UND Space Studies Distance Learning Part – I

The University of North Dakota has an excellent masters degree program in space called Space Studies, which was started in 1987. What makes the program so special is its interdisciplinary nature and the willingness to admit students from practically any undergraduate background. The program encompasses engineering, physical sciences, biological sciences, policy and business related aspects of space. As a student of the Department of Space Studies at UND, I feel that this fantastic program must get people’s attention.

To quote my professor, for most people, space means just rockets, astronauts, and pretty Hubble pictures. No one sees the broad view where there are multiple subjects involved making the field very intricate and fascinating. Right from equipment manufacture to complicated life support systems to space policy making, space is a field where all the cutting edge technology, science and politics comes into picture.

UND graduate, Brian White has written an excellent blog regarding the Space Studies masters at UND as well as ISU. Hence, I am not going to cover that part. You can also get more information about the program from the official department website. What I plan to do in Part – I of this series is to discuss one of the three required courses in Space Studies masters called SpSt 501 – Survey of Space Studies – 1 and my experience so far as a distance student studying it. This is an introductory course that lets students know what space studies is all about and what they can expect from the remaining semesters. It is co-taught by all the faculty members of the program and hence gives the students an introduction to the subjects taught by each faculty and their individual research areas.

As any person fascinated by space like me, there will be lot of questions in mind such as to which branch of space studies one needs to specialize and so on. For instance, some students like astrophysics while some others like commercial space and yet there are some who like spacecraft design and space biology. After 501, students start to rethink their interesting areas. I have heard students talk about specializing in fields that they never thought they would specialize when they started the program.

What appears to be very fascinating might not be the field where our original talent lies. SpSt 501 gives us the opportunity and wide perspective to think and choose our area of specialization as we advance in the program. I am a distance student of this program living in India and it has given me an amazing experience studying online. UND Team has invested sufficient amount of time and money in order to give the distance students as close to a campus experience as possible with high quality videos and power point presentations.

Prerequisites

There are no specific prerequisites for this course since students from practically any background with descent GRE and TOEFL scores can join the program. I think this is the most exciting aspect of this program. It doesn’t matter whether we have a physics degree or aerospace engineering degree in our undergraduate study. What matters is having an intense desire to make contributions to the field of space. And that I think is the prerequisite for this course. But from experience of this course, I have a few suggestions. It is good to revise your basic economics, biology and mathematics that you learned in school and college. Keep an overall outlook about the various aspects of space in the current space age and past. You should know the basics like what a light year or an astronomical unit means among other things. You should be familiar with the concepts of biological, geological and cosmological evolution. As far as mathematics is concerned, if you are familiar with trigonometry, logarithms and exponential series, you should do just fine. Knowledge of calculus is appreciated but not applied too much in this particular course.

Enrollment

Every student will be given access to the Campus Connection portal. This is where he/she can register for the course. Once registered, the student can request permission to access the course in the Learning Management System of the department. This is the one stop location where most of the activities take place. The lectures, power points, course syllabus, grade book and assignments are managed here. You can either download the lecture or the presentation or watch it online. Interested people can also buy some of the lectures from Amazon before enrolling to get a better understanding of the course.

Progress

Lectures are uploaded every week within two days after the class takes place. Since distance students cannot attend the classes, their attendance is counted by the chat sessions they attend with the concerned faculty and other distance students. The chat session for the distance students happen a week after the original classes were conducted. So, technically, distance students finish the course a week after the campus students do it. For 501, there are 3 chat sessions per week and we can choose any one of them depending on our convenience. The exams are also called assignments. So do not confuse. They are conducted online and you can see your grades almost immediately unless there are subjective questions.

Description

As mentioned, 501 is a broad based introductory course. It is not an elective but a required course and carries 3 graduate credits. It is advised that you take this course at the first opportunity you get. The following will give you a brief idea about what this course actually comprises of. Please note that this might change depending on several factors associated with the university. There are 7 modules that we need to study in order to complete 501 as shown below:

1. Introductions

This module introduces you to all the remaining modules and each faculty associated with those modules. A brief overview of the course syllabus takes place. In addition, a separate class on writing methods is also conducted since all students have to write and submit papers to journals for the rest of their academic and research career. It is a very important module and I learned a lot from it.

2. Space History & Policy

Space Studies is just as policy oriented as its technical areas. This is important since we need to understand the real politics that goes behind the scenes of every space mission or research conducted. We should know from where the money comes and how it is regulated. For those of us who wish to try our hands in space entrepreneurship, policy is a must. This module introduces us to the general space arena and space history. Further, it teaches us space policy and law along with military space. So, by the end of this module, our perspective starts to change and that is a good thing.

3. Orbital Mechanics and Space Mission Design

This is really an interesting module and I must say my favorite. This is where I am focusing my current research and is a very smooth and straightforward module. It teaches introductory orbital mechanics and trajectory related calculations. The fundamental equations in rocket science and their applications are taught. Rockets, launch vehicles, payload and spacecraft design are the other subjects dealt in this module. The module ends with the analysis and design of space missions, which reminded me of my software engineering classes. It is basically a space replica of the same. Overall, this is where the technology part of space studies begins. My personal advice is to get this module engraved in your mind since you are going to use the concepts you learn here for the rest of your life if you work in this field.

4. Planetary and Space Science

This is yet another interesting module. Those who want to move onto astronomy and astrophysics, astrobiology or earth science should know all the concepts taught in this module. It covers lunar and solar system science, the planet mars, asteroids, meteorites and comets, extraterrestrial life, observational astronomy and earth science and global change. I think these topics are self explanatory.

5. Space Life Sciences

I just loved this module. It opened up yet another door in my mind through which ideas can pass. In this module, space suits, psychological aspects of adaptation to space and the history and policy of human spaceflight are taught. I never thought I would become interested in space life support systems before I studied this module. As I mentioned before, our interests will eventually change as we move through the program until we find what exactly is it that we want to do in space.

6. Satellite Applications

For information technology graduates like me, this module is very closely related to the things we learned during our undergraduate program. Hence, it is relatively easy to grasp the details. The topics covered are communication satellites and remote sensing.

7. Space Economics, Business, and Management

It is again policy related. It speaks about international space where all other countries that have space programs other than US and Russia are introduced. More topics on NASA and its current position in US space arena is also taught in addition to going to deep into the government and industry aspects of space economics and management.

By now, you might have got an idea about what SpSt 501 is all about and how it can benefit you during your entire Space Studies program and beyond. The semester has ended and I can say for sure that I am fully satisfied with the course curriculum. A few final words before I close this topic:

  1. If you are a distance student, make sure that you have plenty of time to invest. If you are working and studying, you are going to be on a rough ride especially if you have joined a research team of some sort.
  2. Being a distance student, you are advised to take only one course per semester. This means that you will take about 3-4 years to complete the required 33 credits of graduate work. My personal advice is – DO NOT take more than one course per semester since 1 itself is too much work. If you are very clever, you can manage 2 but NEVER 3!
  3. Do not think that just because the exams are open book type, you don’t need to study. You have to work really hard since the exams are timed and the more time you spend referring materials, the lesser you will get to answer the questions. So, study really well before attempting the exams.
  4. If you are an overseas distance student, you won’t be funded. Hence, please make sure that you have sufficient sources of funding if you plan to take the courses overseas.

You don’t have to rush yourself to complete the 33 credits within 2 years like the regular students. Remember, in academics, it is not always the first person to finish first who wins. It is the person who finishes well. With this maxim, I am concluding this post.  I wish you all the best in your Space Studies program!