Education

This Cal Poly professor helped create mini-satellites used by NASA. Now he plans to sail the world

Cal Poly professor Jordi Puig-Suari holds a CubeSat. Since he and Stanford professor Bob Twiggs created the CubeSat, thousands have been sent to space by students, private businesses and governments.
Cal Poly professor Jordi Puig-Suari holds a CubeSat. Since he and Stanford professor Bob Twiggs created the CubeSat, thousands have been sent to space by students, private businesses and governments.

A Cal Poly professor who co-created miniaturized satellites for space research plans to retire from the university and travel the globe with his family in a 50-foot sailboat.

Jordi Puig-Suari, who has worked in Cal Poly's aerospace engineering department since 1998, is credited with developing CubeSat technology that made satellite launches accessible to universities, high schools and private companies around the world.

Shortly after coming to Cal Poly, Puig-Suari teamed with Stanford professor Bob Twiggs to develop the CubeSat standard — a cube-shaped mini-satellite no bigger than a tissue box — and more than 2,000 have been launched worldwide in the two decades since.

The innovative technology is a key part of the legacy Puig-Suari leaves at Cal Poly.

The longtime Pismo Beach resident recently opted for early retirement in order to travel around the world with his wife and 15-year-old son.

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This CubeSat was launched by NASA in 2013. Two CubeSat satellites used in a NASA mission to Mars underwent testing and preparation at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in February. NASA

"We're starting to hear friends who are older saying, 'Oh, my back is bugging me' or 'My knee is doing this,'" Puig-Suari said. "And it's like, 'How much longer will we be in a position to do this?' So we're sort of retiring in the middle instead of retiring at the end, because we want to be good enough to do this for a few years."

A native of Barcelona, Spain, Puig-Suari graduated from Purdue with a bachelor of science, a master of Science and a Ph.D in aeronautical and astronautical engineering in 1988, 1990 and 1993, respectively. He taught at Arizona State University in Tempe from 1994 to 1998 before relocating to San Luis Obispo.

His partnership with Twiggs paved the way for CubeSat's profound success, though Puig-Suari says little was expected of the device early on.

The two founding professors simply wanted to give students an opportunity to launch satellites into space.

Their design became the industry standard over time and today has the support of organizations such as NASA, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense, the European Space Agency, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, among others.

Aided by timely advancements in technology, Cal Poly students were able to create the satellites and develop technology that launched satellites created by other universities, the school said.

"Cal Poly played a key role in making sure these things launched," Puig-Suari said. "For a long time, we were the only game in town as far as putting things in space."

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Today, NASA has its own CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides access to a "low-cost pathway to conduct research in the areas of science, exploration, technology development, education or operations."

And as Puig-Suari prepares to embark on the sailing adventure of a lifetime, he says he takes comfort in knowing thousands of unseen satellites will help guide the journey.

The family plans to launch their boat from the Mediterranean Sea. From there, they will cross the Atlantic Ocean, pass through the Panama Canal to reach the Pacific Ocean, and then head toward the Indian Ocean. They will sail around South Africa to reach their final destination, the Caribbean.

The nautical journey will take a few years, and the couple plans to home-school their son.

Puig-Suari said the family will rely on satellite technology to avoid bad weather, remaining flexible with their plans along the way.

"The worst thing you can do is have a schedule," Puig-Suari said. "Because then you make bad decisions. That's one reason to retire — we want to do it and not have any pressure."

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