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Work to Build Space Workforce Intensifies as Students Enter University Level

By , | July 19, 2010

      Winning the initial battle for young hearts and minds is key for the future of the space sector, and important work is being done with younger students. But that is only half the battle, as numerous science- and math-related professions are available once these children reach the university level, and keeping them moving toward space-related studies at the highest levels of education continues to be a challenge.

      In this story, listen to in depth interviews from Jason Bates, Editor of, with:

      Focusing on Older Students

      While organizations such as the Space Foundation focus their education efforts on younger students and their teachers, the Society of Satellite Professionals International (SSPI), puts its focus into the university level, says Robert Bell, the SSPI executive director.  “For the people I’ve interviewed, one standard question is what are the companies doing to find talent and nurture it. The all have similar answers, which is focusing on undergraduate student. They can’t afford to look at the high school student. They are too far away [from the workforce] and have too many choices. We came to the same conclusion with the SSPI scholarship programs. We had been giving them to undergrads, but they don’t know where they are going with it. Their interest may change. … The companies I talk to spend a lot of time doing talent scouting. They talk to universities and professors and develop internships. They want to see if the talent and interest are there and then stay in touch. The companies are good at this and very proactive.”

      The SSPI sponsors scholarship programs and also operates various education related databases to help students interested in careers in the space field to find schools. The organization has a list of 1800 institutions that have programs related to the satellite sector. The SSPI also runs programs through its individual chapters throughout the United States as well as international chapters in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Japan and Brazil. The chapters raise money for scholarships, and the SSPI helps find recipients. “We’ve received about 50 applications for our scholarship programs, and normally it’s half that or less,” says Bell. The recession has gotten [students’] attention, so kids are thinking about space. Anything we can do to help this generation enter the workforce is a good thing.”

      While inroads have been made by focusing on the students at the highest levels of education, the satellite sector still has a problem when it comes to competing for the next generation of engineers, says Bell. “I think it’s important for the industry to feel a competitive threat. We do some of the hardest things in the world and need the best and the brightest, but I don’t know if we’re getting the best and the brightest. We need to compete better with Google and Microsoft and Oracle, and the satellite business has not grown exponentially for a long time. There are a lot of exciting startups in the satellite business, and there are cutting-edge areas such as the satellite-cellular interface, imaging work and high throughput satellites,” he says. New companies such as SpaceX are generating some interest, but there are limited examples of these types of companies in the space sector. “For the most part, the satellite sector is big contractors building big, exquisite systems that have to work correctly. That’s not a business where you can get three or four years of experience and then jump and form your own company and invent the next big widget. … There is not a vast movement, but the space sector is more entrepreneurial in a way that is different than in the past decade. The idea of trying to make a difference is important to some people.”

      NASA has an extensive network of programs for younger students but also puts in plenty of effort at the university level as well. In the 2010 budget for NASA’s Office of Education, about $182 million was focused on higher education, says Jim Stofan, acting associate administrator for education at NASA headquarters. These funds are spent on a wide variety of programs, such as supporting institutional research, providing support for graduate and undergraduate students and funds for faculty awards. In June, NASA awarded $16.8 million to colleges and universities throughout the United States to conduct research and technology development in areas of importance to the agency’s mission. The selections of 24 proposals are part of NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, a program designed to assist states in establishing an academic research enterprise directed toward a long-term, self-sustaining and competitive capability that will contribute to the states’ economic viability and development. NASA also oversees the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, also known as Space Grant. The national network of colleges and universities was instituted in 1989, and the schools work to expand opportunities for students to understand and participate in NASA’s aeronautics and space projects. The Space Grant national network includes more than 850 affiliates from universities, colleges, industry, museums, science centers and state and local agencies that cover all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The 52 consortia fund fellowships and scholarships for students pursuing careers in science, mathematics, engineering and technology as well as curriculum enhancement and faculty development. Member colleges and universities also administer pre-college and public service education projects in their states.

      Listen to more questions from Jason Bates’ interview with Jim Stofan acting associate administrator for education, NASA Headquarters.

