Education

University of Iowa student headed to SpaceX launch

Private-public collaboration opens new doors for students across the field

Zachary Luppen, a senior at the University of Iowa, stands next to a 17-inch reflector telescope at the Van Allen Observatory on top of Van Allen Hall in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Zachary Luppen, a senior at the University of Iowa, stands next to a 17-inch reflector telescope at the Van Allen Observatory on top of Van Allen Hall in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Surfing the internet after 11:30 p.m. Nov. 7, University of Iowa senior Zachary Luppen stumbled upon the chance of a lifetime: “Experience the launch of the SpaceX CRS-16 mission.”

But to capitalize on the opportunity afforded by the NASA Social program — which occasionally provides opportunities for NASA’s social media followers to experience and share information about its missions via in-person events — Luppen, 22, had to apply by midnight.

“That was 10 minutes from when I saw it,” Luppen said. “I was like, ‘Oh snap. I better get on it.’”

It wasn’t the first time Luppen had applied for a NASA Social event, although he’d been briskly rejected every time before. Now, though, he had a better idea of what selectors were looking for. So he whipped together an application highlighting his summer internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and his potential social media reach to several hundreds of thousands, through the UI’s Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat accounts.

And Luppen hit submit at 11:57 p.m. — three minutes before the deadline.

“I gave them two paragraphs of information and they said, ‘A-OK, that sounds good,’” he said.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 20, NASA granted him one of 40 coveted spots to watch the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, scheduled for Tuesday.

The self-proclaimed “space geek” — who is majoring in astronomy and physics with a certificate in museum studies — said he was applicant No. 64,178. Per his calculation, that gave him a .0625 percent chance of selection.

“It’s hard to get into,” he said. “So I’m very excited.”

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But Luppen’s ultimate aspiration — after his trip to Florida, after graduating in December, and after pursuing an advanced degree in aerospace engineering and earth and planetary science — is to visit space himself.

“My ultimate goal is to be an astronaut,” he said. “It’s one of those childhood aspirations they say will die off when you get older. And it didn’t.”

Luppen said he’s specifically excited about witnessing this rocket launch because it exemplifies ways in which public-private collaboration is creating new opportunities for aspiring space explorers like himself.

SpaceX eight years ago became the first private company to launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft. In 2012, the company’s Dragon rocket became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX’s partnership with NASA has continued, flying more than a dozen resupply missions to the intergovernmental outer space enterprise.

And, looking forward, SpaceX has touted its Dragon rocket will eventually carry humans, reporting it will “soon fly astronauts under NASA’s commercial crew program, with the first demonstration flight targeted for January 2019.”

Casey DeRoo, UI associate professor of physics and astronomy, said the public-private interplay has expanded opportunities for astrophysics students wanting to keep their feet on the ground, too.

That’s because NASA’s federally allocated funds have remained mostly flat in recent years. Since a significant chunk of any instrument-focused mission is tied to procuring and managing a launch vehicle, commercialization and privatization can help a lot.

“The actual ride to space can be as much as 50 percent of the overall cost,” DeRoo said. “By making it competitive, we can actually afford to do more science and potentially more missions within the same overall NASA cost envelope.”

This has led to a shift toward more small missions.

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“This is something we do really, really well here at the University of Iowa,” DeRoo said. “This commercialization means that we can build more instruments, and instrument are something we have championed here at the University of Iowa for a long time.”

The shift could expand opportunities and interest across the UI campus, and Luppen’s role next week as a NASA social media ambassador aligns with that mission. Via the UI’s social media accounts, Luppen will send photos, videos and live feeds of the event as it happens. He’s also speaking on Iowa Public Radio and connecting with local television stations.

“It’s going to be a blast,” he said. “Literally.”

And yet, Luppen added, he hopes to take a different view of a rocket launch in the future.

“It sounds like SpaceX is going to start sending up astronauts soon,” Luppen said, lamenting no application window yet exists. “Now that I’ve been able to get involved in NASA at the social and intern level, that molds me into a good candidate in the future.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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