Meet The Man Who is Launching a TARDIS Into Orbit
By Dan Casey on June 27, 2013
With the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC’s venerable time traveling megahit Doctor Who fast approaching, many fans are looking for special ways to celebrate the show’s golden anniversary. Some will throw on a fez, others will host viewing parties with Cybermen cake pops, and then there are fans like Robert Doyle and his daughter Alex, who are launching a TARDIS into orbit. You read that right: they’re launching an actual TARDIS into actual space. Really.
The Doyles are using crowdfunding through Kickstarter to launch a TARDIS satellite into orbit. Having already hit their funding goal, the project is marching forward, regardless of Daleks in the comment section shouting “Exterminate!” To give you a look inside the project as the Kickstarter enters its final days, I caught up with Robert Doyle to discuss how the project came into being, the Doctor Who fandom’s response, and the logistics of launching a freakin’ TARDIS into space.
Nerdist: The obvious question is, what in the world possessed you to undertake a project like this? I’m super into the idea, but it’s admittedly out there.
Robert Doyle: Yeah, it is. We did an interview not too long ago, and the way they put it is that it’s sort of a perfect storm of circumstances for us. Everything kind of came together. Obviously, it’s the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who this year, and a lot of people are doing things for it. My daughter and I thought it’d be kind of cool to do something neat for it. We were thinking of having some friends over and having a party and just watching the show, you know? Then, one day, I was in the kitchen doing something and she was saying that she had read somewhere on Tumblr that someone had raised a huge amount of money on Kickstarter for this weird little project that they were doing. And I had never even heard of Kickstarter before. So I went on the site and I was looking at some things. I was impressed – there’s so much stuff on here! Crazy stuff, stuff you’d never be able to do on your own, but if you had the support of other people, maybe you would.
We started brainstorming, “What do we do?” Putting something into space was on the far end of the spectrum, but then we thought, “Maybe it’s not so ridiculous.” We did some research and there are companies that will take whatever your satellite is and, if you can afford the ticket on the rocket, they’ll take it and put it in space. So, we made some calls to find out the specifics on size and weight and all the things we’d need, but most of all we knew that we’d need support from people. We thought, “Well, that’s where Kickstarter can come in.”
When we put it up, we knew the Doctor Who fan base was strong enough and united enough that if they got excited about something, they could make it happen. What we didn’t know is if we could get in touch with people, and that was the real challenge from our way of thinking: we knew the support would be there, but could we let people know we were actually doing it?
N: And how has the response been from the Doctor Who fandom?
RD: It has been amazing. It was really kind of cool. We put the Kickstarter campaign up and within a few minutes, we had a dollar and we were all excited like, “Hey, somebody saw it!” In a few days, we were at 4% and we were having a conversation, “If the campaign would last for 100 days, we would make it.” Then, we got picked up by a Doctor Who Facebook page, Doctor Who and the TARDIS, which has like 400,000 likes, and they started liking it, recommending it and reposting it. Then, it got picked up by the official Doctor Who Tumblr page, which was a huge boost for us because by that time we had people all over the world who were seeing it and telling other people about it.
We actually passed our target goal in about 9 days. We’re up over $52,000 right now and every time we check it, there’s a little bit more and a little bit more. It’s one of those things where if it’s visible, we’re getting traffic to the site. Every time someone posts something about it, it’s reflected on the site. Right now, we just Googled “TARDIS in Orbit” the other day and the first three pages were our project. So, that was pretty cool. [laughs] It’s been really exciting.
N: Tell us about building the TARDIS.
RD: Our original plan was to make a little blue box with a light on top. It’s fairly straightforward. In theory, it didn’t really matter what material it was; you could use LEGOS. They’ve put LEGOs in space before. If all you’re asking for it to do is to be a little box with a light on top, that’s pretty easy. We made it out of aluminum that you can get at Home Depot or wherever. We painted it TARDIS blue and distressed the edges to make it look a little beat up like the TARDIS is. We thought about it a little bit more and thought if we put a camera on it, maybe it could take pictures of the Earth. That would be cool, but how would we do it? We needed to put a transmitter on it, and of course then we need power for it, so we put solar panels on it. But we’re not really satellite builders. It’s one of those cases where you get halfway into a project and realize you’re in way over your head, but you’re already committed now.
