Noah Kutz was 5 years old and watching television when he noticed the space shuttle Discovery leave the launch pad and soar into the sky. It was the moment when he first began dreaming about space, space flight and someday working among the stars.
Seventeen years later, as Kutz prepares to graduate from Iowa State University this Saturday, the stars are within his reach.
“To be graduating and watching my dreams become a reality is amazing,” Kutz said. “I’ve been a self-described ‘space nerd’ my whole life and the kid who always loved math and science. I’ve probably seen ‘Empire Strikes Back’ a hundred times.”
On Saturday, Kutz will receive a bachelor’s degree in physics—and turn the page to a new chapter. This fall, he begins the Graduate Space Systems (GSS) program at the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), a highly competitive military graduate school.
Located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio, the AFIT admitted only two Iowans this year: Kutz and his friend Alex Stephens (’21 computer engineering).
The force is strong with this one
Kutz will be the only cadet in the GSS program. His academic peers will include captains and majors with several years of military experience.
“It was quite a surprise and an honor to be accepted,” Kutz said. “I’m looking forward to learning from my instructors and my fellow students.”
The GSS program offers an intensive, broad study of space-systems engineering and space science, preparing students for a wide range of space-related careers.
“I’ll learn how to launch satellites and about space vehicles and related infrastructure, as well as space defense and communications,” Kutz said. “I’ll also lead and manage research projects related to Space Force.”
Propelled by opportunities
Although his plans for a space-science career were solidified during childhood—Kutz has remained flexible and innovative during his time on the Iowa State campus.
“I found that the best way to learn and grow is to get involved outside of your degree field and be open to new things,” he said.
Kutz learned to speak Russian after perusing the Department of Defense’s list of critical languages. The list identifies less-common languages that are important for American military personnel to learn, as a matter of national security.
A summer-abroad experience, through the Russian studies program, allowed Kutz to live and study in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“Not only did my language skills improve, I met so many interesting people and I learned about Russia, the culture and what life was like there,” he said.
Kutz says that he is now “pretty close to being fluent.” He plans to build on his Russian language skills in graduate school, incentivized by the cooperative dynamics and daily communication between Russian and American space scientists.
Kutz also serves and supports international students who are new to Ames, through his involvement with the International Friendship Connection, an on-campus student organization.
“One of the smartest decisions I ever made”
While Kutz values his international experiences, he’s quick to note that his most valuable lessons have been learned on campus, through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) program.
“Signing up for ROTC was definitely one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made,” Kutz said.
He credits the ROTC with broadening his Iowa State education and helping him to gain acceptance into the GSS program.
“The amount of personal growth I’ve experienced through ROTC has been incredible,” he said. “I’ve learned how to become an effective leader and communicator.”
After completing his master’s degree in space systems at the AFIT, Kutz will be classified as a physicist officer. He hopes to work for the federal government on space-related projects.
“I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but even the uncertainty is exciting,” Kutz said. “I find it fascinating that I could be learning new things and studying about technology and projects that I am not aware of right now.”
Kutz is certain, however, that it’s an ideal time to begin a career in the space sciences.
“I feel like I was born at the perfect time, when space is more accessible and private companies have pushed the boundaries and made space flight cheaper,” Kutz said. “NASA will return to the moon and conduct Mars missions which will be so cool to watch. It’s a great time to be a part of all of this.”
The 5-year-old boy who once watched the space shuttle launch on a television screen, is now 22 years old—and this weekend he’ll cross the graduation stage at Jack Trice Stadium.
“From the ‘space nerd’ perspective I have to consider my life complete,” Kutz said. “Being able to achieve my goals like this through Iowa State, the physics department, ROTC and all of the people who have helped me get this far, is a dream come true.”