Pikes Peak Community College and the 33rd Space Symposium

Life isn’t just about eating and paying bills. Americans need to address the country’s future proactively or fail subsequent generations by not doing so. Space exploration is part of this equation. Among other things, it has led to the invention or development of artificial limbs, cell-phone cameras, LEDs, enriched baby food, solar cells, powdered lubricants, freeze-dried food, anti-icing systems, temper foam, and cordless vacuums. It’s a good idea, as well as an inevitable long-term investment in humanity’s future. Somewhere along the way, we’ll probably find life on other planets, and we’ll be colonizing Mars very soon. Expect corporations to mine asteroids for essential raw materials that will redefine the global economy, too.

Put simply, smart visionary thinking is a form of self-help, and those who make informed decisions improve their prospects, both individually and collaboratively. Recently, over 100 Pikes Peak Community College students and faculty supported this cause by participating in the 33rd Space Symposium at the Boeing Exhibit Center next to the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. Part hyper-sophisticated trade show and part clarion call for a unified civil, military, and commercial expansion into multiple regions beyond Earth, the Space Symposium has “brought together space leaders from around the world to discuss, address, and plan for the future of space since the inaugural event in 1984.”

The 160 exhibitors at this year’s symposium represented the elite in space exploration. For instance, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) exhibit featured a discussion on NASA’s Solar Probe Plus, which APL is designing, building, and will operate after the probe’s launch in the summer of 2018. Solar Probe Plus will plunge through the sun’s atmosphere to within 3.9 million miles of the star’s surface, close enough to watch solar winds accelerate from subsonic to supersonic. The mission will revolutionize our ability to forecast the space environment that impacts life and technology on Earth. In order to effect these ends, APL designed a revolutionary 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield that will protect the spacecraft and instruments from temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Exhibits like these afford the PPCC community a window into how interconnected the space industry must be in order to thrive in the 21st Century. NASA’s formidable presence could be felt directly or indirectly at every exhibit in the symposium because federal funds and NASA’s historic expertise and resources are necessary for nearly all high-profile space missions. PPCC student Lauren Bartlett, who will likely pursue a biochemistry degree and apply it to the space industry, said at the symposium, “What makes space exploration so exciting is the collaboration involved. Sometimes, it takes the entire scientific community to conduct business.”

Lauren Bartlett by the Boeing Starliner

The symposium itself was a microcosm of Bartlett’s claim. Just around the corner and down the aisle from the APL exhibit sat Sierra Lobo, Inc. (SLI), a government engineering service contractor that primes the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Environmental Test and Integration Services II (ETIS II) contract and commercializes their test facilities in the areas of space simulation, acoustic, vibration, and electromagnetic testing. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is also partnered with the APL Solar Probe Plus project. Directly across the aisle from the Sierra Lobo, Inc. exhibit, the Colorado Space Coalition exhibit shared information on how to expand the nation’s second-largest space economy, to include reaching out to capable students at every opportunity. All these organizations know that synchronous action is necessary, not optional, in maximizing our ability to leverage the possibilities that space offers.

We’re certainly seeing more of this way of thinking being institutionalized and applied to capital investment. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, a private spaceflight company, displayed a booster outside the exhibit area that has blasted into space four times and recovered itself safely to be reused. As Blue Origin President Robert Meyerson said at the symposium, “Reusability is the Holy Grail of rocketry,” mostly due to cost-effectiveness. Next to the booster sat the New Shepard tourism vehicle that will fly commercial passengers into space 62 miles above the Earth’s surface by as soon as 2018. The company is also working closely with NASA to develop a lunar cargo delivery service that could support human settlements on the Moon’s surface or in orbit. 

Dr. Phil Anderson

Dr. Phil Anderson, Associate Dean of the Math & English Division at PPCC, realized the importance of expanding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education at his college when he built a pipeline between PPCC and the Space Symposium. As he notes, “It is fundamentally important to our nation as well as our city that we help space companies want to consolidate here in Colorado Springs. In order to do that, we need to grow our own students who can compete for these jobs. In so doing, we can create a Silicon Valley type of explosion where talented young people want to stay here and create amazingly sophisticated places to live and strong economic businesses that move all of us forward.”

Indeed, government and commercial enterprises need bright STEM majors to fill a burgeoning number of positions in fields ranging from asteroid mining to nanotechnology to graphic design to space suit development that will allow astronauts to survive in microgravity environments. Given that professional cross-pollination is customary in the space industry, any given academic degree could serve in several different capacities throughout the course of a career. In fact, the acronym “STEM” is transitioning to “STEAM” to include the Arts given that creativity is becoming increasingly essential to the space industry, particularly in regard to design issues.

PPCC Associate Professor of Math David Lawton offered a good description of the symposium’s transformative power on the students who attended: “They gained an awareness of how these engineers and scientists got into the field, what and where they had studied, and how to get a paid internship in these companies. One of our students should be on their way to a summer internship in the cyber field on the East Coast of the U.S. Another is pursuing an opportunity with a company in Colorado Springs that this veteran interacted with while deployed serving in the Army. One of the government agencies has over 2,000 paid summer internships. My students said this opportunity to interact with these sharp representatives ‘opened up your mind to the job field and what it will look like upon graduation from college.’ My students are also rethinking their majors and the state schools that would support their dreams in a STEM field.” 

On the last day of the symposium, an exhibitor from Aerojet Rocketdyne explained to his audience the mechanics of the AR1, a new rocket engine the company is developing that will dwarf the Saturn V engine that propelled us to the Moon. In 2022, the AR1 will power a spacecraft to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Among other things, the spacecraft will study the organic and inorganic materials ejecting from Europa’s massive liquid ocean. Many scientists agree that if multi-cellular life in our solar system exists beyond Earth, then it will be found under Europa’s icy surface. One has to wonder how the majority of people will respond to this discovery should it happen. Regardless, exploration and scientific advancement are inextricably woven into the fabric of human culture. This means that Americans need to prepare for a future that many now can barely conceive. Education will be at the heart of this preparation.

Photo by Lauren Bartlett

Photo By: Blue Origin Space Capsule. Photo by Eric Stephenson.