The Academy in the Space Age

The Air Force Academy plays a vital role in the U.S. space program. Academy graduates are among the country's current and future astronauts, engineers and mission support specialists.

Space has always been a part of the Academy curriculum. Since 1965, the school has offered a major in astronautical engineering, one of the few accredited undergraduate astronautics program in the nation. The physics department also offers a major in space physics that deals with environmental problems in space. In addition, the Academy offers cadets an interdisciplinary space operations major. This major provides the necessary background for graduates to meet the needs of Air Force Space Command, also headquartered in Colorado Springs.

Academy faculty and cadets actively participate in space-related research. Cadets have developed and flown three student experiment packages on space shuttle missions. Additionally, cadets and faculty in the Aeronautics Lab conducted wind tunnel tests in spring 2005 to help verify the design of the space shuttle reentry tiles. 

Cadets have researched rocket propulsion since 1990. In 1991, the cadets flew a 21-foot sounding rocket powered by a hybrid (solid fuel/liquid oxidizer) rocket motor to an altitude of 20,000 feet at nearby Fort Carson. Since then, Academy researchers have continued to advance hybrid rocket propulsion technology by testing various combinations of fuels and oxidizers.

The Academy instituted its small satellite program in 1993 to further motivate cadets toward space by providing "hands-on" satellite development and operational experience. 

The program also supports Department of Defense research and development initiatives by flying space experiments with valuable military application. Four small satellite prototypes have been built by cadets and flown on high altitude research balloons into a near-space environment at altitudes over 100,000 feet. The balloon missions give senior cadets the opportunity to test and fly their spacecraft designs before they graduate and enter the Air Force.

The U.S. Air Force Academy FalconSAT and FalconLAUNCH programs provide cadets an opportunity to design, analyze, build, test and operate small satellites and sounding rockets to conduct Department of Defense space missions. FalconSAT and FalconLAUNCH research is conducted within the Academy's Space Systems Research Center. The SSRC coordinates research funding with outside organizations and provides planning and management for satellite and sounding rocket missions.

The small satellite program achieved a major milestone when Falcon Gold, the Academy's first orbiting spacecraft, was launched into space on an Atlas rocket on Oct. 24, 1997. The goal of the mission was to investigate the feasibility of performing GPS-aided navigation by high-altitude satellites (e.g. geosynchronous) operating above the GPS satellite constellation. All systems operated nominally during the successful mission until primary battery power on the spacecraft was depleted.

The sounding rocket program started in 2003 with FalconLAUNCH 1. This rocket achieved an altitude of 32,000 feet at the Fort Carson Army Artillery range. The 700-pound thrust rocket was built entirely by cadets. In 2004, FalconLAUNCH 2 was reached an altitude of 17,000 feet using a cadet-built silicon phenolic nozzle and composite case provided by Thiokol. This rocket was the fastest in Academy history, going over Mach 2. Unfortunately, the rocket tumbled at 17,000 ft, showing a design problem in the transonic regime.

Many Air Force Academy graduates have become astronauts. Graduates have participated in all aspects of space shuttle missions, from piloting the shuttles to serving as payload and mission specialists. Col. Karol Bobko, Class of 1959, was the first graduate in space, piloting the space shuttle Challenger in April 1983. Col. Fred Gregory, class of 1964, the first African American to pilot a Space Shuttle (Challenger 1985) and to command a Space Shuttle (Discovery 1989). Col. John E. Blaha, a 1965 graduate, piloted Discovery in March 1989. Later he participated in joint U.S.-Russian research while residing aboard the space station Mir from September 1996 until January 1997. Maj. Susan J. Helms, Class of 1980, was the first female graduate to fly in space; she was a mission specialist aboard Endeavor in 1993. Lt. Col. Eileen Collins, a former professor in the mathematics department, became the first female to pilot a space shuttle in 1995.

(Current as of April 2009)