May 24, 2022
Feature

Building a Pipeline of Space Cyber Defenders

PNNL and Space Force launch college-to-career cybersecurity program to prepare students to protect space-based technologies

illustration of space technologies

The Cyber Halo Innovation Research Program—a collaboration between Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command—is a two-year college-to-career cybersecurity program that prepares students to defend the nation’s space systems.

(Image by nmedia | Shutterstock.com)

Cybercrime is a growing threat to critical space-based technologies—from the satellites that feed communication devices to the global positioning systems that enable military operations. And as the United States continues to expand capabilities in space, the need to secure and protect space-based assets from hackers and other malicious actors has never been greater.

But finding cybersecurity professionals is tough. Currently, there are 600,000 open cybersecurity jobs in the United States, but only enough qualified workers to fill 400,000 of them. This deep shortage of cybersecurity talent not only puts a strain on employers, but it leaves crucial digital systems—both on Earth and in space—vulnerable to cyberattacks.

In an effort to grow the cybersecurity workforce needed to build more resilient and secure space systems, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has teamed up with U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command to create the Cyber Halo Innovation Research Program—or CHIRP.

CHIRP brings together government, industry, and colleges and universities to provide students a direct two-year pathway to a cybersecurity career at Space Systems Command or their industry partners. California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) is the first higher education institution to join the effort.

“There is an urgent need for professionals with the specialized expertise to protect our mission-critical, space-borne assets from cyber threats by adversaries,” said Colonel Jennifer Krolikowski-Stamer, chief information officer at Space Systems Command. “Through this collaboration, we hope to drive innovation and grow a diverse pipeline of talent in cybersecurity for Space Systems Command and beyond.”

A focus on cyber space research

Students who participate in the career-preparation program receive two years of intensive training designed specifically to equip them for jobs protecting the nation’s vital space-based technologies from cyber threats.

Throughout the program, they work closely with mentors from PNNL, Space Systems Command, and industry on space-related cybersecurity research projects—using tools and techniques that apply directly to the types of challenges they will face in their future careers.  

Hands-on research experiences are a key component. Students are required to complete a research-focused internship in industry. They will also spend a week at PNNL conducting realistic cyber experiments in laboratory spaces, such as the CyberNet Testbed and the Internet of Things Common Operating Environment.  

“This collaboration with Space Systems Command is an opportunity for us to create awareness, inspire, and train the future cybersecurity workforce,” said Evangelina Shreeve, director of PNNL’s Office of STEM Education. “It builds on the strengths of PNNL's cybersecurity researchers and STEM education professionals, and the partnership with CSUSB means we will serve students who have been underrepresented in STEM fields.”

PNNL's cybersecurity operations center
Students in the CHIRP college-to-career program will complete a one-week cybersecurity research experience at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Opening opportunities for students

Students selected for the program receive the Space Cyber Research Scholarship and commit to working at Space Systems Command or a selected industry partner, such as PNNL, after receiving their degree. The program focuses on partnering with minority-serving institutions that have a proven track record of preparing a diverse population of students for cybersecurity and computer science careers.

“CHIRP removes financial barriers and opens opportunities for underserved and underrepresented students to work hand-in-hand with industry on space cyber research as they pursue their cybersecurity careers,” said Vincent Nestler, a professor of cybersecurity at CSUSB.

In 2020, the National Security Agency named CSUSB a Center of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity Community National Center. With this designation, the university received a $10.5 million grant from the agency to lead cybersecurity workforce development efforts.

The university, PNNL, and Space Systems Command will cement their partnership with the signing of a memorandum of understanding on May 25, at 9 a.m. (PDT). The signing ceremony will take place at the Space Systems Command headquarters on the Los Angeles Air Force Base. To view the event virtually, register to receive the Zoom link.

PNNL’s Office of STEM Education and National Security Directorate, with funding from Space Systems Command, developed CHIRP as part of PNNL's mission as a Department of Energy national laboratory to train and support a diverse science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforceFor more information, email chirp@pnnl.gov.

Published: May 24, 2022