While the sun was setting on the shuttle program, David Miles was looking toward the future of space exploration at the 2012 International Space University, which took place at the Kennedy Space Center. (Photo supplied by David Miles)
2012 was a banner year for both space exploration and for one University of Alberta graduate student.
During a summer bookended by the successful launches of the privately-developed Space X Dragon capsule and the NASA Mars Curiosity rover, Physics graduate student David Miles attended the International Space University. While the ISU is based in France, the space university program is held at a different location each year. This year, it was co-hosted by the Florida Institute of Technology and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“People were really excited, but it was a time of change. When we were there, they were decommissioning the space shuttles to act as museum pieces,” said Miles, who held a $28,000 scholarship from the Canadian Foundation for the International Space University.
“The thing I found most interesting out of it is that people have a very idealized idea of how space research is done,” Miles said. “The ISU has a great way of going into the history and the politics, the how and why things were done. Having a good research question is not enough to get things done.”
With degrees in engineering and physics, practical experience in running his own business and experience in organizing the CaNoRock international student exchange, Miles is in an excellent position to navigate the changing tides of space research and exploration.
The Victoria, B.C. native’s interest in space goes back to his childhood. “Like many young geeks, I’ve been interested in space since I was little, particularly through classic science fiction novels (Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc.), and then shows like Star Trek and Star Wars. I moved away from space during high school, got interested in computers, and then ended up doing instrumentation and datalogging for seismic research and oceanography.”
While studying computer engineering at the University of Victoria, Miles started his own business. “I ran a three-person company during my undergraduate degree, building custom data-loggers for ocean-bottom science and field-deployed magnetometers for geophysics research.”
Writing software for the magnetometer on the CASSIOPE/ePOP satellite, the Canadian Space Agency’s first small scientific satellite (a University of Calgary-led initiative with University of Alberta participation) prompted Miles to look into careers in space science. He undertook, at his own expense, a graduate school qualifying year at the University of Alberta before being invited to join the Master’s program in the Department of Physics.
Ian Mann, one of Canada’s leading space researchers, was impressed. “David’s engineering and scientific training already make him rather exceptionally qualified for work in the field of experimental space research,” he said. “The combination of his commercial and academic expertise promises the potential for not only excellent scientific research but also potentially successful commercial spin-off activities.”
Capping off 2012, Miles organized the University of Alberta’s participation in a multinational undergraduate exchange program, CaNoRock. Currently, two physics students and three engineering students are at the Andoya Rocket Range in Norway to get hands-on experience in designing sounding rockets and instrument payloads.
Further into the new year, the Space X Falcon-9 will launch the CASSIOPE/ePOP satellite, a multinational, public-private project of the type Miles foresees for the future of space exploration. The launch will include the experiment that brought him to the University of Alberta. “There are two payloads,” says Miles, “CASCADE, a commercial communications data payload, and ePOP, the science payload.”
Beyond that, Miles looks forward to participating as CaNoRock expands to include graduate students, researchers and faculty members, and as the University of Alberta responds to an invitation to take part in a sounding rocket launch from the deep arctic.
One activity that Miles doesn’t see on the horizon is space travel. “I wouldn’t say no, but there are fewer opportunities,” he admits. “In exchange, I’m working on building things that go into space.”