James Webb Space Telescope team includes Capitol alums, students

As NASA prepares for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope – a major development that is expected to dramatically enhance our understanding of the cosmos – several Capitol alumni and current students are part of the team.

James Webb Space Telescope

Alums Aaron Bush and Carl Hansen, together with current student Ben Serano, are on-site at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which will be handling flight ops for the mission and is currently engaged in testing and preparation.

Bush and Hansen went to work full-time for the project after graduation, while Serano has landed an internship at the STScI and plans to continue there as a flight operations controller after he wraps up his degree in May.

The three are among a larger group of current and former Capitol involved with the JWST; together, the university has significant representation on this mission.

 “I’m working on the communications subsystem, the thermal testing, and the Optical Telescope Element (OTE),” said 2015 graduate Bush, now a spacecraft engineer at the STScI. “I do everything from writing code to writing procedures to conducting exercises to help the flight operations team prepare for when the spacecraft actually launches.”

It’s inspiring to work on a mission that has enormous significance, Bush said.

“The James Webb is NASA’s flagship mission. It’s a high-profile, $9 billion mission. There are a lot of people who are waiting for it to launch, waiting for it to succeed. The capabilities of this telescope are incredible. They’re much greater than what Hubble has been able to bring – and Hubble has brought us so many wonders. This is going to be above and beyond,” he said.

“It’s exciting work. Everything you’re doing, that you have a hand in, is going towards a spacecraft that will hopefully be used for years and years to come,” Bush said.

Fellow alum Hansen, meanwhile, is a ground systems engineer for the mission. “It’s my job to develop products that will be used during flight, to allow our ground stations to talk to the JWST. After it launches, my job will be to watch those products very carefully and make sure they are doing what they’re supposed to do.”

“This is one of NASA’s biggest missions,” Hansen said. “To have the chance to work on something that is so monumental is a huge honor.”

He says younger engineers working on the JWST mission are often surprised to see so many of their colleagues coming from Capitol, a small school with relatively low visibility compared to larger universities in the state and region. But the caliber of Capitol students is no secret to leadership in the field, which has been hiring them for years, Hansen said.

According to Capitol professor Rishabh Maharaja, this is because of the astronautical engineering program’s specialized focus.

“Our heritage is that we specialize in training flight operators and ground systems engineers. That’s our forte, our niche,” “We have courses that teach exactly what Aaron, Ben and Carl are doing – courses that train ground systems engineers and that train students in how to fly the satellite. Our Astronautical Engineering program allows our students to fully understand satellite subsystems, ground system, and flight operations. To successfully and effectively operate a spacecraft, one must extensively understand both the space (satellite) and ground segments. Our curriculum excels in teaching our students about both the ground and space segments."

Maharaja created the Hermes project and now serves as mentor to the student-led Hermes project, which is developing a TCP-IP-based system for satellite command and control. Several project participants, including Bush, Hansen and Serano, have gone on to the JWST – and they say the practical experience they gained as part of Hermes was essential.

“In order to make the move from school to work, you need to be involved in projects, and Capitol is great about supporting these,” Hansen said. “Being in Hermes was very much responsible for getting me into a place where I could be accepted for my current position.”

Serano, who graduates this year, said Hermes provided experience in “how to conduct NASA reviews, working together as a team, the various systems of a satellite, and the importance of thorough testing before launch."

He is thrilled at having the chance to be part of the JWST -- his third internship since coming to Capitol. "I look forward to going to work every single day because the entire team believes in and understands the importance of the JWST's success.  With each passing day, our launch draws closer, and the excitement increases,' Serano said.

Historically, Capitol has provided many opportunities for students to gain hands-on practice in flight operations. Capitol students have been involved in the Earth Observing System (EOS), the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS), the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS), and the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission (TRMM),

A new facility launched this summer on the Capitol campus – the Space Flight Operations Training Center – provides real-time training in command, control and telemetry, using virtual satellites.

“At the SFOTC we will train the next generation of flight operators.We’ll be training them how to build a ground system, understand satellite subsystems, how to fly a satellite, and how to recover a satellite in the event of an anomaly. In this way, we ensure that students come out of our program understanding flight operations and systems engineering,” Maharaja said.

PHOTO: Aaron Bush (left), Ben Serano (center) and Carl Hansen work the Telemetry and Command console for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.