Campus News

Ian DesJardin and the most meaningful, fun puzzle of them all

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published April 17, 2019

“We want to live in a space station orbiting Mars. That would be kind of cool.”
Ian DesJardin, UB junior
Goldwater scholarship candidate

Editor’s note: UBNow continues its series of profiles on UB students already making a difference in their professions. These profiles are intended to show the breadth and scope of the university’s new breed of leaders.

“We build satellites here,” Ian DesJardin says as he shows a visitor during his “tour to bedazzle you” on the third floor of Hochstetter Hall at UB’s Nanosatellite Lab.

And with characteristic clarity, enthusiasm and technical expertise, DesJardin proudly shows off the two laboratories where UB students and professors are doing just that: building a satellite expected to be launched into space sometime this year.

Called a “rising star” by top engineering faculty and administrators, DesJardin, an Honors College Scholar, stands out among the university’s exemplary students.

Only a junior, DesJardin is a strong candidate for a Goldwater scholarship, which Elizabeth Colucci, director of UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships, calls the nation’s most prestigious and competitive research scholarship for undergraduate STEM students, and a stepping stone to other top graduate fellowships.

DesJardin is a mechanical and aerospace engineering major with minors in math and physics. He is also chief engineer of UB’s GLADOS satellite project, which means DesJardin directly oversees 15 UB students and indirectly supervises more than 50 others.

Their mission: launching a satellite built at UB to gather data on space debris to provide a way to better track the debris and hopefully avoid collisions with active satellites.

And here is the thing: DesJardin is not exaggerating or dreaming. He’s doing nothing less than what he said: leading a team building working satellites, at least one of which is scheduled to launch soon.

Visions of “Star Trek”

He occupies this aerospace engineering leadership position with the flair of a born ambassador. As affable and personable as any UB student you’ll meet, DesJardin mixes his ability to comfortably explain the work happening in the satellite’s two mission labs with the ardor of a kid who came of age dreaming of zooming around in a spaceship.

“I thought that was really cool,” DesJardin says while walking through the Hochstetter labs. “When I was little, I liked ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ and those types of things. And I thought that was a very cool future to live in. One of the things that gets me excited is I get to help start to make that future happen.”

So instead of working one of his old part-time jobs where people yelled at him because of their coffee, he gets to contribute in a meaningful way to a future he says is “a lot more exciting.”

“The rosy picture is we want to see people on the moon and on Mars, and we want to see permanent inhabitants of those areas,” says DesJardin. “The first step in all of that is you have to lower the cost of sending stuff to space. You’ve got to develop interesting hardware techniques that allow you to mass produce things.”

DesJardin compares this stage of building satellites to how Henry Ford manufactured early cars. You figure out your manufacturing process, he says, and produce quality cars as inexpensively as possible.

“For the types of satellites we make here, it’s following a similar trend,” DesJardin says. “We use commercial parts instead of very expensive military-grade parts.

“So for example, we take parts that would not normally be used in space. We take things that would be used for sprinkler systems. For drones. And we adapt some of those things to space applications, just because we work with small enough budgets we are forced to do that. That’s really exciting. The goal for everyone here is maybe we can strike gold and figure out a very repeatable way to do that, and then we can tell everyone.

“What that means is you can build satellites cheaper. But it extends beyond that. Because then you can build other things cheaper. And if you can build things cheaper, and launch things cheaper, then the whole price of this enterprise comes down, and you can start doing more interesting things.”

A rallying point for his tribe

There is an ultimate goal here, one not far from DesJardin’s mind.

“We want to live in a space station orbiting Mars,” he says. “That would be kind of cool.”

The idea of having a permanent space station is cool in of itself, DesJardin says. But it also opens up many possibilities important to people his age, something people twice their age may not easily relate to.

“Everyone here is mostly under 30, and we all grew up with global warming, the idea that ‘The earth is getting warmer. We’ve got to do things to change it,’” he says.

“I think everyone generally agrees that there are things that are happening to the environment that are within our control to change, but they are not being changed, potentially for the worse. And this is one of the alternatives.

“If you can get off the planet, then a lot of those problems go away. A lot of people take that view.

“Besides that, a lot of people think it’s just really cool to have people living and operating outside of Earth. It’s something we grew up as kids seeing in movies, so we just want to see it happen.”

DesJardin has earned high praise and support from John L. Crassidis, director of UB’s Nanosatellite Laboratory and the Samuel P. Capen Chair Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“When it was time to consider a new chief engineer (for the GLADOS mission), I immediately appointed Mr. DesJardin among many interested candidates,” Crassidis wrote when endorsing DesJardin’s Goldwater application. “This type of role is usually reserved for someone far more senior than Mr. DesJardin. But because of his tremendous effort and eagerness to excel at any task given to him, the choice was an easy one.

“I see him as a rising star among his peers, both at the technical and communication levels.”

Talking so everyone understands

DesJardin says he makes a special effort to avoid talking to others about his work in an exclusive, technical fashion. “That’s something I noticed a lot of people do at UB,” he says. ‘They tend to talk at a very high level, and it’s important to talk in a way everyone can understand.”

The goal is to launch UB’s GLADOS project sometime this year. It will be “ride share,” which means the UB satellite would be attached to a much bigger launch rocket, then released at a high altitude.

The GLADOS launch is set to be at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Los Angeles, or Cape Canaveral, Florida. Either way, DesJardin expects to be there.

“That’s the plan. To have the beach party and reunion there,” says DesJardin.  “This project has gone on for a long time, and we suffer from the college football reunion syndrome. Which is every four years, your team is gone. So every four years you constantly bring in new freshmen and get them excited.”

In the meantime, DesJardin is in his element.

The mission control center in Hochstetter 333 was built by students. There, the UB Nanosatellite Lab team will track the GLADOS flight and direct what it does. When DesJardin walks into Hochstetter 351 — the hardware integration lab — the duplicate of the final satellite rests on a table, awaiting more exhaustive tests.

The next step will be to build the real one, and test that to make sure it’s exactly the same as the duplicate that passed the other tests.

DesJardin is smiling and upbeat at every stage, a winning combination of youthful enthusiasm and technical confidence.

“I’ve always liked puzzles and challenges,” he says. “And this is one of the best puzzles and challenges I’ve ever seen.

“I get the best end of the deal. I get to have all the fun.”