So, we started sending out e-mails and people that do that kind of thing were really excited to help us out and look at what we were doing. We made a ton of mistakes doing it. The first thing we did was we put a hard drive in it so people could put video or pictures or memories on there and then that would be orbiting the Earth. We had a 250 GB hard drive in a laptop we weren’t using anymore, so we thought, “Awesome! We’ll just use this.” We built a little mounting thing for it and everything inside, but apparently a regular hard drive won’t work in space. We were feeling really bad and a little bit over our head and wondering how we could do this when I was reading an article and it turns out, when they built the International Space Station, every computer had a standard hard drive in it and none of them worked when they got into orbit. They had to pull ‘em all and replace ‘em. So, we were making the same mistake that NASA made, and that made us feel a bit better.
N: You know you’re okay when the big boys are making the same mistakes.
RD: Yeah, and we figured it out before we put it in space, so we’re ahead of the curve. You’d be amazed at how much you can learn just by Googling something or sending e-mails to people to see if they’re willing to help out. Since we began, we’ve worked with NASA, (and) engineers at Johns Hopkins have contacted us offering to check out our design/software. It’s been really, really cool.
N: Please tell me that “TARDIS Blue” is an official Benjamin Moore paint swatch.
RD: [laughs] I don’t know about that, but I think it is an official Pantone color if you can find it.
N: What was the most difficult challenge to overcome in constructing this?
RD: The physical construction was easy — it’s a box, you know? Probably the hardest thing was getting it to do something. We put a camera in there, and we need to figure out how much power that camera’s going to use and have enough solar panels to provide it with power. When you get into that kind of stuff, unless you happen to be an electrical engineer, you have to take a crash course in electrical engineering to figure that stuff out. Fortunately, one of my best friends happens to be an electrical engineer, so I’m able to run a lot of the stuff by him. The mechanics of it are probably the most difficult thing. If it’s just a box, though, that’s easy.
N: Once it’s in orbit, what will it be able to do? You mentioned there will be a hard drive. Will it be able to trasmit data? Attract Daleks? What are we talking about?
RD: [laughs] It’s a defense mechanism for the planet! It will be able to transmit images from the on-board camera. Not so much from the hard drive, which is functioning as more of a time capsule of information. What we will have, though, is, once the Kickstarter campaign ends, we’re going to launch our website where you’ll be able to take a tour inside the TARDIS. You will see everything we’ve put in the TARDIS — all the information that people have uploaded. Their names, their messages, their little video clips. Basically, we’re making a redundant version of the hard drive and we’re making it available online. To make it where you could actually access the satellite in orbit, then we’re talking about tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.
N: You’d need a slightly bigger Kickstarter goal. Will people be able to see the images from the camera on the website?
RD: Yeah, yeah. The images will be available on the website and, actually, Nerdist is helping us out to make some behind the scenes videos and little updates that will regularly post on the Kickstarter page and on on that website, so people can see how we did it both up to and beyond the launch. People will be able to go to the site to see a TARDIS-eye-view of the Earth!
N: After this project is complete, do you have another pop culture-y science project that you’d like to pursue?
RD: We didn’t have any plans of doing anything because, like I said, our biggest concern when we were starting out was that no one would notice us. But because of the response we’ve gotten and support from the Doctor Who community, really all over the world — from Korea, Sweden, Denmark, Australia — it’s sort of making us think we should have something on the backburner. We’ve been kicking around a couple ideas, but so far we haven’t come up with anything really good yet.
N: Has anyone from Doctor Who or the BBC contacted you?
RD: No one from the BBC per se, but we’ve had some Companions from classic Who episodes and the 1996 film that have not only contacted us, but are backing the project and will have stuff inside the TARDIS as well.
N: That’s rad. One last question — it’ll probably be difficult to answer: who is your favorite Doctor and/or episode?
RD: For me, it would have to be the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, because he was the one when I was a kid and the first Doctor I saw. It’s funny because I remember watching and thinking that the special effects were awful, but the acting was so good! The lines were well-written and funny, but the effects were not quite there. For my daughter, she started watching with the reboots, so her favorite Doctor would have to be David Tennant if for no other reason than he’s a huge fan of the show himself. He got into acting because he wanted to play the Doctor and then it happened, which is such a cool story.
You still have a few days left to help put a TARDIS into orbit on the Doyles’ Kickstarter. Then, you can keep up with their ongoing exploits on their official Twitter page. And look for behind-the-scenes footage of the project coming soon at the Nerdist Channel.
What do you think of the project? Let us know in the comments below!