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Johnston County Students Tackle Out-of-this-world Endeavor

The CubeSat Launch Initiative team posing in front of rockets at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

 Photo Credit: Dunja Nascimento-Wilson

Top row (Left-Right): James Atkisson, Rebekah Jenkins, Karsh Agbayani
2nd row (Left to Right): Abbie Wilson, Joseph Evans, Sam Lee, Brandon Rice
Front row (left to Right): Ethan Carroll, Cameron Wilkins, Corbin Vaughan, Gabe Willis, Riley Metzger, Bennett Nascimento, Madi Wallace, Sebastian Garrett, Sloan Mann, Nasir Issa, David Williams

Putting a man on the moon more than 50 years ago was just the beginning of what human imagination and engineering could do when it came to touching the stars. Today, NASA is preparing for missions to Mars, but space isn’t just for the military and professionals anymore as some Johnston County students are setting out to prove.

In August, nearly two dozen middle and high school students from local public, charter and home schools came together via Zoom with the goal of researching, building and launching North Carolina’s first CubeSat. CubeSat’s are nanosatellites that meet NASA research objectives and compete for the opportunity to travel to lower Earth orbit aboard a future rocket launch. According to NASA’s website, these tiny satellites were developed in 1999 by Cal Poly and Stanford Universities to provide a platform for education and space exploration. “The development of CubeSats has advanced into its own industry with government, industry and academia collaborating for ever increasing capabilities.  CubeSats now provide a cost-effective platform for science investigations, new technology demonstrations and advanced mission concepts using constellations, swarms disaggregated systems.” 

The CubeSat Team at Kennedy Space Center

Photo Credit: Dunja Nascimento-Wilson

Left to Right: Brandon Rice, David Williams, Corbin Vaughan, Gabe Willis, Madi Wallace, Nasir Issa, Joseph Evans, Sloan Mann, Abbie Wilson, Ethan Carroll, Sebastian Garrett, Rebekah Jenkins, James Atkisson, Karsh Agbayani, Bennett Nascimento, Sam Lee, Cameron Wilkins, Riley Metzger

Since 1999, every state in the union has launched a CubeSat except for nine states. North Carolina is one of those states. But last Spring, coaches from a team in Florida reached out to Smithfield-Selma High School (SSS) teacher Angela Jenkins to see if she might be interested in forming the first team from North Carolina.

When I received the phone call about participating in NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative, I immediately thought of my current and previous students who live, love and breathe everything NASA,” said Jenkins. “I imagined all the dreams they talked about and how the one thing they wanted was to participate in a space program. I couldn't say no to this opportunity because I would be saying no to their dreams.”

Jenkins' initial group of students was derived from another STEM-based program, FIRST robotics. As a mentor to the FIRST Robotics Competition Team 6004 f(x) Robotics based at SSS and a coach to the FIRST Tech Challenge team NUSA based at Neuse Charter School, she had worked with these students for several years preparing them to build/program robots to compete in the world’s largest STEM-based competition for K-12th graders. To grow the team, she reached out to other Johnston County FIRST Lego League coaches, high school principals, Science Olympiad coaches and the local Civil Air Patrol to see who else might be interested. Thus far, 22 students, including two college students, have signed on to be part of this historic team named f(x) First in Orbit…a nod to North Carolina's aviation history and the team’s robotic roots.

“There's a huge benefit to having a CubeSat team in our county, both for the students and the community,” said Jenkins. “Working toward this mission paves the way for other students in the county and state to dream, and it demonstrates that students can have a lasting impact within the community and the world around them. Part of this team's mission is to develop resources for future teams and educational institutions working to expand people's knowledge about CubeSats and their value in education. Developing these resources will further STEM within Johnston County and North Carolina.”

The endeavor of launching a CubeSat is no small task, but Jenkins isn’t flying blind. Kevin Simmons, a veteran coach in Florida, mentors Jenkins on the program. Simmons discovered the program in 2009 while serving as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the National Science Foundation. 

“I immediately saw that this would be an ideal mechanism to train students to become engineers,” said Simmons. “I formed BLUECUBE Aerospace in 2012 and took a full-time teaching position in south Florida in 2015 to see if we could do exactly that.”

In 2017, Simmons led the very first middle-school team selected by NASA to launch a CubeSat. Simmons explained that up to that point selectees for the program were mainly universities, but in December 2018 his students launched their CubeSat from Vanderburg Air Force Base, California on a Falcon-9 with a second design launch following quickly behind in March 2019.

With two successful launches under their belts, Simmons’ teams looked for their next challenge.

“This spring when COVID shut down in-person school, my young 5th and 6th graders decided we would reach out and try to help teams from two states who had never launched a CubeSat: North Carolina and Nebraska.”

A native of Mount Airy, North Carolina and a graduate of N.C. State University, Simmons tried for years to start a CubeSat team in the Tarheel State with no success, but with his Florida students eager to share their knowledge, he tried again. He caught up with a former high school and college friend, Dr. Todd Holmes who helped change the trajectory. Holmes, an administrator in the Johnston County school system connected Simmons with Jenkins and the North Carolina team was born.

“I really believe in the CubeSats and am at an age where it is important that I help my students understand that 'winning' is not enough. We must help others,” Simmons said. “Helping others go to space is a really cool mindset.  My students really enjoy the chance to work with the older students in North Carolina and Nebraska.”

With veterans helping to mentor their teams, North Carolina and Nebraska are also looking at how they can help each other. Both teams are proposing to develop their technologies so that their CubeSats can communicate with each other in outer spac.  This design application sets them apart from other proposals.

Jenkins' team is meeting three to four times a week to complete their research and prepare their preliminary design review (PDR) for submission to NASA in mid-December. The team will find out if their PDR is accepted by April 2021. “If chosen by NASA, we begin a two-year journey of building and testing our satellite,” she said.

The journey will be a historic milestone for the students, the county and state, but Jenkins makes it known that it will not happen without community support. From finding experts in aero/astro/engineering to help guide these young minds to obtaining financial backing to off-set a $100,000 price tag, Jenkins encourages community and business leaders to invest in the future of STEM in Johnston County.

Simmons echoed her sentiments, explaining that these types of programs are crucial to students’ futures.

”Being part of a CubeSat team positions them well to go to the universities of their choice and gives them real-world, authentic experience,” he said. “There are no low paying jobs in aerospace. Any student who wishes to work in the satellite world needs this experience with CubeSats while they are in school.”

More information of f(x) First in Orbit can be found at:

Shannon Mann