Group of five alumni stand in front of Kennedy Space Center

Next Space Age

Above: UT Knoxville alumni Garrett Skrobot (far left), Ken Mathews, Vicki Johnston, Scott Colloredo, and John Graves work at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

By Fred Brown

Each day they arrive for work, a lucky and talented group of University of Tennessee graduates get to play among the stars. Some send experiments whizzing and blinking off into the star-studded reaches of space while others plot future missions that will probe galaxies far away in the spectacular mysteries of deep space.

Maybe one day, a man or woman who takes the first small steps on Mars will wear a UT logo next to the heart. If UT scientists are not physically walking upon the Red Planet, then more than likely the brave souls who trod Mars will be guided through the stardust by the scientists at the controls.

Engineering has been the pathway, but space and its endless sweep has been the attraction for UT graduates over time. Currently, 14 UT graduates are working at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) located on Merritt Island, Florida, north-northwest of Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic Ocean. The center is midway between Miami and Jacksonville, known as Florida’s Space Coast and the KSC Spaceport, where rocket launches became commonplace and astounding discoveries bordered on the routine after a time.

Here, since the first successful space launch on Jan. 31, 1958, the bold adventures of science and space engineered by NASA scientists and workers fired the imagination of Americans. Chasing both the moon and Russia in the beginning, NASA put America out front in the space race until July 11, 2011, when the shuttle Atlantis landed at KSC for the final chapter in its 30-year, 135-mission history. With the close of the shuttle program, it seemed NASA struggled, perhaps, to find its new role and new worlds.

But maybe not. The end of one era has brought forth another, which looks to become even more exciting for future space travel. NASA is transforming itself, morphing from a governmental-scientific partnership to a governmental-scientific-public entrepreneurial partnership that is being driven and supported by new technology and change.

“It was interesting,” says Vicki Johnston, chief of partnership development for KSC’s Center Planning and Development Directorate. Johnston (Knoxville ’78), who has a degree in electrical engineering, says that at one point the national media even posted stories that KSC was up for sale.

“It’s never been for sale,” Johnston says with a laugh. “In fact, we envision a future as a multi-use launch facility with the Air Force, NASA and commercial companies.” The future for NASA and KSC, Johnston says, will be “a vibrant and active launch complex like we have never seen before.”

In fact, she says she sees a time when space travel, especially to sub-orbital altitudes (roughly 62 miles above sea level) will become familiar instead of futuristic. “We are on the verge of this transformation that 20 years from now people won’t be able to imagine that it didn’t exist before,” she says. “It is very exciting to be involved in this.”

Current and former UT graduates are responsible for part of that excitement—alumni such as Scott Kelly, who blasted off from Earth on March 27 to spend a year in the International Space Station (ISS). In all, UT boasts 13 astronaut alumni, including Barry Wilmore (Knoxville ’94), recently returned from the ISS, and Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon (HSC ’73), new inductee into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Twelve astronauts, including Kelly and Wilmore, earned degrees from the UT Space Institute.

Garrett Lee Skrobot (Knoxville ’88), who has a degree in electrical engineering, is one of the most senior members of the UT group at KSC. He joined KSC in 2000 as an integration engineer for the Launch Services Program (LSP), and today he is a senior mission manager and flight projects officer for LSP. He works with cutting-edge experiments, some created by college students, private groups and nonprofit organizations that produce CubeSats, small research satellites about the size of a breadbox.

Some of these undertakings are known as the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) missions. These are small satellites packed away as part of an auxiliary payload in the upper stage of large rockets, such as the U.S. Air Force’s Atlas V. Since its inception in 2010, the initiative has selected more than 100 CubeSats from primarily educational and government institutions from across the nation. NASA expects to call for more proposals soon.

Around 2007, NASA upper management asked Skrobot if he could figure a method to place CubeSats on a NASA vehicle and send it into orbit. The first CubeSat flight was in 2010, and now Skrobot and his cohorts in the classroom and private sector have provided NASA with 37 missions, seven of which were the ELaNa variety. Everything fits in a 10x10x10 box: batteries, navigation instruments, solar cells, command and control, data collection and a way to communicate back to Earth.

