Can Macs in Space Reboot the Satellite Biz?


Dennis Wingo is one aerospace researcher who definitely thinks outside the box. A self-proclaimed computer geek, he wants an astronaut to hurl a specially modified G4 MacIntosh Cube computer into orbit in 2001 from the International Space Station.

The launch won't be a mere novelty, Wingo insists. Through his Huntsville (Ala.) company, SkyCorp, he plans to build a 544-satellite constellation to provide earthbound Web hosting and e-mail. The constellation would be powered entirely by standard Macintosh computers floating in space. That's right -- Macs in space. The orbiting Apples would use a modified version of the Apple Airport wireless-data device to transmit information to users here on terra firma.

Sound harebrained? Wingo certainly has his critics, who say he's been staring at the sun too long. Building big satellite networks is a complex and highly regulated business that requires lots of political capital. And how will Wingo link his orbiting Macs to other telecom satellites? That vital step is needed to make sure customers have sufficient coverage. "The reality check is: How is this thing going to connect to the ground," says W. David Thompson, president and CEO of Phoenix-based small-satellite builder Spectrum Aero.

That's what people used to tell Henry Ford before he perfected his assembly line for cars, says Wingo, who argues that satellites are vastly overpriced and overengineered. "Everyone builds spacecraft like cars were built before Henry Ford," explains Wingo. "They design and build their own one. That's nuts."

NASA SIGNS ON. From the ground, Wingo operated several Macintosh II computers on board space shuttle missions in the early 1990s to study the effects of microgravity forces. The computers performed well enough to convince Wingo that using the Mac OS to power telecommunications applications in satellites could save big bucks. "Billions of dollars have been spent on standard operating systems," he said. "I can use that investment to lower my cost of doing business," says Wingo.

How low? Wingo's first Cube satellite will actually be assembled in space -- an approach that reflects his belief that engineers spend too much money protecting satellites from the thermal stresses and G-forces experienced during launches. SkyCorp will use lightweight materials and as much off-the-shelf equipment as possible. The initial project should cost less than $10 million -- magnitudes cheaper than standard satellite launches, which often range into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

To connect with the zero-G Macs, Wingo says his customers will use proprietary wireless modems and software to access the 120-pound orbiting satellite powered by a 500-megahertz Mac server. The first satellite will serve as a beta tester to prove Wingo's concept.

The deal with NASA, completed on Oct. 20, is part of the agency's increasing attempts to cooperate with private-sector organizations to develop commercial projects. "The idea of assembling space vehicles and satellites in orbit is something NASA would like to do in the future," says Doug Peterson, a spokesman for the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

COME AND GONE. But satellite-builder Thompson says Wingo will have lots of obstacles to overcome. For starters, SkyCorp lacks a Federal Communications Commission broadcast permit. It can take years to get one. And small, low-flying satellites have a coverage time of only 10 to 15 minutes per user as they pass over any one spot on the earth. They have to pass signals on to the next satellite, and that could be a potential problem for the SkyCorp Macs, Thompson warns. "It's one thing to do a single-channel experiment, it's another thing to run a commercial business," says Thompson.

For his part, Wingo says he is working on the FCC license and various technical obstacles. In the middle of a $1 million funding round, this space cowboy is searching for 50 beta-testers to log on to the flying Macs. But one thing he won't do is fly with Bill Gates & Co.: Microsoft's Windows machines are too crash-prone, says Wingo. That's a bad thing in a satellite, no doubt. By Eric Niiler in San Diego


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