Alumni Review

VMI and CubeSats

Spacecraft with NASA Employee

This spacecraft, shown here with a NASA employee, deployed from a Mars - bound NA SA probe in May 2018. Photo by NASA

What measures 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters, can be built in a VMI laboratory and will provide cadets hands-on experience in the space industry?

The answer is: CubeSats. And soon, cadets will have the means to research, develop and build them on post and watch them get into orbit, thanks to an $82,800 grant from the Jackson-Hope Fund that will fund the new Spacecraft Design Laboratory, led by Col. Joseph Blandino of the mechanical engineering department.

CubeSats began as a way to introduce university students to the design and building of satellites and offering them the reward of seeing them fly in space. Now, although they still fly almost exclusively in the lower thermosphere, CubeSats have come into their own as research and commercial platforms.

According to Blandino, the increasing interest in CubeSats marks a sea change in the approach toward satellite development. “In the past, the space community focused on large, multipurpose satellites that take years and cost billions of dollars to develop and build.” He gave the example of NASA’s Webb Space Telescope, which has been under development for 20 years and so far has cost NASA about $10 billion. “These are impressive machines, but if they fail in orbit, you have wasted enormous amounts of time, money and effort.”

National security policymakers, Blandino pointed out, now realize that depending on a relatively small number of multipurpose satellites makes the U.S. military’s space capabilities increasingly vulnerable. If an enemy compromises 30 to 40 satellites, the Department of Defense would lose communications as well as what he terms “its eyes and ears.” CubeSats provide a means by which the military’s space assets can be distributed over a wider network of satellites, making them “more redundant, more robust.”

Further accelerating the drive toward CubeSats is the rise of “commercial space,” including companies such as SpaceX and Blue Horizon that offer launch services, often using smaller rockets to boost smaller payloads into orbit. A block of a dozen CubeSats, which would weigh about 40 pounds, can be launched – often, according to NASA, as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions – for as little as $30,000. Contrast that to the $8,500 to $10,000 per pound it costs to launch a payload on a large rocket, such as a Delta V.

These are motivators for the expansion of the use of CubeSats – and the establishment of the Spacecraft Design Laboratory at VMI. But, according to Blandino, the central reason to establish of the laboratory was not the “gee-whiz” nature of the technology, but a desire to add value to the education that cadets receive.

“I can’t say there was a ‘struck-by-lightning’ moment when it hit me that VMI should establish this lab,” said Blandino. “It grew out of talking to hundreds of cadets, prospective cadets and their parents. From those conversations, I realized that, although VMI stands out from so many other schools in so many ways, we had to find a way to ensure that our cadets, our alumni, stand as people who are thoroughly prepared to be leaders in the field of engineering.”

He continued, “Sure, we can say with all honesty that we have excellent faculty. But other schools have great teachers, too. We can say that we have a demanding curriculum, but the fact remains that we teach courses like thermodynamics and materials much like every other school.”

In the Spacecraft Design Laboratory, Blandino says, “cadets will gain invaluable practical experience in this rapidly expanding field by developing platforms to test what some see as ‘high-risk’ technologies.” When asked what he meant by “high-risk,” Blandino explained that neither government nor industry will use anything in a high-value project that does not have “flight heritage.” “There are some exciting new technologies out there, but unless they can be tested in space, their development will be significantly slowed. CubeSats offer a low-cost way to develop and test high-risk technologies.”

In the short term, he sees cadets developing a ThinSat (a satellite that is around 10 x 10 x 2 centimeters) next year and, in two years, a CubeSat that will test either a deployable boom that is an essential component of solar-sail technology or a deployable solar array technology. His vision for the long term is ambitious indeed. “Over their time at VMI, cadets will be on a team that will first develop and fly scientific balloon payloads. The next year, it will design and build a ThinSat and get that into space. In the third year, the goal will be to get a CubeSat launched. Put another way, over the space of three years, they will be designing, building and flying spacecraft of increasing complexity. These are ‘hands-on’ projects that both faculty and cadets love.”

“This is an objective way for VMI to demonstrate how good its cadets are. It will put them in front of the people who make hiring decisions and offer internships at established corporations like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman as well as the small companies that are claiming a growing share of an industry that does $320 billion in annual business,” explained Blandino. “The military is placing even greater emphasis on space because it is the new ‘high ground,’ and it will be contested by more and more countries. For those cadets who want to serve in a space-related role in the military and national security agencies, the knowledge and experience they’ll get will enhance their ability to serve the country.”

Blandino also offered some thoughts on the Jackson-Hope Fund grant that will make the laboratory’s development possible. “I am very grateful that the board of overseers decided to support this project by awarding it one of the fund’s Grants for New Directions in Teaching and Research. Quite frankly, there is no way we could create a Spacecraft Design Laboratory without that support. Using this money, we’ll be developing a program that will release cadets’ untapped potential by giving them opportunities to do meaningful research and practical work that will culminate in building and flying spacecraft. That will demonstrate their intelligence and effectiveness and so open doors for them in terms of internships while they’re cadets and of graduate education and jobs when they graduate.”

“The world is in a new Space Age – India plans to have manned flights by 2022 – and the United States is in a new Space Race,” Blandino said. “If we hope to compete in all aspects of space, economic as well as military and scientific, we need to develop the technologists, scientists and engineers who can lead the space industry. With this new laboratory, VMI can play a significant role in meeting that national need.”

  • Scott Belliveau

    Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects

    The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.