FalconSat-6 Nurtures Collaboration Between Young Cadets and NASA
Long running professional relationships, like those forged over the years between Johnson Space Center and the U. S. Air Force, have a tradition of paying big dividends.
A recent example involves a 16-foot Apollo-era dish antenna rising from the roof of Building 44, home to JSC’s Electronics Systems Test Laboratory (ESTL). Once used to visually verify the opening of the payload bay doors on early space shuttle missions, the S-band receiver is now prepared to provide a crucial communications link during the multi-year year flight of FalconSAT-6, a satellite designed, built, tested and, soon to be operated, by cadets at the U. S. Air Force (USAF) Academy. Scheduled for an August 2015 liftoff as a secondary payload, FalconSat-6 will host advanced technology payloads for the Air Force Research Lab and space physics experiments for the academy.
The collaboration promises to provide several hundred Air Force cadets with “real world” space experience as they prepare for careers in the military, industry and, perhaps, NASA.
“They learn things here they can’t learn in the classroom,” said USAF Col. (Ret) Jack Anthony, a member of the academy’s Department of Astronautics Space Systems Research Center staff, during a recent three-day visit to JSC with Elsa Salazar Bruno, a fellow faculty member, and three cadets leading the FalconSAT project.
“The synergism benefits our country because of these hands-on opportunities,” Anthony said, whose own aerospace career includes more than three decades in the Air Force and industry. “Some may come here to work at Johnson as engineers, join the Mission Operations Directorate or be an astronaut.”
While on active duty a decade ago, Anthony was assigned by the Department of Defense to JSC to support the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The assignment forged close working relationships with former flight directors Paul Hill, now head of the Mission Operations Directorate, and Cathy Koerner, now deputy manager of NASA’s International Space Station Vehicle Office.
After retirement, Anthony joined the USAF Academy staff, where he and Bruno serve as instructors/mentors to cadets selected for FalconSAT projects. When the staff learned FalconSat-6 would launch into a 24-degree inclination, out of range for the academy’s own higher latitude antennas in Colorado Springs, Colo., Anthony began to search for an alternative by contacting past associates.
At first, the academy looked for a facility in Texas or Florida with enough land, power and an Internet access to support a new Air Force antenna that the cadets could operate remotely from their Colorado control facility.
Hill responded to the query from Anthony with an offer of much more—an operational antenna and assistance from ESTL Manager Mark Severance and his staff.
“It was a coincidence of events,” Severance said. “ESTL is at the right latitude. We have an antenna that is not really being used. So, it’s literally a plug-and-play solution.
“Our feeling was these cadets are soon to be our peers,” Severance said. “When they graduate, they will go off and either fly jets or operate space systems that are commensurate in level of sophistication and level of technology that we operate every day. So let’s give them some hands-on experience. A lot of them are interested in coming to work for NASA someday, so it’s great for them. And it’s good for us, too. A good segue into the Air Force community and potential new partnerships, as well.”
Cadets Amanda Caudill, Dougie Brown and Evan Barger embraced the legacy, as well as the future value of USAF/NASA ties while inspecting the ESTL and meeting with JSC personnel during their recent visit.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” Bruno said, who transitioned to the FalconSAT project following a well-traveled, 14-year Air Force career in space operations.
Nearing graduation in late May, the cadets are responsible for folding JSC’s 16-foot S-band dish into the FalconSat 6 mission plan. Their assessments of the ESTL’s capabilities will become part of an operations strategy. Careful documentation of their groundwork will be passed to the cadets who inherit responsibilities for FalconSat 6 preparations with the start of the 2013 fall semester and, eventually, for the launch and operations of the satellite.
“This is teaching us a lot about responsibility,” said Caudill, a systems engineering human systems major currently responsible for FalconSat-6 ground station sustainment, maintenance and upgrades. “It’s the real deal. I’ve learned a lot about consequences.”
Caudill enrolled in the Astronautics Capstone responsible for FalconSat-6 ahead of her first Air Force assignment, ICBM operations.
Brown and Barger, both headed for flight training after graduation, are experienced in operations of FalconSat-3, an earlier cadet satellite. They are responsible for training future FalconSat-6 operators and passing along lessons learned.
“You definitely come in each day and learn to be proactive,” Brown said. “You have to be willing to put yourself out there, knowing you might make a mistake. This kind of experience lets you see what it will be like in real life.”
Barger is finding special value in the teamwork.
“Up to this point, we are taught the theory behind things,” Barger said. “We know the math, but this is the first real opportunity in my educational career for a real hands-on experience. There are so many people involved. It gives you an opportunity to manage personnel, to help train and make sure that standards are met.”
By Mark Carreau