Satellite program preps cadets for real deal

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Air Force Academy cadets work on the FalconSAT project, giving them a jump on their careers.

Air Force Academy cadets work on the FalconSAT project, giving them a jump on their careers.

America’s next Falcon Satellite is set to be launched by SpaceX in 2016, and it will not only carry hardware and software designed along the Front Range — it will help launch the careers of many young Air Force Academy cadets.

The work of AFA cadets will pay off when their FalconSAT-6 is delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, next year to prepare for liftoff. By the time of its transfer to Florida, the craft will host five payloads to address “space situational awareness and the need to mature pervasive technologies such as propulsion, solar arrays and lower power communications,” according to an Academy document.

The three-year project is managed by the AFA Department of Astronautics, sponsored by its Space Systems Research Center and is the handiwork of a senior capstone class filled with STEM-studying students.

The 40-cadet group is divided into four teams of 10, working as systems integrating managers with four separate focuses: mechanical systems, avionics, testing and operations, and systems engineering.

“It runs like a small business,” said Lt. Col. David Barnhart, director of the Space Systems Research Center.

Each team includes a cadet chief and faculty member to oversee and assist in each area of focus. Cadet Derek Rath, chief of the systems engineering group, said his experience working with the satellite program has been a vital part of his education at the Academy.

“The motto here is ‘Learn space by doing space,’” he said. “It’s a culmination process where we all get hands-on experience. … I’m learning my job by doing work here at the Academy while in this program.”

The cadets work in partnership with Johnson Space Center, which will provide a remote ground site for the mission’s launch in 2016, according to Barnhart. He said working with a partner that can provide a strategically located ground site is essential, due to the location of the Air Force Academy — too far north for an ideal entry into Earth’s orbit.

Cadet Andrew Decoteau said that the best part of the process for him has been seeing the big picture being pieced together: “To actually put your hands on and create it is the most important part.”

Rath agreed and said that it has been rewarding to see various elements of different disciplines cobbled together to create the Academy’s brainchild.

“It mimics what I will see in active duty,” Rath said, adding that learning the trade before he enters the field gives him a leg up on entering the workforce.

And that’s the point.

The satellite project is meant not only to create something useful for the country’s military, but to instill in these cadets the skills, understanding and experience needed to obtain jobs in astronautics.

“We’re training a space cadre that is smart in space,” Barnhart said. “We might get folks that have hands-on satellite acquisition knowledge to have people working with [Air Force] Space Command.”

The FalconSAT program also promotes the economy and community in the Pikes Peak region and throughout the state via its reliance on partnerships across a dozen industries.

“We have a relationship with some of these companies that goes back to 2006,” Barnhart said. “And we’ve added more since we started FalconSAT-6 a year ago.”

Among companies with fingers in the Academy’s orbital pie are a few with headquarters conveniently located (for the Academy) in the Springs:

• Absolute Machine produces many of the craft’s aluminum panels, while more still are produced in-house;

• Apogee Engineering provides technical support in mechanical and electrical engineering and supplies the Academy with a lab technician;

• Qualtek Manufacturing is contracted for metal manufacturing;

• RT Logic manufactures and provides testing equipment;

• Spectrum AMT is the primary source of the system’s circuit boards, which the company also populates with all the necessary components.

“We’re obviously very thankful to run this program at the Air Force Academy,” Barnhart said. “We get a tremendous amount of support … from the local community. That can range from real business partnerships with companies to curiosity from the community.”