Tiny Space Objects
Thousands of satellites are zooming over your head right now, orbiting Earth and beaming down research data, images, phone calls and even Internet access. Did you know that many of those satellites were made within a few miles of The Museum of Flight? Join Geoff Nunn, our Adjunct Curator for Space History, and our Senior Curator Matthew Burchette for a conversation about these small orbiting wonders.
Geoff's a returning guest on the podcast. Check out a few of his other episodes!
Want to see what the guts of a satellite look like? Check out this episode of our webseries, "Curator on the Loose!"
Transcript after the jump.
SEAN MOBLEY: The Flight Deck is made possible by listeners like you. Thank you to the donors who sustain The Museum of Flight. To support this podcast and the museum’s other educational initiatives, visit
Hello and welcome to The Flight Deck, the podcast of The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. I’m your host, Sean Mobley. And welcome back to season two of the podcast. Now, in this season, we’re taking an in-depth look, behind the scenes look at Curator on the Loose. Curator on the Loose is The Museum of Flight’s web series where our senior curator, Matthew Burchette, takes viewers behind the scenes into parts of the aviation industry that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to see, or in this case I should say the aerospace industry, because today we are going to outer space. We’re talking about space stuff. What we’re doing with this season is taking interviews that were cut down for the TV series and letting the whole extended version of it run here on the podcast.
A couple of years ago, The Museum of Flight had a cube sat, a small satellite donated to us, but it had some problems. Specifically, it still had the battery inside it, which could be unstable in the long run and not good if something happened with that battery while it was inside our storage buildings. So, we were able to visit some satellite experts here in Seattle. Did you know that the vast majority of satellites orbiting the earth right now were made here in Seattle? So, we’ve got a lot of satellite experts, and they were able to rip its guts out with some surgery.
The interview today is not with the surgeons, but with The Museum of Flight’s own adjunct curator for space history, Geoff Nunn. Now, those who have listened to the podcast before know that Geoff has appeared a few times actually on the podcast. He’s been on a few episodes prior where he talks about some of the space stuff in our collection, and also a more philosophical discussion that I found so fascinating about the difference between the space race when NASA was compelled by public law basically to keep all of its records and make them available to researchers and private companies working today in news space who are not so compelled to be public about their work, and some of the challenges associated with that when you’re trying to curate a museum collection.
But today, Geoff is giving Matthew a bit of a crash course in cube sats before we go down to the satellite surgeons, and so that’s what we’re going to be hearing. I’ll turn it over to Geoff and Matthew for the conversation.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Geoff, buddy.
GEOFF NUNN: Hey.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: How you doing? It’s good to see you.
GEOFF NUNN: It’s good to see you.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: So, this is Geoff Nunn. He is our museum space guy, for lack of a better term. I know he’s got probably an official term, but this really fits him better. So, you are the guy that I come to when we have anything spacey come to the museum, and I hear rumors that we actually have a satellite that has been donated to us from a local company, and I’ve got to check that out.
GEOFF NUNN: All right. Well, you came to the right place.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Awesome. All right. Where is it?
GEOFF NUNN: It’s right here.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: I don’t get it. What do you mean, right here?
GEOFF NUNN: It’s right here. In front of you.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: You’re telling me this is the satellite?
GEOFF NUNN: Well, that’s the case that has the satellite inside of it.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: There’s a satellite in here?
GEOFF NUNN: Hm-hmm (affirmative).
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Okay. I won’t open that. Why?
GEOFF NUNN: Because if you open it, the satellite’s going to turn on, and then we might have all sorts of problems getting it ready for display.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: This is a live satellite?
GEOFF NUNN: It is an actual piece of flight hardware.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Whoa, that is cool. Okay. That means that we probably need to take it someplace to have it un-live.
GEOFF NUNN: That’s correct. So, before we can get it ready for display, we have to go through the decommissioning process in order to make it safe.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Do you know a place that will do that?
GEOFF NUNN: Well, it’s certainly not going to be here, but fortunately, the Seattle area is a major hub for development of this type of technology, and we know some people who are going to help us out.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: That is cool. Okay. As much as I want to do that, let’s get a little bit of info, because you’ve got a bunch of stuff here, so obviously you’ve been working on this. What are we looking at?