      Among the programs for college students NASA planned this summer are the X-Hab Academic Innovation Competition, which calls for university-level students to design, manufacture and assemble an inflatable loft that will be integrated into NASA’s operational hard-shell prototype lab unit. The goal of the competition is to encourage further studies in spaceflight-related engineering and architecture disciplines and requires undergraduate students to explore NASA’s work to develop space habitats while also helping the agency gather new and innovative ideas to complement its current research and development. The winner of the competition, sponsored by NASA’s Exploration Mission Directorate and the Office of the Chief Technologist’s Innovative Partnerships Program, will demonstrate the submitted design during the 2011 Desert Research and Technology Studies or a similar field test. A separate event, dubbed RockOn!, brought 80 university students and professors from across the United States and Puerto Rico to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to learn how to build small experiments that can be launched on sounding rockets. The participants built standardized experiments that flew on a NASA Terrier-Orion suborbital sounding rocket set in June, along with 11 custom-built experiments developed at universities and flown inside a payload canister known as RockSat. The workshop, NASAs third, was funded by the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program in partnership with the Colorado and Virginia Space Grant Consortia.

      International Efforts

      In the United Arab Emirates, the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science & Technology (EIAST) is engaging students to work on its DubaiSat program and build satellites that will help the country. The DubaiSat-1 satellite, launched in 2009, is the first remote sensing satellite owned totally by a United Arab Emirates entity and is intended to meet the needs of the United Arab Emirates and Dubai in developing satellite technology and the continuous need for spatial information and Earth observation data. EIAST began the program in 2006 and owns all the assets, including the ground segment and the space segment. Follow-on satellites are now planned.

      EIAST is giving a lot responsibility to students on this project, and this is only going to increase in the coming years. “We are giving internships to students to work on the satellite. The number of engineers working on the DubaiSat program is increasing,” says Ahmed Al Mansoori, director general, EIAST. “With major projects like DubaiSat, we are giving young people lots of responsibility. We have engineers outside of the institute who are helping the group of students. With DubaiSat-1, I would say students contributed around 30 percent to 50 percent of the project. That is in terms of manufacturing, design etc,” he says. “With DubaiSat-2, students are expected to be involved in 50 percent to 70 percent of the design and manufacturing of the satellite. We are raising the responsibility of students from DubaiSat-1 to DubaiSat-2. After DubaiSat-1, we wanted to show students that they would have something tangible for their efforts.”

      EIAST plans to launch DubaiSat-2 in 2012 and is making plans for the DubaiSat-3 satellite, says Al Mansoori. “We might announce something on this at the beginning of next year. There are a number of people working on the ground station. We are also looking to work from companies from different regions, and not just the Middle East. We think future projects could be more international in their direction,” comments Al Mansoori.

      The opportunity to work on these national programs is a key selling point when encouraging university students to pursue opportunities in the satellite sector. “One of the main areas we are focusing on in our space programs is the environment. We are working with different colleges and universities on issues related to the environment. We also sponsor certain students. There are different ways to encourage students. Our engineers go and see people to tell them about working in the industry. They are the role models for the students. We also put on workshops for students so they can see different aspects of what we are doing. We also say to students it is not difficult to build a career in this area. Yes, it takes a lot of hard work, but it can be done. We are playing a key role in maintaining our culture in manufacturing and innovation,” Al Mansoori says.

      Jonathan Hung, president of the Singapore Space and Technology Association (SSTA), says the organization adopts a much different approach to working with students at the university level as compared to younger students in Singapore. “At the university level, the goal is really to encourage students to stay in this field and showcase that one can pursue a good, fulfilling career in the space industry. We also recognize that today’s students are very pragmatic. Most of them are looking for good career opportunities and challenging work environments. We need to show them that space is, and will always be, the highest echelon of science, and being in the space industry means you’ve peaked in science and technology. It’s that coveted feeling we want to instil in our aspiring engineers.”

      The SSTA is involved in a number of projects and even launched a space academy in Singapore in June, as it aims to provide its students with world class resources. “This is Singapore’s first ever space training initiative. It is a very rigorous four-day program,” Hung says. “We are working with NASA consultants and instructors with over 20 years of experience each. The curriculum follows astronaut candidate selection in a summarized way and puts students through intense academic components, mixed with practical, hands-on sessions. Only 50, high-caliber participants are taken in each camp.” Hung also pinpoints another major competition that the SSTA is involved in to encourage students at the university level. “A key program that we organize is the national space design competition — the Singapore Space Challenge, where students design and develop space related hardware or software depending on competition parameters,” he says.

      The work really steps up a notch once students get to university, and the SSTA works hard to make sure the students have access to world-class companies in the sector. “The SSTA also conducts relevant seminars where various local and international space companies talk to students and faculty. We also stage an annual space technology convention, and we open this up to student participation. With over 30 international C-Suite speakers speaking at this convention, students are given the opportunity to engage with the global industry. In essence, it is a one-stop-shop location for space-aspiring students in Singapore,” says Hung.

