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Cadets ‘Learn Space by Doing Space’ in USAFA FalconSAT Program

The goal of the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) is to develop leaders of character.  For cadets in the academy’s Department of Astronautics, those leadership skills are employed before they ever graduate, in order to support real-world Department of Defense (DoD) missions.

Those missions come as a part of FalconSAT, the academy’s capstone undergraduate space systems engineering course managed by the Department of Astronautics.  Each year, this program gives a cadet team the opportunity to act as a satellite system-integrating contractor.

“The way the program is structured now, we give the cadets a beginning-to-end view of an entire space program,” says Col. Martin France, permanent professor and head of the Department of Astronautics. “So that at some point in their cadet career, they’ll be able to see almost every aspect of a satellite’s life.”

The spacecraft bus, with all the supporting subsystems, is designed, built, and tested to meet the requirements of real-world DoD payload and mission requirements. The satellite is launched as a secondary payload on either a commercial or DoD launch vehicle and subsequently controlled by cadet operators from a ground station at USAFA.

“They’ll see the early requirements definition, they’ll participate in the design, they’ll work on the preliminary and critical design, they’ll go through component testing, they’ll go through building a satellite, integrating the components, testing all of those systems in a variety of environments.  Then the next step, we’ll go to launch and actually operate the satellite, so they see every bit of it,” explained France.

“The goal of the program is for cadets to ‘learn space by doing space’ so that when they’re Air Force officers they’ll have experience making decisions and dealing with contractors.  It’s as real world as it gets.  In the grandest sense, it’s to give them as close to a real-world research, development and acquisition experience as we can make at the undergrad level.”

FalconSAT-5 undergoing checks in clean room.

An Astronautics Department staff member and cadet integrate the internal components of FalconSAT-5 in the ‘clean room’ at the U.S. Air Force Academy during the final stages of assembly prior to its shipment to Kodiak, Alaska, for its launch Nov. 19, 2010.

FalconSAT began in the late 1990s when the department decided to embark on a cadet-built satellite program.  At that point, it became feasible due to the miniaturization of satellite components that allowed small satellites in general.

“Components became smaller, so it allowed some of the faculty here at the academy to think about building our own small satellite,” says France.  “We got even more experience in doing that by sending some of our faculty to do their Ph.D.s at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, which for the last 20 years has been the hub for small-satellite development worldwide, especially at the university level.”

While other research universities around the United States do have satellite programs, those at USAFA believe that FalconSAT stands apart from the rest.

“I think at the undergraduate level there’s nothing that really compares, especially in the United States, and I’m not aware of any that compare internationally,” France says. “What really sets us apart – we’re an undergraduate institution and we have faculty and staff help the cadets, but it’s the cadets that do most of the work.”

“We’re doing real Air Force projects,” adds Col. Jack Anthony (Ret.), USAFA Department of Astronautics Space Systems Research Center staff member.  “This isn’t just to write a paper and get an A, this is real stuff with a real end customer.”

However, with a program of this magnitude, funding is a primary issue.

“Our funding comes from a variety of sources,” France explains.  “Most of our funding comes from the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), where they use us as a platform to build a satellite in which they can integrate experiments at a lower cost than maybe they could get from some of the big contractors, and probably on a shorter timescale, too.  We get some additional money from our Association of Graduates, the USAFA Endowment, and in the past from NASA.  We’ve also gotten money from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

“Then we also depend on the DoD Space Test Program (STP) to provide launch services for us.  They find us a ride based on the priority of our experiments and the importance of our mission.  Their job is to facilitate capabilities that will down the road help the warfighter, and that usually means providing launch opportunities for experiments that are going to advance the state of the art in various technologies that will eventually lead to operational systems.”

USAFA Cadet explains FalconSAT program

A First-Class Cadet from the Department of Astronautics highlights the department’s accomplishments during a tour of the Astronautics Museum at the U.S. Air Force Academy Nov. 19, 2010, the day FalconSAT-5 launched from Kodiak, Alaska. The department hosted a live broadcast of the launch at USAFA for military and community members. U.S. Air Force photo

With the uncertainty of budgets from year to year and a program that costs in the low millions of dollars per satellite, France says that funding cuts do concern him.

“You never know what’s going to happen with budgets.  I lose sleep over AFRL cutting our funding and we have to scale back our program to something that maybe isn’t a satellite, maybe it’s a smaller sort of demonstration.  I’m happy with their [AFRL] support. I think it will continue, but you never know.”

Beyond funding, France explains that maintaining an adequate number of cadets in the program is a top challenge.

One of our biggest challenges is getting enough cadets in the program, he says.  It sounds like an exciting program and that we’d have to turn cadets away. But the fact is, rocket science is hard. It takes a lot of work and commitment.  We’ve got great cadets doing wonderful things, I just wish we had about 20 more every year.

This academic year, there are 47 cadets in the program.  However, the department’s goal is to increase that number to between 60 and 70 cadets.

For cadets at the Academy who have an interest in space, but are majoring in a field of study outside the Department of Astronautics, there is a way for them to participate in this multi-disciplinary program.  Although they must either be connected to a department that is participating in building the satellite or go through an interview process for selection, cadets from other majors do play an integral role.

While each group of senior, or First-Class, cadets only participates in the program for one year, the standard process for each FalconSAT satellite encompasses three to four years.

“In the very beginning, we’ll have a concept for a satellite,” France says.  “It’s really a satellite bus, which is the framework of the satellite, or shell that performs all the functions the satellite needs to do, without the payload that actually collects the data or senses something.  We’ll define a framework and in the first year, we’ll go out and search for experiments that will fit within our satellite bus that are within the constraints of our mission, that we can do within three to four years with cadets, at an undergrad level, at an unclassified level.

“Then our cadets will decide what combination of payloads best fit on our satellite.  That is part of the first year that will lead to a paper design of the satellite.  In the end of that year we’ll build a physical model.  The second year, we’ll build what’s called a qualification model, where we can test many of the components on the satellite here on the ground. After we complete the extensive testing program, the third year, we’ll build a flight model and prepare for launch. And while we’re building a flight model, we will also devise, construct and document our operations procedures for once it is launched.”

This year’s FalconSAT capstone cadets got to see the completion of that multi-year process when FalconSAT-5 was launched from Kodiak, Alaska, aboard a Minotaur IV launch vehicle on Nov. 19, 2010.


Nicole Heaton served for four years as a U.S. Air Force Public Affairs officer and...

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