Today, Skrobot says, the CubeSats are more powerful than ever and can pack more instruments. In the beginning, Skrobot says student satellites did simple tests, such as sending Morse code back to Earth. “Now they are more involved. Some university kids are looking to detect black holes,” he says. Other student-built CubeSats are flying through magnetic fields looking for charged particles; some are trying to figure out how the Aurora Borealis works.

The CubeSats have not yet been to Mars, says Skrobot. “But we are working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They are building CubeSats to fly along with the lander mission. One will descend to the Martian atmosphere and transmit data from the Mars Lander back (to Earth),” he says. In the future, CubeSats will play an expanding role in NASA’s unmanned long-haul space missions, going where no man or (perhaps) no machine has gone before.

So, clearly, NASA’s mission plan is changing. The use of big rockets of a past era have been redesigned and upgraded to take astronauts and payloads out of Low Earth Orbit. All the way to asteroids.

Heading up NASA’s master plan is Scott Colloredo (Knoxville ’89), who has a degree in mechanical engineering. He began his career as a NASA co-op student in 1986, and during his first 10 years with NASA, he worked as a design engineer, systems engineer and as a lead designer for ground support equipment for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs. Today, he is director of center planning and development. The plan lays out how the center will do things in the future.

In fact, the KSC master plan will transform the center from a government-only nerve center to a diverse spaceport that is flexible and capable of many uses. “We are super busy now doing cool stuff,” says Colloredo.

UT Knoxville engineering alumni working at NASA's Kennedy Space Center help transform America's space program to support new modes of interstellar travel and exploration
UT Knoxville engineering alumni working at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center help transform America’s space program to support new modes of interstellar travel and exploration

The center provides support to the overall management of the International Space Station, which gets a re-supply module every three to four months, and another component is the commercial crew program replacing the Shuttle. That involves the Boeing Co. and Elon Musk’s SpaceX enterprise, which already has a NASA contract to resupply the space station. Another part of NASA’s future is providing launch services for robotics to go to other planets.

Colloredo says NASA’s ground systems program is preparing for “the next rocket space launch that will be the world’s biggest rocket that will go well beyond Earth orbit into deep space.”

After test flights, NASA’s largest rockets, like the Saturn V of times past, will hurl an astronaut to an asteroid and eventually on to Mars. Those test flights, he says, will begin in 2018, and the manned missions could start in early 2020. “We will go someplace never seen before,” Colloredo says.

Other than flashing across space again, NASA, he adds, will use the legendary launch pads 39A and 39B for commercial liftoffs. Many of the commercial launch vehicles also will return to Kennedy from space, landing there by way of the old Shuttle wheels-down events.

SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, has signed a 20-year agreement with NASA for use and operation of Launch Pad 39A, the historic site where American astronauts first launched to the moon.

And then there is the tourism aspect. Companies are lining up and bulking up their reusable rockets to take tourists to sub-orbital missions and back. “What has happened,” says Colloredo, “is that billionaires and entrepreneurs who have money and a passion for space are stepping up.”

A UT graduate who is one of the happiest around KSC these days is probably John Graves, who coordinates operations at the Shuttle Landing Facility for NASA’s flight operations.

Graves (Knoxville ’90), who has a mechanical engineering degree, says he has always been attracted to space and astronomy. Now, he says, he is working on rockets and runways that will actually take part in going to the stars.

“I’ve been lucky,” he says. His career began with McDonnell Douglas after UT. He arrived at NASA in 2008 and now oversees the landing facility for NASA. Graves worked on the repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope when it developed astigmatism early on.

Kenneth Mathews (Knoxville ’88), who has an industrial engineering degree, has one of those exciting positions that cuts across most of NASA’s jobs. He is responsible for metrology and calibration for all NASA centers. Mathews will be one of the engineers working on those heavy-lift rockets when they head for deep space. A voyage to Mars in his lifetime would be “a ride you would never forget,” he says.

To a person, these UT alumni say they have already been on a fabulous ride—their careers, thanks to what they learned at the UT Knoxville College of Engineering. They all say they would not be mingling amongst the stars and breakthrough technology had it not been for their education and experience at UT.