Propelling the next generation of engineers: WALI gives students a shot at space exploration

Contact: Erin Flynn
Students stand in front of a mural featuring the Earth at the Air Zoo.

Students in WALI at the Air Zoo from left to right: Nathan Snyder, Luke Halladay, Ryan Barker, Douglas Adams, Aya Zahreddine, Carlos Zamorano Guerrero, Fernando Miguel Gonzalez Cruz, Cameron Larson and Carter Simmons.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—There are out-of-this-world job prospects and then there are job prospects that are truly out of this world. The Western Aerospace Launch Initiative (WALI) offers both, giving students experience working with technology that could land their work in space and connecting them with professionals at some of the top agencies and companies in the field. 

"We go to small satellite conferences, and there are industry professionals from the small satellite world from all over who gather," says Luke Halladay, an aerospace engineering major from Le Roy, Michigan, and WALI’s chief engineer. "It’s really a confidence booster when (one of them) comes up to our booth, and we’re able to get into an in-depth conversation about topics within the field."

"It definitely gives you a leg up against people who have only been in a classroom and don’t know how things are actually hashed out in the ‘real world,'" adds Douglas Adams, an aerospace engineering major from Hartland, Michigan.

Students involved in WALI learn how to design, build, launch and operate small satellites, including participating in a national competition to secure funding to launch their creations into space.

"That’s a pretty rare thing for students to get in their undergraduate program," says Dr. Kristina Lemmer, WALI’s advisor and principal investigator. "They’re actually working on flight hardware. It might just be engineering models at this point, but these are the same types of systems that are going to be going into space. So, (the students) get hands-on experience working with systems that they’ll have to be working with in their jobs: electrical power subsystems or flight software."

Aya Zahreddine is a second-year aerospace engineering student from Fenton, Michigan. She participated on a rocketry team in high school and joined WALI last year as part of the power team. Two semesters later, she is president.

"I learned a lot about system engineering and the electric part of it," she says. "System engineering (expertise) is very much wanted in the industry right now, so it’s quite exciting."

Space to Grow

A student holds a box filled with high tech equipment.

WALI students show off their CubeSat design, which they presented to some of the biggest aerospace agencies and companies in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this January.

WALI was officially launched in 2014 as a student organization to learn about spacecraft engineering. 

"We had an interest in expanding the space opportunities for students at Western," says Lemmer, who worked with a colleague and co-founding students Andrew Hine, MSE '16, and Greg Neff, BSE '14, MSE ‘16, to help get the organization off the ground. "We wanted to start simply with high-altitude balloons and maybe some rocket launches and also have a group that would do outreach."

Two years later, the registered student organization (RSO) earned its first shot in space as one of 10 collegiate teams accepted into the University Nanosatellite Program (UNP). Funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the program aims to train the next generation of space professionals by challenging students with a rigorous concept-to-flight-ready spacecraft development process. 

In each cycle, the Air Force Research Lab gives teams two years to ideate an experiment and develop a functioning CubeSat, which is a type of nanosatellite, that could potentially be launched into space. At the end of the process, a select few teams are tapped to bring their plan to fruition and assigned a launch vehicle on which their satellite will hitch a ride and be deployed in space.

In their first attempt, WALI team members proposed a plasma spectroscopy mission to collect plasma plume data from an electric propulsion device. The team earned another try in the UNP’s next cycle in 2018. This time, the CubeSat plans aimed to verify performance and utility of both an optical emission spectrometer and a pulsed-plasma thruster for maneuvering in space.

Lemmer says each cycle has taken WALI—and Western’s aerospace program—exponentially further.

“We persevered and hung on, and we have a really awesome team in place,” she says. 

And word, it seems, is getting out. The team has exploded to more than 80 members over the past year, and it has benefited from an onboarding process that better transfers knowledge from veteran members to new students. It includes the addition of “CanSat” teams so that newer members can learn the basics of systems engineering by designing, building and launching soda can-sized satellites. WALI will have two teams competing in a national competition this spring.

The Next Frontier

WALI’s latest mission involved testing electrospray propulsion and its interactions with plasma in the ionosphere, an active layer of Earth’s atmosphere that grows and shrinks depending on energy it absorbs from the sun. The team envisioned an innovative propulsion technique that would draw on either positively or negatively charged particles to give the satellite momentum in space.

“Using these types of propulsion devices, you can either maintain your orbit or even change your orbit to a certain degree,” Adams, WALI’s CubeSat manager, says.

The team traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in mid-January to present their nanosatellite proposal to top brass in some of the biggest agencies and companies in the aerospace industry.

“We went over our mission overview of some of the more important subsystems, like talking about the payload and software and our overall timeline,” says Adams. “We spoke to people from all disciplines, from the leader of small satellite development at NASA to a colonel at the Space Force.”

WALI came away energized and enthusiastic about its work and the prospects ahead.

"Just from the perspective of our own progress, I think we can be really proud of how far we’ve come since just the past two times that we’ve been a part of the UNP," Adams says. "The judges have told us multiple times … that they’re very impressed with how much we’ve been able to advance the art of satellite design at Western Michigan University."

While they weren’t selected for launch this round, the judges told the team to make sure they apply again when the next UNP cycle opens in the fall.

"I think it’s really validating not only for us but for all the work we’ve been putting in for the past couple of years," Adams says. "To be able to get out there and go toe-to-toe with people who are the top in the field and answer intense questions about the very core concepts of our science … and then afterward have judges saying, 'You guys did a phenomenal job,' means a lot."

WALI plans to take the judges up on their advice and will spend the time before the application process opens refining its electrospray propulsion mission. The team is currently looking for outreach and fundraising opportunities to support its CubeSat aspirations as well as the RSO as a whole. Lemmer and the students would also like to build a ground station that will give them the opportunity to communicate with any satellites they successfully launch and access information from open-source satellites to expand educational opportunities.

Career Propulsion

In addition to presenting their mission, WALI members had an opportunity in New Mexico to network with leaders in the space industry at a career fair.

"The established space companies are always looking for new hires with the skills that they need to grow and maintain their space technologies. They are really excited about the rapid prototyping abilities that our students gain doing this small satellite development," Lemmer says. "With all of the companies and the small satellite revolution that’s happened over the past decade, just having experience operating, building, designing or working with small satellite technologies gives our students a leg up on other institutions that don’t have those programs."

Aya Zahreddine holds a small screwdriver while standing behind a metallic box filled with colorful cables and parts.

Aya Zahreddine works on the CubeSat prototype.

Zahreddine witnessed that employer excitement firsthand after impressing an executive at top aerospace company Northrup Grumman.

"(He) told me to give him my resume and he would help me," she says. "It feels so good to know that I’m getting these opportunities, especially as a sophomore. … I feel very proud of what I’m doing so far."

"Being able to show that you have all these real-world skills is a no-brainer for a lot of employers. They want people who are motivated, who pursue their passions, who are ambitious—who even as an early undergraduate, like Aya, continue to shine and excel and learn and apply what they’ve learned," adds Adams, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in April and continue in Western’s aerospace master’s program.

As a more experienced student, he has already had the opportunity to begin making his mark on the field.  Lemmer connected him with a co-op at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. last summer, and he will continue his work on satellite and spacecraft propulsion research there this summer. 

“When we were at the career fair talking to employers, I was talking to people from the Air Force Research Lab who do this type of research. They said, ‘When you are done (at NRL), you can come work for us, right?’ Everything that Dr. Lemmer has done and the opportunities that WALI has provided us are really putting us all a step ahead.” ■