Posted inOpinion

OpEd: No Small Feat (NSF): Student-led Spacecraft

When we think of small scientific satellites, we almost always think of NASA as the sponsoring agency. However, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently has begun to develop a new small satellite concept that has the potential to invigorate the U.S. academic community. Through an active NSF program – with an unapologetic focus on hands-on education and training – there is a real opportunity to restore some of the speed, agility and excitement that infused space sciences 50 years ago at the dawn of the Space Age.

James A. Van Allen – who passed away just last year – was widely heralded as the father of space exploration. Dr. Van Allen was very fond of recalling that in his earliest work on Explorer satellite missions the “proposals” to fly instruments on U.S. satellites consisted of a single-page letter to the funding agency (such as the Office of Naval Research and NASA) and a statement of the number of dollars that would be needed to do the job. That was it. Van Allen had dozens of successful missions and trained generations of students to follow in his scientific footsteps.

Today, scientific satellite missions require proposals of dozens to hundreds of pages in length. The time (and cost) to write and review proposals even for the smallest end of the mission size spectrum is staggering. The degree to which agencies are risk averse including for the least expensive small spacecraft makes it difficult to enlist students in the space hardware enterprise. Thus, it is increasingly rare to find students (scientists or engineers) who have worked on actual space hardware as undergraduate or graduate students.

Space science and space engineering education has fallen under a cloud during the past few years as agencies have focused on larger programs or national priorities such as the Vision for Space Exploration. In prior times, agencies have successfully executed the mandate for the nation’s practical education of scientists and engineers by offering frequent, low-cost access to space. This was an avenue that provided the scientific, government and commercial space sectors a steady supply of experienced and highly talented personnel for the labor force.

This supply pipeline has all but dried up. The pipeline had been an extremely effective partnership between the U.S. educational enterprise and the U.S. government. The educational system – from kindergarten to college and on through postdoctorate – provided the academic training, laboratories and physical facilities while federal agencies provided affordable access to space and resources needed for missions.

Why is access to space so crucial? Education and experience are complementary aspects in developing technical expertise, whether it be for scientists or engineers. Usually the expertise comes from an apprenticeship served with a master of the trade. The space enterprise is not readily replicated in laboratories on the Earth’s surface. Hence, developing experience requires apprenticeships through which students design, fabricate, test and fly their experiments in space.

NASA has had a rich heritage of programs that provided students and their mentors such access:

the sounding rocket





and the Get Away Special

programs as well as

the K-12 student programs of Skylab and the space shuttle. The satellite program

also had provided

cutting-edge apprenticeships in the past, although

the long lead times of

such programs were not commensurate with the student


. Today,


and similar programs have either been terminated or – as with the sounding rocket program –

been cut back to the bone.

How does access to space lead to educational success? Until an electrical engineering student has experienced a ground loop problem while working on a space payload, he or she does not fully realize that satellites are not grounded systems. Not until a mechanical engineering student has watched screws fall out of a payload on the shake table during simulated launch conditions does the student realize that achieving low Earth orbit has a huge design impact. While working with the engineers and managers on a satellite payload, the science student also realizes that he or she cannot do a space mission alone. Through such team activities, students appreciate that their academic education is only one part of becoming a space scientist or engineer. This hands-on experience is invaluable. No aerospace industry can afford to provide it to a beginning employee since present-day projects have no room for learning by trial and error.

The NSF held a community workshop in May 2007 to see if anyone in the academic world was interested in a very “small-end” satellite program. More than 150 people attended the meeting and all of the attendees were very enthusiastic. A simple lesson is that academia is thirsting for a new small satellite program that is accessible, risk-tolerant, student-oriented and hands-on. Educating the next generation of professionals is a core mission of NSF, so in this sense such a small satellite project is tailor made for the Foundation. From the ideas proffered at the NSF workshop, it also is clear that there are many exciting and important science issues that can be addressed with very small satellites including space weather, Earth science and space physics problems.

We applaud the managers of NSF’s Atmospheric Sciences Division for having the vision and courage to explore the possibilities of doing a low-cost small satellite program. It is obvious that the Foundation must be a bit cautious at first: It must achieve an understanding of what is entailed so as not to threaten the health of other NSF basic research efforts.

Indeed, getting to space, operating in space and returning information from space can be costly and unforgiving. But it is high time that someone step up to the plate and restore the academic opportunity to educate the next-generation space work force. We sincerely hope that the NSF will follow through on this vision and will bring back an exciting, engaging small satellite program.

Daniel Baker is director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Jan Sojka is assistant director of the Center for Atmopsoheric Space Sciences and a professor of physics at Utah State University, Logan.