Bobby Braun, new dean of the University of Colorado's College of Engineering and Applied Science, says a $15 million gift will help grow a space-focused aerospace engineering department. Credit: Univ. of Colorado

WASHINGTON — A $15 million donation to a University of Colorado department led by a former NASA chief technologist is intended to bolster that university’s space research and education efforts.

The gift by Ann Smead and her husband Michael Byram, announced Jan. 23, names the university’s aerospace engineering department the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. It funds an endowed chair in space technology at the university and enhances an existing graduate student scholars program.

“A gift of this magnitude can be transformational,” said Bobby Braun, dean of the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Science and a former NASA chief technologist, in an interview.

Braun, who started as dean in early January, said the gift will support the growth an aerospace engineering department, ranked among the top 10 in the country, that is more space-focused than many others. “It’s going to allow us to bring in more faculty. It’s going to allow us to support staff associated with the program. It’s going to allow us to bring in more students,” he said.

The university, Braun argued, has become a nexus for the aerospace industry in Colorado, which one of the largest in the country in terms of employment. The department has close ties to a number of major companies with operations in the state, including Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada Corp.

“It’s really going to allow us to raise the profile of aerospace engineering here in Colorado,” he said. “The aerospace program here is in the center of this larger aerospace community, with all kinds of industry players. Growing the program is good for the state and for the country.”

The college is bolstering other connections with the space industry. On Jan. 25, it announced that it was hiring Phil Larson as assistant dean for communications, strategy, and planning. Larson previously worked at SpaceX and as senior advisor for space and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In his new position, Larson will lead overall strategy and planning for the engineering college and oversee internal and external communications. “He has the passion, experience and know-how to help move the college forward as a leader in engineering education,” Braun said in a statement about hiring Larson.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...