World's first astronautics department celebrates 50 years

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The world's oldest astronautics department celebrates its 50th anniversary on March 7.

The academic department is home to the nation's only undergraduate satellite program, and is also busy designing rapid, responsive sounding rockets, and controlling the Air Force Academy's growing space fleet.

"As our nation's first accredited undergraduate astronautical engineering degree program, you have launched the careers of countless space pioneers and helped establish America's asymmetric space dominance," said Michael Wynne, secretary of the Air Force, in a letter to the department. "Your expertise has put the 'global' in America's Global Vigilance, Reach and Power."

Since 1958, hundreds of cadets have earned degrees in astronautical engineering, space operations, engineering sciences and systems engineering, and every USAFA graduate has taken at least one course in introductory astronautics. Astro majors and faculty have gone on to become astronauts, general officers, corporate CEOs, senior government executives, and in one case, even Secretary of the Air Force. Secretary Wynne was an assistant professor of astronautics as a captain at the Academy in the early 1970s.

"For 50 years, space dominance has grown exponentially more vital to American security and prosperity. Today's joint and coalition warfighters depend upon space professionals and the capabilities you bring to the fight," said Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff, in a letter to the department. "America eagerly awaits your continued breakthroughs."

Some of those breakthroughs are coming from cadets in the Department of Astronautics designing and building the Academy's fleet of FalconSAT satellites.

FalconSAT-3 launched March 23, 2007, and carries five Department of Defense scientific experiments. Cadets and faculty now control those experiments and satellite operations from the Academy's ground control station, and are currently at work on FalconSAT-5.

The second sat cadets control came from NASA. When the Gravity Probe-B satellite finished its scientific experiment mission in 2005, NASA turned control of the satellite over to the Academy, so cadets can learn ground control operations.

The Department of Astronautics also continues its development of its FalconLaunch sounding rocket series, working to design a rapid responsive rocket capable of carrying a small military or scientific payload to an altitude of 100 kilometers. Last year's rocket made it to Mach 3.5 and 15,000 feet in a May 22, 2007 launch from a NASA facility in Virginia. This year's rocket, FalconLaunch VI, incorporates some design changes and is slated for launch later this semester. 

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