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UC Berkeley Eyes $2B Space Center in Silicon Valley

Students and faculty would benefit from proximity to NASA’s researchers and facilities, including powerful supercomputers. They would also work alongside 25 firms already onsite, such as tech giant Google.

With a rising generation of young people drawn to space studies, research challenges and career opportunities, UC Berkeley is planning a $2 billion, 36-acre space center at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, which will feature needed classrooms, laboratories and housing — along with possibilities for collaborative research with NASA scientists and private industry.

“The planned expansion of Berkeley’s physical footprint and academic reach represents a fantastic and unprecedented opportunity for our students, faculty and staff,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said at the project’s unveiling last week. “We are thrilled by the prospect of new collaborations that can speed the translation of research discoveries into the inventions, technologies and services that will advance the greater good.”

As space exploration pivots from an industry dominated by governments to one increasingly shaped by commercial players — from giant SpaceX to niche startups — the $500 billion economy is on pace to surpass $1 trillion by the end of the decade, according to projections by financial institutions and the nonprofit Space Foundation.

That larger nexus among government, industry and academia is at the heart of the Berkeley center. Discussions to create it began five years ago as NASA Ames has sought to add a major academic presence to its mix of federal and industry researchers at Moffett Field in Mountain View since 2002.

Nearly 40 percent of NASA’s science and engineering workers are age 55 and over, and aerospace workforce shortages loom.

NASA hopes to better connect with UC Berkeley faculty for potential research partnerships. NASA Ames signed a 99-year lease with UC Berkeley, which created a joint venture with SKS Partners, a Bay Area development firm, to help develop the site and secure private industry tenants. UC Berkeley will occupy 10 percent of the site for starters and eventually enlarge the presence of UC campuses and affiliates to 40 percent.

UC Berkeley has long hoped to build a satellite location to expand its reach beyond its aging, cramped campus. That trend has accelerated at other UC campuses, which are under pressure to increase enrollment and build more housing, classrooms and laboratories.

In the last 13 months, UCLA has purchased two large parcels of property in the South Bay and another building in downtown Los Angeles. UC Davis is developing a technology campus, Aggie Square, in downtown Sacramento. And UC San Diego last year opened a four-story, 66,750-square-foot building downtown as a cultural, educational and business hub.

Darek DeFreece, the UC Berkeley project’s founder and executive director, said students and faculty would benefit from proximity to NASA’s researchers and facilities, including the world’s largest wind tunnel and powerful supercomputers. They will also work alongside 25 firms already onsite, such as Google, and new industry tenants.

Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2026, pending environmental reviews, but project partners already are working to secure tenants. The university estimates it could bring in $40 million a year in rent, philanthropy, grants and course fees.

Campus officials have begun to look into areas of potential research collaborations that would build on Berkeley’s existing work with NASA operating satellites and building instruments for spacecraft. Areas of interest include how to sustain life in extreme environments such as Mars, protect astronauts from radiation and other health hazards, use 3-D printers to make needed supplies in space and, lower in the atmosphere, develop the automation of electric flying vehicles.

Claire Tomlin, chair of Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences department, said Moffett Field will offer an “outdoor testbed” for research in how to integrate drones and other unpiloted aerial vehicles — which are being increasingly used to deliver medical supplies, for instance — into air traffic control systems. She anticipated greater collaborations in such fields as artificial intelligence, electronics and new materials.

Policy questions, such as how to govern business in space and control commercial exploitation, are also drawing interest.

To meet the rising interest in the field, UC Berkeley started an aerospace engineering major last year, attracting 2,000 applicants for 80 seats — a 4 percent admission rate. The campus expects to hire six new faculty members as it expands the program to 250 students, said Panayiotis Papadopoulos, director of aerospace programs in the engineering college, who led development of the major. A new degree in aerospace data science is being considered.

UC Berkeley, one of the nation’s top universities for producing startup founders, has also added an aerospace track to its global entrepreneurship program, called SkyDeck. More than 400 undergraduates are involved in various aerospace-related clubs that build rockets, research flying vehicles, and promote career opportunities and other activities, Papadopoulos said.

© 2023 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.