With Stars in Their Eyes
By Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine
The stars don’t look bigger, but they do look brighter.
— Sally Ride, astronaut and physicist
It was only 15 minutes before launch time when I picked up my two young daughters from school and hurried them into the car to get to our viewing spot. We made our way to a soccer field I had scoped out earlier with a decent view of the eastern horizon. I was unsure what to expect as we anxiously waited for Rocket Lab’s new Electron rocket to launch about 200 miles away at Wallops Island, Va. Then, about 90 seconds after launch, we noticed what appeared to be a fuzzy pink star that slowly descended and eventually disappeared behind a distant tree line.
“That’s it,” I shouted gleefully to my kids, who were struggling to see why I was so excited about a fuzzy star. While this somewhat visually underwhelming event may have registered as more of a “meh” moment for my daughters — who were clearly more interested in the mac and cheese I promised to make at home — I was definitely more awe-struck by personally witnessing another important step in the advancement of space exploration.
Affectionately dubbed “Virginia is for Launch Lovers,” this mission was Rocket Lab USA’s first launch on U.S. soil. It also debuted the use of NASA’s autonomous flight termination unit (NAFTU). As the name implies, this system allows for an automated termination of the launch should something go wrong and does so more quickly and efficiently than existing methods. This preemptive safety mechanism also provides measurable cost savings to the operator and, more critical to this audience, sets up the potential for smaller and shorter downrange airspace restrictions.
Back home, with my kids happily chomping away at their dinner, I tried my best to segue back to the launch. “You know, astronauts eat mac and cheese in space,” I said. With their attention gained, I went on to explain how we’re turning a new page on space exploration and how there will be a growing need for future workers in the space industry, especially around the time they finish school. I mentioned some of the many career options, like an engineer, scientist, or even a flight controller.
It is exciting to think about the future career opportunities for my daughters in this burgeoning industry. Developing a space workforce of the future is an important subject on the FAA’s radar as well. In addition to regulating the commercial space industry, the FAA is also tasked with promoting this vital arena. That includes supporting and encouraging a pipeline of diverse talent.
The Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), which advises the FAA on commercial space matters, has a STEM working group committed to helping the FAA find ways to encourage greater diversity and participation in STEM education.
The working group recommended using spaceports as education hubs to promote space industry activities for students early in their education. They also suggested working more with universities and student organizations to highlight job opportunities and identify points of engagement with the FAA. Another key element of this STEM initiative is the Space Workforce Pledge 2030, an internship program to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in commercial space (swf2030.org). For more on the FAA’s overall STEM initiative, see faa.gov/education.
If you’re interested in some additional interstellar inspiration, check out a recent FAA podcast (“It’s Just Rocket Science”) that highlights the career trajectories of two women in the field of space and proves curiosity can lead to out-of-this-world realities.
Editor’s note: Before signing off, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge my talented predecessor, Susan Parson, whose words have graced these pages for well over ten years. It’s not often that someone comes along during your professional career and truly makes a difference. I wish Susan the absolute best in her retirement and offer her my deepest gratitude for helping me be a better writer and person. Merci mon amie.
Tom Hoffmann is the editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an Airframe and Powerplant certificate.