      India is becoming an exciting hub for the satellite industry, and universities in India are participating in some major space projects in the country. “In 2009, we launched a microsatellite built by one of the universities in South India. Hopefully, in July, you will see another small satellite, built by undergraduate students of four engineering colleges together, being launched by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This satellite is for mapping applications. In fact, building of these small satellites by students has been through their intimate hand-holding by ISRO,” says VS Hegde, ISRO’s scientific secretary. “ISRO has provided technical guidance all through and considerable technical support in realizing these satellites including launch and data reception. ISRO has an exclusive Small Satellite Program, under which select technical institutions in the country are provided support to build such small satellites.”

      Hegde says ISRO encourages “university students in the country to build and operate small, to be precise, microsatellites and nanosatellites. … ISRO provides necessary technical guidance and support to some extent, mainly in terms of testing and qualification and free launch as piggyback [payloads] along with ISRO’s regular missions. Anusat, a small satellite of around 35 kilograms, was the first in this series built by university students. Four more satellites, built by college students, are in the anvil. Of these, Studsat, a picosatellite with an imaging payload, is scheduled to be launched as a piggyback payload on board the PSLV-C15/Cartsat-2B mission. Many other universities are also keenly interested to associate their students in the development of small satellites,” he says. Other planned missions include Astrosat, the first dedicated Indian satellite for astronomy, which will enable multi-wavelength observations of the celestial bodies and cosmic sources in X-ray and UV spectral bands simultaneously, says Hegde. ISRO also is planning a second lunar exploration mission, Chandrayaan-2, with an orbiter, lander and rover. “Many scientific and academic institutions are keen to participate in this mission,” says Hegde.

      ISRO also is involved in a comprehensive program throughout India’s universities with what it calls Space Technology Cells for students. “Space Technology Cells are set up in premier academic institutions such as Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs), Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and a few leading universities. Research activities on topics of mutual interest are sponsored by ISRO at these universities through these cells,” says Hegde. In terms of other work at the university level, “ISRO sponsors participation of two students in the International Astronautical Congress, held at different cities across the globe annually. ISRO provides opportunities to reasonable number undergraduate engineering students to pursue short term project work at different ISRO Centers under their curriculum. Engineering students are also provided vocational training opportunities through apprentice opportunities,” he says. India’s universities also benefit from satellite technologies. “A number of universities are involved in ISRO’s Edusat-based tele-education program. Over 55,000 virtual class rooms are operated through 69 networks in the country today,” he says.

      ISRO also has also been supporting the student community to develop legal expertise in space law-related matters, says Hegde. “Funding support is provided annually to an Indian law student team for their participation in the Space Law Moot Court competitions. Internship supports for topics of current interest are also offered to law students.”
      In Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA) also takes a hands-on approach. Francesco Emma, head of ESA’s Education Office, says, “At the college level, our main tools is given by the hands-on activities that we are running. We try to put together opportunities for students to build microsatellites. We have currently ongoing two projects for two microsatellites. One is a moon orbiter, and the other is a LEO satellite. Both projects are led by an industrial prime, which supervises the work of universities which are in charge of delivering parts of the satellites. There is a coaching and training exercise made by the prime contractor. It is a good way of being in contact with the industry. We run this project in the same way we do with a big satellite.” Students also can participate in other parts of space programs. “We also offer launch opportunities to universities developing CubeSats (nanosatellites weighing 1 kilogram.) Nine CubeSat’s are currently being developed and due for launch. On the lower end, we offer on a yearly basis, project opportunities where students can fly experiments on sounding rockets and stratospheric balloons or in a microgravity environment through our parabolic flight campaigns,” he says.

      A flexible approach is needed in order to reach students here. “The efforts made for higher education, in particular, rely on a wide range of activities going from hands-on projects to academic support activities. Hands-on projects offer practical opportunities to students to practicing in space projects by letting them design nano or micro satellites and therefore facilitating a better understanding of what a space project is. Academic support activities offer opportunities for research in areas that are of specific interest for the Agency. We also provide training opportunities to students through workshops, and support lecturing requests coming from different schools throughout Europe,” Emma says.

      The International Space University (ISU), headquartered in Strasbourg, France, provides graduate-level training to the future leaders of the global space community at its main campus and locations around the globe. In its two-month Space Studies program and one-year masters program, ISU offers students a core curriculum covering all disciplines related to space programs and enterprises — space science, space engineering, systems engineering, space policy and law, business and management, and space and society. Both programs also involve a student research team project providing international graduate students and young space professionals the opportunity to solve complex problems by working together. Since its founding in 1987, ISU has graduated more than 2,900 students from 100 countries.

