NASA taps prisoners to build satellite parts

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In most cases, when a person is sentenced to prison, the goal is both to remove them from daily life, and teach the convict how to better serve society as a whole. Traditionally this meant stamping out license plates or painting the vehicles of the local police department, but thanks to an innovative new agreement with NASA prisoners at San Quentin State Prison will soon be making amends for their crimes by putting together tiny satellite components.

Known as Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployers (henceforth “PPODs”), the devices are used to mount small cubesat satellites on launch vehicles. When correctly configured, the PPOD secures the tiny satellite in place through launch, then releases it into space at the appointed time. Despite its crucial purpose however, the PPOD is a relatively low-tech device. It’s simple to build, but NASA needs tons of them and it’s not terribly cost effective to build an entire fabrication line just to churn out PPODs when we already have a perfectly viable workforce biding its time behind bars.

Thus, former University of Arizona professor Pete Worden hatched a plan to tap the largely unused prison population to build the devices. The goal, according to the scheme Worden outlined for NASA, is to both create a steady supply of PPODs as well as assist “a few select inmates develop their machining skills to make them more employable in the aerospace industry upon release.” In short, NASA gets new toys for cheap, and a few dozen prisoners pick up a useful skill.

After a visit to San Quentin to determine if inmates had access to all the materials and information they would need to build the PPODs, NASA signed a two year Space Act agreement with the prison. Under the terms, NASA will provide educational opportunities for prisoners, while the prison would ensure that its residents are meeting their PPOD quota and building the devices to meet rigorous NASA standards.

If any of you would-be astronauts are suddenly worried about a bitter convict purposely sabotaging your satellite launching mechanism, don’t fret: According to these particular PPODs will not actually be shot into space. At best they’ll be used for testing purposes, though it appears that NASA officials are waiting to see how well the inmates can construct the PPODs before deciding their fate. Worden claims that the PPODs created at San Quentin so far are “top notch,” though NASA remains unconvinced.

Regardless, that aforementioned two-year agreement is non-reimbursable, so no matter what NASA does with the devices, the prisoners are receiving both an engaging activity to pass the time and, hopefully, a useful education that can be segued into a career in the aerospace industry after they’ve been released from San Quentin. It’s far easier to avoid the temptation of criminal activity when you’re earning $50,000+ annually working in a government-funded fabrication plant.

Correction: Originally this piece claimed that the agreement between NASA and San Quentin would see the former giving the latter large sums of money in exchange for the work done by its inmates. Since the article was originally published however, we have been contacted by NASA which offered the following clarification: “The cost associated with this project consists primarily of NASA Ames employees’ time and some basic materials for the students to use.” We apologize for any inadvertent confusion we may have caused.