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Educating Future Leaders about Space at West Point: An update 10 Years Later

June 1, 2020 | By apellegrino

Educating Future Leaders about Space at West Point: An update 10 Years Later By: MAJ Nick Lewis, LTC Diana Loucks, LTC Will Wright

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense. This article is an update to an article of the same name published in The Army Space Journal, 2011 Spring/Summer edition. LTC Loucks and LTC Wright were co-authors of that article. (available here:

In August 2018, the new Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point addressed the Staff and Faculty for the first time during an installation “Town Hall” meeting. Rumors and sensational news stories about the future of military space and the “Space Force” were circulating throughout popular news media outlets. When the Superintendent asked for questions from the audience, it was not long before a civilian member of the faculty stood up to address Lieutenant General Darryl Williams. He asked, “Sir, is West Point ready to start commissioning officers into the Space Force?” Before handing the question to his very capable General Staff, he addressed the audience as the chuckles began to die down. LTG Williams reassured the staff and faculty that what we do at West Point, regardless of American politics or the geopolitics, is prepare young leaders to fight and win our Nation’s wars. He went on to state that this mandate is part of the mission of West Point which does not specify the domain of battle. (Space is a recognized domain as part of multi-domain operations.)

Cadets are actively preparing for the challenges that they will face as young officers in the United States Army. This training comes in the form of academic preparation, military and physical training, and character development. At West Point we are educating future leaders about space operations across all these pillars.

In the classroom Cadets learn about space and space operations through two separate academic majors spread between the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering (PaNE – pronounced “pain”) and the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering (GEnE – pronounced “genie”). The focus on space operations in these majors is recognized in the awarding of the 3Y: Space Activities skill identifier to those who complete the courses of study.

Space Science majors in PaNE focus on four central aspects of the space domain: how we move in space, how we get to space, what we put in space, and the environment we encounter when we arrive in space. Courses like Astronautics address the first three, while Space Physics, Astronomy and Astrophysics seek to address the complex environment of space and how we continue to expand our understanding and mitigation of its impacts. Cadets apply their classroom experiences to solving problems through space-based research groups. Cadets evaluate the impacts of space weather on Global Positioning System (GPS) signals at high latitudes, investigate the evolving field of rocket science through Space Engineering and Applied Research (SPEAR), and evaluate commercially available electronics for survivability in the space environment with cube satellite program named after West Point’s mascot – Black Knight Satellite. Cadets also attempt to solve evolving US Space Operations challenges during internships at organizations like National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), and the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI).

In the Geospatial Information Sciences Program (part of GEnE), cadets study many topics relevant to US Space Operations. Courses like Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing, Cartography, Physical Geography, and Military Geospatial Operations provide a robust and well-rounded space education. These courses focus on both the data capture through the exploitation of space-based and aerial assets as well as the development of products to support the warfighter and improve intelligence preparation of the operational environment. Cadets enrolled in the GIS major or program courses study GNSS, space-based imagery analysis and interpretation using visible, infrared, microwave and LiDAR data, spatial relationships, and geospatial visualization. Many cadets also conduct internships at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency or conduct independent research projects focused on emerging requirements across the DOD and Intelligence Communities.

Beyond the classroom, but still within the realm of academics, Cadets participate in clubs that focus on space. The Astronomy Club seeks to improve our ability to observe space through telescopes owned both by West Point and by others, and through interactions with the upper atmosphere via the annual balloon satellite launch. The Orienteering competitive club puts GIS skills to the test with the regular production of maps, courses, and pre- and post-race assessments/analysis. These skills and the incorporation of spatial analysis into the training has aided in several national championships for the team.

Many of the instructors who direct and teach these courses are current or former Army Space Professionals. PaNE has two prior FA40 Space Operations Officers serving as Academy Professors (FA-47) while GEnE boasts four FA47s that served within the FA40 community. Both departments also have current space officers (both Army and Air Force) serving on rotational tours as faculty.

In addition to their role as an instructor or professor, these officers assist in character development for Cadets through formal and informal mentoring. Inside the classroom they share their experiences in both the operational army and as functional area officers serving with Army Space. The breadth of Army Space experience represented in these officers spans the range of space mission areas. The officers have experience in missile warning, policy development on the Army Staff, space situational awareness, Army Space Support, and in supporting division level staff as Space Support Element and Special Technical Operations (STO) managers. These experiences provide cadets with exposure to the many mission areas and complex nature of Joint Space Operations.

