Failing Forward

Portland State Aerospace Society badges

For students in the (PSAS), failure means success.

In fact, the faster projects fail the better. Andrew Greenberg, PSAS faculty advisor and senior instructor of electrical and computer engineering, says failing in aerospace gives students immediate feedback to learn and find solutions to the complicated problems they’re exploring.

It’s much like the real world, but with the opportunity to experiment in a low-risk environment.

“Part of the real fun about this is that this is not a class. This is not something that the students do for a grade,” Greenberg says. “What they do is learn how to build systems that are deeply interdisciplinary.”

PSAS was first formed in 1998 by electrical engineering students who built rockets — more along the lines of a 20-foot space rocket than bottle rockets. Today, the group works on rockets, satellites and all the technology in-between. Think liquid fuel engines, open-source designs and antennas made out of tape measures.

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Engineering Opportunity

PSAS is interdisciplinary at its core, hosting students from physics, math, electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering and business — to name a few.

“We put them all together in one group. We like to say we lock them into a room and when everyone is crying, then we've got a really good systems engineering project,” Greenberg jests. “This is a really good place for students to grab interdisciplinary experience, which is how it is in the real world.”

Catie Spivey M.S. ‘22 and David Lay ’22 credit their aerospace careers to the real-world experience they acquired as students in PSAS. Spivey works at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and Lay at Lynk Global, a startup developing spacecraft electronics.

This is a really good place for students to grab interdisciplinary experience, which is how it is in the real world.

Spivey and Lay both worked on OreSat0, Oregon’s first satellite launched by PSAS in 2021. OreSat0 was the first test leading up to OreSat1, the satellite PSAS will launch as part of the .

“Being able to get that amount of responsibility fairly quickly, really helped me to be like, ‘OK, this is definitely what I want to go into,’” Spivey says. “Also having that opportunity to cater my educational needs outside of class into what I needed to do. That was really valuable and definitely helped me get internships and jobs.”

Lay believes working on projects with PSAS is a good format to teach engineering as a whole.

“The interdisciplinary approach makes you a better engineer,” he says.

There’s the aerospace accessibility factor as well. As a Florida native, Spivey says she grew up watching space shuttles launch and knew aerospace was her future. The West Coast doesn’t have space exploration as part of their day-to-day narrative in quite the same way, which often makes the space industry less obtainable. Spivey says PSAS fills that gap by fostering aerospace dialogue, and creating an “in” to the aerospace industry.

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Sky’s the Limit

Current members of PSAS are working on two major launches this year. The first, OreSat0.5, is a satellite heading to SpaceX this spring before its July launch from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The second, LV3.1, is a rocket that should head for the stars in May.

OreSat0.5 is twice as big as OreSat0, meaning it’s the size of approximately two tissue boxes. The new satellite serves as a “technology demonstrator” allowing students to test design elements leading up to OreSat1 (due to NASA in 2025).

“Now we're not just going to have a CubeSat tumbling in space, it can point itself thanks to something called reaction wheels and magnetorquers,” Greenberg says. “We also have a shortwave infrared camera that's used for looking at cirrus clouds. So it's pioneering some climate science technology that we're going to be flying on OreSat1.”

Rocket lab
PSAS students examining a component of LV3.0, which launched in 2018.

While the satellites are the future of PSAS, LV3.1 represents a return to the groups’ roots. PSAS last launched a rocket in 2018 before shifting their focus to building CubeSats. But LV3.1 is also benefiting from an overhaul and will test new student-designed technologies.

“We've got a system that releases the parachute when it gets up to the top of its flight that most other people don't have,” Greenberg says. “Most amateur and professional, actually rocketry people use pyrotechnics — gunpowder charges — to fire off the parachutes. This is fine, but you can't test it — once you test the system, you've used the gunpowder and you have to rebuild the system.”

PSAS students developed a system that uses a motor and electronics in lieu of gunpowder, meaning the system can be set, reset, tested and flown to gather more data and gain a better understanding of what’s being tested.

“It's just a neat small piece of technology that most other university groups don't bother with,” Greenberg adds.

LV3.1 won’t head all the way to California to launch, but will instead test its mettle about 40 miles east of Bend in Brothers, an unincorporated community that Greenberg describes as “essentially a gas station” and perfect for launching spacecraft.

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At the Forefront of Technology

When PSAS started building OreSat0, they made the designs open source — meaning anyone could use the designs for their own projects. Greenberg expected those who used the designs to improve them or offer suggestions.

Instead, aerospace groups have used many of PSAS’s designs as-is. At last count, five other universities were utilizing some part of OreSat0 to build their own CubeSats. Elements in play include a star tracker, solar panels and an antenna system that deploys using tape measures.

“Many of the designs that we've open sourced might actually be in commercial designs, which is really exciting,” Greenberg says.

The recognition goes beyond design credit, and has helped PSAS students get jobs in aerospace.

“Every time one of our students who's worked on OreSat0 graduates, they're quickly picked off by industry because they’ve proven that they have space-rated designs, and they've got the experience of working in these interdisciplinary teams,” Greenberg adds.

OreSat0 component
A PSAS student examining a component of OreSat0.

Even on the East Coast, Lay says their designs are recognized in ways big, and small. For example, a peer had an OreSat0 sticker on their laptop without knowing Lay was one of the students behind the design.

That interdisciplinary approach and opportunity to contribute to the development of new space technology is what inspired Aiden Tuan, who’s studying business management and leadership, to join PSAS.

Many of the designs that we've open sourced might actually be in commercial designs, which is really exciting.

“I've always been a sciency-person at heart,” Tuan says. “So it was very apparent to me that this was the place to join.”

For Savannah Krupa, a mechanical engineering student, PSAS offered hands-on opportunities she couldn’t find in her coursework.

“I really wanted that real hands-on work environment and being around other majors and working together on really, really cool projects — like in aerospace,” Krupa says. “I was really excited to work on actual satellites and rockets that would get launched.”

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Creating (Space) Community

Rocket launch
PSU students launch a rocket in 2012 with the goal of breaking out of Earth's atmosphere.

Other than the shared excitement launching something into space creates, those involved in PSAS unilaterally point to one key to the group’s success: the connections they make working with students outside their majors.

“The connections you make with people as you work is more meaningful than a quick task or two,” Krupa says. “There's a lot of different aspects to what PSAS creates. It’s kind of like a small company here. And so as you build your own experiences, it's directly applicable after college to another career.”

There’s always room for more students and individuals with different backgrounds to join PSAS. As Greenberg puts it, they’re desperate for students from new and different disciplines to help the group continue its trajectory of growth.

They need business students to manage projects, graphic design students to help with logos and poster design, communication students for grant proposals and physics students to help with orbital and thermal dynamics of satellites. Really it’s a come one, come all approach.

Every time one of our students who's worked on OreSat0 graduates, they're quickly picked off by local industry because they’ve proven that they have space-rated designs, and they've got the experience of working in these interdisciplinary teams.

“We also need what we call industry advisors — people in local industry who are really excited about space and working with students,” Greenberg adds. “They'll come in and actually mentor the students while working alongside them because they don't build satellites either. So this is a fun opportunity to work with teams of students and say, ‘OK, this is how we would do it in industry,’ while working on a project for PSAS.”

All said and done, while PSAS is exploring space and heading to new horizons, it’s also a student club dedicated to providing opportunity, community and professional skills for students with a passion for space.

“You're gonna get this experience when you go out to the real world,” Greenberg says. “But here at Portland State, it’s a safer space, and an OK place to fail and get this experience and explore.”