GEOFF NUNN: So, I’ve been doing a little bit of research into satellite history, and one of the really awesome things about satellites today is they’ve gotten a lot smaller and a lot cheaper than they used to be. So, the very first satellites were largely launched by governments and militaries and the like. You’ll remember Sputnik-1 was launched in 1957. That was the world’s very first artificial satellite. And from there, that was only about the size of a beach ball, but it didn’t do a whole lot. It transmitted radio signals, it beeped and scared a lot of people. But over the years, as satellites got more capable, they also got a lot bigger. And in the 1980’s, when the space shuttle started flying, in the US we wanted pretty much all of our satellites to go up on shuttle, for the most part. That’s part of why they called it the space transportation system. And it had that big 65-foot-long payload bay in order to accommodate some of these really big satellites. And so, some of the stuff that I’ve got out here are examples of some of those earlier space craft, those earlier satellites that would have been deployed by shuttle.
And today, we rely on satellites for all kinds of things from helping us better understand the weather and earth systems, delivering satellite television into your home, countries spying on other countries, all kinds of different stuff, and even these little computers that we keep in our pockets when we’re trying to navigate from one place to another, it’s information from global positioning systems satellites that help us know where we are.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Got to be able to get to the local Starbucks.
GEOFF NUNN: Right. Exactly.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: And I’ve got to get my Squid Game on my TV at home. Very important.
GEOFF NUNN: But recently there’s been some major leaps forward in terms of how small we can make satellites, and that in turn has made them a lot more accessible to organizations, like small companies, and even schools and universities to be able to launch their own satellites. So, that’s what we have in there.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: So, what kind of satellite is this?
GEOFF NUNN: So, this is what is known as a cube sat. And it was actually a technology demonstrator, so that’s one of the things is now that you can launch satellites cheaper, you don’t even have to have a finished product going up. You can basically prototype something and launch it to space to test it out.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Wow, that’s got to save a ton of money.
SPEAKER 3: Yeah. I mean, you can even buy satellite kits online for about the price of a used car.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: So, like what? Three to 5,000 dollars?
GEOFF NUNN: So, basic one new cube sat kit costs about 10,000 dollars online.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: That’s still not bad.
GEOFF NUNN: It’s not bad. You just then have to add all the brains and all the programming in order to make it work. Now, the tricky part is figuring out how to launch it.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: So, I can’t build a cube sat and put it on my model rocket and get it up there?
GEOFF NUNN: No, you’d have to go with an actual rocket company, unless you’ve got a pretty big model rocket that can get all the way to space.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: I had big dreams of taking over the world with Matthew TV.
GEOFF NUNN: Well, the launch costs are coming down quite a bit. I mean, now we’re no longer talking just like governments launching satellites. Now, it’s companies, and even small companies or schools and universities can put their own satellites into orbit.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Do you have to launch with NASA?
GEOFF NUNN: No, there’s actually a lot of different options out there now, which is I think part of why this is all able to happen. You can still launch with NASA, and they actually have a system for deploying cube sats from the International Space Station.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Really?
GEOFF NUNN: Yeah. So, they basically push them out an airlock on the Japanese Kibo module, and then they’re all in a single sort of tube, and they all slide out one-by-one. But if you don’t want to go the NASA route, there are a number of companies that help you to broker a ride on a rocket that’s already taking up a bigger satellite.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Wow. That is awesome. Okay, I am dying to know what’s in here. And since we can’t do it here at the museum, we’ve got to go see those friends of yours, so that means we’re going on a road trip.
GEOFF NUNN: That’s right.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Awesome. Okay. You carry that, because I don’t trust myself.
GEOFF NUNN: Yeah, I don’t trust you either.
MATTHEW BURCHETTE: Yeah, I don’t blame you. All right. This is going to be awesome.
SEAN MOBLEY: Thank you for tuning into this episode of The Flight Deck, the podcast of The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. If you liked the audio here, you should check out the video episode of Curator on the Loose that this is from. After this segment with Geoff, it’s almost entirely visual. If you’ve ever wanted to see what the inside of a satellite looks like, here is your opportunity, because the folks who did the surgery on this satellite, they took us into the clean room, everyone had to scrub up, they showed this satellite inside and out while they were cutting out all the parts that they needed to remove. It was pretty special.
You can find the episode by heading to our YouTube channel. Just go to
And new episodes of Curator on the Loose are being released all the time, so while you’re on YouTube make sure you subscribe ot us there, that way you can get the new episodes when they come out.
If you like what you heard, you can rate and review the podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you downloaded us from. You can support the podcast financially by heading to
You can contact the show by e-mailing us at