folks to put on that launch. Or I don’t think these guys are going to be ready by this time. Maybe we should wait until the next one. And it becomes a conversation and, and we find a good spot for each person. So we’ll just mix and match and see who’s ready, who’s not. And we still take customers from commercial companies, so they’ll get mixed in. The amazing thing is like we can launch up to eight deployers in our launch configuration. And so that’s a lot of satellites, you know, so.

Host: So eight different CubeSat investigations.

Max Brummel: Could be more.

The Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (SSOD), in the grasp of the Kibo laboratory robotic arm, is photographed by an Expedition 38 crew member on the International Space Station as it deploys a set of Nanoracks CubeSats. The CubeSats program contains a variety of experiments such as Earth observations and advanced electronics testing. Credit: NASA

Host: Could be more depending on their size. If you’ve got a bunch of smaller ones, it could be even more. What is the most you’ve ever launched at once?

Max Brummel: Man, I don’t know off the top of my head.

Host: I feel like I saw the first one was like 33, cause they were probably all one use.

Max Brummel: That’s exactly right. We’ve had a couple contracts in the past where it’s just been a whole swarm of CubeSats. And they’re the same exact type of CubeSat all being launched. And those fill up cause you can just fill out each deployer. But these days, we’re doing a lot of launching of very different sciences. So each CubeSat does something completely different. It looks completely different. That’s been really exciting, too, cause you get to really see all the different types of things going through the station.

Host: Sure. All different disciplines of science. And what I think is really cool is going back to, you know, the station and in government working with commercial to help get all of the science and research to the space station. It’s all about that commercial low Earth orbit development. We’ve got a whole program that focuses on that. And the ISS has been a really great catalyst for that in low Earth orbit. One thing I wanted to mention about Launch Services Program is what’s cool about them is they work sort of as a broker where, you know, maybe NASA’s got a big payload, say Mars 2020, the Perseverance rover, we’ve got this big payload, can you help us match with the right rocket that will get us to the right orbit? And so that’s their expertise where they come in and so they know all things rockets. So from there, there’s so much that goes into a launch campaign and there’s so much time, right? Do you know how far in advance it takes for one of them to apply to get on a mission?

Max Brummel: Definitely, yeah. If you’re a university, a student and an educator trying to get into this program, I would say just go ahead and apply as soon as possible. If you have the idea, go for it. And then Launch Services Program takes it from there and they figure out your timeline for you. What I can tell you is when we get looped into the process, so we come into play about a year to a year and a half before the launch actually happens. Then I would say as an estimate, there’s another year to two before that, where the spacecraft team is designing and developing their payload.

Host: What about students who say they’re a sophomore or freshman and they’re working on, you know, CubeSat with a team and then say maybe they graduate. Do they still have the opportunity to be part of that team once, you know, years go by and we’re finally at launch day?

Max Brummel: Yes. In fact, for this Cargo Resupply 30 mission, we had some former students at the launch opportunity. People I didn’t even know because they’ve been with the program for so long. And that they have been in industry for five years at this point. And they’re just like, “Yeah, I used to work on this program way back when finally it’s launching and I have an opportunity to see it.” I’m like, “Yeah, cool, well let’s enjoy it together.”

Host: That’s awesome. So I had mentioned, you know, we had liftoff, I think it was last week. And your job does not end there. Do there’s a specific amount of time once the Dragon, as we said, Dragon spacecraft had over 6,000 pounds of cargo. And so it takes the teams a lot of time to unpack all of that. Once it gets to the space station, what happens from there? Does the crew have any checkouts? I’m sure they put it into the JEM. And then walk us through, is there any help from your folks on the ground here with the Robotic Arm? Or how does that all happen? I guess just walk us through once it gets there.

Max Brummel: Sure. So once the Dragon or the Cygnus gets to the ISS, then they remove the deployers out. They’re already in their launch configuration. And when I say launch configuration, I’m talking about a quad pack. And what a quad pack is it’s just four deployers just right next to each other.

Host: How they’re pushed out, essentially?

Max Brummel: Not quite. So a quad pack is just four deployers, just side by side and a two by two configuration. And that’s what the actual Japanese arm is grabbing onto. We’ll send two quad packs up at the same time. If we, say, don’t have enough CubeSat on the manifest, that’s when we sometimes use that are already on station to do on-orbit assembly. And that’s where the most amount of astronaut time we use, and when I say most, it’s still not a lot in the grand scheme of things. But when we send up, say, one deployer, two deployers, we sometimes ask astronauts to take two empty deployers that are already up there and strap those to the ones that are full and create a quad pack so that it can be attached to the Japanese Experimental Module in its expected configuration.

