Published: April 6, 2022 By

Banner image: Aerospace engineer Scott Palo, in lab coat, discusses his research with a delegation from the U.S. Space Force. (Credit: Casey Cass/CU Boulder)

CU Boulder’s prowess in space exploration took center stage this week during a visit from the newly named “champions” of the U.S. Space Force (USSF) University Partnership Program for the CU system: Brig. Gen. John Olson and Col. Marc Brock.

The campus tour officially kicked off the second phase of an ambitious research and education partnership launched late last summer. Olson and Brock are the designated points of contact and collaboration for CU as the new partnership moves into its next steps. 

Brig. Gen. John Olson, left, and Col. Marc Brock talk with Colorado leaders on the CU Boulder campus

Brig. Gen. John Olson, left, and Col. Marc Brock, right, talk with Colorado leaders on the CU Boulder campus. (Credit: Casey Cass/CU Boulder)

CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano, center, poses with cadets from the Air Force ROTC Detachment 105

CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano, center, poses with cadets from Air Force ROTC Detachment 105. (Credit: Casey Cass/CU Boulder)

Gen. Olson and his colleagues tour LASP

Gen. Olson and his colleagues check out a historic rocket at LASP. (Credit: Casey Cass/CU Boulder)

They met with aerospace and industry leaders from across Colorado, checked out new technologies for tracking the paths of satellites in space and talked future space ambitions. At CU Boulder’s Aerospace Engineering Sciences building, Olson and Brock met with CU President Todd Saliman, CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Terri Fiez and others. The discussion focused on the importance of building a diverse workforce and tapping an interdisciplinary approach to create the next generation of aerospace leaders. 

The event was organized by the Center for National Security Initiatives (NSI) at CU Boulder. 

“Pretty much all kids love three things: dinosaurs, Legos and space. We can’t lose that,” said Olson, mobilization assistant to the Chief of Space Operations and holder of five engineering degrees, including a doctorate in industrial and systems engineering. “It is space for all. We have a need for a rich and broad tapestry of people.”

Olson noted that to be successful, the USSF will need to tap into the excitement of students from across many different fields—including engineering but also law, history, the arts and more.

The CU system became one of the first universities to join the Space Force’s University Partnership Program in August 2021. Among other goals, the agreement will build CU Boulder’s capacity for educating and training the USSF's next generation of enlisted men and women, known as “guardians.”

Saliman added that the partnership builds upon Colorado’s leadership in blasting off beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The state is home to about 300 aerospace companies.

“This ecosystem has extraordinary power,” Saliman said. “We feel it’s one of the [state’s] best-kept secrets, and we don’t want to keep it a secret anymore.”

Space for all

Also not a secret: CU Boulder’s stable of students with a passion for space. Olson and Brock took time to talk shop with nearly a dozen cadets from the regional Air Force ROTC detachment. When it comes to exploring space, “you are living in an extraordinary time,” said Olson, who also has two sons currently at the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs.  

The budding engineers asked the general about the future of artificial intelligence and what role the USSF will play as Americans begin to build permanent colonies on the moon and Mars. 

Olson also mentioned that the USSF, which celebrated its second anniversary in December, is eager to recruit young engineers and scientists with a unique worldview—those who are able to appreciate the bigger picture of space exploration.  

“If you’re a STEM person, you better also know philosophy and law,” Olson said. “Because that’s the stuff that makes the world go round.”

ROTC cadet Zach Lesan, a senior at CU Boulder studying aerospace engineering, will join the USSF as a second lieutenant when he graduates this spring. Lesan didn’t let a lack of sleep interrupt his passion for space. He had returned to Boulder early that morning from California. Lesan and fellow students from the CU Sounding Rocket Laboratory had spent their weekend launching a rocket more than 30,000 feet into the air above the Mojave Desert.

“My eventual goal is to die on Mars,” Lesan said. “That’s because I think making life multi-planetary is absolutely critical. … It creates an exciting future.”

Security in space

CU Boulder’s research will be a key part of that exciting future, said Iain Boyd, NSI director.

Boyd said CU’s partnership with the Space Force will spur science in a wide range of fields at the university. These include efforts to design new vehicles that fly at incredibly fast speeds and technologies that can help people on the ground follow the trajectories of objects in space—an arena known as “space domain awareness.”

The general and entourage couple of his teammates got to see some of that research in action as they toured facilities in the university’s Aerospace Engineering Sciences building and at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).

“Space Force was established as a new arm of the military because of the increasing national security threats in space,” said Boyd, professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. “We face ever-evolving threats that will only be addressed through the development of advanced technologies and a workforce educated on relevant space topics.”

Olson added that he will bring his own love of Colorado to the new partnership—although he’ll still root for the Air Force when the Falcons play the CU Boulder Buffaloes in September 2022.