New space program lifts off at LSSU

The Upper Peninsula is going to space. 

Not literally, but the aerospace industry is burgeoning in the U.P., and Lake Superior State University is responding by offering a new space certification program. Earning the certificate will prepare U.P. residents to work in aerospace companies here, giving them both the skills they need to do the technical work and university certification of their preparation.

What's happening: For the first time, students at Lake Superior State University (LSSU) can enroll in Introduction to Space Systems, the first course in a new one-year Space Missions and Operations Certification program. Through lectures and labs, they will learn about space systems and satellite technology components. 

The entrance to Lake State University in Sault Ste. Marie.A second course this spring will focus on space operations, such as how to operate a ground station and conduct satellite mission planning. Students will do small-scale sounding rocket launches, virtual mission operations and actual satellite communication operations at the Chippewa Homestead Antenna Mission Program facility in Kinross, says Brandon “BT” Cesul, a contract professor at LSSU who will teach the space courses. Cesul is a technical fellow and director of business development for KBR National Security Services, a major U.S. defense contractor based in Ann Arbor. 

“More satellites than ever before will be launched in the next few years,” Cesul says. “Companies operating satellites are going to need people who are smart in how satellites orbit, operate and potentially fail.” 

The LSSU certificate program will prepare area workers to obtain high-paying jobs in the U.P. space businesses, Cesul adds.  “We can potentially showcase the U.P. as a training ground and talent basin for the space industry,” he says.  

How it came about:  The university developed the training and certification program after a year of effort, with support from the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation (CCEDC), professors at LSSU, Sen. John Damoose and a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. 

The program is the university’s response to state of Michigan’s efforts to make Michigan a hub for Low Earth Orbit satellite constellations, says Christopher Smith, associate professor of computer science and mathematics at LSSU and director of the certificate program. “Michigan is positioning itself to be a leader in launch and operations for small satellites,” he says.

“Small satellites only have an operational lifespan of about five years, so thousands of them are constantly being launched,” Smith says. “This will soon grow to tens of thousands.” This creates a growing need for skilled engineers and technicians in Michigan and worldwide. 

Most space technology educational programs are at the graduate level. LSSU’s program is one of the first programs for undergraduates and community workers. 

“I have spoken with numerous students who aspire to pursue a career in aerospace. The availability of this certification program, which is accessible to all, is truly a dream come true for them,” says Professor Zakaria Mahmud, who helped start the program at LSSU. 

Stanley KennedyStanley O. Kennedy, Jr. brought the vision of a space certificate program to the CCEDC and LSSU. A part-time aerospace consultant for OTMV Holdings, LLC, he worked for 38 years in aerospace engineering. 

Kennedy’s family has had a homestead in Kinross for generations. He is helping the CCEDC develop the space command and control center there. “This site is ideally suited for Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), Geostationary Orbit (GEO) and Cis-Lunar Space Mission Operations,” he says.

“There are many new space companies and the United States Space Force (USSF) that need qualified mission engineers and mission controllers,” Kennedy says. “The LSSU certification program will help expose students to the aerospace mission operations skills necessary to help fill the workforce pipeline. Through the command and control center in Kinross and the LSSU space certificate program, we hope to develop and retain local experts to help grow aerospace clusters in the Upper Peninsula.” 

Future of U.P. Space Industry: The space industry is already growing in the U.P. Brad King founded Orbion Space Technology in 2016 to develop and manufacture revolutionary plasma propulsion systems for small satellites. Orbion is one of only a few companies in the new propulsion system market. The Houghton-based company sprang from King’s work as an aerospace professor at Michigan Technological University. 

“Small satellites are changing the way humans do business and science in space,” King says. “The cost to build and launch a small satellite is now about the same as the cost to build and launch a software app. With the cost barrier removed, innovative students and start-up companies are building small satellites to provide capabilities that my generation never even dreamed about.”

Another U.P. aerospace company is Kall Morris Inc., based in Marquette. Founded by three Northern Michigan University graduates, the company is building a module to intercept and collect space debris. The unmanned module will hitch a ride on a rocket already being sent to space.

The eventual goal is to recycle and reuse some of the debris collected. After being relocated to the International Space Station or a similar station, metals such as aluminum can be melted and reused.

Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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