Host: Is that ran out of Marshall? When you’re working on orbit to get these, if you need help by the crew on station, is there anyone on your team talking to the crew or do you give the folks at mission control or at, you know, Houston or in Marshall? Do you just give them a specific list of like a to-do list?

Max Brummel: No, we have an entire mission operations team that’s dedicated to everything and anything astronaut-related. It’s just so happens that CubeSats, in the whole entirety of the Voyager, you know, host of platforms, CubeSats, get the least amount of crew time. It doesn’t take as much effort to set us up for deployment as it does for maybe, you know, attaching a NREP module or Nanoracks External Platform Module to the outside of station. Those might take more time.

Host:  Sure. And we did have an experiment recently. It went up on a cargo mission with the AWE experiment. And we have a podcast on that where I know that was attached on the outside. And I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about, where those things might take a little bit longer, but, it’s just so easy with these cube sets to get them out the door, literally.

Max Brummel: That’s right.

Host:  So I think you did a really good job of explaining from the ground to low Earth orbit. I want to talk about this past mission in itself. So the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer, I know you can say that way quicker than me, the 27th mission. Can you highlight some of the payloads? I know we had seven payloads. I’d mentioned they’re small but mighty because we’re talking about how, you know, years go into each of these. I think was it three that were Canadian Space Agency or Canadian?

Max Brummel: That’s right. Yeah. Canadian Space Agency CubeSats. So Killick-1, QMSat and VIOLET are all CubeSats coming from different territories of Canada. It’s pretty incredible. It’s part of this Canadian CubeSat project program, which is the first of its kind for Canada. Basically what Launch Services Program is doing with CSLI is what the Canadian Space Agency is doing with this Canadian CubeSat project. So it’s the first of their kind and it’s been a tremendous success. These three CubeSats are the last of the group that’s going to station and deploying and it’s going to close out the program. But I do know the, the Canadian Space Agency is excited to do programs like that in the future and give more students opportunities to learn. And working with those students, it’s been so exciting because, you know, we talked about U.S. university students and they don’t get to see space every day. So their enthusiasm is pretty amazing. But then you can take that one level higher with Canada because you get these outskirt schools from the Northern territories and remote regions of Canada who just couldn’t expect an opportunity like this ever in their life to work on a cube satellite. But here they are launching one. You can see as I’m loading their CubeSat into the deployer, some students have tears in their eyes, like they’re that excited. It’s infectious, it’s my favorite time of the year is integration time. We spend a week and specifically for these CubeSats, we spend a week in Canada at the Canadian Space Agency in their clean room doing this integration. And their clean room has a lot of glass around it, and all the students are around watching us. And we’re just putting it in there and it’s the last time they get to see their CubeSat. It’s just an amazing experience. So then we have Big Red Sat, that’s our one U.S. university CubeSat from University of Nebraska and then surrounding high schools and middle schools that helped out as well. We have BurstCube and SNoOPI on board there, which are NASA Goddard spacecrafts. And then we have HyTI, which is a Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory spacecraft.

Host: Which is really cool. And I like that these have NASA, different center affiliations. Universities, different NASA centers across the United States and into Canada. I know we’ve had some other countries as well take part in this. But you have SNoOPI that was on this mission, that was out of JPL Purdue, Mississippi State, the Department of Agriculture. So other government agencies. There was BurstCube that was led out of Goddard, also with support of many universities and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. And then as you mentioned, HyTI out of JPL and then the University of Hawaii. And so it’s cool to see all these different people come together into what, you know, we’re talking about is a small piece of hardware that we’re sending to this space station, but there’s so much that goes into it. I like that you talked about the integration, and we did not touch on that. I did ask before we started recording, if you all integrate the different CubeSats into the deployer down at KSC, at their SSPF facility, or do you do it here in Houston and then ship it over? How does that work? What’s the logistics behind that?

Max Brummel: We have a clean room at our Nanoracks facility here in Houston, Texas. And we’ll do all the integrations there. And then once the deployerss are loaded, we close all of our verifications. We then give it to NASA, they ship it to KSC and it waits in their storage facility until it gets loaded on the vehicle.

Host:  And do the students get to come witness or help you guys integrate them? Or are they invited? Do they all come out mostly?

