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Charting the Navy’s Future Course in Advanced Space Education

Four images under NPS crest highlighting space collaboration, research, equipment, and innovation.

In today’s era of strategic competition, naval and joint operations depend more than ever on the space domain. The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) and its Space Systems Academic Group (SSAG) provide graduate space education and research opportunities to naval officers and the joint force, helping to develop space-relevant warfighting competencies and qualified operators who will continue to enable maritime dominance and national defense.

No domain more than space operations highlights the essential blend of the operational art of war – as well as the science and technology of warfare. 

From the very beginning of the “space race” in the late 1950s, the U.S. Navy established itself as a global leader in the utilization of the space domain. By employing game-changing satellite platforms and developing tactical capabilities from space-based systems within the Department of Defense, the Navy proved unmatched in its use of the “final frontier” for maritime supremacy.

In today’s era of strategic competition, however, naval and joint operations depend more than ever on the space domain – everything from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, to positioning, navigation, and timing, to communications, environmental monitoring, space domain monitoring and more. As a result, there is a clear demand signal that America’s sea services must do more than just maintain a foothold in space.

One organization poised to help the Navy answer that call is the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), which has played a critical role in the evolution of the Navy’s space leadership through education, space-related science and technology research since 1959, most notably with the establishment of its Space Systems Academic Group (SSAG) in 1982.

Under the guidance of Professor Emeritus Rudy Panholzer, who served as Space Systems Chair from 1984 to 2016, SSAG and its associated curricula in space systems engineering and operations provided NPS students with a one-of-a-kind graduate education degree in space applications specific to warfighting. SSAG also gave those students the technical depth to understand the design and engineering of satellites and other space-based systems.

Currently under the leadership of former NASA astronaut Dr. Jim Newman, SSAG has the same mission and vision that has been in place since its establishment – but it also has a renewed urgency to develop “agile and innovative minds” who are prepared to “lead in transformation and manage change in tomorrow’s complex and technically challenging world.”

“Our product really is the students themselves,” said Newman. “What I'm trying to do, as Rudy Panholzer was doing when I got here 17 years ago, is to build that next generation of naval [space] operators and engineers. The bottom line is … we need naval and other officers who are technically capable of understanding and knowing what is in the realm of the possible. We have very technically capable adversaries and you can see examples of the military facing that truth.”

That truth, Newman explained, is that the reality of today’s space domain is more complex. Space as an operating environment is increasingly congested and contested. U.S. superiority in space is frequently challenged; competitors advance the means to disrupt or deny our ability to leverage the constellation of sensors and connectors that serve as the backbone of a networked and distributed maritime force.

As a result, the Navy must be prepared to innovate, be creative and agile, and truly compete in today’s highly-contested space domain. The Navy-Marine Corps team is the only all-domain warfighting force in DOD, operating under, on, and above the sea, on land, and in the cyber realm – and space connects them all.

By their very nature, naval operational problems are multi-disciplinary; as a result, they require inter-disciplinary approaches and solutions. As an institution, NPS recently implemented a new Strategic Framework which addresses these problems, as well as unique naval graduate education needs and research, by consolidating curricula into nine interdisciplinary core program areas.

Among the program areas is “Space Technology and Operations,” led by SSAG, which covers a range of defense-relevant applications from communications to orbital mechanics and satellite reconnaissance, culminating in space operations and engineering solutions for warfighters from a wide variety of backgrounds.

One NPS Space Systems Engineering student, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Musmanno, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011 with a degree in aerospace engineering. After multiple flying deployments and a staff tour with Carrier Strike Group 15, he became an Aviation Engineering Duty Officer. His research at NPS with advisor Dr. Mark Karpenko is focused on autonomous maneuver optimization methods applied to NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, in partnership with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“There are unique optimization methods that can help overcome system constraints and maximize efficient utilization of both new and old spacecraft,” said Musmanno. “My operational aviation experience combined with this educational opportunity had helped me to build a more complete understanding of aerospace systems requirements, integration, and tradespace which will help me contribute more during my expected next tour at the National Reconnaissance Office and subsequent career in naval aerospace acquisitions.”

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Dillon Pierce is an infantry officer who completed his master's degree at NPS in 2020, put his expertise into practice on a utilization tour, and has since returned to NPS to complete his doctorate in space systems engineering.

Pierce’s payback tour, at USMC Combat Development & Integration (CD&I), provided him with an opportunity to utilize his graduate education at NPS to introduce new and emerging space capabilities for the Marine Corps to support the warfighter. The tour gave him perspective on the true value of his education with SSAG.

“I stumbled into the SSAG small satellite lab one day and saw that the development of CubeSats and the new technologies that you can apply to their payloads was something they’re really interested in,” Pierce said of his Masters research into high-powered rockets for CubeSats. “I saw some tactical uses for this I wanted to try to operationalize, and I figured high powered rocketry for these CubeSats would be a good venue to get them up [into space] a little bit faster.”

