To the Moon and Back

For this AAE student, space is not so far away

For Joseph Gangestad, doctoral student in astrodynamics, space is something tangible, and he wants you to think so, too. Armed with a passion for space and the rich data it yields, he has already come a long way toward making his mark.

A native of Boston, Gangestad earned his bachelor’s in astrophysics from Williams College. Having now completed his master’s at Purdue, he enters the doctoral program this fall with a clear idea of where he wants to go.

Gangestad’s activities outside the classroom include serving as president of a space data-mining firm, Orbit Frontiers, LLC, and taking part in the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. These endeavors, coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit, will inspire others with the idea that space is a concrete reality to which we all have access.

Orbit Frontiers has set its sights on utilizing data gathered routinely on thousands of satellites and making it available to industry partners and small companies. Data such as temperature or moisture level, to some superfluous, might be crucial business for others.

“The object is to shorten the path between space and the user,” Gangestad says, “to bring the benefits and access of space to everyone.”

Admittedly a “big picture” guy, Gangestad’s ideas for bringing space data to the masses are ambitious. By mining a 40-year archive of data, the company makes available information that might otherwise be discarded, but which a wide market—from amateur astronomers to scientists to engineers in academia and industry—can make useful. The vision is to create a global network of relationships for providing turnkey launch services to individuals and companies.

Orbit Frontiers will benefit significantly from the work of Gangestad’s other project, the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. The competition, requiring teams to be 90% privately funded, inspires participants to literally launch a mission to the Moon. To claim the $30 million prize, teams must land a rover on the Moon, rove 500 meters and send images and video back to Earth.

The team, LunaTrex, is led by entrepreneur Pete Bitar and includes representatives from an alliance of companies including Orbit Frontiers. Gangestad is confident in the team’s strength, which benefits from its members’ varying degrees of experience. Funded by Bitar and corporate sponsorships, the project will cost several million dollars and end by 2012. If LunaTrex succeeds, they will capitalize not only on the publicity and goodwill generated by the competition, but the knowledge they gain will form the foundation for a business model, of which Orbit Frontiers is a central aspect.

More than a potential business model, Gangestad believes his work will benefit humankind significantly and wants to share his passion, specifically with the younger generation. “There are many things one can do with this finite time on earth, my focus happens to be space,” Gangestad says, “Reaching out to youth is an investment in intellectual capital.” Sponsoring a team in a rocket-building contest last year and participating in Purdue Space Day are just some examples of how they are doing this.

The combination of visionary scientist and entrepreneurial spirit which personify Gangestad’s passion for space is contagious. Proving that space is accessible to each and every individual is the drive behind both his academic pursuits and his business interests. Indeed, with the possibility of placing a rover on the Moon and igniting an enterprising commerce in space data, the sky is certainly not the limit.

- Barbara Leonard