Penn State-run Pennsylvania Space Grant Program Turns 25

Who will be the space explorers of the future? Or the scientists and engineers who make those journeys into the great beyond possible?

For 25 years, the Pennsylvania Space Grant College and Fellowship Program has been working to help up-and-coming scientists and engineers pursue careers and dreams in those fields. The program, which is run by the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium at Penn State, is one of 52 across the country that are part of the NASA-run initiative to support educational initiatives in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“In Pennsylvania, we are fortunate to have tremendous expertise in space programs among faculty across the state,” said Chris House, director of the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium. “We are focused on using that expertise to engage and train students with hands-on research and engineering relevant to NASA’s mission.”

Those learning opportunities include reaching out to college students, both undergraduates and graduates. The Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium supports internships, scholarships, fellowships and lab work for students at Penn State and other participating universities, along with programs for K-12 educators. All told, Pennsylvania Space Grant awarded more than $550,000 in 2012 to support 384 undergraduate and graduate students doing lab and research work.

Among the noteworthy initiatives Space Grant is helping support is Lunar Lion, the Penn State entry in the Google Lunar X Prize competition to send a privately-funded spacecraft to the moon by 2015. Michael Paul, director of Space Systems Initiatives at the Applied Research Lab at Penn State, is leading that effort.

As part of that, the group of ambitious faculty and students are building and testing a spacecraft that, once launched into space by a commercial vehicle, will descend to the moon, capturing photos and videos. That launch is scheduled for December 2015.

Paul said Space Grant has been supporting the program from the beginning, including supporting travel expenses for six students who went to NASA’s Glenn Research Center in March 2011 where they worked with engineers to help get the project started. Space Grant also supports the student who is in charge of outreach, something that wasn’t part of the project’s original budget.

“This was born through support from Space Grant,” Paul said.

About 80 students are involved in the effort now, with a total of 300 having participated since its start. While Lunar Lion receives financial backing from a number of sponsors, Space Grant helped start things off.

“All of this goes back to the Space Grant mission, which is to build more space support and education in the state,” Paul said. “That seed funding they provided us in the beginning set the tone and put us on the right track.”

Other Space Grant programs include support for NASA internships, undergraduate hands-on research, student-led balloon and rocket projects, mini-grants for early career faculty and researchers, professional development for educators in STEM fields and informal events such as ones for K-12 students and the community. Taken together, the goal is to encourage young people to pursue research and careers in STEM fields, support the ones who do and generate excitement in communities across the state for these science fields.

The Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium is run out of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, but its work crosses disciplines and universities. There are 14 affiliate members including Carnegie Mellon University, Lehigh University, Lincoln University, Temple University and West Chester University.

At the Student Space Programs Laboratory in Penn State’s College of Engineering, students learn first-hand how to design, build and fly space hardware including balloons, sounding rockets and satellites. Associate Professor Sven Bilén, who directs the lab, said he works with students, many of whom start in the lab in their first year at Penn State.

“Space Grant has always provided a stable base of funding for us to go after these space programs,” Bilén said. “It’s extremely valuable to know they’re providing funding that supports the students in the lab.”

The lab is now working on designing, building and flying a CubeSat — a nanosatellite weighing less than 3 pounds — that’s been selected by NASA for a launch at the end of 2015.

“It’s been invaluable to us to have a partner like Space Grant,” Bilén said. “They have provided support for the lab and its many efforts to provide real-world experience to future leaders in space science and engineering.”

In addition, many of the students who participate in those programs also receive scholarships from Space Grant.

Graduates from those Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium-supported programs often go on to pursue jobs in the space fields. That includes Penn State engineering graduate Brian Schratz, who was part of the NASA JPL Mars Science Laboratory team that landed the Curiosity rover on Mars. The consortium supports space systems labs at Drexel and Temple as well. Those labs give students a chance to do hands-on work with engineers and scientists.

Raven Hooper, a student at Temple University, started CRATE — the Competitive Robotics at Temple Engineering Club, after participating in other projects including working on a hovercraft.

“I was allowed to use my creative skills to create something that actually worked,” she said. “It was beyond amazing. From this experience I wanted to do more and that’s why I started (CRATE).”

The NASA program celebrated its 25th year in 2013, and its programs will continue in 2014 as the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium continues to work with teachers and college students to build the scientists and engineers of the future.

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