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Wenschel Lan, PhD

PhD in Astronautical Engineering ‘15
Associate Research Professor, Space Systems Academic Group

Dr. Wenschel Lan is an Associate Research Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. A graduate of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, she received Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in aerospace engineering in 2008. At Cal Poly, she was on the team that launched the first CubeSats on both Russian and U.S. launch vehicles. Starting in 2007, she worked at the Rocket Systems Launch Program Engineering Center in San Bernardino as a mechanical engineer performing independent verification and validation for target and space vehicles. Lan returned to academia in 2010 to pursue a PhD in aerospace engineering at NPS. As a research associate in the Space Systems Academic Group, she continued research in enabling multi-manifest CubeSat launch opportunities. Recognized as a subject matter expert in aerospace structural analysis and dynamics, she has consulted for various projects in the CubeSat and space launch communities. After earning her PhD in 2015, Lan continues to lead research of national interest and educate U.S. military officer students in space systems engineering and operations at NPS. Her teaching and research focus areas include spacecraft and payload design, augmenting national capabilities with small satellites and near-space platforms, and space applications for emerging technologies.

"We believe it is important to maintain our relevancy in emerging technologies so that our students have a working knowledge of the underlying concepts when they return to the Fleet. This in and of itself, is a way that we are shaping the future of space operations for the DOD."

What led you to the Naval Postgraduate School and what has been most impactful about your time here? How did earning your doctorate as a civilian at NPS impact your career and the research you conduct here?

I was interested in pursuing my doctorate degree at the Naval Postgraduate School because of the applied, defense-focused research that is conducted here. The most impactful experiences I’ve had at NPS have been with the people we work with, particularly the students. I’m always learning something from them, and I truly enjoy collaborating with them on the work that we’re doing. Earning my PhD as a civilian at NPS has given me a unique perspective on how space is critical to Naval operations, which provides a unique perspective on the research we conduct in the Small Satellite Lab.

You've been deeply involved in advising and serving as a second reader for numerous thesis and research projects at NPS. Could you share an example or two of recent students whose thesis work you found particularly impressive? Additionally, could you discuss the potential impacts that these projects could have for the DOD?

This is a really hard question to answer, as I have had the pleasure of working with many exceptional students during my tenure at NPS so far! The development of the terahertz imaging camera payload has had a few impressive Space Systems students help progress the maturity of this technology, under the amazing guidance of Dr. Fabio Alves in the Physics Department at NPS. We have been collaborating on this project since 2018. We are flying the first iteration of this capability on Mola, which is launching this week [March 20, 2024] out of Wallops Island, Virginia, on Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle as part of the NROL-123 mission.This version was built by Harrison English and Christopher Brave. The second iteration of the terahertz imager, developed in part by Matthew Stank, was presented to the Navy Space Experiment Review Board by Dr. Alves and shows promise as a space-based sensor for atmospheric oxygen content, which has potential benefits to DOD and other government agencies.

Watch: Dr. Wenschel Lan on importance of developing technological military leaders

In your role as an advisor, you've witnessed the development of innovative solutions like LED communication for CubeSats and machine learning algorithms for RF interference identification. How do you see these technologies shaping the future of space operations for the DOD, particularly in terms of improving communication resilience and spectrum awareness in contested environments?

Optical communications is becoming increasingly more proliferated in intersatellite communications. The way that the Starlink constellation uses optical links is a great example of the successful implementation of this capability at scale. It is only a matter of time before space-to-ground optical communications becomes a standard, and we believe it is important to maintain our relevancy in emerging technologies so that our students have a working knowledge of the underlying concepts when they return to the Fleet. This in and of itself, is a way that we are shaping the future of space operations for the DOD. Likewise, it is well-known that the RF spectrum is becoming increasingly noisy, and many of our students have first-hand experience with bad satellite communications. Providing them with both the opportunity to develop a potential solution and to learn about machine learning is another example of how we are equipping our Naval officers with the skills to navigate increasingly complex technical systems that they will eventually rely on for critical operations.

Why is it important for the Naval Postgraduate School to collaborate, iterate and rapidly prototype alongside industry partners, international partners and other government organizations? Can you provide an example of a current collaboration that is delivering real results to support the Navy and DOD’s Space Strategy?

One of the greatest advantages to collaboration is learning from our partners, which naturally leads to rapid innovation. By collaborating with partners from different sectors and different part of the world, we benefit from diversity of thought and are able to leverage our strengths to collectively make progress on hard problems. My current partnership with TrustPoint, Inc., a small startup that is looking to augment current global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) and provide improved position, navigation, and timing (PNT) services, is a good example of how collaborating with industry is mutually beneficial to both the industry partner and the Navy. TrustPoint gains insights into the Navy’s needs and problem sets, which will ultimately benefit the Navy when TrustPoint’s services become available to provide resiliency and stability in the space domain.

Increasingly, national and Department-level guidance and strategy reflect the centrality of space to U.S. national security and to the U.S. economy, as well as the growing threats to the domain. How has the evolution and scaling of commercial space systems influenced how NPS and the SSAG think about current and future space conflicts? And how does it affect NPS' contributions to national strategy and competition in the space domain?

The DOD has recently “leaned in” to leverage commercial space systems more so than ever, but the Space Systems Academic Group (SSAG) has always incorporated commercial space systems into its curriculum. NPS benefits from being close to the Silicon Valley in many ways, particularly in the space domain. We continually engage industry to provide guest lectures to our students; we have a course at the classified level on DOD and Commercial Space Systems; we work with industry to develop space missions, ranging from mission architectures to payload design to spacecraft operations. The recent evolution and scaling of commercial space systems presents our students with more opportunities than previously available to understand the quickly evolving landscape of space capabilities that will affect current and future space conflicts. This in turn will allow more students and faculty, beyond the SSAG, to consider how the space domain affects national strategy.

Listen to Dr. Wenschel Lan’s December 2023 Seapower Conversation with the Naval Warfare Studies Institute: Innovation in Combat - Commercial Space Capabilities & Applications

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