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Denise Thorsen explains some of the work underway by students in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Space Systems Engineering Program earlier this year. Photo by Rod Boyce
Denise Thorsen explains some of the work underway by students in the University of Alaska Fairbanks Space Systems Engineering Program earlier this year. Photo by Rod Boyce

UAF space engineering program director wins NASA prize

The advisor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks space engineering program is one of 20 winners of a NASA prize to expand the agency’s engagement with people from populations underrepresented in space technology.

Denise Thorsen was recognized for her work in creating and expanding access to the Space Systems Engineering Program. The program is a collaboration between the UAF College of Engineering and Mines and the Alaska Space Grant Program, which is housed in the UAF Geophysical Institute.

Thorsen is a professor of electrical and computer engineering, associate dean of the College of Engineering and Mines and director of Alaska Space Grant.

“Being one of the awardees of the NASA Space Tech Catalyst Prize affirms what we have built through the Space Systems Engineering Program here at UAF,” Thorsen said. “I am honored to have been selected.”

NASA announced the 20 winners in its Space Tech Catalyst Prize on March 13. Winners each receive $25,000 to create additional inclusive space technology ecosystems, according to NASA’s announcement.

The winners will travel to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to participate in a variety of activities. They will learn about NASA’s competitive research and development and help NASA reach innovators in underrepresented communities.

The UAF Space Systems Engineering Program’s mission is to “provide interdisciplinary engineering and science students with hands-on experience in all aspects of space systems engineering through a design, build, launch paradigm applied to balloon and rocket payloads and small satellites.”

All students with an interest in space systems are welcome.

“We bring in freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors whenever they discover us,” Thorsen said. “We teach them enough to be productive, and then they take ownership of some components that we’re trying to work on.

“Then they train their replacement,” she said. “They might stay on as a graduate student or they might leave and get a great job at an aerospace company.”

Or even a job at NASA. Thorsen said NASA has hired eight of her students over the past five years.

Five to 10 students graduate from the Space Systems Engineering Program annually, she said.

Thorsen, in her NASA entry, pointed out Alaska’s vast geography, its small population and the educational challenges created by the remoteness of many communities. She noted the nearest NASA location — Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley  — is about 3,000 miles distant.

Thorsen added that the student population of UAF, an open enrollment university, is generally underserved economically, geographically, by gender and by race. At the College of Engineering and Mines, 46% of  students are underserved by gender or race or both, and 33% are first-generation students, Thorsen wrote in her NASA entry.

NASA recognized the challenges that Thorsen’s program seeks to overcome.

“We were impressed with her approach to mentoring, hands-on project experience she offers to students that has led to UAF graduates of her program finding employment and choosing to stay in Alaska, furthering the financial infrastructure of Alaska,” said Denna Lambert, Inclusive Innovation lead in NASA’s Early Stage Innovations and Partnerships program with the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Students in the UAF Space Systems Engineering Program recently had a major success. In January they were the only team out of 10 university teams to advance to the next phase in the University Nanosatellite Program. The program is managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory's Space Vehicles Directorate.

The students’ satellite project aims to demonstrate that communications technology of large satellites can be packaged into a small satellite and transmit much more data.

The UAF team will receive $490,000 to deliver the nanosatellite to the Air Force Research Lab in two years.


• Denise Thorsen, Alaska Space Grant, 907-474-7052,

• Jimi Russell, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, 216-704-2412,

• Rod Boyce, University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, 907-474-7185,