Known as Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployers (henceforth “PPODs”), the devices are used to mount small cubesat satellites on launch vehicles. When correctly configured, the PPOD secures the tiny satellite in place through launch, then releases it into space at the appointed time. Despite its crucial purpose however, the PPOD is a relatively low-tech device. It’s simple to build, but NASA needs tons of them and it’s not terribly cost effective to build an entire fabrication line just to churn out PPODs when we already have a perfectly viable workforce biding its time behind bars.
Thus, former University of Arizona professor Pete Worden hatched a plan to tap the largely unused prison population to build the devices. The goal, according to the scheme Worden outlined for NASA, is to both create a steady supply of PPODs as well as assist “a few select inmates develop their machining skills to make them more employable in the aerospace industry upon release.” In short, NASA gets new toys for
cheap free, San Quentin gets a couple million dollars, and a few dozen prisoners pick up a useful skill.
After a visit to San Quentin to determine if inmates had access to all the materials and information they would need to build the PPODs, NASA signed a two year Space Act agreement with the prison. Under the terms, NASA will provide cash and educational opportunities for prisoners, while the prison would ensure that its residents are meeting their PPOD quota and building the devices to meet rigorous NASA standards.