Happy Birthday SmallSat Family!

By Peter Wegner, CTO of Spaceflight Industries


At the beginning of every August something strange happens in the hills of Northern Utah that seems to warp time and space in a way that once distant points of the globe suddenly are as close as the ends of your fingers. The days and nights blur, time is not measured in minutes and hours, but in conversations, and faces, and food, and intense dialogues and laughter.

It’s not a real wrinkle in the fabric of the space-time continuum. It’s the Small Satellite Conference, known as “SmallSat” to most of us, at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. Each year my SmallSat “family” gathers there from the ends of the earth to learn from each other, to discover what exciting changes have occurred in each other’s lives and careers. Last year there were more than a thousand of us, from more than 30 countries. We gathered there to plan new space missions, talk about old ones, to learn from each other and to hatch exciting new business opportunities. We made new friends and we talked about old ones who aren’t with us anymore.

I can’t believe our SmallSat family is 30 years old this year. I’ve been a part of this family since I attended my first conference in 1999. It was very different then. For one thing, my SmallSat family was not nearly as large. And another, if you think Logan is small now, you should have seen it then, I don’t think there was even a McDonalds in town back then! We also were not so broadly spread around the world and diverse in experience. We were mostly researchers in government labs and universities exploring ways in which the power of rapidly miniaturizing electronics could be applied to spacecraft to enable new missions. We spent a lot of time back then talking about the challenges of finding launches for our projects and at the White Owl, we consoled one another over cold pints about how we didn’t seem to get much respect from our “Big Space” colleagues.

Some of our SmallSat family members aren’t with us anymore. I remember meeting Frank Redd, one of the original founders of the SmallSat conference during my first SmallSat Conference and being impressed with how warm and friendly he was and how much energy he seemed to be giving to and taking from the event. He obviously passed those qualities on to Pat Patterson, the current SmallSat Chairman.

Pat Patterson, Steve Buckley, and Peter Wegner in 2010

My most special memory of SmallSat happened in 2010 when Pat and I were able to present my mentor and friend, Steve Buckley, who passed away in 2014 from ALS, with a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to our community. Steve mentored so many of us in so many ways. He was a true rocket-man. He sat on console for more than 70 launches and he played a seminal role in the development of the Pegasus, Taurus, Minotaur, SuperStrypi, and Falcon-1 rockets, and he helped so many others in our SmallSat family. So many of us are where we are today due to his efforts and those of so many others like him. They are missed.

I’m planning to play a round of pool on the old table in the student center where Steve used to set up shop and challenge the youngsters, mostly so he could impart to them his wisdom, his “Buckley-isms.” If you’d like to stop by and chat about some mission we worked on together or some new mission you are planning, I’ll buy the first round in honor of Steve and those who aren’t with us this time. We can drop our change into the jar set up in his name for the Student Scholarship fund.

Let’s plan a new small sat mission to find that wrinkle in the space-time continuum. Let’s explore it. Let’s learn about it, and let’s imagine all of the ways we can use it for the benefit of the rest of our family here on this earth.

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