With the latest addition of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, the Space Force is now partnering with 11 American universities as part of its prestigious University Partnership Program (UPP).
“The reason that the Space Force designed the UPP is because we want to identify, develop and retain talent,” said Space Force Chief of Developmental Partnerships Sheilia Kane. “We want our future Space Force workforce to be diverse and highly qualified, and to help facilitate this objective, we chose to leverage the top academic institutions to provide opportunities to our Guardians.”
The UPP officially kicked off during a Memorandum of Understanding event in August 2021 at the University of North Dakota, one of the early partner schools. Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond said at the event that the UPP is necessary for an innovative American future.
“Our nation is depending on the next generations of scientists and engineers to help us solve the most challenging problems across a variety of industries,” Raymond said. “Any knowledge gained from the Space Force partnership is ultimately for the benefit of our society.”
The Space Systems Design Lab director at Georgia Institute of Technology, which joined UPP in November, agrees. Dr. Glenn Lightsey envisions the partnership as a way to educate and train future and current Space Force workers and provide research opportunities. He says the Space Force reached out to Georgia Tech early in 2021, with the process of becoming an official partner culminating on Veterans Day. Raymond even gave a presentation about the Space Force at the school in 2020, establishing an early connection with the institution.
“We think it’s all really exciting,” Lightsey said. “This is the future of space exploration, and Georgia Tech wants to contribute to that, whether it’s through the research we do or our graduates and alumni who contribute to those activities.”
STEM to stern
Kane said that one of the first tangible portions of the UPP involves sending current Guardians to earn advanced STEM-related degrees at the partner universities.
“STEM and advanced education are going to play huge roles in the future development, new knowledge and innovation required to sustain the Space Force’s mission and overall national security,” she said. “In order to do that, we’ve got to have interest from younger ages in STEM programs to help tackle problems and drive advancement for the Space Force.”
The 11 institutions were chosen, Kane said, based on four criteria: an established, strong STEM program; a campus ROTC program from which to draw future officers; diversity of student body; and programming designed to accommodate Guardian needs, such as online class capabilities.
Unlike the other branches, Kane pointed out, the Space Force plans to remain staffed equally by military and civilian workers.
“We want not just ROTC cadets, but we also want students,” she explained. “We’re very excited to have both kinds of members serving our country.”
In the future, the Space Force may expand the UPP beyond this current group of 11, Kane said, and there might be opportunities for other schools to participate in “mutually-beneficial research projects.” Besides Georgia Tech, North Carolina A&T and the University of North Dakota, the partner schools include Howard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, University of Southern California, University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas at El Paso.
“If you imagine what the future of space looks like, you imagine it as an active place where new discoveries are being made, and that’s where we want to go at Georgia Tech,” Lightsey said. “The idea that space is a growing area where a lot of things can happen, where these universities are part of the human enterprise looking into the future — that’s what’s thrilling to me.”