U.S. space leaders keep visiting UND -- why?

The visits, which range from the leaders of the newly formed Space Force to NASA’s top administrator, are important relationship builders and give UND leaders a chance to learn what they can offer the country.

Derek Tournear, Director of the Space Development Agency, center, tours UND's Aerospace facilities Wednesday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

In just over a year, four of the nation’s top space officials have spent time touring UND’s aerospace school and space studies program.

The visits, which range from the leaders of the newly formed Space Force to NASA’s top administrator, are important relationship builders and give UND leaders a chance to learn what they can offer the country.

“The visits are about relationship building, but it's really an opportunity for us to showcase what we have to offer in this new area of space research, and also workforce development,” UND President Andrew Armacost said. “Our hope is that we can be part of a university consortium that really helps the U.S. Space Force solve its toughest problems.”

Since September 2019, four space officials have visited campus, including NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, U.S. Space Command Commander Gen. James Dickinson and Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force.

The latest visit was from the Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear on Wednesday, Oct. 14.


The Space Development Agency, established in March 2019, is tasked with developing and fielding new military space capabilities for the country. The organization falls under the defense department, but is scheduled to officially become part of the Space Force in 2022

But why do these top level commanders and administrators keep visiting campus?

North Dakota has assets that not only contribute to the economy, but the nation’s security, including the work at UND. That work, combined with federal agencies, can help the country moving forward, U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said.

“By bringing them together, I get to sit back and watch the synergy create solutions for again, not just North Dakota and the institutions that I care about, but the security of the world, in our country as well,” he said.

John Mihelich, interim vice president for research and economic development at UND, said visits like Tournear’s help the university think about their research in a different way and how it can help agencies.

“It's really important for them to get to know us,” he said. “We get a sense of what their plans are, and we get a sense of the kind of things they need. We also get to share with them the kind of things that we can do that may not be obvious without a conversation. So, it's great for building the relationship, it's great for learning both ways.”

Relationships between UND and federal space organizations isn’t exactly a new concept, however.

UND already has a longstanding relationship with NASA. The university was the first with a NASA-funded laboratory dedicated to designing and constructing space-exploration and planetary surface exploration suits. And Karen Nyberg, a recently retired NASA astronaut, is a UND alum.


Leaders of the agencies say schools, such as UND, can be an important research bed for organizations, whether that research is specifically in space studies or in engineering and autonomous systems.

“The biggest thing is to do the research to make sure that we can actually apply all of the elements in the UAS world across the department even on to the satellites. That’s a big deal,” Tournear said.

The university also can help with workforce development and training individuals who will work in the field in the future, Tournear said.

Armacost previously told the Herald that he hopes to one day have satellites being designed and controlled from Grand Forks. It’s a “vision” that would build on UND’s space study program as well as UND’s work on autonomous systems.

UND and the aerospace school have been taking concepts and ideas and moving them forward into the market for decades, Cramer said.

“That's like second nature to this school,” he said. “If anybody can solve some of the challenges that space will be facing, it will be the people here.”

Other local organizations also could play a role in research and development of ideas.

Tournear and Cramer spent time Tuesday visiting General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Those entities, combined with UND and others, leave Grand Forks and the region in an encouraging spot, Cramer said.


“It's not just the university, it's not just a test site, it’s not just some companies,” Mihelich said. “It's large companies, small companies, Grand Sky, the test site, UND, (North Dakota State University.) It's that whole package that North Dakota really does have to offer. As a university, we want to be part of that. I think we collaborate pretty well. And hopefully, in the future, as we do develop more projects, we'll continue that collaboration.”

Sydney Mook has been the managing editor at the Herald since April 2021. In her role she edits and assigns stories and helps reporters develop their work for readers.

Mook has been with the Herald since May 2018 and was first hired as the Herald's higher education reporter where she covered UND and other happenings in state higher education. She was later promoted to community editor in 2019.

For story pitches contact her at or call her at 701-780-1134.
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