Interview with Dr. Patrick Ford, U.S. Navy Aerospace Science Advisor
Dr. Patrick Ford was the founding Program Director for the APUS Space Studies program and led that program for 10 years from 2000-2010. In addition to developing the original curriculum, Dr. Ford hired our original faculty members, some of whom were retired U.S. astronauts. I reached out to Pat and asked him if he would answer a few questions about the program and his thoughts about space studies going forward.
Pat holds a Ph.D. in Applied Management and Decision Sciences from Walden University, where his efforts focused on unmanned aircraft system (UAS) payloads. His M.S. is in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and his undergraduate degree is from Excelsior College. From 2015-2018, Pat directed the development of the first “from the ground up” UAS undergraduate degree program on the West Coast (Big Bend Community College). He is a retired Navy cryptologic officer, private pilot, commercial UAS remote pilot, and advanced ground instructor.
Pat currently lives on his old family farm in Eastern Washington state with his wife, Dolores, and continues to work as an aerospace science advisor with the U.S. Navy. He also does ongoing research related to long-duration human spaceflight (with a focus on missions to Mars).
Dr. Boston: Our Space Studies program is one of our earlier programs that was designed to be fully online. When you were approached by Prof. Terry Douglas to be the first program director, what did you think about the idea of developing and implementing an online degree program in space studies?
Dr. Ford: I was extremely excited to help set up the new program, having just finished my own degree in space studies a few years before. I began as an adjunct at AMU in 1999, teaching space- and intelligence-related courses, as well as helping Terry and his staff coordinate the space-related courses available at that time.
Back then, space-related courses were primarily an area of focus under Strategic Intelligence. We began reworking the goals and objectives for a new program in 2000 and drafted the initial degree paths, which led to the formal start of the new Space Studies program in 2001.
Dr. Boston: Were you aware at that time that there was a gap in the accessibility of space studies programs for adult learners? How did our early students find us and were they working in the space industry, government, or somewhere else? Who were our competitor universities?
Dr. Ford: Looking back, I think the only initial competitors in the online (or mostly online) realm were the University of North Dakota (where I completed my M.S. in Space Studies via distance learning in 1998) and the International Space University (ISU). The difficulty for many prospective students for both of those programs was that on-campus time was required to complete their degrees (for UND – Grand Forks; for ISU – France).
I had spoken for several years with many potential students who could not afford the time and/or the expense of the on-campus requirement, but were still actively looking for a space studies degree without such constraints. Because AMU had no such requirement, once we were up and running online, the word traveled across industry and government quite quickly.
One of my first students early on in the program, who had gotten such word through the grapevine, was Dr. J.D. Polk (AMU class of 2005), then a NASA flight surgeon for the Space Shuttle Program and now the Chief Health and Medical Officer at NASA. It was a pleasure working with J.D., but grading his paper on Long Duration Spaceflight Human Factors was a bit intimidating!
Dr. Boston: I remember that some of our early instructors in the program were former American astronauts. How did you find our first instructors and convince them to teach in our program?
Dr. Ford: We had a great crew! Professor (now Dr.) Katie Berryhill and I were in the same degree program at UND, and she was one of the first instructors that I hired. She did an incredible job helping to formalize the undergraduate program.
Professor Shaine Thrower was a former student and an Air Force Nuclear and Missile Operations Officer, hired after graduation from AMU (Space Studies – 2004). Between 2001 and initial regional accreditation of AMU in 2006, all of the undergraduate and graduate courses were developed by a small staff of space studies experts in our off hours, getting things up and running and ready for a quality learning (and teaching) experience.
The effort included not only picking new textbooks/materials and writing new syllabi and course outlines, but also working with new learning management systems (LMS) – two in that timeframe – and building associated course shells. It was both stressful and rewarding – it is amazing how much you do indeed learn by having to teach.
Over several years, we built a well-rounded team of both full-time and adjunct instructors, including astronaut Wendy Lawrence teaching human factors (introduced to me through a family friend), Professor John Graham for orbital mechanics (Katie’s and my former instructor at UND), and many other adjuncts. In 2009, a friend introduced me to former astronaut Dr. James “JR” Reilly (now Director of the U.S. Geological Survey).
