Air Force partnership recruits students to work in satellite operations center

Stefanie Tomlinson
January 28, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State and the U.S. Air Force are offering select students an opportunity to earn their graduate degrees while gaining hands-on experience working in the Swift satellite Mission Operations Center (MOC).

Swift is NASA's versatile multi-wavelength observatory combining a new technology gamma-ray camera with sensitive telescopes in the X-ray and ultraviolet-optical bands, on a robotic fast-slewing spacecraft. It is the premier observatory for discovery and follow-up of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) and other transient sources.

Since its 2004 launch, the satellite has been exclusively controlled and operated by the Penn State MOC.

Tom Taylor, senior research engineer at the Applied Research Laboratory and Swift's project manager, explained, "Every two years NASA reviews the project, and over time, financial support has declined. We needed to figure out how to be efficient and effective with our funds."

He and John Nousek, Swift's principal investigator and professor of astronomy and astrophysics in the Eberly College of Science, worked with representatives from the Air Force Academy, Air Force Space Command and the Air Force Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities Program (TENCAP) office at Schriever Air Force Base to create a process for competitively selecting students from the academy to complete a Swift MOC internship while pursuing an advanced academic degree at Penn State.

Taylor said, "Senior-level Air Force personnel had previously expressed an interest in Swift, so it made sense to approach them. Col. Rex Kiziah played a very pivotal role in establishing the program."

Kiziah, professor and head of the Department of Physics at the academy, explained, "The idea was appealing because there are a lot of capabilities at the Swift MOC for exactly what Air Force Space Command needs: junior space professionals who have a broad education in addition to operational experience. It was definitely a unique and perfect partnership."

He added that there are not enough national scholarships for top-notch academy students who are ready to go on to graduate school. "This program provides another opportunity for our cadets to get an advanced education."

Students are selected based on their experiences and performance at the academy, leadership potential and academic achievement. The Air Force TENCAP subsidizes the student's tuition and internship expenses. In turn, the student, upon earning a graduate degree, goes to work for three years on a special assignment in the TENCAP.

Chris Hassa, who received his master's degree in aerospace engineering last December, was the first student selected to attend Penn State through the program. The Lyons, Colo., native noteed that working on Swift was a little different from what he was used to at the Air Force Academy. "Swift has a highly automated operations center. So, I went from working with a team of about 30 to a team of five."

Hassa added that Penn State is far more research oriented than he anticipated. "It was interesting to look at some problems that haven't been explored yet."

He is spending the next three years at Schriever in the TENCAP, working to improve existing systems and implement new systems for classified projects.

Aerospace engineering graduate student Heather Nelson currently works in the MOC. Her responsibilities include working on the science operations team, which meets every morning to discuss requests from scientists around the world, investigate GRBs and review daily plans. The upstate New York native said, "Then I do my best to help implement them."

A member of the fencing team, Nelson joked that she is busier with her three graduate courses than she was when she took seven undergraduate classes at the academy.

She will graduate with her master's degree this December and relocate to Schriever, where she will follow in Hassa's footsteps. Nelson said with a smile, "Chris and I are essentially second lieutenants in a group that's typically comprised of senior billets."

Nousek explained the students' experiences in the MOC give them specific knowledge that will help them advance in their careers. "Working on Swift provides them with a skill set that makes them more competitive."

Established in 1977, the Air Force TENCAP searches for emerging technologies that can rapidly translate into a capability. It takes a diverse group of people, including aviators, space operators, cyber operators, intelligence officers, scientists and acquisition program managers, and places them in a close environment along with senior leader oversight.

Sven Bilén, head of the School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs, served as Hassa's academic adviser and co-advised Hassa's master's thesis with David Spencer, professor of aerospace engineering. Hassa's thesis work involved estimating the drag coefficient of satellites using Swift satellite attitude and orbit data.

Bilén said the University hopes to continue a pipeline of Air Force students through the initiative. "This program aligns well with Penn State's mission to be a top military-friendly university."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated January 29, 2014