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The Study of Space Expands with USMA’s New Space Science Major

By Keith J. Hamel, WPAOG staff

When asked about the new Space Science major at West Point, which will graduate its first cohort of cadets in the spring of 2020, Lieutenant Colonel Diana Loucks, an Academy Professor and the Director of the Space and Missile Defense Command Research and Analysis Center in the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering (PaNE), begins by saying, “Space has always been a part of West Point.” She is absolutely right.

Photo right: Inner photo left: In spring 2019, Operation Space, of which USMA’s SPEAR team was a crucial part, launched its student-built rocket at Spaceport America in New Mexico. --- Inner photo right: Class of 2021 CDT Joshua Siemiaczko spends time in the observatory above Bartlett Hall as part of his research into solar flares and whether they can be predicted ahead of time.

Between the classes of 1950 to 1998, the Academy has produced 21 astronauts, including Colonel Drew Morgan ’98 MD, who is currently serving aboard the International Space Station. Dozens of other graduates from numerous West Point classes—such as Edmund O’Conner ’43JUN, Raymond Clark ’45, Henry Clements ’53 and Alfred Davidson III ’57—have gone on to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), providing services and ground support for U.S. space missions. And even a century before space flight, West Point was an important part of research involving space: William H.C. Bartlett, Class of 1826, Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at the U.S. Military Academy, for example, built the first observatory at West Point in 1841 and used its equipment to perceive the orbit of the Comet of 1843 and photograph, for the first time in history, a partial solar eclipse on May 26, 1854.

Photo left: CDTs Anastasia Osborne ’22 and Jared Hudspeth ’21 present their Space Science research at Projects Day in May 2019.

According to Loucks, the idea for “methodizing” the Academy’s long involvement with space began in 2009. Before that, the Advanced Physics major, the longest standing major within PaNE, had a single course, PH472: Space and Astrophysics, that attempted to do everything in one term that the department is now doing with its Space Science major. That course began with orbital mechanics, moved onto planets and tides, and concluded with a section on solar evolution. Today, the Space Science major, which was approved by the Dean’s Office in fall 2016, consists of four space-specific classes, plus a combination of Physics, Electrical Engineering, and Geography and Environmental Engineering courses. Sequentially, the first Space Science course a cadet pursuing the major takes is SP471: Astronautics. This course tackles the orbital mechanics lessons of the original space course and instructs cadets about spacecrafts and launch planning subcomponents. SP472: Space Physics is next. This course examines the various environments found in the solar system, focusing particularly on Earth-Sun interactions. Taught for the first time in fall 2019, the third course, SP473: Astronomy, begins with telescopes and lenses and moves to how scientists learn about space from the observations they are making. Finally, there is SP474: Astrophysics, which used to be the stellar evolution portion of the original space course, with lessons starting with the birth of a star and continuing through supernova and the resulting black hole (or neutron star). “USMA is unique in the way it shaped its Space Science major,” says Loucks. “Aerospace engineering exists at the undergraduate level at other institutions, so does astrophysics and plasma physics, but the combination of all these different subjects is something being done at West Point and nowhere else.”

Those majoring in Space Science have a number of research projects in place, most of which pre-date the major, on which they can work to reinforce the lessons they are learning in class. In 2007-08, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) developed the Black Knight satellite, a 1U (10mm x 10mm x 10mm) CubeSat designed to give cadets operational knowledge and experience with satellite development and design. Black Knight-1 was one of 29 research satellites launched aboard a Minotaur 1 rocket on November 20, 2013, with a mission to demonstrate an experimental passive attitude control and dampening system and to transmit digital pictures back to Earth while in orbit. One year later, Loucks, Dr. Paula Fekete (an Associate Professor with PaNE and officer in charge for the Astronomy Club), and then-Major Stephen Hamilton ’98 (an instructor with EECS and officer in charge of the HAM Radio Club) came up with the idea to do balloon satellites. “Given that this happens through the Astronomy Club, balloon satellites give cadets in all departments across the Academy the chance to play with space and to make space happen,” says Loucks. In April 2018, the balloon they launched reached a peak altitude of 119,000 feet, which remains a club record. A number of Academy research projects have found their way onto the balloon satellite’s payload. “In our last launch, which was our 10th overall, we had a radiation detection payload, we had the initial stages of a station-keeping payload— controlling where you are in altitude and direction—weather sensors, and our first ever Pi-cam,” says Loucks. Some of the newer research projects Space Science majors can work on include space radiation testing, which began in 2018 and involves placing single-board computers into accelerators, and assured position-navigation-timing research, which uses a software-designed receiver called SkyDel to simulate GPS signals, and cadets can use these signals to test everything from operational impacts to the way that atmospheric physics affect the signals themselves. The newest research project is SPEAR (see page 12), which tangentially touches nearly all the other research projects mentioned.