      Challenge to Retain Intellectual Property

      While attracting top young talent to the space sector is key, still more has to be done, according to several officials. Along with bringing in young engineers, it is important to make sure they connect with the older generations in order to pass along the years of accumulated knowledge and the sense of why the space sector is important. “Some of the people that built this industry had a sense of the mission,” says Bell. “They knew what they did mattered. The vast majority that worked in the satellite business are proud of it, and it means something to those people that they work in that unique business, because it meant something. … Scholarship programs work, but I think the real contribution we can make is mentorship programs between students and working professionals. I’m not sure the young people I know are really getting connected to the legacy of this business, and the thing that makes the veterans so remarkable is they know they changed the world. I’m not sure that is getting passed down and lighting the flame in the younger people.”

      Keith Volkert is a longtime satellite sector engineer who during his career has served as managing director at Comsat and started on the Apollo program at North American Aviation and also has worked on Mars Viking 1 and 2 programs, Voyagers 1 and 2, and the Galileo program. As the founder and CEO of Satellite Consulting Inc. he now works with a stable of 160 satellite experts to provide consulting services to the satellite sector. “What happens in many cases is that we get calls from major companies that have guys retiring, but they don’t want to lose access to them. The companies have policies that they can’t sign individual contracts, so they push them to organizations like mine. I supply consultants to Loral, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences, and I never know when the phone will ring. It typically rings when the companies need to solve problems on orbit or there are design issues they can’t fix or proposals that need to be done.”

      The problem for many of the companies is that they cannot afford to keep their most experienced engineers around fulltime, says Volkert, which is great for his business but bad for the satellite sector overall. “They are highly paid, and if don’t use them 40 hours a week, it’s hard to justify that salary. But at the same time, you still want access to these guys because the companies don’t have technically competent people coming in at the bottom of chain. … Several companies say they are fully staffed, with good, young people coming in, but companies are not able to cherry pick the way the did in the 70s and 80s and the young talent is not very experienced.” The younger generations need to work side-by-side with the experienced engineers to pick up the full knowledge of the satellite sector, but companies focused solely on the bottom line do not want to pay for the cost of keeping the older engineers around fulltime, Volkert says. “This is very short-sighted and very short-term focused. We clearly need mentoring programs so the senior guys can pass on the knowledge and responsibility until they are not needed anymore. But with the new economy, I don’t think the companies can afford to do any of that, and I don’t see that changing.”

      This impact also will be felt during the ongoing debate about the future of NASA and space exploration the transition from the space shuttle program to the next generation of launch vehicles. The Obama administration unveiled a plan in February to NASA’s manned Constellation lunar mission program and invest $6 billion in commercial launch companies to replace the retiring space shuttle fleet. Daphne Dador, manager, workforce, for the Aerospace Industries Association, says the organizations members, which include U.S. manufacturers and suppliers of aircraft, space systems, equipment, services and information technology, are working to transition these individuals and their skillsets to new jobs within the sector. “Companies are holding job fairs, but these workers are not going to be placed in the space programs. They may be developing rockets one day and working on missiles another day. We know there are efforts, but it’s not going to be easy [to transition the workforce]. There are a lot of creative ways to see where we can place these workers, but with the uncertainty and the lack of contracts, it impacts what we do and speaks to the larger skillset issue. No one has been building rockets. Most of the space workforce has been on mission operations and maintenance, but when it comes to building new rockets, that skillset is not there. We’re trying to figure out where these individuals can get jobs, but the bigger picture is where in the country are we going to find these skills. This is right in the middle of this debate, she says.

      Listen to more questions from Jason Bates’ interview with Daphne Dador, Manager, Workforce, Aerospace Industry Association.

      “The current plan [for NASA] is going to force a huge number of people on street that still have five to 10 years of good work left in them,” says Volkert. “Once they are out for one or two years, we lose access to them. You can’t be on the street for two to three years and expect to take up the job again. If you don’t keep your fingers in, knowledge runs away from you. The aerospace industry will take real hit. I’ve signed up some good rocket guys that are now unemployed, because cutbacks are coming and they are being pushed on street. The commercial segment will not pick them up. It’s too expensive to have them sitting around 40 hours a week, but when crunch time comes, we will need the senior experts that know what they are doing, and that need is not going to diminish.”


      Once students get to the university level, the world of space really begins to open up. There are more programs than ever designed to bring new engineers into the space sector. but once they enter the workforce. Students who are intent to pursue careers in space have many opportunities, and the sector continues to find new opportunities — and new challenges — to remain healthy and growing.

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