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NASA funds Suborbital Center of Excellence at New Mexico State

New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory has been awarded nearly $700,000 by NASA to establish and operate the nation's only Suborbital Center of Excellence.

ter will provide science and engineering education and outreach programs to students at all levels, from kindergarten through post-graduate, with the objective of increasing the number of college graduates interested in careers in suborbital aerospace programs.

Suborbital programs include high-altitude scientific balloons, sounding rockets that are launched into the upper atmosphere for scientific research, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other aircraft, said PSL's Stephen Hottman, who will serve as director of the center.

The three-year grant was awarded by NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, part of the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center. The technical emphasis will range from aeronautics to the characteristics of the human operators who control the systems.

"This is an important program for us," said Steve Smith, chief of NASA's Balloon Program Office at Wallops. "It's geared toward stimulating interest in the work being done for suborbital missions, to have students realize this is a fun and challenging endeavor, so that in the future we will have good scientists and engineers to hire."

The Suborbital Center of Excellence will sponsor student research projects at New Mexico State, support student co-op positions at Wallops Flight Facility, provide grants to faculty members who involve students in relevant research, and promote projects in secondary and elementary schools. It also will host national workshops and conferences.

New Mexico State's expertise in suborbital science makes it a logical location for the center, Hottman said.

"PSL has worked with a variety of aerospace programs for more than five decades," he noted. "It is natural for NASA to have established a center of excellence at NMSU because of our long tradition of working with aerospace systems, our current involvement with federal agencies and our strong engineering and science programs."

PSL operates NASA's National Scientific Balloon Facility, headquartered in Palestine, Texas, which launches high-altitude helium balloons from sites all over the world. The lab also is involved in NASA's sounding rocket program.

"To us, it was a good match," NASA's Smith said. "We have been a very close partner with New Mexico State and PSL for a long time, and we were looking for a university environment because that's where the scientists and engineers will come from."

Two industry leaders in the suborbital field, Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio and Raven Industries of Sulphur Springs, Texas, will help the center develop its programs, Hottman said. "We are seeking other strategic partnerships with other aerospace companies and government agencies," he said.

The center will team with the Science Education Alliance, a nonprofit organization, to develop projects for public school students.

The official opening of the Suborbital Center of Excellence will be scheduled in the coming weeks, Hottman said.

NASA's technical officer for the grant is Bernice Merritt.

Karl Hill
Feb. 18, 2002