Pandemic forces university space programs to adapt

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The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the task of training the next generation of aerospace engineers and entrepreneurs.

Universities that pride themselves on offering hands-on instruction have been forced to modify their curriculum in light of a pandemic that prevents groups of students from gathering in laboratories to build cubesats, rockets and rovers.

“It has been challenging for us,” said Daniel Hastings, who heads the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We just have had to adapt.”

In some cases, university professors are sending hardware to students. David Barnhart, director of the University of Southern California Space Engineering Research Center, ordered additional commercial open-source electronic boards that serve as the operating system for many space system prototypes, which he delivered to students.

The University of Michigan’s Bioastronautics and Life Support System team designs, builds, and tests deep-space habitat prototype technology. Credit: University of Michigan

MIT adopted a similar strategy but encountered problems with certain types of hardware.

“We have students from all over the world,” Hastings said. “We discovered there were certain things we couldn’t send overseas” because of U.S. export controls.

In another effort to cope with pandemic-related social distancing rules, Barnhart brought home a 3D printer.

“We worked out a schedule where the students send me their prints,” Barnhart said. “I print them and set them on the porch. Students drive by and pick them up.”

The pandemic also has altered the way schools interact with the companies and government agencies that often recruit their students.

Early in the pandemic, Nilton Renno, University of Michigan climate, space sciences and engineering professor, organized daily seminars with presentations from NASA centers, U.S. Space Command and companies, including Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and SpaceX.

“The idea was to show the current and incoming students that things didn’t completely stop” due to the pandemic, Renno said. “There was activity going on, people were finding ways to work.”

The seminars also helped connect students with potential employers virtually when they could not meet face-to-face.

“Everyone got a summer internship, it was a nice surprise,” Reno said.

Looking ahead to the post-pandemic world, schools are looking for ways to retain some of the benefits of online instruction when travel resumes and social-distancing concerns ease.

“I’m reasonably sure that things will not work exactly the same as before, because we should learn something from this experience,” Hastings said. “The faculty have innovated quite a bit relative to the tools they’re using to teach. Some of those tools, they’ll continue to use.”

Undergraduate and graduate students in the University of Southern California Department of Astronautical Engineering with a lunar lander prototype. Credit: University of Southern California

For the Commercial Space Studies graduate certificate program offered by International Space University Center for Space Entrepreneurship and Florida Institute of Technology, the pandemic showed the advantages of working online.

When the program was established in 2019, students spent six weeks at the NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. All coursework was conducted online in 2020. For 2021, the Center for Space Entrepreneurship is planning a hybrid, with eight weeks online and two weeks at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

“There are some tremendous advantages to doing things online,” said Andrew Aldrin, director of the Aldrin Space Institute and the Center for Space Entrepreneurship. “First of all, we were able to get students from around the globe: three from Africa, a few from Europe, a student from Sri Lanka and a gaggle of students from all around the United States. The quality of the students and the quality of work that they did was fantastic.”

Still, professors are looking forward to the time when students can work together on physical teams rather than virtual teams. While major aerospace corporations know how to gather input from people around the world when designing aircraft or spacecraft, “we’re talking about students here, undergraduates who have really done this before,” Hastings said. “Figuring out how to make all this team dynamics work remotely is challenging.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.