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March 13, 2020

Josh Cooper: Lessons learned from three days at NASA

MSU student-entrepreneur Josh Cooper is a junior majoring in advertising management in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. He is the CEO and founder of SKOOP Digital, software that provides revenue-generating digital signage. This story highlights his recent trip to NASA as an invited student. 

T-Minus 45 Seconds to Go

I am currently as close as humans can stand to an orbital rocket launch without being killed — roughly three miles away. Soon the sonic boom from the ignition will travel across the water and hit me in the chest like a punch. I can’t wait!

Assuming all goes as planned, in approximately 45 seconds, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Cargo Dragon capsule, will blast off and leave planet Earth.

Falcon 9, which is nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty, is currently peacefully sitting vertically on Launch Pad-40. The Cargo Dragon is mounted atop the Falcon 9 booster. Dragon is packed to the brim with cargo and science experiments that will soon be on the way to the International Space Station, or ISS.

T-Minus 30 Seconds to Go


“All systems are go for launch,” Mission Control and the flight director’s voices blare through loudspeakers.

I‘m standing at the top of an exclusive viewing deck that NASA calls the “Media Bleachers.” I’m next to reporters broadcasting this historic launch to countries around the world.

I am here because I was selected by NASA to have the honor of representing Michigan State University at a NASA Social. Each year, NASA invites a handful of people who have a large reach via social media. I was one of those people. Our job is to help NASA encourage public interest in space exploration.

A triple security clearance with K-9s was required to get to this historic viewing point at NASA’s Cape Canaveral SpacePort.

My hands are shaking at my sides, pulsing with excitement. My face hurts from smiling so hard. I have been waiting half my life for this experience.

T-Minus 25 Seconds to Go

The stakes are high. That’s what all of us at the viewing deck are thinking about. Dragon is loaded with 4,500 lbs of cargo and experiments from NASA, universities and private companies such as Adidas and Delta Faucet.

Each item on board is precious. Among the cargo: food and supplies for the astronauts on board the ISS. There are experiments stored in special cases about the size of a toaster.

Brilliant students, scientists and private companies have spent millions of dollars and years to get their experiments on board. They too are in the crowd next to me anxiously waiting.

They have every right to be anxious — currently, not a single insurance provider covers space cargo. Their life’s work will either go up and advance humankind’s knowledge . . . or, if things go awry, it’ll be vaporized. Like I said, the stakes are high.


T-Minus 20 Seconds to Go

A white cloud of liquid nitrogen unfurls from out of the side of the rocket. This is normal, It means the fuel tanks are filled and Falcon 9 is starting to come alive. In 20 seconds, the impossible is about to become possible.

Against all odds, the Falcon 9 will plow through Earth’s atmosphere and launch Cargo Dragon into orbit, eventually, autonomously docking itself to the ISS.

Falcon 9 will then plummet back to Earth like a meteorite, finally firing its retro rockets to land itself softly, vertically, back at Cape Canaveral.

This highly innovative process is designed so that rockets can be reusable, like airplanes and other commonly used modes of transit. Reusable rockets mean cheaper trips to space, which opens the door to public and commercial missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

A decade ago, this technology seemed like a far-away dream or something relegated to science fiction. In 20 seconds, I’ll witness it as a scientific fact.

T-Minus 15 Seconds To Go

At T-Minus-15, I start thinking about how we got here. I think about all of those who were ambitious enough to believe in aiming higher and literally reaching for the stars. I think about the hundreds of universities, millions of people, billions of dollars and the lives given to bring humanity to this very moment. I think about the directors of MSU’s Hatch Incubator, my advisers at CommArts, my mentors at the Broad School, my incredible employees, investors and customers at my business, SKOOP.

These people are my “Falcon 9.” They are the megaton boosters that push me forward and keep me reaching higher. Their expertise and guidance have helped me get to these once in a lifetime experiences.

“We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard.” -President John F. Kennedy

Being a full-time student entrepreneur is really, really hard. There are huge sacrifices and opportunity costs. But there are tricks I have found that increase one’s chances of getting “lucky.”

If you focus on placing yourself in environments where opportunity is readily available and cautiously look for unique ways to capitalize on those opportunities, amazing things can happen.

I’m T-Minus 15 seconds away from one of those amazing experiences.

I hear President Kennedy’s words differently now. He was urging us to “reach higher.”

T-Minus 12 Seconds to Go

The crowd around me is now silent . . . I’m thinking about the NASA employees whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the past 48 hours. I had exclusive behind-the-scenes tours from the vantage point of the masterminds who make the impossible possible.

They showed me roughly a dozen of NASA’s most innovative facilities . . . I crawled into a freezer so that a NASA vegetation scientist could show me how we will grow plants and food on other worlds like the moon and Mars . . . I stood on Launch Pad 39-B, from where the shuttle used to launch . . . I spoke with the launch pad director about the renovations he is doing, so the pad can get ready for NASA’s new SLS rocket . . . I met the Boston University chemistry professor who spent years with his students designing one of the precious experiments on board . . . I am realizing that these people are my real teachers; and the facilities we are standing in are my classroom.

T-Minus 10 . . 9 . . 8 . . 7 . . .

It’s game time. I’m thinking about the future. Not just 10 seconds ahead but 10 years ahead. I am thinking about young dreamers who are right now between the ages of 7 and 17.

They are living in what promises to be another Golden Age for space exploration — prime candidates to take humanity's biggest leap and step foot on Mars. Universities like Michigan State are expanding their resources to prepare these future innovators, entrepreneurs and martians.

T-Minus 3 . . 2 . . 1 — “We have lift off”

The crowd goes wild.

Within seconds, as Falcon 9 defies gravity, it starts to look like another massive sun in the sky. Falcon 9 is traveling two times the speed of sound.


The sonic boom sounds like an atomic bomb. Car alarms are going off. The ground shakes like an earthquake. Chills through my body . . . It was awesome.

T-Plus 120 Seconds

Main engines cut off. It takes less than two minutes for Falcon 9 to leave the planet. Stage Separation happens. Cargo Dragon disconnects from Falcon 9 and starts to accelerate to 17,000mph to catch up to the ISS, which has been orbiting Earth and serves as the home of astronauts from various countries for the past 20 years.

Rocket science


T-Plus 9 Minutes

Shortly after Falcon 9 starts to fall back to Earth the reentry burn begins. Falcon 9 floats down smoothly, perfectly landing itself back at the Cape right back where it started. It all happened so fast. Precision perfect.

Post launch, I realize it’s a metaphor — the incredible amount of time and preparation leading up to the event is the true journey. Much like rockets, life moves fast. College moves especially fast. It’s important to never waste a second. It’s essential to place yourself in environments where opportunity is all around you and to be intentional about leveraging those resources.

And never stop learning. Strive to make the impossible possible. Aim higher. Turn the world into your classroom.

By: Josh Cooper