In 2010, JR came onboard to take my place as both Dean of the School of Science & Technology, as well as Space Studies Program Director, adding yet more perspectives and insights for the program and our students. I stayed onboard for another year, working as the APUS Space Studies Outreach Coordinator, as well as teaching several graduate classes.
Dr. Boston: Another great memory of mine is the night that we had dinner with former American astronaut Buzz Aldrin. I learned at dinner that he had earned a Sc.D. in Astronautics from M.I.T. and was the first, but not last, astronaut with a doctorate. His description of the Aldrin cycler, a technique to send a spacecraft to Mars using less fuel and getting there more quickly, may have been an inspiration for the technique used to rescue the stranded astronaut in the book, Martian.
My understanding is that Buzz provided some advice to you during the development of our program. Can you provide us with more background on his role?
Dr. Ford: Buzz has been a friend and space exploration research colleague for 20 years. At one time, he even consulted for the Space Studies program, helping to line up AMU visits with Kennedy Space Center to discuss mutual training opportunities. What I gleaned from Buzz is the importance of seeing the big picture in space exploration, while at the same time being able to deep dive when necessary in order to support that big picture and the lofty goals that must be pursued.
You can’t just look at the tech side at the broad project level – you have to understand economic impacts, politics, the interweaving of government and industry, etc., and the minefields associated with all of it. Not pursuing lofty goals dooms a program to be less than it can be. Buzz has dedicated most of his life to pursuing such goals for space exploration, and because of it, has helped human space flight remain in the public eye.
Dr. Boston: I can’t thank you enough for your early work to develop our program. The first 10 years enabled us to build a solid foundation for the last 10 years. I asked our VP of Institutional Research to provide me with enrollment data from the program’s inception through 2019.
In 2015, we installed an observatory with a Planewave CDK24 telescope that is remotely controlled by our faculty and grad students under faculty supervision. One of their current projects is identifying exoplanets and sending that information to NASA.
You and I discussed the benefits of adding a telescope to the program; it just took a few years longer than expected to do so. This year’s Space Studies faculty project is to install a radio telescope array for use by faculty and students in the program. Based on your experience, what other areas would you consider to be vital for future students to study?
Dr. Ford: Sincerest thanks; it’s a pleasure being a ‘plank owner’ of the program! It was great to read about the observatory and related projects, and fantastic to hear that a radio telescope is next!
Logging into a computer 10 feet from an astronomical sensor or 10,000 miles from that sensor is still logging into that sensor, controlling the instrument, collecting the data, and downloading it for analysis. And for those that have dodged rattlesnakes at 2:00 a.m. on the dark trails between the 100-inch telescope dome and the Monastery (dormitory) on Mount Wilson, several thousand miles from the sensor might even be a bit less stressful!
Human factors is a key area and it changes as lessons are learned in development, test and flight, so one is always learning throughout their career and in demand within the workforce. Another area is that of remote sensing technology and software applications, also in demand as we look not only outward into space, but even deeper into understanding our own planet from the vantage of space.
Dr. Boston: We are hosting a Space Studies Symposium this fall in conjunction with the Policy Studies Organization. We are hoping to provide a dialogue about the role of the U.S. Space Force.
What are your thoughts about the Space Force? Will we need to consider a dual degree in Space Studies and Homeland Security or Strategic Intelligence?
Dr. Ford: Growing pains and political food fights aside, having an integrated U.S. Space Force under the Secretary of the Air Force will hopefully mean improved coordination amongst all services for enhanced joint service training and space operations. Simply looking at how many satellites were launched in the past two calendar years (209 according to statista.com) and you quickly get a feel for just how much is at stake in a world depending on a growing need for space-based telecommunications, remote sensing, etc.
Just as the U.S. Navy helps maintain sea lines of communication here on the surface of the Earth, the U.S. Space Force is needed to maintain key space lines of communications. Our day-to-day lives are tied to space in ways we may not even perceive here on our information-driven world.