The summers at West Point have Cadets scattering to the four corners of the Earth, engaging in Academic Internships and military training. The Army Space Cadre Basic Course sends a mobile training team to West Point in the summer to train approximately forty Cadets in the basics of Army and DOD Space Operations through the academy’s Military Individual Advanced Development (MIAD) program. Cadets who complete the Space MIAD and who either major in Space Science or who major in Geospatial Information Sciences having taken both Astronautics and Space Physics earn the Basic Army Space Badge upon graduation. Twelve of the badges will be awarded to graduates in the class of 2020 – 11 to graduates from PaNE and one to a graduate from GEnE.

At the beginning of each academic year, West Point hosts an event called “Branch Week”. This week is dedicated to exposing Cadets to the many opportunities available for service in the Army. Tanks, helicopters, Strykers, and other heavy equipment are manned in static displays while cadets spend their afternoons and free moments engaging junior officers and Soldiers about their opportunities and experiences in their chosen career fields. Functional Area 40 – Army Space Operations, manned a booth this year with three young Space Officers, the director of the Army Space Personnel Development Office and even at times the Command Team for the 1st Space Brigade. All of these officers and Army Civilians (to include the Director of the Space and Missile Defense Center of Excellence [SMDCOE]) came to West Point with the hope of educating Cadets and inspiring them toward a career of service in the Army - in the career field that best matches to their interests and talents.

SMDCOE is seeking to identify talented officers early and provide exciting opportunities for service in the future. In 2020, the first class of Assured Functional Area Transfer – FA40 officers were identified upon their graduation from West Point and ROTC. These hand-selected officers with STEM degrees and an aptitude for the talent priorities most essential to FA40 are guaranteed a transfer to FA40 between their third and fifth year of service, should they choose to do so. By getting these young officers excited and engaged in Army Space Operations early in their careers they will be more mindful of DOD space priorities as they fulfill their obligations in Operations, Operations Support, and Operations Service Support branches. As they seek to enter this program, they often engage the current Space Operations Officers within the USMA faculty that have most recently come from Army Space Support Teams, Electronic Detachments, and Division Space Support Element staffs. In the class of 2020, seven of the twenty Cadets selected for this program are from West Point. Of those seven, two each came from the Space Science Major and the Geospatial Information Science Major. (The other three are from Mechanical Engineering, Operations Research, and Political Science.)

While Army Space Officers assigned as Faculty at USMA may not be directly developing the physical readiness of the future force, they do support Cadets through service as Varsity and intercollegiate club athletic team officer representatives, Army Collegiate sports fan, and by facilitating the Army Combat Fitness Test for Cadets.

Whether in the classroom, in their offices, during military training or athletics practice, Functional Area 40 officers are working to ensure that West Point Graduates and future leaders of the force (whether that be the US Space Force or the United States Army) are prepared for the challenges that they will face in any domain of battle. Through a curriculum that supports space education, improved and increasing opportunities for Cadets to engage with US Army Space and Missile Defense Command, and the ability to conduct an early VTIP through the AFAT-FA40 program, the graduating classes of West Point officers will be ready to write Annex S and think critically about the Space domain.

MAJ Lewis reviews the different types of resolution during the first block of his Advanced Remote Sensing course. The primary audience for this course are Juniors (Cows) and Seniors (Firsties) who major in either GIS or Space Science. (Photo Credit: COL Christopher Oxendine)

The FA-40 set up for Branch Week 2019 at West Point (September 2019) just in front of Washington Hall on diagonal walk. The Army Space tent was a very popular stop for Cadets and interested staff/faculty. (Photo Credit: Mr. Jerry Pepin, ASPDO)

MAJ Hutton serves as an Officer representative for the Men’s Volleyball intercollegiate club team. In this role he often travels with the teams and oversee academic operations on the trip. He also mentors the team during time at practice and competitions. (Photo Credit: Ms. Ashley Hoogeveen)

Cadet John Erskine (2020) briefs LTG Dickinson and Mr. DeFatta during the Academy’s Projects Day in 2019. Cadet Erskine researched exploiting commercial imagery to detect camouflage for an NGA sponsored project. (Photo Credit: MAJ Erick Martinez)

Cadet Arelena Shala (2020) briefs LTG Dickinson and Mr. DeFatta during the Academy’s Projects Day in 2019. Cadet Shala researched using camera phone images and embedded GPS data to build 3D models of building interiors for virtual training environments. (Photo Credit: MAJ Nick Lewis)