Space Focusing on Upper Level Students Workforce

By , | August 1, 2010 | Feature, Government

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.”

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. 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.

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. EIAST plans to give more responsibility to students on future satellites. “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.”

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 instill in our aspiring engineers.”

The SSTA is involved in a number of projects and launched a space academy in June. “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.

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 V.S. 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.

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.

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

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. “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,” says Bell. “… 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. 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. “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 and 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 companies is they cannot afford to keep experienced engineers around full-time, says Volkert, which is great for his business but bad for the satellite sector. “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.” The younger generations need to work with the experienced engineers to pick up the accumulated knowledge, but companies focused solely on the bottom line do not want to pay for the cost of keeping the older engineers around full-time, 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.”

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