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Jobs of the Future: Lake Superior State wants to be the training base for space

Springboarding off Michigan's entry as a launch hub, university launches space technician program this fall
(Redwire Space)

Zakaria Mahmud, professor at Lake Superior State University (LSSU), said the school’s new space technician program is expected to provide an “open door” for students ready to enter Michigan’s burgeoning high-tech space industry.

That includes Canadian students enticed by the field’s lucrative, six-figure salaries. 

“The space industries are booming,” Mahmud said. “Revenue is growing…and there's now quite a good job market.”

The Sault Ste. Marie. Mich.-based school welcomed its first cohort of six students to the Introduction of Space Systems program this fall.

In 2022, Mahmud was picked to spearhead LSSU’s Space Missions and Operations Certification program, part of a larger, statewide push by government and community groups to generate a pipeline of skilled workers in the Upper Peninsula.

The push began following NASA’s decision to open up space exploration – including working in the International Space Station – to private business. 

In 2021, Axiom Space, owned by Elon Musk’s Space X, as well as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, founded by Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, respectively, all made flights to space, and several other companies have stated that they plan to provide commercial-based space services. 

That means the industry needs skilled workers, and plenty of them.

LSSU’s two-course certification program will provide students with the key concepts of space operations, including uplink/downlink equipment, orbital mechanics, rocketry, space environment, and satellite engineering. 

It’s focused on providing “hands on” experience for horizontal-launch platforms, Mahmud said, and is modelled after the U.S. Space Force’s Space Readiness and Training Command (STARCOM) training units in California and Colorado. 

“What students will learn is considered more like digital engineering,” Mahmud said. “Communicating with the satellites and even controlling the satellites.”

“It operates like a simulation program,” he said. “Once the satellite is up in space, you can simulate from here as the ground station.”

The program has support from the state – Senator John Damoose and the Michigan Enhancement Grant Department provided the seed money to get the LSSU program up and running, Mahmud said, and he expects more industry partners to come on board once the course is established.

The program also has backing from major industry players, with significant technical contributions by Redwire Space, an aerospace company focused on microgravity research and space infrastructure, and KBR, a major U.S defense contractor.

Those industry professionals are expected handle the bulk of the instruction in the program’s first years, with LSSU professors eventually coordinating the program as it develops.

But forget about ideas of the Upper Peninsula transforming into Cape Canaveral, with its sprawling footprint and high-profile, million dollar rocket launches. The Upper Peninsula will likely see more horizontal launches into orbit, Mahmud said. 

“Horizontal launch needs a lot less ground station,” he said. “Because the satellite would be on a B-52 or some sort of airplane, they will be already flying in the sky and then it will launch from there.”

“It’s more like you’re firing a missile.”

Once the carrier is in air – the state has already designated its former Kincheloe Air Force Base in Kinross County as the launch site – LSSU-trained operators will communicate, monitor and operate the craft.

“From a  mission control aspect, the Kincheloe station will be able to control and guide the entire process from the launch to when it is deployed into orbit,” Mahmud said.

The Kincheloe base already houses several tenants following its decommission in 1977. Superior Fabrication, EUP Woods Products, Anchor Systems and Kinross Fabrication currently occupy places in the 7,000-plus acre facility.

The key element that graduates of the program – and eventually the tech workers in the industry – will be handling is the transfer of data, Mahmud said. The region isn’t expecting to deal with large, rocket-size fuel dumps over Lake Superior, or struggling to deal with cast-off shuttle parts landing across the county.

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That should also appease locals, who have raised concerns about how rocket launches can impact the environment. 

“The communication, and our students’ machine learning expertise will be huge,” he added. “That way they’ll be able to communicate and help the scientific community or contribute to national security.” 

A brief history of horizontal launch operations

Virgin Orbit, which filed for Chapter 11 in April, was one of the first commercial enterprises – and one of the highest profile businesses – to use horizontal launch, with varying degrees of success.

Others, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, PlanetLabs, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have since refined the approach, citing efficiency (less fuel than traditional vertical launch spacecraft) and site flexibility.

It’s one of the latest developments in the estimated $400-billion (U.S) industry, what some are calling the orbital economy.

LSSU is hoping to “hit the ground running” as the industry expands, Mindy McCready, Interim Dean of the College of Innovation and Solutions, told Northern Ontario Business. 

“We're still in sort of the early steps, getting some exposure,” McCready said. When a new program is offered, of course, it's a learning curve for everybody.”

The most exciting element to the program, she said, was the amount of hands-on learning students will receive, and the amount of knowledge they will be able to draw on. In addition to Mahmud – a former aerospace engineering instructor at Texas A&M and Alabama – the LSSU program will be receiving assistance from aerospace education hub the University of Michigan.

“This is just a win-win for everybody involved,” McCready said.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula could be the next major space tech hub

Chris Olson, president of the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation (CCEDC), said the region – including partners in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., have been “all in” on seeing this project work.

The CCEDC has been the key player behind the push for LSSU’s program, and are hoping to attract more aerospace companies to the Kincheloe site.

“We've had so many letters of support, not only from local groups, but also our tribal affiliations with the Sioux Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Bay Mills community,” Olson said. 

“This is an underserved area, and this is a great opportunity to bring some high tech type jobs to this region, for sure.”

Olson said once the satellites start launching in the Upper Peninsula, the industry will be employing between 75 and 100 workers, with both KBR and Redwire expected to draw staff from the Upper Peninsula.

Those are people Olson hopes emerge from the pipeline that LSSU is helping to create.

“Try to get 25 or 75 people, try to bring them in from other areas to work in the Upper Peninsula, it’s a tall chore,” Olson said. 

Olson said he’s working closely with state and provincial authorities to set up partnerships – a bilateral investment district, Olson calls it – to tap into the skills, talent and geography the region has to offer.

And LSSU currently offers Canadians a bit of a break on tuition, one way of utilizing the cross-border base,

“My county right now is 33,000 people, but Sault, Ontario is 72,000,” he said. “So really, we have a community of over 100,000 people in a rural area. And that’s to our advantage to get participation from those Ontario partners.”