As far as degree paths, I think adding one or two elective classes in strategic studies to the current undergraduate and graduate space studies degrees would add the extra background for students working (or wanting to work) in support of the U.S. Space Force. It would be yet another element in seeing the big picture.
Dr. Boston: The commercial sector’s involvement in space has never been more prominent with companies funded by Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson, among others, taking a prominent role in commercial and defense projects. In fact, military officials agree that commercial space is driving military space.
Do you think there may be a need for our space studies program to add a concentration or two that could prepare our students for roles in this rapidly changing environment that is still a frontier in many ways?
Dr. Ford: The commercial side is definitely pushing the limits on technology and has injected new life and excitement into the space program. Much of their success comes from being able to be flexible – to decide the fiscal risks they and their stockholders are willing to take and move forward accordingly.
Some will complain that NASA is slow and out of date, but I think that unfairly paints with a broad brush. NASA, like other government agencies, is in a proverbial funding food fight every fiscal year to get their share of discretionary funding. Each and every year…a shifting and uncertain budget driven by politics and lobbying of the day. This in turn interrupts planned timelines and drives up the costs for NASA, as it increases risks (and costs) for contractors trying to respond to contract requests.
The pattern of “buildup, hire, downsize, layoff, repeat” is inherent to short-term budgets. Fortunately, the professionals at NASA and those in the commercial sector seem to have a good relationship across the entire commercial space/crew effort and, if all goes well, that will mean continued success for space exploration, as well as increased opportunities for APUS Space Studies graduates. With the latter in mind, a concentration including focused classes on commercial launch vehicles, payload systems, and the economics of commercial space as a whole, could be an added benefit to the resume of a future APUS graduate pursuing work in the commercial sector.
Dr. Boston: A strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and math are starting points for the space workforce—either commercial or military. Are there other skills and experience that will prepare graduates for success in the space workforce?
Dr. Ford: That number one thing I tried to push setting up the APUS Space Studies Program was ensuring that our students’ certs and degrees reflected graduates that could grasp the big STEM picture of space exploration and operations. In doing so, we provide them better opportunities to be assets to employers, by helping them see things from the eye in the sky view – the big picture.
If you can conceptualize the problem to be solved, you can always turn to experts in specific STEM fields to solve in-depth subsets of that problem. If you can’t define the problem, knowing every equation in the book will not help you.
“Art” (the “A” in the acronym in STEAM) is right in there, as well. My late friends Al Bean (Apollo 12 moonwalker and Skylab commander) and Kim Poor (of Novaspace and Spacefest fame) were artists, able to bring space to life and continue to serve as catalysts for many pursuing careers in aerospace. For Al, it was the ability to communicate in art something that only 12 people have ever experienced – walking on the surface of the Moon.
Sometimes it’s actually the intangibles that drive the pursuit of the tangibles, and, as many astronauts found, result in newly found intangibles. I guess the point here is that there is always a human element involved… even right in the middle of STEM. So any opportunity to work team projects during the degree process will help students to improve their interpersonal skills, and in the process maybe even learn something intangible about why they and their fellow classmates are pursuing a degree in space studies.
Dr. Boston: Do you think the U.S. will go back to the moon for commercial reasons or continue our focus on sending a manned vehicle to Mars?
Dr. Ford: From a human space exploration perspective, there are several arguments on this issue. I actually think we have to aim for Mars but test and test again (first) on the Moon.
If we work out the kinks with equipment, human factors, etc., on a celestial body only three days away, we can greatly reduce the risks of a trip to Mars (which has a lot more challenges to overcome than going to the Moon). It also provides a way of staying on the Moon for the long haul. If we bypass the Moon and go to Mars, and the normal budget battles occur after the mission has been completed, we could end up with no permanent presence on either celestial body.
From the commercial space perspective, to paraphrase Yosemite Sam of Looney Tunes, if “there’s gold in them thar’ craters,” the commercial sector will find a way to mine it and get it home. What that ‘gold’ will ultimately be and when the commercial benefits will outweigh the risks is the question yet to be answered.
Dr. Boston: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I will be interested to see some of the future development that you discussed taking place over the next couple of years.