TAMPA — It's a ragtag group of 17 would-be space explorers looking to do its part in sending humans to Mars. And it's making progress.
For over two years, a group called Team Miles — based in Tampa but spread across the country — has been competing in a NASA contest to develop miniature satellite technology that's seen as key to any successful mission to the Red Planet.
Now, it's emerged as part of the final five in the contest and will learn June 8 whether it will be selected as one of three teams to see its device sent aloft in fall 2018 as part of the inaugural voyage of NASA's Space Launch System — the most powerful rocket ever built.
Only 13 teams entered the technically demanding competition, most of them from elite institutions like Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or teams of people with advanced degrees in fields such as engineering and aeronautics.
One team is made up entirely of NASA interns.
Team Miles? It's a hodgepodge of professionals — a teacher, an artist, an information technology professional, a few software designers, most of them with degrees from lower-tier schools like the University of Tampa, Michigan's General Motors Institute and the online University of Phoenix.
Their knowledge of satellite engineering is largely self-taught.
"We're like the island of misfit toys," said team leader Wes Faler, a 47-year-old software designer with a manufacturing systems engineering degree from the GM Institute who now lives in Tampa.
"We've been rewarded by doing and not a piece of paper. We're hands-on."
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Each team is designing a CubeSat, a satellite made up of individual units each 10 cubic centimeters in size. They're easier and cheaper to deploy than traditional satellites yet designed to broadcast data from deep in space back to Earth.
Satellites now used for such work can be three stories high, Faler said, and cost billions of dollars.
Team Miles' CubeSat will measure 10-by-20-by-30 centimeters, just under 12 inches on its longest side and about the size of a bread box. It would cost around a half-million dollars to fully develop.
No one has attempted to send a CubeSat into deep space.
If Team Miles is chosen, its pioneering device would be released near the moon — a mere 289,000 miles from earth — then propel itself as far as 28 million miles farther. Propulsion along with communication is the project's key technological challenge.
The cost of the CubeSat's NASA ride, Team Miles estimates, will be about $2.5 million.
"It's an expensive Uber," quipped team member Alex Wingeier, 40, who runs an IT firm in Tampa.
Teams selected for deployment will compete for $5 million in prizes. The performance categories include whose CubeSat can communicate fastest and from farthest away.
Called the Cube Quest Challenge, the contest started in 2015 as part of NASA's Centennial Challenge Program to inspire people from all walks of life to contribute to the space program.
One past winner under the Centennial Challenge banner created astronaut gloves that reduced the effort required to perform tasks during space walks.
Ongoing Centennial Challenges involve putting humans on Mars.
CubeSats would enable them to send data or communicate with Earth quickly. A signal now can take anywhere from three minutes to 22 minutes, depending on the distance between the planets at the time.
Another competition seeks ways to use 3-D printers in creating housing that can survive the harsh conditions of the fourth planet from the sun.
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The success of Team Miles could be considered an anomaly, said Monsi Roman, program manager for NASA Centennial Challenges. Competitors are being asked to design groundbreaking technology, which is why the resumes of other teams are so impressive.
But Roman prefers to see Team Miles as a testament to the intent of the Centennial Challenges.
"We wanted to involve people who are not within our circle," she said. "We want the housewives from Oklahoma and the ranchers from Montana. We want everybody to contribute to our journey to Mars."
To make it this far, Team Miles had to place in the top five in at least one of three competitions, each requiring hundreds of pages of research detailing how its CubeSat will work.
Team Miles finished first, fifth and then first again, accumulating $80,000 in prize money, all of which has been reinvested in the project.
When team members learned of their initial victory, during live announcements via Skype, their cheers were so loud that NASA asked that all teams turn off their microphones for later announcements.
"See, we're already changing NASA," said Team Miles member Bill Shaw, 50, a University of Tampa graduate with a degree in management information systems who teaches robotics at local high schools and founded the nonprofit Tampa Hackerspace.
Hackerspace provides equipment, classes and mentoring for technology driven projects and initially brought the team together.
Six of the members volunteer at the Hackerspace headquarters, 4931 W Nassau St.
Yet only Faler and Sydnie Pierce, who lives in California, have any real-world experience working with satellites, and even that is limited.
Team Miles members Don Smith of Michigan and Frank Fomby of South Carolina have tinkered with satellites for fun.
Pierce has an aerospace engineering degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, but Faler, Smith and Fomby picked up their knowledge over the years by reading books and attending seminars.
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Some other team members have learned as the contest progresses and found ways to integrate their own unique skills into the process.
J. Kent, for instance, a University of South Florida graduate in the fine arts, has been relied upon for turning visions into highly technical schematics.
Giorgos Papabeis, considered an associate team member, has a degree in computer animation from the International Academy of Design & Technology and produced a video for initial fundraising.
IT professional Wingeier, with the degree from the University of Phoenix, helps with infrastructure plus ground communication. "Digital janitor," he calls himself.
Their shortcomings in pedigree are not lost on Wingeier.
"After that first competition, I kept saying, 'We beat Cornell. We beat MIT,' " he said. "We have a real shot at this."
Team Miles still must raise $500,000 through investors to complete a prototype if it is chosen on June 8, though the team doesn't think that will be an issue considering the possible prize money if it wins a spot on the rocket.
Plus, it will own the patent, not NASA, so the technology can boost the company that team members recently founded: Miles Space.
Ultimately, though, it's not about the money, they said.
"I don't care if I make millions or go broke," Wingeier said. "This is about my 7-year-old daughter knowing that her daddy played a role in something historic."
For the entire team, it's also about realizing a childhood dream of space exploration. That's what inspired them to find their team name in a signature line from a beloved poem.
"'I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep' — Robert Frost," declares team leader Faler. "Space is classy. You choose a waltz, not techno."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected]com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.