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As seen on May 30, 2017 in Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands an ICBM-class target was launched from the Reagan Test Site. A ground-based interceptor was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and its exo-atmospheric kill vehicle later intercepted and destroyed the target in a direct collision. Photo courtesy of Orbital ATK

It actually is rocket science

Alumna Samantha Sizemore on missile defense, space station missions and getting what you want out of the college experience.

October 16, 2017

By Amanda Miller

From a tiny ring of islands in the Pacific, an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile is launched into space, where an interceptor fired from California smashes it to bits. Weeks later, a truck-mounted missile takes off from Alaska and destroys its target dropped from a cargo jet north of Hawaii.

The missile tests generated international buzz this year, cited as evidence of the United States’ ability to defend against a nuclear attack. The military operations required the help of civilian defense contractors, and Samantha Sizemore landed a spot on the industry team.

She was a student in MSU Denver’s Orbital Mechanics and Aerospace Systems Simulations class when she first modeled a mission to Kwajalein Atoll. Students use Systems Tool Kit by software maker AGI to model and analyze systems on a realistic Earth and beyond.

Lecturer Jose Lopez became certified in STK to teach the class. A veteran of military and civilian space and missile programs, he regularly extols the virtues of the atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an off-the-grid paradise. His student would have good reason to remember that lesson. No sooner, it seemed, had she accepted a full-time position with an aerospace company than she was preparing for a launch from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site there.

Defense and aerospace contractor Orbital ATK in Chandler, Arizona, hired Sizemore as a systems-safety engineer focusing on flight-termination systems, which ensure that a flight can be stopped if needed.

Part of her job is communicating with the missile ranges on the “giant slew of requirements” for getting a rocket off the ground. Her experience using STK made a big difference to her managers.

“The fact that I had that on my resume was huge to them,” Sizemore says.

Samantha Sizemore graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s in aviation technology, a minor in space commercialization, a certificate in airport management and a private pilot’s license. Photo courtesy of Samantha Sizemore

In addition to being the first flight of Orbital ATK’s ICBM range target, the Missile Defense Agency’s May 30 mission from Kwajalein and California was the first “live-fire test event against an ICBM-class target” for the U.S. ballistic-missile-defense system, the agency says. ICBMs fly the farthest of all missiles.

“It was a fantastically nominal ” — or normal — “flight,” Sizemore says. “It went really smoothly.”

Orbital ATK supplied the ICBM rocket, which burned off in three stages, sending a target vehicle into space. The company also supplied the interceptor rocket launched from California, which carried the Boeing Co.’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle that took out the ICBM target before it could re-enter the atmosphere.

The 26-year-old was beyond proud to be on the team and get her mission patch. As a young student, Sizemore couldn’t appreciate the accessibility of careers in aerospace and aviation. She did everything she could to gain relevant experience and training while in college – she joined MSU Denver’s Precision Flight Team before she could even fly, competing in ground events such as preflight checks and simulations, and she took part in the STK Club to add to her software skills.

With a bachelor’s in aviation technology, a minor in space commercialization, a certificate in airport management, and a private pilot’s license, she went on the job hunt fully loaded.

“I hadn’t considered it to be as attainable as it might be going to college for it,” Sizemore says.

In her time with Orbital ATK, the 2015 alumna has worked on the ICBM range target, an intermediate-range ballistic missile target parachuted from the cargo hold of a C-17 aircraft, and a resupply mission to the International Space Station. Sizemore tried to leave college prepared for anything, and now she’s helping her country do the same.


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