In what must be one of the most student-friendly launches of a class in MIT’s history, David Miller showed part of the original Star Wars movie on the first day of a class he was leading a few years back.

There was catch, though. The snippet Miller played showed Luke Skywalker practicing his lightsaber techniques on volleyball-sized targets that danced around him. As the mini-craft flew into view, Miller pointed to them and told the class, “I want you to build some of those.”

He added that the craft to be created wouldn’t actually zip around that way. On the other hand, they would be about the size of Luke’s “sparring partners” — and would also be largely autonomous, and more effectively coordinated than the best precision flying team.

When he stopped the movie, says Miller, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, he got what was for him a new kind of reaction from the students: they booed. “They wanted to see the rest of Star Wars,” he explains. But the booing didn’t last. And the students, working as a team, did indeed design, and — with guidance from MIT staff and a local manufacturer of space gear — build two mini-satellites.

Since then, the unusual experiment in hands-on education has made some impressive strides:

  • the students, along with Miller, took the mini-satellites on a special NASA airliner, called a KC-135, that creates brief spells of weightlessness by zooming up 15,000 feet, then leveling off and heading down again;
  • both the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA have helped fund second-generation versions of the mini-satellites; and
  • those same devices are scheduled for a 2005 trip to the International Space Station.


The idea for the class, which Miller co-taught with Dava Newman, also an associate professor, stemmed from an Aeronautics and Astronautics Department move to overhaul its teaching methods. The result was the CDIO — conceive, design, implement, operate — curriculum.

Miller had a good background for helping get the new approach off the ground. When he was growing up in Pittsburgh, both parents backed his drive to become an aero-astro engineer. His mother, in fact, was herself an engineer, and worked on the propulsion system for the Nautilus, the first nuclear sub. “She used to keep me out of school so I could watch the Mercury and Gemini flights,” says Miller.

His parents later were involved in his decision to become a pilot — albeit in different ways. “My Mom encouraged me to take lessons,” notes Miller, “and my Dad pushed me to find ways to pay for them.” Like many young people bitten by the space bug, Miller wanted to be an astronaut. But though he was interviewed for the role, it’s a dream that at this point he no longer expects to fulfill.


Still, Miller’s professional life is steeped in space-related activities. Besides overseeing the mini-satellite project, for example, he was co-leader of the group that devised the first hands-on experiments for the International Space Station. The instrumented truss set up in the ISS’s weightless setting, he notes,“helped us with our studies of how to predict and control motion in zero gravity.”

Miller’s space program connections helped when he decided, once the class got started, that the students’ products should actually be tested in a weightless environment. “I promised the students that if they built the satellites, we’d get them on NASA’s KC-135,” he notes.

Why would NASA officials be interested? Minisatellites, in fact, have many potential uses, ranging from checking for damage on a space shuttle to ferrying a new part to a bigger cousin in space.

One venture the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellite) project may aid is setting the stage for a satellite array that would be by far the world’s biggest space telescope. The idea is to have a series of smallish imaging mirrors mounted on mini-satellites that would be located across, say, a 100-meter swatch of space.

“Since the cost of mirrors goes as the cube of their diameter,” notes Miller, “this would be a lot cheaper than trying to build a 100-meter mirror.”

But it would also be hugely complicated, not least because you’d have to have the positions of the mini-satellites’ mirrors coordinated to within billionths of a meter. That’s one reason some SPHERES’ funding is from a NASA enterprise dubbed Terrestrial Planet Finder, a visionary effort to find nearby Earth-like planets. The program’s leaders want to see if a new generation of MIT-developed mini-satellites can hold positions very tightly on their own — a necessity if your proposed satellite line-up is going to be stationed some 10 million miles from Earth.

Though Miller’s students still work on minisatellites, it’s just one project. In another, students are building three-foot diameter satellite prototypes designed to run on virtually no fuel. “They incorporate high-temperature superconducting materials,” says Miller, “and they create magnetic fields that provide the energy to move each other around.”

Meanwhile, the students who designed the first mini-satellites have moved on. Still, Miller occasionally gets reminders that the class had an impact on them.

“Some students used to say they couldn’t see what the SPHERES project had to do with the real world,” he says. “But I got an e-mail the other day from one of them, and he said the things that happened in that class were exactly the way it works in the real world.”