Now that PaNE has the Space Science major, more and more equipment related to space is finding a home at West Point. Back in 2009, just around the time Loucks and others were starting to talk seriously about having a Space Science major in PaNE, the EECS department had ordered an EyasSat, which is marketed as “a fully functional nanosatellite designed for teaching spacecraft systems engineering in the classroom and laboratory,” to support training for their Black Knight satellite. “Now that we have the major, I am excited about introducing this technology to cadets so that they can see and grasp all the various parts and systems needed for space flight, such as a gyro wheel, a magnetorquer, the thermal subsystem, etc.,” says Loucks. The major also has a suite of telescopes, binoculars, optics systems, filters and cameras so that cadets, working in groups, can conduct remote sensing. The cadets also have access to computer stations that go with the telescopes. While no cadet has identified an unknown orbiting body or named a newfound nebula at this time, the laboratory at the West Point observatory is set up in a way that any one of them potentially can make a “galactic” discovery someday.

Photo right: CDT Brandon Cea ’21, founder of the SPEAR Project, presents his Space Science work in Bartlett Hall at Projects Day in May 2019.

In addition to its exciting equipment, the Space Science major has new opportunities available for its cadets. One of these is the Army Space Cadre Basic Course, taught by a mobile training team from the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC). Occurring at West Point right after Memorial Day, this two-week, two-phase course provides a basic knowledge of space capabilities and how they enable the warfighter. According to SMDC’s Public Affairs Office, “The course focuses on space capabilities, limitations and vulnerabilities in the context of full spectrum operations as well as military operations in an environment where space capabilities are degraded or contested.” Those Space Science majors who complete the course receive the 3Y skill identifier, commonly known as the “space cadre,” upon their graduation from West Point. They also receive the Space Badge upon graduation. Another opportunity in the works for Space Science majors is the Assured Functional Area Transfer program. Those cadets who select this program have a guarantee from the Army that if they want to transition to a career in space at their four-year mark, they will receive a Functional Area 40 (FA40) or “Space Operations Officer” designation with no additional service obligation required. According to Mike Connolly, Director, USASMDC/ARSTRAT Army Space Personnel Development Office, “FA40 officers serve in operating and generating force positions supporting the Army and unified action partners that focus on delivering space capabilities to the warfighter today, as well as developing and integrating space capabilities for the future.”

“Just like the universe itself, the field of space science is only going to expand in the future,” says Loucks. Referencing FA40 officers, Loucks notes that when she came to the Academy in 2009, there were only some 150 officers or so tied to space operations; a decade later there are around 350. And now there’s the “Space Force,” which at the time of writing of this article was still in the proposal stage* but operating as the U.S. Space Command, a division within the Department of Defense that was reestablished on August 29, 2019 (it was originally established in 1985 and merged with U.S. Strategic Command following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001). During Branch Week 2019, the 1st Space Brigade out of Fort Carson, Colorado visited West Point, and its leadership (Colonel Eric Little, Brigade Commander, and Command Sergeant Major Robert Bell, Brigade Command Sergeant Major) addressed the Space Science majors about the rapidly changing operations of the Space Brigade. “Our cadets are learning about space as space is happening,” says Loucks. These developments ensure that space will continue to be a part of West Point—a significant part.

Printed in West Point magazine, Winter 2020, all rights reserved.