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Idaho Space Grant Has Sights Set High


Susie Johnson ’98 wants to make Idaho a leader in space — an industry frontrunner alongside agriculture, forestry and recreation.

Now the program manager for the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium (ISGC), she’s doing everything she can to make that happen by linking students and faculty throughout the state to the aerospace industry and increasing public interest.

Johnson began working in the aerospace industry in 2000. For three years, she worked for a consulting firm contracted by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration to analyze the demand for space-based tourism and markets. In 2003, she joined NASA as an on-site contractor, writing strategic plans, annual reports and budget reports. In 2011, she began studying the economic impact of NASA. In 2013, Johnson jumped at the opportunity to bring the excitement of space to Idaho and join the nationwide network of NASA’s Space Grant consortiums.

At ISGC, Johnson works to connect students and faculty doing NASA research to each other and to NASA, whether they are at UI or affiliates throughout the state. That effort is building on the legacy of David Atkinson, a former electrical engineering professor who brought the Space Grant consortium program to Idaho and made UI the lead institution for ISGC. Atkinson now works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) as a senior research engineer.

UI places multiple interns at NASA Ames Research Center, JPL and other NASA centers every summer, and many go on to careers in the aerospace industry. Interns often come from UI’s branch of Idaho RISE (Research Involving Student Engineers and Educators), a program for undergraduates who design, build, test, fly and recover high-altitude balloons for science and engineering experiments. The experiments interest NASA because the balloons often carry hardware — known as payloads — such as cameras or air pressure sensors. The data collected allows NASA to test the equipment's functionality during flight and landing as well as in extreme temperatures.

UI students and alumni from the College of Engineering who were former NASA Ames interns include senior Jonathan Hanson, senior David Handy, Jon Wheless ’15 and Austin Tanner ’15, all of whom worked on a project to design a braking mechanism for payloads that helps experiments and samples return in one piece from the International Space Station. Tanner now works for NASA Ames as a mechanical engineer.

ISGC’s commitment extends beyond UI — the consortium funds space-related research opportunities for students and faculty at all of Idaho’s public universities, bolsters STEM programs at community colleges, exposes K-12 students to space-related activities, and funds informal education programs, such as the Palouse Discovery Science Center.

“With some concentrated effort, we can make a really robust space industry in Idaho,” Johnson said.

Article by Kate Keenan, College of Engineering

Susie Johnson Story Image
Susie Johnson, project manager, Idaho Space Grant Consortium

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