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NM Space Grant at NMSU has storied legacy, looking to next 30 years

DATE: 09/30/2019
WRITER: Minerva Baumann, 575-646-7566,
CONTACT: Paulo Oemig, 575-646-6414,

spacegrant_duo-375x250.jpgFrom left: James Childress and Omar Mireles were members of the first team from New Mexico selected to fly an experiment aboard the KC-135 as part of the NASA Microgravity Student Flight Opportunities Program in 2002. (Photo Courtesy Omar Mireles)

Alan Hale was among the earliest astronomy students at New Mexico State University to receive a fellowship from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium (NMSGC). With support from the Space Grant program, Hale earned his doctorate in astronomy in 1992. Just three years later, he gained fame with the discovery of the comet that bears his name – Hale-Bopp.

“I was very grateful to receive the fellowships, for they enabled me to devote those two years exclusively to my doctoral research.”

NASA initiated the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, also known as Space Grant, in 1989. Space Grant is a national network of colleges and universities. New Mexico’s Space Grant at NMSU was among the first 21 consortia created in the U.S. Now there are 52 consortia in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Although NM Space Grant is located at NMSU, it serves the entire state. The Space Grant national network now includes over 1,000 affiliates from universities, colleges, industry, museums, science centers and state and local agencies. The New Mexico Space Grant Consortium building is the only endowed Space Grant building in the U.S.


Over the past three decades, the NM Space Grant Consortium has awarded more than 1,300 students across the state competitive scholarships and fellowships to pursue their educational research.


spacegrant_telescope-367x250.jpgAlan Hale, in about 1990 standing next to his telescope in Las Cruces during his grad school days earning his Ph.D. in astronomy at New Mexico State University. (Photo Courtesy Alan Hale)

“Just like the land-grant universities’ are focused on research, education and public outreach, Space Grants strive to support science and engineering education, research and public outreach in alignment with the NASA mission directorates of aeronautics, human exploration, science and space technology,” said Paulo Oemig, Director of New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and NM NASA EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research).

Oemig is the third director of this statewide program. The first was Stephen Horan, an electrical engineering professor who founded the NM Space Grant Consortium at NMSU and led the way while it was under the College of Engineering. Horan was followed by Pat Hynes, who retired as director last year, but continues as curator and organizer of the annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, which will be held in Las Cruces on Oct 9-10.

Oemig started working closely with the NM Space Grant’s outreach efforts in 2009 when he was an eighth grade science teacher at Zia Middle School. He taught in STEM fields for more than 10 years, earned his doctorate in instruction in science and bilingual education and was awarded an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He also received the Las Cruces Public School District’s Teacher of the Year and the New Mexico Golden Apple for Excellence in Teaching awards. Through the years, Oemig worked closely with Hynes and his involvement in the NM Space Grant Consortium grew. When Hynes retired, his transition to become director was a natural outcome.

The outreach of Space Grant in public schools provides a pipeline to encourage future scientists in the research of space-related studies.

Hale’s connection with NMSU started with Herb Beebe, now an NMSU astronomy professor emeritus.

“I had first met him when I was in high school and involved with the Science Fair program; he was one of the judges at the Regional Science Fair that was held at NMSU,” Hale said. “I kept in touch with him during the intervening years before I arrived for graduate school.”

This year, 40 students applied to the New Mexico Space Grant for competitive scholarships and fellowships and 23 were accepted. Last year, 75 students applied and 24 were awarded.

“What makes the program powerful is that these students work with a faculty mentor doing research of interest to NASA’s mission,” Oemig said.

Omar Mireles was part of the first team from New Mexico to fly an experiment in migrogravity as part of a NASA program thanks to scholarship from NM Space Grant.

“A group of NMSU students with Dr. Sonya Cooper as an adviser submitted a proposal and we were the first team from New Mexico selected to fly an experiment aboard the KC-135 as part of the NASA Microgravity Student Flight Opportunities Program in 2002,” said Mireles, currently a research engineer at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. “NMSGC provided travel funds for the team’s trip to NASA Johnson Space Center to conduct the experiment.”

“The following year the team was selected for a second flight and NMSGC again supported travel and some hardware funds. After graduation I attended the NASA Academy at Goddard Space Flight Center where NMSGC was gracious enough to provide a stipend and travel allowance.”

After graduating from NMSU, Mireles earned a master’s degree at Georgia Tech and his Ph.D. at the University of Florida. He has spent his career at NASA developing additive manufacture for propulsion, power, cryogenic fluid management and nuclear systems.

spacegrant_balloon-225x300.jpgPaulo Oemig, center, New Mexico Space Grant Consortium research scientist, holds a high-altitude balloon during a test on June 20, 2017 at the New Mexico State University Horseshoe while Krishna Kota, left, mechanical engineering assistant professor, and Norann Calhoun, chemical engineering senior, assist. A high-altitude balloon launch was part of the NASA-sponsored Eclipse Ballooning Project, which was held during the total solar eclipse earlier this month. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta) AUG17

Other Space Grant recipients like Charles Nichols, lab manager at NASA JSC White Sands Test Facility, and Amy Simon, senior scientist in planetary exploration at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, agree the support from the NM Space grant was instrumental in their success.

“Graduate school in the sciences is a full-time occupation, so every grant helps offset the cost, which can really be make or break for many students who want to pursue scientific careers,” Simon said. “I liked the NMSU connection to the Space Grant Consortium, because it really is a community of researchers from many universities while also offering student opportunities.”

“The NM Space Grant was instrumental in my ascension to joining the NASA federal workforce in 2011,” Nichols said. “By day, I worked to earn my title as a Mechanical Engineer from NMSU. By night, I tackled incredibly complex damage mode analysis challenges for NASA in carbon-fiber composites.”

“It has been my great honor, and the honor of fellow NASA civil servant and NMSGC alumnus Jeremy Bruggemann, to contribute to the NM Space Grant charter and help inform its direction,” Nichols said. “In this way, we hope to groom tomorrow’s innovators for promising local careers in aerospace and strengthen our core capabilities so employment opportunities grow here.”

None of these opportunities could happen without funding from NASA to support the National Space Grant Program and the non-federal matching funds needed from educational institutions, industry and other sources.

Today Hale gives back through his educational foundation Earthrise, which seeks to use “astronomy, space and other related endeavors as a tool for breaking down international and intercultural barriers and for bringing humanity together.”

Hale is developing a global educational program “Ice and Stone 2020” about “small bodies” of the solar system, like comets. He has registered the domain to unveil the project next year.

“I’m keying on the fact that 2020 marks not only the 25th anniversary of the Hale-Bopp discovery, but also the 50th anniversary of my first comet observations,” Hale said. “I plan to put the program on-line to be accessible to educators and students all over the world.”

New Mexico Space Grant Consortium is looking forward to the next 30 years to continue enabling unique opportunities for students and faculty to contribute to NASA’s work and support the economic and research infrastructure in New Mexico.