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Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics

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AREC Alum Launches NASA Career

Most of us have memories of looking to the sky, at some point in our lives, and imagining life working for our country’s space program, but one Agricultural and Resource Economics (AREC) alum turned that dream into a reality.

Jason Kelley (’06) took his BS in Agricultural Economics and Business (minor in Biosystems Engineering Technology) and forged a unique flight path to his dream career. He took his love for technology and the aerospace industry and landed a job working at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

While there, he worked for the department of Geospatial Training and Application Center (GTAC). GTAC focuses on the Geographic Information System (GIS) field and the agricultural uses that it provides. His time with the department afforded him the opportunity to work on a Homeland Security program of 3-D mapping for first responders.

From GTAC, he moved to supporting the U.S. Army Apache Helicopter Project Office where he supported contract activities for the next generation of Apache helicopters.

While his career path to this point is impressive, it is where the path turned in April of 2014 that led to his ultimate dream job with NASA. Specifically, Kelley’s job includes supporting payload operations for the International Space Station as a flight operations controller at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

“My studies in Ag Econ provided many skills that have helped me achieve my dreams. One big piece was critical thinking: Working in real-time operations, you must be able to think clearly and quickly,” says Kelley. “Another area of study that has helped came from my marketing classes. To be successful, you must learn how to market yourself to your employer and colleagues. You must be able to continue on your path no matter what happens.”

Kelley shared one story where quick-thinking was a must: A problem arose when one of the international payload partners tried to speak with the astronauts onboard the International Space Station but lost communication with them. “Since I was sitting close to the ‘comm’ console, it was my task to help resolve the issue — and fast. After a few minutes of checking the settings, I informed my shift lead that we needed to fall over to our alternate voice loop configuration to get things working again. Once we made the change and coordinated with Houston Mission Control, we did a few voice checks and the payload partner was able to talk once again with the astronauts. It was all in a day’s work.

“Each day comes with it’s own set of challenges, but the thrill of being an integral part of space flight operations is well worth the challenge,” says Kelley.

Kelley has been recently assigned to a team to spearhead a new console position that builds on his current duties. This new position will be at Marshall Ground Control in the main payload control room at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

From configuring test support systems to monitoring real-time operations data, he is part of the space program.

“My time at Tennessee and with the Ag Econ department is one that has forever changed my life for the better. Whether it was learning about global trade of agricultural goods or debating the outcome of futures markets, these skills are priceless,” says Kelley. “The skills learned can be used directly and indirectly to any career you choose.”

“While our graduates are in high demand in the job market, we don’t normally think of NASA as one of our graduates’ potential employers. That is the beauty of a degree in agricultural economics: Our students are trained in business subjects that are needed in almost any industry, such as marketing, management, finance and environmental economics,” says AREC Department Head Delton Gerloff. “So even though Jason is not working for one of our traditional industry employers, it shows the adaptability of our program and our students.

“We are extremely proud of Jason’s accomplishments and hope we have, in some way, helped him realize his dreams. When we say the sky is the limit for our graduates, we really mean it.”