Max Brummel: Yes. That is a very important part of it. And we like to make it as educational as possible. So this is for many students, their first opportunity to see how a professional company would interface with spaceflight hardware. So we bring them down here and we tell them all of the details on how to be careful around spaceflight hardware, all the protocol that goes around it. And we let them insert their own CubeSats into the deployer and say goodbye to it for the last set.

Host: Oh, this is like the second coolest day to launch, right? So you find out you’re getting on a launch, it’s probably first and second, you get to actually integrate it in third, you go to launch. That’s really cool.

Max Brummel: There’s a lot of really cool milestones. And then of course, deployment, which is its own magic.

Host: Another big milestone. And speaking of that, where are we with Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer Mission 27. I’m getting quicker at that. Where are we with that now? So we launched, what was it, about a week and a half ago. When do you think those are going to head out of the station?

Max Brummel: That’s right. Yeah. We’re looking at April 18, so keep an eye out for it. We do live streams on our YouTube, on our Voyager Space YouTube. And you can just search NRCSD-27 deployment to find it. So if you don’t catch it, it’s probably going to be early in the morning. But we record it and you can catch it afterwards.

Host: And are there external cameras that you can see them actually going out?

Max Brummel: That’s right. It’s a really cool experience that you don’t get to see very often. But you do get this opportunity with ISS launches. You get to see your CubeSat leave the deployer. They track the CubeSat as it’s leaving for a couple minutes. And then there’s an actual astronaut looking through the window with a camera and get some really cool action shots, high resolution action shots, that we’ll give back to you at the end. And those are just amazing too.

Host: And we’ve got some photos of those we can include in our show notes. How quick is it once they leave station? I mean, maybe do they have acquisition a signal while they’re on station or once they leave station in our deployed? Or how long does it take to achieve that?

Max Brummel: Yeah, so that’s something that we have a conversation with Johnson Space Center and the ISS program office about. We do a 30-minute timer is kind of the standard right now, where the CubeSat waits to turn on just in case, just to make sure nothing happens. There’s no inadvertent deployments of solar panels or antennas. You don’t start transmission too early. You don’t have propulsion on board that fires too early. There’s a lot of work that goes into making this process very safe. And yeah, the standard is right now, 30 minutes.

Host: Ooh, those 30 minutes probably go by very slow when you’re waiting for the acquisition signal or the data to come down. So that’s another key milestone to add. You get selected, you get manifested, you get integrated, you go to launch and then deployment and waiting for data. That’s a lot.

Max Brummel: Yeah, it just becomes a race at that point. You know, as soon as it turns on, everybody’s scrambling to try to get first communication their satellite. And we’re just sitting by our email waiting for someone to say, “Hey, we found ours. We found ours.”

Host: That’s exciting. You see those big celebrations of people in mission control, and I can imagine that’s sort of the same there.

Max Brummel: That’s right.

Host: So to close out, do you have any recommendations for universities or nonprofits to be able to get their research manifested on a future mission?

Max Brummel: Yeah, definitely. Please go ahead and check out Launch Services Programs website on the CubeSat Launch Initiative, or CSLI. It’s an amazing program to get sponsorship to go to space. There’s also other programs like the University Nano Satellite Program. That’s the program I went up through when I was at in university. And then there’s, if you’re listening from Canada, please reach out to the Canadian Space Agency and see what you can do there. And if you’re in any of the other countries in that, please just try to find whatever resource you can. There’s a lot of government support to train the next space engineer that’s going to be working. So there isn’t a lot of opportunity in university curriculum to learn this sort of thing. And sometimes you have to go out and be adventurous and find it yourself. And this is a great way to do it. So if you’re a student, talk to your advisor to see if this is something your university can do. If you’re an educator, see if you can pull a group of students and submit an application for this sort of thing. But, you know, it’s an amazing opportunity to get into the industry. It gives you a taste of what it’s like to work on space hardware. And it’s just an incredible experience that you can use as motivation for the rest of your life.

Host: Sure. Max B, not Max Q, thank you so much for joining us. Our resident expert here in Houston with Voyager Space, who not only was on the other side as being a student and getting, you know, a CubeSat to space, but now helping other students do that. Thank you so much.

Max Brummel: Thanks for having me.


Host: Thanks for sticking around. I hope you learned something today. Check for the latest, and check us out on social media at Johnson on Facebook, X, and Instagram. Use #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit your idea and make sure to mention it’s for Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on April 2, 2024. Thanks to Gary Jordan, Will Flato, Dane Turner, Abby Graf, Destiny Duran, Abby Dickes, Daniel Tohill, Dominique Crespo, and of course, thank you again to Max Brummel for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be back next week.

This is an Official NASA Podcast.