Future Tense

Inspiring Mexicans to “Imagine Amazing Things.” In Space.

One man’s odyssey to launch his own satellite, and inspire his fellow citizens to do the same.

The satellite, photographed on a Mexican peak.
Ulises 1 on Mexico’s Altzomoni.
Juan José Díaz Infante and Celso Gutiérrez

This story was originally published in Spanish by Letras Libres.

After a depressing and divisive presidential campaign, Mexico is gripped with World Cup fever, and it’s exhilarating. A stronger-than-expected first-round performance has Mexicans embracing our leading all-time scorer Javier Hernández’s exhortation for us Mexicans to imagine “amazing things” (a sanitized translation of what he actually said).

“Chicharito” Hernández is onto something well beyond the playing fields of Russia. It would be great if Mexico won the World Cup, of course, but his call to imagine amazing things for our country is equally salient in other contexts. Too often, countries like Mexico talk themselves out of great ambitions, instead ceding them to the usual suspects among countries, those that we’ve been conditioned to assume are the ones that accomplish great things.

Take outer space, for instance. Why shouldn’t countries like Mexico explore space alongside the superpowers? Indeed, why shouldn’t Mexican citizens participate in this adventure, instead of just ceding it entirely to our government, which then cedes it to the superpowers?

These were some of my thoughts back in October of 2010, as I was fast approaching my 50th birthday. Thinking about the milestone, I thought about how the future wasn’t what I thought it would be. As a child, I had dreamed we would be living on the moon by now. We would all have a spaceship, and I, on a whim, would be able to buy myself a robot girlfriend. Stanley Kubrick and Blade Runner told me so.

Instead, I pondered the cliché of every man’s midlife crisis: Should I honor my half-century on Earth by buying a convertible or by building my own satellite to launch into space?

It turns out, you can’t just wake up one Wednesday morning in Mexico City and rocket an object into low-Earth orbit. It requires some research, some exploration. I began my quest for knowledge at a place I knew would not fail me: Sanborns.

My father was a fan of Sanborns, the Mexican department store chain/restaurant/pharmacy/bakery/bookstore/optician’s shop, and each Sunday of his life he would bring my brother and I there to eat the famous “enchiladas suizas.” In my adulthood, I found Sanborns was a good place for drinking coffee and buying magazines. There, in a copy of Scientific American, I found an article titled “Citizen Satellites: Sending Experiments Into Orbit Affordably,” a six-page description of how to make small satellites. What was once an idea became a possibility. We would call the satellite Ulises (the Spanish for “Ulysses”), the most fitting name for an infinite traveler forever seeking to get to its Penelope. Such a name also paid tribute to Ulises Carrión, a Mexican contemporary artist, and offered a wink to James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece.

I decided the satellite should be a work of art. It also seemed wise that, if Mexico would be producing a satellite, that it would be produced by a collaboration of people, which I would name the Colectivo Espacial Mexicano (Mexican Space Collective). The plan seemed sensible. So I started making phone calls. “Hello, my name is Juan and I want to launch a satellite to space.”

It became like the overture of a special opera in my mind, with Wagner himself at my side whispering, “Keep composing.” Just as opera is a hybrid of music and theater, the creation of Ulises would be a 21st-century hybrid of art and science. It progressed with my attempts to buy, from China, the distinct elements needed to build a satellite. Unfortunately, the aria abruptly halted: I didn’t get far before my credit card was frozen.

I called Visa, and a representative told me they had suspended my card for “suspicious activity.” “Suspicious activity,” I found, meant that you shouldn’t be buying satellite components if you’re from an art collective in a third-world country.

Effectively, if you’re in Mexico City and start to order pieces for a satellite, an algorithm detects that that shouldn’t happen. Even after I sorted out my card, I soon learned that I would have to apply for special permission from the U.S. Department of Defense in order to see the project out. Unbelievable: I had to submit a mission manifest to them. Unbelievable: I had to take an official oath, swearing that “I won’t export my payload to an enemy of the United States.” (The payload I had planned on launching? Poetry.) Because of the bureaucracy, it took three months to import the same kind of $1 solar cell you can find in many imported toys.

ESATMX with inscription.
Colectivo Espacial Mexicano

As I continued the project, I decided to visit Gerard Auvray, a French slalom champion and telephone engineer known for making low-Earth orbit satellites from the attic of his Paris home. It was one of the most magical moments of my life, entering a house to find cats and satellites everywhere I looked.

We went up to his attic laboratory, where my eyes wandered around to see a desk, some bookcases, a microscope, a big magnifying glass, some welding guns, and an oscilloscope.
Stacked in a corner was a baby-blue box with “SPUTNIK” written on the lid. The Russian government had commissioned Auvray to make replicas of that first artificial satellite. Soon, I found myself standing beside him, my hands on a copy of the aluminum “basketball” that had changed the world—the symbol that ignited the Cold War–era Space Race. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, when Sputnik went around the planet in 1957, the world changed, and the planet itself became an art form.

I wanted Ulises to be a kind of Mexican Sputnik, a vehicle for the imagination (sans Cold War politics, of course). Though Mexico may not have the reputation of a technological superpower in the way that Russia, the U.S., India, or China may have, our citizen collective, too, can claim a place on the extraplanetary stage.

By 2011, our group of artists, researchers, scientists, lawyers, and others gathered at an exhibition to officially launch the Colectivo Espacial Mexicano. Since then, our project has only become more real. We launched our first satellite, Ulises I, on Dec. 4, 2015, and followed with Ulises II one week later. (Disclosure: The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University served as a publication partner for a book about the Colectivo Espacial Mexicano and the launch of Ulises I. Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, Arizona State University, and New America.) We established a “School of Satellites” in Mexico City to teach people how to build them. And we’ve taken on other projects: making even more satellites, producing a zero gravity poem, and sending transmissions to space.
This includes a project we’ve dubbed the “Quixote Moon Bounce,” in which, as you can likely guess, we beam the story of Cervantes’ hero out of this world (we think it makes for a fitting extraterrestrial message from mankind). Another development: We’ve also changed our name. We’re now the Agencia Espacial Civil Mexicana (Mexican Civil Space Agency) and are looking ahead to doing more to promote international collaboration in the training of astronauts.

Ulises
Colectivo Espacial Mexicano

Chicharito Hernandez is right to say that Mexicans should imagine amazing things. Beyond the World Cup pitches, we may have to overcome the fact that the Mexico isn’t he nation we were promised by our politicians. But, as I learned, the future is a DIY project. It starts with people deciding to imagine amazing things.

Perhaps if Hernandez and the Mexican team win the World Cup, we’ll launch another satellite: One that contains a video of the team’s feat, for all the worlds to see.