On New Space: Space Entrepreneurs Summer Academy (SESA) 2019

There are countless ways to inform yourself on the history of new space, on the new space race, and all its implications. However, none of them focus on the impact new space will have on our corner of the universe, Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville’s unique culture and geography seem only fitting to embrace the space industry as it enters its formative years. Cape Canaveral in Florida and Houston up state sheltered the space industry for quite a while. Now, the space industry is looking to move out and flourish in the private sector. If we are entering a new space race, Brownsville can be the starting line as well as a pit stop. The starting line for innovative research on radio astronomy and physics. A pit stop plentiful of resources such as fuel, engineers, entrepreneurs, and support. With organizations like Expanding Frontiers and Space X establishing themselves in our communities, we must realize we can get off the sidelines and participate in the race.

Over the span of three weeks, at the Space Entrepreneurship Summer Academy (SESA) a group of students began a journey into New Space. As high school students, these students are the generation at the forefront of the New Space industry. The aim of SESA is to provide the students with knowledge, tools, and skills necessary to understand as well as to make their own mark in the New Space industry.

The Arecibo Remote Command Center (ARCC) was the hub for SESA. The ARCC room is found in the Science, Engineering and Technology building at UTRGV’s Brownsville campus. ARCC is linked to some of the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescopes among them the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank radio telescope, the Long Wavelength Array, the Effelsberg Radio Telescope and of course the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. It was in this room that the students were first introduced to concepts including New Space, cislunar economy, pulsar stars, and the challenges of space settlement.

The first week of the academy called for a redefining of space exploration. It was necessary to realize space exploration today differs greatly from space exploration 50 years ago. In listening to presentations from Anita Gale, Co-Founder of the Space Settlement Design Competition, and David Cheuvront, a retired NASA engineer, the students realized the interconnectedness of the space industry with that of infrastructure. Then, in a discussion led by Dr. Sean Casey, Co-Founder of the Silicon Valley Space Center, the students touched on how space exploration must address our needs on Earth. Then, the students were briefed by NASA Johnson Space Center engineers Steven A. Gonzalez and Montgomery Goforth, on NASA’s current efforts in space as well as in education and private industry. As private companies like Space X and Boeing enter the space industry, one may ask where this leaves NASA. As the pioneer of the space industry in the United States, NASA acts as a mentor and great depository of information for the private space industry. Creating partnerships with American companies not only decreases costs for NASA as these companies have decreased the cost of satellite launching, but also allows for NASA to focus on developing technology that private industry can then take to create products. In this way, the students began to see the bond behind the commercialization and privatization of the space industry. Then, in attending the ribbon cutting ceremony of Expanding Frontiers and listening to Francisco Partida, Special Projects Manager of the Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport, the students developed an idea in how the technologies and discussions they had heard held a place in their own backyard. To finish off their first week, the students got the chance to discover stars, specifically pulsar stars, all on their own. Keeisi Caballero, a graduate research assistant at the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy (CARA) at UTRGV, led them on their quest identifying the key features of a pulsar star and introducing the students to radio astronomy.

A space entrepreneur will define space exploration now as interdisciplinary between many fields of study, including astronomy, engineering, computer science, and economics. Throughout the second week of the academy, the students dove into the technicalities of start-ups and space exploration. Relocating to Venture-X for two days, the students experienced the benefits of shared work space to encourage discussion by sitting at a roundtable and brainstorming through the challenges facing a launch to space or the launch of a business. They also got to hear from an entrepreneur based at Venture-X, Mauricio Peña, who owns his own Digital Marketing Firm. Mr. Peña spoke to the importance of networking and constantly being innovative when pursuing one’s own business ideas. Then, testing their knowledge of physics, Brent Cole, a graduate student in Physics, taught the students about electrical circuits that led to them sending each other binary-encoded messages using nothing but voltmeters and breadboards. With this activity as a lead-in, Louis Dartez, a doctorate student in Physics, discussed space communications systems with the students. Then, they got the chance to virtually launch a rocket using the Kerbal Space Program. Now, this was only after learning how to interpret the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation as well as the importance of the thrust and impulse features in a rocket engine from Dr. Teviet Creighton, a professor of Physics at UTRGV. For a few minutes, the ARCC room became the control center for several lunar missions. It took some trials, but eventually the students were able to first get into orbit, and eventually land on the moon successfully. This seemed only fitting as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

One of the days of the summer academy was reserved to visit LoFASM and STARGATE. These two facilities work in conjunction to provide students and entrepreneurs a direct link to space. LoFASM stands for Low Frequency All Sky Monitor, and was designed as well as built by students and professors of physics at UTRGV. LoFASM is a system of distributed antennas that detect other wordly radio waves. It differs from regular radio telescopes as it is not one entity but several radio telescope arrays throughout the United States, nearest us are those arrays in Port Mansfield, Texas. The data collected there along with that which is collected in Socorro, New Mexico, Green Bank, West Virginia, and Goldstone, California grant a clearer picture of our night sky for many astronomists. The LoFASM’s distributive property allow it to distinguish between regular radio signals like those emitted by the ping of a cell phone and those emitted due to the collision of two stars light-years away from us. Although LoFASM in and of itself is an incredible academic feat, it continues to provide data for cutting-edge research in physics and astronomy. STARGATE, the Spacecraft Tracking and Astronomical Research into Gigahertz Astrophysical Transient Emission facility is found on one’s way to Boca Chica beach. Although STARGATE is not a telescope, it is yet another tool for research. Furthermore, a key characteristic of STARGATE is the commercialization of radio frequency based research and technologies. The STARGATE facility bonds physics and business in the hope of developing innovative products for the space industry. Up until their trip to LoFASM and STARGATE, the SESA students had mostly only heard from industry leaders, renowned professors and engineers about the space industry. In visiting both LoFASM and STARGATE, students got a sneak peak into their future work space should they continue on a journey to NewSpace in Brownsville.

To finalize their tool kit to take on NewSpace, the last week of the summer academy focused on business and presentation skills. Starting with presentations on what they learned from the Kerbal Space Program and ending with presentations on an entrepreneurial project, the students practiced their public speaking. With lectures on Hammers and Nails and the Business Model canvas, the students learned how to sell their ideas or in this case products. The major application of everything the students were exposed to throughout the academy was a NASA Technologies Hackathon. A hackathon is a fast-paced competition to create a feasible product. The students at SESA were split into teams of 3 or 4 and given information on current NASA Space Technologies such as carbon nanotubes or fiber optic sensors. They were then given two days to invent a company and product to sell. In a similar fashion to shark tank, the teams were to present their product to a group of judges. The diverse backgrounds of the panel of judges, from education to banking allowed for great questions for the students. Questions that led to the discussion of the true cost of contracting engineers, gathering investment funds, and customer relations. The products that came about through the competition were a water purification system, a prosthetic enhancer, and a miniature research imaging device. All three of these provided efficient and innovative solutions to problems in different industries. It was incredible to see how creative and insightful the students were, one could see the spirit of an entrepreneur in them.

The Space Entrepreneurship Summer Academy was a marathon — every mile marking another layer of the space industry. From the space race of the sixties, the moon landing, the rise of radio astronomy, to space in the private sector and space technology in our daily lives, the SESA students got a glimpse of it all. After this run, the graduates of the academy may go on to train others or decide on a specific mile to settle on. Nevertheless, SESA has established a map of opportunities close to home as well as far beyond to pursue a career in the space industry of today.

Undergrad studying Economics and Studio Art at Tulane University.