Space Studies celebrates 25 years as the world's academic leader in all things cosmos

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Space Studies celebrates 25 years as the world's academic leader in all things cosmos

"Space: the final frontier," said Captain James T. Kirk. A grand intro to each Star Trek episode.

With all the discoveries coming at us daily from NASA's stunningly successful Mars mission, from stellar neighbors in our Milky Way to the farthest known reaches of the universe, there's a still lot more to learn.

"It's a fascinating realm," said Santhosh Seelan, professor and chair of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences Department of Space Studies, celebrating 25 years since its launch by John Odegard himself. "Space is still indeed the final frontier."

Today's UND Space Studies encompasses everything from the study of planetary geology and near-earth objects to the development, design and building of "space suits" – more technically accurate planetary exploration suits and their associated support systems – to space flight simulators.

"Students participate at every level of research here," notes Seelan. "It's very hands-on."

The department launched the world's first – and today one of the few – fully online master's degree programs in space studies and is preparing to launch a Ph.D. program, as well.

On its faculty are people such as Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Mike Gaffey, who help NASA figure out what to do about potential planetary threats – so-called near-earth objects such as asteroids.

The department also is home to people who have worked for NASA and the space industry; a former military test pilot; and a former Soviet space scientist, among others.

The idea for a space studies program was part Odegard's drive to expand is burgeoning enterprise from a school for airplane pilots to a broad-based academic division, comprising a range of scholarly endeavors related to flight, flying, atmosphere and outer space exploration.

A native North Dakotan and experienced aviator, Odegard was a visionary who in the late 1960s believed that UND should establish a Department of Aviation. And he did just that after receiving his MBA from UND.

As the aerospace program grew, Odegard decided that UND should also have a Department of Space Studies.

In his many travels around the United States, he met and became friends with Edwin Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin, lunar module pilot for Apollo 11 and second man to walk on the Moon. He hired Dr. Aldrin to come to UND to serve as a front man and promoter for the program.

Aldrin recommended that the first chair of the department be David Webb, an internationally known consultant in the field of space development and a member of the National Commission on Space.

Webb arrived at UND and put together the curriculum and hired faculty. The decision was made to offer a multidisciplinary masters in science degree in space studies. That degree required students to take technical and policy courses to give them broad knowledge about space: law, economics, management, remote sensing, human factors, military applications, engineering, astronomy, planetary geology, history, etc.

In addition to Webb, four faculty were hired: Joanne Gabrynowicz (space law and policy); Jim Vedda (military and commercial space); Dick Parker (life sciences); and Grady Blount (remote sensing and planetary geology).

In 1987, the first four students were accepted in to the new UND Department of Space Studies: Harvey Wasiuta; Brett Epstein; Jim Anderson; and Suezette Rene Bieri. Wasiuta and Epstein were Canadian citizens.

Initially, space studies shared office space with the computer science program in what is now Streibel Hall.

But as enrollment increased, space studies required more, well, space – so, in 1992, the department moved to the fifth floor of a new building which was later named Clifford Hall. Tom Clifford was a former mentor of Odegard, longtime UND president and a staunch supporter of space studies.

Odegard had sold the idea of a department of space studies to the UND administration and the Board of Higher Education by promising that it would be self-sustaining and would not require any state funding. In order to support itself, space studies offered its master's degree to Minuteman missiliers at Grand Forks and Minot Air Force Bases. Tuition for those students was paid by the United States Air Force.

For many years, space studies faculty drove to the bases to offer classes in five-hour blocks (5 to 10 p.m.). Going to Minot required a 450-mile roundtrip. Faculty also taught classes on campus. So there were many days when they showed up in class bleary eyed and exhausted after the long drive to Minot, then five hours of teaching, before their trek back to Grand Forks.

Soon international and political events forced space studies to take a different approach to fund its program when The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was signed, eliminating the Minuteman missile field operated out of the Grand Forks Air Force Base. The department was in the position of losing about half its missiliers and half its income.

Chuck Wood, chair of space studies at the time, decided that the department could be financially saved and even strengthened by offering the master's degree through distance education. It turned out to be one of the first college degrees in the nation to be offered via the Internet.

That transition, along with monetary support from the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, allowed the department to flourish. As enrollment grew, more instructors were hired. In 1998, space studies became the largest graduate program at UND.

About 700 students have received Master of Science degrees in space studies since the department was founded. The department also offers an undergraduate minor.

Suezette Rene Biere Space Studies education program coordinator


Juan Miguel Pedraza University and Public Affairs writer

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