Pierce is now on the third quarter of his doctorate, with a deeper respect for the education and research processes in SSAG and the expert faculty guiding his work.

“Having graduated past entry level work, I now have this really special time with Dr. Newman where he dedicates multiple hours a week to my development,” Pierce said. “I’ll get him up to speed on a problem that I have been working on and talk through how I’m solving things. Even without having the same familiarity with the details of the problem, he quickly gets up to speed and then he can look at the problem critically in a way that analyzes the connections, inner relationships, the dependencies.

“We can really get to the heart of the solution,” he continued. “For me, that process and skill is what I'm really trying to focus on, as well as my dissertation.”

For that dissertation, Pierce will focus on the development of a low-cost, rocket-based precision strike system that integrates commercial off-the-shelf components and a novel guidance and control solution.

The space systems curricula that both Musmanno and Pierce have gone through are demanding programs. Over the years, SSAG has added distance learning and graduate certificate options based on its two core curricula and a doctorate in its space systems engineering track, and is exploring a second Ph.D. program in space systems operations as well.

Still, students and faculty alike speak highly of the camaraderie that develops between members of each SSAG cohort – usually 30 students from the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force – and their professors.

While perhaps known more for leading the nation in graduate schools producing NASA astronauts – 44 to date – NPS has also launched dozens of satellites and contributed to space payloads for military applications. Today, SSAG faculty members contribute to a wide variety of space missions and boast an innovative Mobile CubeSat Command and Control (MC3) network led by faculty associate Dr. Giovanni Minelli, with support from the National Reconnaissance Office.

Ten active MC3 ground stations worldwide provide a global common-use infrastructure and operational network for low-cost, small-satellite research projects, many of them classified, using NPS CubeSats and DOD satellites in orbit. The network includes collaborations with academia, industry and international partners from the Five Eyes (FVEY) intelligence alliance – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Minelli indicated that the U.S. Naval Academy will bring its own ground station online in April 2023, with three more international ground stations being added later this year.

“We are currently providing MC3 ground network support for (Five Eyes) applications and also for two Missile Defense Agency CubeSats performing a networked communications experiment,” said Minelli. “A few other partner satellites are expected to use our ground network this year, including a NASA mission for hyperspectral thermal imaging, a U.S. Special Operations Command mission for modular intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, and a U.S. Coast Guard Academy CubeSat called SeaLion-1.”

In fact, two more NPS CubeSats, named Mola and Otter, will launch in the summer of 2023 and the winter of 2024. Faculty senior lecturer Dr. Wenschel Lan is leading the design/build effort with her students to demonstrate pathfinding and on-orbit activities, and a FVEY federated space system will enhance coalition advantages in maritime domain awareness, global command and control, and cyber resiliency.

“Industry partners also play a vital role in our space research applications,” said Lan. “We are leveraging an NPS cooperative research and development agreement with Microsoft for satellite ground testing by establishing a cloud-enabled data connection between the MC3 ground station and a Microsoft Azure Stack Edge. This will allow experimentation in space operations enabled by data and telemetry downlinked from CubeSats to the cloud environment. Expansion of the ground capability with our industry and international partners is a significant part of this research effort.” 

In addition, NPS’ ability to conduct classified research, focusing on relevant applied and innovative solutions to today’s most vexing challenges ensure the space systems operations and engineering curricula are more necessary, and equally relevant, to naval and joint space operations as they have ever been.

Going forward, the Navy has signaled its intent to develop critical, advanced space and information-related capabilities. In his CNO Navigation Plan for 2022, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday identified investments in space-based capabilities as one of the Navy’s force design imperatives.

The Navy has already taken two preliminary steps towards making these investments with the creation of the Maritime Space Officer (MSO) community in 2021 and the establishment of Commander, Navy Space Command (NAVSPACECOM), in January 2023. MSOs will help the Navy fill key space-oriented billets at fleet and component commands within Maritime Operations Centers (MOC), Warfighting Development Centers (WDC), U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM), and the intelligence community. NAVSPACECOM will be the Navy’s component command under SPACECOM, supporting the service’s mission to maintain maritime superiority from the sea floor to space.

According to retired Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, president of NPS, SSAG is working in concert with the Department of the Navy’s efforts to accelerate space capabilities and capacity, adapting to meet the intellectual and cognitive readiness needs of a future cadre of tech-savvy leaders who will guide the sea services and deliver solutions to maritime needs in space, answering a national security imperative.

“Most of us will only be able to look up at the heavens, but NPS is fortunate to have the leadership and scholarship of Dr. Jim Newman who has actually walked among the stars,” said Rondeau. “Together, we are building on past strengths in space graduate education reframing our approaches to warfighter development and the development of warfighting solutions that will generate the highest consequence outcomes for the Navy, Marine Corps, and joint force.”

NPS Space Systems Academic Group video:

Learn more about the Secretary of the Navy Space Summit held at NPS:

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