WALI helps expand access to space education

Contact: Liz VandenHeede

WALI team members (left to right): Carlos Zamorano, Douglas Adams, Dr. Kristina Lemmer, Larissa McKenzie, Ryan Barker and Luke Halladay.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Since the first forays into space exploration began—from development of telescopes in the 1600s, the discovery of planets in the 1700s and 1800s to the first humans on the moon in 1969 and, more recently, modern satellite development and commercialized space travel—the growth of the field is spurred by people who look to the stars and dream of what remains to be discovered.

And those inspired people are growing in number right within Floyd Hall. The Western Aerospace Launch Initiative (WALI) is a student organization dedicated to designing, building, testing and launching WMU’s first satellite. WALI has come a long way since it was founded in 2014 by a small group of undergraduate and graduate students interested in learning about spacecraft engineering.

WALI was first accepted into the University Nanosatellite Program (UNP) program in 2016. The UNP is a program through the Air Force Research Laboratory that provides funding to U.S. university students and programs to design, build, launch and operate small satellites. Every three years, student groups from universities across the U.S. submit their proposals for missions. UNP then mentors select teams through design and development of a satellite for launch and on-orbit operations.

The Western group is now participating in its third UNP iteration and is seeing unprecedented growth. During 2022-23, WALI grew from 15 student members to its current 95 members. WALI Program Manager Larissa McKenzie, a senior studying aerospace engineering, attributes a lot of this growth and retention to the extensive onboarding process they established in 2022.

McKenzie had the opportunity to participate in two 12-week NASA Workforce Development programs where she learned NASA mission procedures and protocols from industry professionals and collaborated with team members from other universities to complete mission-related team projects. From this experience, she had an idea of what it could do for WALI.

“What if we took all of this information and taught students about it?” McKenzie says. “So, we asked and received permission from NASA and started a new member program for WALI members.” 

Students and WALI team members Ryan Barker and Carlos Zamorano work in the Space Flight Dynamics and Control Lab in Floyd Hall.

Through the new onboarding process, students have become more engaged and more likely to get and stay involved as members. New members are split into teams to develop their own projects. Teams then give presentations, submit all of their documentation and are assigned to specific subsystem teams within WALI.

The group’s onboarding effort was recognized across the University: WALI was awarded the 2023 Outstanding Member Development Award by the WMU Office of Student Engagement and Western Student Association.

The success of the new onboarding process and growing student membership led WALI to start a second team project in 2023: the CanSat competition. CanSat is an international competition run by NASA. In an effort to expand space education to the broader WMU community, WALI is also involved in launching a Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) chapter at WMU that will allow any registered student organization interested in space an opportunity to participate. SEDS is an international student organization that promotes space exploration and development through educational and engineering projects.

Looking ahead, WALI hopes to move to the next phase of UNP in 2024 when they would be selected for a satellite launch opportunity, and they are also working on having a ground station built at Floyd Hall. The ground station will allow WALI to communicate with satellites and, one day, communicate with WMU’s first satellite launched by the students of WALI who look to the stars and dream.

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