The Commercial Space Frontier Reignites Aviation Career

June 2018
Dean Fulmer
Dean Fulmer

Dean Fulmer's aviation career spans four decades, and he still has the same enthusiasm for his work that he did when he first entered the field. His secret? He keeps taking on new and interesting challenges. His latest focus is the burgeoning commercial space industry. But many other challenges preceded this one, and Fulmer brings a lifetime of aviation experience and expertise to his new role.

"I've had a love affair with aviation for 40 years," he says. "In college, a fraternity brother took me for a ride in a four-seat Piper Cherokee, and I was bitten by the bug. I couldn't start my own flying lessons quick enough."

Within two years, Fulmer not only had received his pilot's license, he was a flight instructor and flew charter flights out of Mankato and Rochester, Minnesota. That early experience soon led to a job as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). After 10 years in that role, Fulmer took on a variety of FAA managerial positions.

Unmanned Aircraft Take Flight

After 30 years with the FAA, Fulmer retired from the agency. But he viewed that as just the end of one chapter of his career.

"In my FAA roles, I had fantastic interactions with many people at MITRE. After I retired from government, MITRE offered me a chance to work in the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) arena—that was my area of responsibility at the FAA." Fulmer is one of many employees who have translated their agency experience into careers at the MITRE-operated Center for Advanced Aviation System Development.

"There was a tremendous amount of innovation taking place in the UAS industry," Fulmer says. "The sophistication of the vehicles and the breadth of their applications in both U.S. and international markets was expanding rapidly. Helping the FAA prepare to safely and efficiently accommodate these new aircraft into the National Airspace System (NAS) was exciting and challenging work."

Commercial Space: The Latest Frontier

But soon there was another rapidly evolving marketplace that captured Fulmer's imagination and attention—the commercial space industry. Spaceports were popping up across the country. Commercial enterprises were introducing an ever-widening variety of space vehicles into the NAS. And the potential uses for these vehicles continued to expand as well, from space tourism and high-speed point-to-point transportation to telecommunications and earth observation and monitoring.

"What was happening in the commercial space arena was similar to what had happened in the UAS arena some years earlier," he explains. "It was clear that the introduction of so many new space vehicles would create unique and significant challenges to the FAA. It would be no small task to integrate these new vehicles safely and efficiently into the NAS—without overly burdening the space operators or unduly disrupting the operations of existing airspace users."

To address this need, Fulmer proposed MITRE create a portfolio of work devoted strictly to commercial space operations. The company's leadership agreed and asked Fulmer to lead it.

"That's one of the great things about MITRE. As employees, we're encouraged to pursue our passions and expand our horizons."

Now Fulmer works directly with the FAA to explore the most effective ways to accommodate the growth in the commercial space industry while still maintaining efficiencies for legacy users of the NAS. "We're looking not only at the NAS of today, but also the NAS in five years as well as 15 or 20 years from now."

A Different Kind of Space Exploration

Fulmer also oversees a wide portfolio of projects devoted to that goal. In one effort, MITRE built a computer modeling prototype that assesses the effects of proposed commercial space launch and reentry operations on aircraft already flying in the nation's airspace. Other work provided the FAA with a flexible tool that can evaluate the safety of each launch and reentry scenario.

We're also working with the FAA to create a standardized decision process for categorizing and approving launch and reentry operations for commercial space vehicles entering the NAS. Based on this work, the FAA can determine the policies and procedures needed to support space operations.

MITRE has also identified the need to persistently track commercial space vehicles—as well as any ejected parts—to ensure the safety of all in the air and on the ground during their operations. MITRE researchers are studying a variety of options to provide this much-needed surveillance.

A Broad Impact

The variety of MITRE's work and its significance to the nation—along with the fast-paced innovation of the commercial space industry itself—all feed Fulmer's enthusiasm.

"I'm just loving the work," he says. "Companies are constantly developing new types of vehicles and new capabilities. Commercial space vehicles are being operated from more and more locations. The potential impact to airspace and our nation's gross domestic product are significant.

"It's very gratifying to be part of something that is so important to our country's infrastructure and our overall safety."

—Marlis McCollum

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