DAYTONA BEACH — Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is going where no school has gone before, focusing a new bachelor's program on producing a skilled workforce for the final frontier: space.
School officials announced the first-of-its kind program for a Commercial Space Operations bachelor degree recently in Washington, D.C., at the Federal Aviation Administration's 16th annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference.
While companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Boeing Co. scramble to supplement NASA's role in space, they will need professionals educated in regulations and certifications required from the FAA and NASA.
Embry-Riddle is stepping up to fill that need with the new undergraduate degree, the first in the world, university officials said. The program would start in the fall pending approval by the university's board in March.
The companies "are going to be hungry," said Richard Heist, chancellor for the Embry-Riddle Daytona Beach campus. "They are going to want to hire young, innovative, free-thinking people that graduate from programs such as this who are not afraid to ask the 'why not' question and do what they need to do to take people into space and sub-orbital travel."
While a couple of other schools have master's degrees pertaining to space studies, Embry-Riddle leaders say the degrees don't cater to the emerging commercial space industry.
The new Commercial Space Operations degree will help fill management jobs needed in training personnel and participants who want to fly; flight planning; space policy and laws; and overall operations and safety, including contingency planning if something goes wrong.
Heist said the university was the first with a doctorate in aviation so "it's not at all surprising we will be the first offering this kind of program."
Embry-Riddle is already more than an aviation school, he noted, with its work in engineering, business and human factors, which studies everything from psychology to the effects being in space has on the body. Research is already being conducted pertaining to space and satellite designs and propulsion systems, Heist said.
The new commercial space degree is expected to have 15 students the first year, according to Lance Erickson, the Embry-Riddle professor of applied aviation sciences who created the degree with two students after receiving a grant from NASA.
When the students graduate, many of the companies building space vehicles will be looking to hire them to start their programs and train passengers who plan to go into space.
Virgin Galactic, for example, is already booking tickets for space travel starting at $200,000. Television star Ashton Kutcher was the company's 500th "future astronaut customer," according to the company's website. While details on when flights might occur are more sketchy, the company has said it hopes to carry tourists next year after a test flight later this year.
Embry-Riddle expects to be ready to do its part.
"It's going to start slow," Erickson, who will be the first professor to teach the program, said of the private space venture. "It's not going to be like commercial airliners today where you have hundreds of thousands of passengers flying every day."
One of the students who worked on developing the degree, Rebecca Zgorski, 22, a senior from Baltimore, said the companies were providing feedback on the development of the program because they knew it would benefit them in the future.