The University of North Dakota has been awarded control of the use of NASA’s top DC-8 research aircraft — a move worth more than $30 million to UND over the next five years.

The airborne laboratory is designed to collect data for a wide range of atmospheric, environmental, biological and even archaeological research missions. The Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium (UMAC) at UND will manage the plane, which will be stationed at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. UND will receive approximately $4 million a year from NASA to house and maintain the laboratory, along with up to $2.5 million a year for individual missions.

“This is big! I couldn’t be more excited if I were still a kid and had just been told I was going along with NASA on a trip to the moon,” said UND President Charles Kupchella. “The idea to base NASA’s DC-8 here evolved quickly because of the obvious complementary strengths, abilities, and interests among UND’s Aerospace program, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force. UND is essentially being given an opportunity to operate a premier scientific resource with NASA for the entire world. The research resource in question will address important questions about weather, climate, and the atmosphere — and the resource will be based right here as it looks for answers to these questions throughout the world.”

Kupchella credited Dr. George Seielstad, UMAC director and associate dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, with spearheading the effort to attract the DC-8, and also cited Phil Harmeson, Senior Associate to the President, who played a critical contact role as the proposal worked its way through federal agencies.

In making the bid, Seielstad leveraged UMAC’s work in earth systems science and policy, the fact UND’s Odegard School is nationally recognized as the top aviation program and has the world’s only master’s in space studies program, the work of the UND School of Engineering and Mines, which is about to put its AgCam on the International Space Station and which is partnering with NASA and UND’s Odegard School to design the spacesuit of tomorrow, and the proximity to and partnerships with the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“This University has a unique combination of skills and facilities that makes us a perfect match. This was a package no one else could pull together,” Seielstad said. “We were also able to sell the value of higher education to NASA. It was really research and education that was the main objective [of operating the DC-8]. NASA thought that housing the plane elsewhere divorced it from that objective. This gives North Dakota a very high profile nationally. Hundreds of people will vie to use this aircraft.”

“With $32.5 million from this award — $6.5 million each year for five years– the University’s research portfolio is now worth more than $330 million. We are in the top three of 10 research institutions in a five state area in terms of attracting federal research dollars, behind only the University of Minnesota, which is much larger than we are, and the Montana State University,” said Dr. Peter Alfonso, UND Vice President for Research. “This award is a huge boost in this rocketing research enterprise, and will have a significant impact as we leverage it for research and our teaching mission.”

Alfonso said that last year UND’s research enterprise generated $167 million in economic output, including 1,630 new jobs, $4.8 million in local and state taxes, and over $15 million in federal taxes. “This project will add to that in the neighborhood of ten percent,” he said.

Kupchella and Seielstad gave credit to U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, who has brokered strong relationships with NASA for more than a decade. A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Dorgan has earmarked more than $10 million in NASA funds for UMAC since 2002. These earmarks have been used to secure several competitive awards and allowed UMAC to submit a proposal to oversee and operate the DC-8. Dorgan worked closely with NASA officials, the Air Force Base, and Seielstad, director of the Northern Great Plains Center for People and the Environment at UMAC, in the effort to bring the plane to UND. Those ties led to NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe delivering the main talk at UND’s general commencement in May, and arranging for the graduating class to get the first-ever greetings from space — from the International Space Station.

Dorgan said the move will lead to the creation of at least a dozen new jobs, as well as countless opportunities for UND students and researchers. The five-year partnership with UND and UMAC reflects the first time NASA has based the plane with a research institution, and “moves UND to the forefront of international scientific research,” Dorgan said.

“NASA’s decision to station the DC-8 at the Grand Forks Air Force Base is terrific news for the entire UND community and really for the whole world, which will no doubt benefit from the research that is to be done there,” Dorgan said. “UND now has the opportunity to be part of scientific research on the global scale. NASA’s decision to entrust UND with the responsibility of this aircraft is a testament to the skillful people and high-quality research UND has to offer.”

The plane will move from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., to Grand Forks in March 2005. Its first mission under UND’s oversight is scheduled to begin in June or July of 2005. That mission will launch from Costa Rica and include more than 100 scientists and 25 scientific instruments in a study of hurricane origins.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, North Dakota University Chancellor Dr. Robert Potts, Grand Forks Air Force Base Acting Wing Commander Col. Scott Reese, and Grand Forks City Council President Hal Gershman also applauded the news.

“Securing this prestigious NASA agreement is certain evidence of how Centers of Excellence can promote new enterprises and create better-paying jobs in North Dakota,” Gov. Hoeven said. “We worked to convince the Administration that North Dakota is the right location for this important project and that UND can meet the exacting demands of some of the world’s most talented engineers and scientists.”

“NASA’s decision to place its premier research aircraft in North Dakota is wonderful news for UND and the entire state,” said Chancellor Potts. “The Roundtable on Higher Education focused the University System on becoming a more powerful engine for economic development in our state. This partnership between NASA and UND has all the key components of the roundtable vision — educational excellence, research opportunities, and high-level, professional positions. This type of synergy is exactly what is needed to help create a brighter future for North Dakota and our people.”

“We are happy to be able to provide support to UND and this program and we look forward to aiding UND and NASA. We place a common value on research, education and innovation,” said Col. Reese, Vice Commander, 319th Air Refueling Wing at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. “We have been fortunate to enjoy a strong relationship with both the university and the community. This is another example of that continuing partnership.”

“On behalf of the City of Grand Forks, it is my honor to welcome NASA to one of America’s great small cities,” said Gershman. “While all economic development successes are important, some create more of a ‘buzz.’ A ‘buzz’ not only resonates more loudly with the public, it also helps attract and retain young educated workers, and becomes a tool to attract other businesses.”

Gershman thanked Dorgan for his role in forging the UND-NASA partnership. “This is a terrific fit for his Red River Valley Research Cooridor Initiative, and will bring real benefits, many unforseen at this time.”