For more than 20 years, the men and women living and working aboard the International Space Station have advanced human knowledge and demonstrated new technologies, making scientific breakthroughs not possible on Earth. Their long-term aim is to use what they learn to aid humans and robots in exploring the furthest reaches of space. To date more than 200 individuals from 18 countries have visited this unique microgravity laboratory that has hosted more than 1,900 investigations from researchers in more than 95 countries, according to NASA.
Back on Earth, alumnus Grant Farrokh ’15 helps to make that work possible.
Farrokh is training to become a certified Trajectory Operations and Planning Officer (TOPO) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to support ISS flight operations in the Flight Operations Directorate. TOPOs are the trajectory experts in the NASA Mission Control Center, and are responsible for planning and monitoring where the ISS and its visiting vehicles are and where they are going to be, and for ensuring that nothing collides with them along the way. If there is a high probability of collision between the ISS or a visiting vehicle and another object in orbit, the TOPO group works quickly in real-time to plan and execute debris avoidance maneuvers to ensure the safety of ISS and its crew members. While most of Farrokh’s time is spent training for his certification, a typical day may find him performing a number of roles necessary to maintain the ISS, including monitoring its trajectory, planning reboost maneuvers to maintain the space station’s orbit, and conducting analysis of small satellites (CubeSats) that have been deployed off of the ISS and visiting vehicles.
“There are so many fascinating things happening in the field right now, particularly the work that is being done is done to allow humans to go beyond lower Earth orbit, back to the moon, and eventually to Mars,” the alumnus said. “When you have the opportunity to be in the control center watching the video feed of the astronauts working in space, and then you have the chance to see them in person when they return to Earth, that is especially exciting and helps you to feel truly connected to the mission.”
A native of Plainfield, N.J., Farrokh took part in a dual-degree program, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics from Le Moyne and a master’s degree in engineering from Syracuse University. He credits his physics professors at Le Moyne – including Christopher Bass, Ph.D., David Craig, Ph.D., and Stamatios Kyrkos, Ph.D. – with helping to prepare him to handle difficult technical problems he faces in his current role. As a student at Le Moyne, Farrokh helped Associate Professor of Physics Christopher Bass in fast neutron spectrometry. Their research was focused on employing Los Alamos National Lab’s MCNP software to determine optimal particle detector geometry and verification of experimental results.
For Farrokh, working at NASA is the culmination of a lifelong dream. He has always been fascinated by physics and engineering. Then, as a senior on the Heights, he met Le Moyne alumna and NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps ’92 when she visited campus to speak about her work with the space agency. He recalled Epps telling the students they could learn to do anything if they simply put enough time and effort into it. When he heard about the opportunity to work on the ISS just a few years later, he did not hesitate to apply.
“Her words resonated with me,” he said. “Before I met Dr. Epps, a career at NASA always seemed like a goal that was out of reach for me. During her visit to Le Moyne, she inspired me to pursue that goal and made it apparent that, with hard work, a career at NASA was not as far out of reach as I had once thought. Dr. Epps continues to be a huge inspiration to me. “
Farrokh takes pride in the fact that, in addition to being the only permanently manned outpost in space, the ISS is a multinational effort. Scientists aboard the space station have researched everything from the effects prolonged exposure to microgravity on the heart, to drugs to combat osteoporosis, to new solar panel technologies. Their work is done in order to benefit everyone here on earth, reflecting the Jesuit mission of service to others.
“I think that one of the greatest things about the ISS is that it is truly an international project that a lot of different agencies make it a reality,” he said. “I feel the Jesuit mission is reflected in our group’s role in the flight control team. As a TOPO, we serve the crew by being the watchful eye that ensures their safety in orbit. More largely, the ISS program serves the world in developing new technologies and making new scientific discoveries in space. The flight control team are the stewards keeping the station going, and it is very exciting to be a part of that.”
Grant Farrokh ’15 is a recipient of the inaugural “Phins Under 40 Award. Click here to learn more about ‘Phins Under 40.