AFIT EWIs in the Heart of Space Innovation

Posted Monday, March 30, 2020


A multi-disciplenary team of AFIT EWI Fellows are suited up for entry into Boeing's clean room. (Conributed photo)

By: Capt. Joseph Banaszek, Capt. Shawn Boyd, Capt. Joshua Haneline, Lt. Tyler Hall, Lt. Nixie Mistri, Lt. Clare Sakovitch, Lt. Kathryn Szmergalski, Mr. Mike Turpin, Ms. June Dom, Ms. Kelly Bryant, and Ms. Jessica Szwec
Air Force Institute of Technology Education with Industry Fellows

LOS ANGELES, CA – Eleven Air Force Institute of Technology Education with Industry Fellows from a variety of companies across the country gathered together in LA early March to learn and explore what the west coast space industries had to offer.

The focus of this EWI crossflow was to introduce a group of fellows to the heart of the space industry. This trip was beneficial to every member of the team, whether it was comparing other satellite manufacturers to their own companies, learning about the threats to the U.S. in space, or seeing how some of the fastest growing companies in the country compare to those that have been around for decades. This trip had a little bit of everything for everyone.

The EWI Fellows started their trip with a visit to the hub of all things Air Force space - the Space and Missile Systems Center at LA AFB. Here the Fellows were given a threat brief to show why the Air Force, Space Force and SMC do what they do. The briefing was a reminder for some, an introduction for others, and an eye-opener for all.

The team also met with SMC leadership including Ms. Joy White, SES, the Executive Director and Col. Doug Pentecost the Deputy Director of Launch Enterprise.

Ms. White shared unique insights about how she and her team are working to reform the space acquisitions process to meet the ever-changing demand of the space warfighting domain. The team learned about SMC 2.0 and were able to ask questions and provide insights from their own companies.

Col. Pentecost talked about what the Launch Enterprise does and his perspectives on the launch industry. Not only did he provide valuable insights into what his team does, but he also provided the EWI team with some advice and mentoring for their careers.

A multi-disciplenary team of AFIT EWI Fellows visited the Space and Missile Center at Los Angels AFB, Calif. to meet with leadership and learn how SMC is working to meet the ever-changing demand of the space warfighting domain. (Conributed photo)

Following the SMC visit, the EWI team went to The Boeing Company and sat down with a panel of senior leaders. The Fellows were able to discuss their capstone project ideas with company leaders and received informative advice and feedback.

The Boeing leaders discussed their mission of civil and commercial satellite production to military production as well. The team was fortunate to get a full tour of Boeing’s high bay and satellite testing areas. Satellites go through rigorous testing to replicate the launch and space environment before they are delivered, and the team got an up-close look at how Boeing does this. For the Fellows currently with Northrop Grumman’s and Lockheed Martin’s satellite facilities this was exceptionally interesting to compare the pros and cons of each approach.

Millennium Space Systems was the next stop on the crossflow. This is a small space company that is now a subsidiary of the Boeing Company. Although Millennium Space has been around since 2001, it has the feel and culture of a startup. The company has just under 300 employees and specializes in building and manufacturing small-scale satellites. The workspaces are open to encourage collaboration and close to the manufacturing centers so engineers and employees can feel more connected to the work that they do. The Fellows met with engineers and USAF veterans to learn about how Millennium builds advanced, small satellites quicker than the larger corporations. The Fellows were given a tour of the facilities to include electronics manufacturing, machining, and clean room assembly. Everything here was on a drastically smaller scale than previously seen at Boeing’s facilities.

After learning about SMC and satellites, the EWI team switched gears to focus on the launch industry side of space operations beginning with a trip to SpaceX, a much-anticipated tour by many. It is no secret that SpaceX has started to transform the launch industry and is working closer with the Department of Defense. The SpaceX team that the EWIs met with made it very clear how important they believe space security and working with the DOD is. Without helping ensure safe access to space, the company would not be able to achieve their goal of getting to Mars.

The Fellows were given a tour of the SpaceX factory floor and learned more about how they design and plan for reusability. One interesting highlight is how the company is designing the rocket engine for their Starship to be built completely using additive manufacturing and traditional 3D printing. They also mentioned that they approach launching rockets similar to the way airlines approach flying planes. They have specific maintenance required to be complete throughout different milestones in the rocket’s lifetime.

The EWI team was eager to understand how SpaceX is able to push the boundaries and produce rapid launch capabilities. A lot of it came down to a true focus on how everything they do is to get one step closer to the goal of getting to Mars and a strong emphasis on hard work and grit. When asked whether they prefer employees with talent versus hard workers with grit, they replied “grit any day, we can develop talent.” This was an interesting perspective especially coming from a company with a very selective hiring process.

AFIT EWI Fellows pictured in front of a Falcon 9 rocket at the SpaceX HQ. (Conributed photo)

Continuing the space launch journey, the EWI Fellows drove to Long Beach to Virgin Orbit where they met with members of VOX, a division within Virgin Orbit dedicated to working with the government. Virgin Orbit is primarily a civil and commercial launch company working towards the goal of air launches. Unlike other launch companies, Virgin Orbit is building smaller rockets to be launched anywhere in the world from their own 747 airplane. Being able to launch from an aircraft, into any inclination, from anywhere in the world, could help reduce the time it takes to launch assets into orbit. Their payload capability is much smaller than that of traditional rockets, but the commercial space industry is driving towards making satellites smaller and smaller.

The EWI team was given a tour of Virgin Orbit’s rocket factory floor. A topic of interest by the Fellows was the company’s processes for using additive manufacturing. The company has a specific machine that uses both additive and subtractive manufacturing techniques. This means the machine builds a part with additive manufacturing but if any area of the part is not to specification, the same machine can then remove that section and start over. This was a particularly unique approach the EWI Fellows had not seen before.

AFIT EWI Fellows visited Virgin Orbit a civil and commercial launch company working towards the goal of launching rockets into space from 747 airplanes. (Conributed photo)

Overall, the EWI space crossflow was a great success! Having a group of Fellows with different backgrounds in space, contracting, finance, and manpower, provided a wonderful variety of perspectives. Even though all the companies visited are space companies, each one is very different and has their own best practices and way of doing things. The EWI Fellows learned about some of the challenges facing the space industry and the need to innovate and produce space capabilities quicker than ever. While also learning what SMC is doing together with industry to help streamline the acquisitions processes.


More news...

Return to the top of the page

Air Force Institute of Technology
2950 Hobson Way
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH 45433-7765
Commercial: 937-255-6565 | DSN: 785-6565