November 21, 2022

ASCEND: An Opportunity for Generations

What does the future of STEM mean to you?

Do you think of technological advancements in the industry? Or do you envision new organizations bringing unique ideas to the table?

AIAA’s 2022 ASCEND conference at Caesar’s Forum in Las Vegas, NV tackled that question head on. With a stellar lineup of out of this world individuals, organizations, and aspiring young professionals, this conference, curated by AIAA, features the newest, most up-and-coming projects and topics of our fast-growing industry.

Packed full of thrilling talks, this three-day conference appealed to individuals of all interests and careers. From space debris, Low-Earth orbit technology, Moon and Mars habitats to James Webb updates, international collaboration, biotechnology, and so much more. There was truly a session for everyone.

This is the second time the conference has been held in person, and the second time Higher Orbits has had the opportunity to showcase their own stellar students at this incredible gathering of global leaders, industry experts, and space inspired enthusiasts.

Sophia Crowder was one of our students who joined us at ASCEND. Sophia had the chance to connect with many influential individuals including Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Vanessa Wyche, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist of Privateer Space, Moriba Jah, and Director of Staff at U.S. Space Force Headquarters, Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno.

“I am grateful to have the opportunity to network and connect with all of these amazing individuals in the space industry and also hear from panelists about what they are truly passionate about and what truly inspires them,” said Sophia.

Sophia Crowder with Dr. Moriba Jah of Privateer Space after his panel Space Traffic Management from the Diverse Dozen)

Sophomore at Stanford University and Higher Orbits alum, Graham Shunk, also took full advantage of panel sessions. Asking inciteful questions of guest speakers, Graham wanted to broaden his knowledge base by seeking panels on topics that he was less familiar with.

“People are the most valuable resource that there is and there are so many incredible individuals here to learn from,” Graham explained.

Graham Shunk speaking with Blue Origin's Chief Scientist for Orbital Reef, Dr. Tara Ruttley

These two STEM superstars have been a part of multiple Go For Launch! events and presented at other conferences in the past. At ASCEND, they were both impressed with the range of topics and the highly decorated speakers who presented each day.

When asked what the two were most looking forward to at this year’s conference, they noted their excitement to network and connect with others in the industry. They were able to meet with fellow students, professionals in careers they are interested in pursuing, and those that even challenged where they thought they saw themselves in the aerospace industry.

Now, what does the future of STEM mean to Higher Orbits?

The future of STEM is held in the hands of mentorship.

Higher Orbits’ panel, Space Inspires STEMists, Researchers, and Explorers featured an array of stellar speakers that talked about their journey into the industry and individuals who impacted them. Led by moderator Michelle Lucas, this panel included:

  • Dr. Steven Collicott, Professor, School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Purdue University
  • Sophia Crowder, Student, Higher Orbits
  • Dan Dumbacher, Executive Director, AIAA
  • Graham Shunk, Student, Higher Orbits

Space Inspires STEMists, Researchers, and Explorers, showcased the full circle of mentorship. Each speaker had been directly impacted and led on their #SpaceInspired path by another individual on our panel. These incredible mentorships crossed generations and have led some of our panelists to some out of this world places.

Dr. Steven Collicott was introduced to his passion for research through a student led project by our Founder and CEO, Michelle Lucas, during her own time at Purdue University as a young engineering student. Fast forward to today and Dr. Collicott is now slated to fly with his years of work with fluids in microgravity through his payload on Virgin Galactic.

Everyone’s path is different. The power of mentorship can define and raise up an impactful generation that leads to an influential and empowering workforce of tomorrow.

Afterall, just ask our students Sophia and Graham. At ASCEND, they connected with leaders in our industry, learned about a range of exciting topics, and got to further develop their networking and professional skills. All because of an initial spark for the love of space and the push to pursue that though mentorship at Higher Orbits.


About the author

Katy Thompson was introduced into the space scene in 2020 when she began working with Higher Orbits as a Communications Intern. Since then, she has graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with her B.S. in Communications and a minor in business administration. Thompson holds the position of Communications Director for Higher Orbits and enjoys using that position to help connect students with Higher Orbits programs, educational resources, and all things space.

Katy Thompson


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