Research in Engineering and Aviation

The Promise of Innovation From University Space Systems: Are We Meeting It?

August 2009

Author(s):  Swartwout, M.A.

“The Promise of Innovation From University Space Systems: Are We Meeting It?”, 23rd Annual AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, 13 August 2009, paper SSC09-XII-3.


A popular notion among universities is that we are innovation-drivers in the staid, risk-adverse spacecraft industry – we are to professional small satellites what small satellites are to the “battlestars”. By contrast, professional industry takes a much different perspective on university-class spacecraft; these programs are good for attracting students to space and providing valuable pre-career training, but the actual flight missions are ancillary, even unimportant. Which opinion is correct?

Both are correct. The vast majority of the 111 student-built spacecraft that have flown have made no innovative contributions. That is not to say that they have been without contribution. In addition to the inarguable benefits to education, many have served as radio Amateur communications, science experiments and even technological demonstrations. But “innovative”? Not so much. However, there have been two innovative contributors, whose contributions are large enough to settle the question: the University of Surrey begat SSTL, which helped create the COTS-based small satellite industry. Stanford and Cal Poly begat CubeSats, whose contributions are still being created today.

This paper provides an update to our earlier submissions on the history of student-built spacecraft. Major trends identified in previous years will be re-examined with new data — especially the bifurcation between larger-scale, larger-scope “flagship” programs and small-scale, reduced-mission “independents”. In particular, we will demonstrate that the general history of student-built spacecraft has not been one of innovation, nor of development of new space systems — with those few, extremely noteworthy, exceptions. We will assess why these innovations have not surfaced, and what can be done to change that situation — if indeed it can (or should) be changed.