ASU Undergraduates Conduct Space Industry Research with the Interplanetary Initiative

by Adrianna Nine

Within Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative lies a unique opportunity. While undergraduate and online students have historically lacked abundant chances to contribute to research initiatives, the Interplanetary Initiative’s Undergraduate Research Scholars Program enables students from a wide range of disciplines to engage with impactful research during their undergraduate educational journey. This program sprouted from the Online Undergraduate Research Scholars (OURS) program at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which won the 2023 ASU President’s Award for Innovation

During the fall 2023 semester, students learning on-campus and online participated in nine Interplanetary Initiative research projects focused on the space economy, research ethics, the intersection of religion and space exploration, and more. Kennedy Gourdine, a sophomore studying sustainability with a focus on international development, is one such student. Gourdine contributed to the DEIA Service Model Offering project, which asks how the space sector can establish a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible environment through non-performative mechanisms. By investigating DEIA initiatives at NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Australian Space Agency, Gourdine developed an understanding of how present-day initiatives tend to fall short of genuine inclusion. She’ll be returning to the project for the spring 2024 semester.

“Many companies are adopting DEIA values for their workers,” Gourdine said, “although the accessibility and effectiveness of [public-facing DEIA] programs are up for debate. Initiatives are great, but if there is no action to create a more equitable environment, then the programs will have no real impact. With this project, we aim to create a service model to help companies in the space industry improve their DEIA initiatives.”

Kennedy Gourdine

Gourdine isn’t the only student of sustainability who took advantage of the Interplanetary Initiative’s galvanizing research opportunities. Amy Manzanero, a sophomore whose studies are focused on sustainable energy, materials, and technology, spent this fall working with the Space Exploration and Sustainable Development research team. This project probed the impact of the space sector on achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. These goals serve as a framework upon which the Interplanetary Initiative has worked to form Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) that guide the ever-growing space industry toward more responsible practices.

Amy Manzanero

“One of the most significant successes of our research lies in the newfound knowledge about how space technology can address pressing issues on Earth, particularly in the context of climate change,” Manzanero said. “The intersection of space exploration and sustainability has brought about innovative solutions and applications that can contribute to mitigating environmental challenges. This realization has not only broadened my perspective on the potential positive impacts of space technology, but has also inspired a deeper commitment to the pursuit of sustainability through advancements in the space industry.”

Jacob Colborn, a senior double majoring in physics and astronomical and planetary sciences, contributed to the Exploring Century-Scale Space Engagement project. This team investigated the unique characteristics of century-scale space programs like Breakthrough Starshot, placing special emphasis on the programs’ financial demands, human capital requirements, and longevity. Because Colborn is an ASU Online student based in North Carolina, the Interplanetary Initiative’s program allowed him to make meaningful research connections and enhance his resume while leveraging his preferred learning format.

Jacob Colborn

“[The Exploring Century-Scale Space Engagement project] offered a major divergence from research that I was familiar with,” Colborn said. “Outside of the normal challenges of scheduling and balancing work, the key challenge undertaken was doing creative work like creating marketing materials and analyzing advertising campaigns.” Colborn added that the research he conducted with the Interplanetary Initiative was “eye-opening work.”

Gourdine, Manazero, and Colborn are just three of thirteen undergraduate students who engaged with the Interplanetary Initiative’s colorful range of research projects this fall. Because the program envisions a future in space built from diverse systems and perspectives, students from a vast range of backgrounds and academic paths are encouraged to participate. Later this year, the Interplanetary Initiative will begin seeking undergraduate students keen on conducting space industry research during the fall 2024 semester. Interested students are encouraged to sign up to be notified when the next round of applications opens in July. 

“Effective solutions require a holistic approach that integrates insights from various disciplines, a lesson that has been a cornerstone of my learning journey,” Manzanero said. She added that her experience “has been both enlightening and transformative.”

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