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Goddard Partnership Creating Engineering Pipeline
Capitol College students Two SOI students work to maintain the Tropical Rainforest Measurement Mission (TRMM) at Capitol College. Credit: Capitol College
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The one thing that Megan Campbell, who serves as the director of marketing and communications at Capitol College in Laurel, Md., remembered about the 2004 commencement was what the featured speaker said. Almost like a warning, he mentioned that 50 percent of the employees at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., were eligible for retirement, a figure likely to increase in space-related jobs. But who would fill these spaces once the beginning generations of NASA were gone?

While the president of the United States and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden have recently made it their priority to increase interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers, one small college outside the Washington beltway has been fostering those interests in young students while giving them the career experience they need. Since 2002, the Space Operations Institute (SOI) at Capitol College has combined aspects of space and mission operations with the infrastructure necessary to manage satellite operations.

SOI co-op students operate the on-campus backup mission control center for "expired" satellite missions, which is uncommon at other universities .In the past students worked with the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) satellite. Currently students maintain and operated the backup mission operations center for the Tropical Rainforest Measurement Mission (TRMM) and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellites. NASA Goddard is the home base for these satellites.

The Space Operations Institute (SOI) was established at Capitol College, Laurel, Md., in 2002 with a grant from NASA. This partnership between the Goddard Space Flight Center and the college combine the infrastructure necessary to manage satellite operations with an educational program. It prepares students for careers in all aspects of space mission operations with hands-on experience to gain the skills and knowledge to support NASA space operations programs such as TRMM in satellite operations and development, maintenance and engineering support of satellite ground control systems.

Student-maintained and -operated facilities like the SOI save NASA millions of dollars and is just one upside to the SOI program. Another benefit is the training students receive, as it is bound to spur the next generation of systems engineers and flight controllers to sustain NASA’s vision.

"If NASA is going to survive as an organization, we have to depend on our new generation of engineers," said Julio Marius, the TRMM mission operations director at NASA Goddard.

Since its inception, the program has evolved to include education and hands-on experience from a systems engineering approach. A range of different disciplines, including computer engineering, computer science, software engineering and electrical engineering, are needed to work on TRMM to develop, design and test new satellite ground control systems at Goddard.

"I use the system engineering approach with them because they will have multiple levels of knowledge," said Marius. "It gives them a broader spectrum.

Marius, who manages the team and serves as sort of a mentor to the interns, understands the need to sustain the agency’s mission and secure Goddard’s future. In order to foster space careers, Marius has created a system of treating interns like engineers. In fact, the junior engineers, as they are called, receive the same amount of respect and acknowledgement as the lead engineers.

"They bring new ideas to us. At the same time, it’s refreshing to see them grow," Marius said. "We are constantly learning. I try to put a lot of emphasis on that; it’s like a daily learning, not only for me, but also for them. You have to remember, they are the future," he added.

The relationship between SOI and NASA Goddard is twofold. While students get the out-of-classroom experience needed to work on a spacecraft, Goddard provides students training that will prepare them for a position at NASA or another organization dedicated to space exploration.

"We are pleased and proud to help support the pipeline of rising innovative engineers to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center," said Dr. Michael Wood, president of Capitol College. "Many begin their careers with NASA or its contractor organizations, through their hands-on work in our mission control center or at the Goddard site."

Michelle Ellie is one of those graduates that transitioned from intern to engineer with help from Goddard and the SOI pipeline. "My work at the SOI lead me right into my current position," Ellie said. She now works as a systems engineer for TRMM under Honeywell. "You learn a few more things, but they teach you everything that you need to know at SOI and Goddard so when I actually transitioned in, it was an easy segue," she added.

In the future, Capitol College and Goddard hope that the 75 percent return rate of SOI graduates will increase. With the two institutions fostering careers in space exploration, there is no doubt that that number will grow.

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Christina Coleman
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center