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Dr. Matthew Jenkins (’23), Building Satellites and Impacting Space Policy

Matt Jenkins HeadshotDr. Matthew Jenkins (’23) had spent 16 years serving in the U.S. Air Force and Space Force, where he built and operated satellites to support the military and the Intelligence Community. He was ready to learn additional skills beyond engineering. After falling in love with strategic-level policy during an assignment on Capitol Hill, he decided to pursue IWP’s Doctor of Statecraft of National Security to connect his technical expertise to an in-depth understanding of space policy issues. As a result, he has interfaced with the National Space Council at the Executive Office of the President and briefed the House Homeland Security Committee staff on emerging space challenges.

Engineering satellites for the U.S. military

When Matthew Jenkins joined the military, it felt completely natural to him. “Everyone in my family was in the military – my grandparents, parents, and siblings.” What didn’t immediately come naturally was his assignment to work on satellites as a brand-new Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

“I wasn’t well enough prepared for this work, so I studied it,” said Matt. “I dove into the books, I got smart on antenna design, and I earned a degree from Georgia Tech in engineering.”

Soon, Matt was building and launching satellites for the Intelligence Community and warfighters. In 2013, he started flying satellites in space – “this was one of the coolest jobs I ever had.” He worked 12-hour shifts, often at night, and felt very connected to the satellite users in deployed locations. He later worked on flight test of aircraft for a while but soon came back to building satellites and has been doing it ever since. In the course of his work, he has been able engage at all levels of government including preparing President’s Daily Briefs. “I love my job immensely,” he said.

And Matt excelled at his work. The Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, presented him with a national intelligence award, and he won a National Reconnaissance Office gold medal for service, which was rare for someone as young as Matt.

Matt Jenkins with DNI Dan Coats
Matt Jenkins receiving a national intelligence award from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Please note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) or Military-themed visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

But for Matt, the biggest reward is the impact he knows the satellites are having: “I know that satellites I have helped build and deliver have helped our nation do incredible things. It is rewarding to see what these satellites are doing for our policymakers and to keep our sailors, soldiers, and airmen safe.”

In 2016, Matt was assigned to work with Capitol Hill as a legislative liaison for the National Reconnaissance Office. “It was my first exposure to the strategic level where people formulate and implement policy,” said Matt. “I fell in love with policy work.”

Meanwhile, Matt was beginning to think about his next steps. He knew he couldn’t stay in the military forever, but he felt his only true expertise was in building satellites. “I needed an education that would help me branch out into different things. You can be a technical expert at something, but it doesn’t necessarily make you an effective executive.”

Matt Jenkins with a rocket

Exploring space policy at IWP

A few years later, Matt was on an airplane flying across the country when he saw an ad in Hemispheres magazine for IWP. He got in touch with IWP’s Office of Graduate Recruitment and attended an open house at the Institute to learn more.

IWP’s professional doctoral program appealed to him. Whereas a traditional Ph.D. typically involves diving deeper into your current field of expertise, IWP’s professional doctorate would allow Matt to explore a new area.

Beginning IWP’s course of study was challenging: “I’m an engineer, so in the past, everything had an answer. But in philosophy and politics, there are different shades of what is good. It was hard to adapt to writing papers.”

Despite the challenges, Matt enjoyed his studies. “Prof. Joseph Wood was amazing. He was engaging, and he made philosophy approachable.”

Prof. John Tsagronis helped Matt begin to think about space policy strategically. “I can talk about technical stuff all day long, but this doesn’t connect to a larger audience,” said Matt. “I needed to focus on why satellites are important for national security, how we use them to make decisions, and what they provide for our country. Our country is dependent on space-enabled technologies, and our adversaries know this and are trying to slow us down.”

In Dr. Frank Marlos’ class on strategy, Matt examined tomorrow’s space problems, including the increasingly congested and contested space near Earth.

Matt receiving his Doctor of Statecraft and National Security at Commencement in May 2023
Matt receiving his Doctor of Statecraft and National Security at Commencement in May 2023

Marlo’s class helped Matt apply Carl von Clausewitz’s ideas about why countries go to war with our current space challenges. “War begins because governments feel that it will satisfy a political objective – so, how does space connect to politics on the ground?” said Matt. “There is limited space, and many countries want to use it. This problem is only going to get bigger in scope and scale.”

Matt also found Dr. Marek Chodakiewicz’s course on Geography and Strategy helpful in examining space issues. “We tend to think of space as a big black void, but there are absolutely geographical points in space,” said Matt. “Once you identify these important points – including the moon, orbits around Earth, etc., you can come up with strategies to focus on those pieces of space.”

IWP helped Matt connect what he saw in his operational work with satellites with the big policy issues surrounding space. “In my space operations, I have watched countries play a giant chess game in real life as we jockey satellites. This happens because we don’t know what is going on.”

One big issue that Matt examined from a policy perspective at IWP is rendezvous proximity operations – when two satellites are very close to each other. Perhaps they are taking pictures. Perhaps they are listening. China has demonstrated its ability to reach out and grab things in space. Matt concluded that we cannot stop other countries from developing these capabilities, and therefore it will be important to come up with a policy that says that proximity is normal. These satellites will have to find a way to coexist through transparency and confidence-building measures. “An analogous situation is the sea,” said Matt. “The Chinese chase our ships and vice versa, and we watch each other. That watching ensures no one gets overly anxious about what the other is doing.”

Because he understands how satellites work, Matt is better able to conceive policy solutions because he is not stuck in the realm of the theoretical. He can bridge the gap between the technical and the political.

“The IWP education has been immensely valuable to me,” said Matt. “I have not found the core curriculum anywhere else. And IWP professors are people who have been there and done it.” Matt said that in engineering, theory can be wildly different from how something actually works in the real world. National security is a similar situation, and he appreciated that the IWP professors taught from experience – very often, recent experience.

“Prof. Tsagronis can tell you stories all day, and he has so much knowledge about how the government works,” said Matt. “It’s incredible to see these professors give up their time to teach the next generation about how the world works. This is the essence of what IWP provides that I haven’t found anywhere else, and I have been in a lot of places.”

Matt speaking at the IWP Gala in 2022
Matt speaking at the IWP Gala in 2022. Please note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) or Military-themed visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Briefing senior officials on space policy

During an early meeting with his thesis advisor at IWP, Matt was asked what he wanted to get out of his degree program. He said that he wanted to become a better writer. His advisor told Matt to write – all the time!

Matt soon found himself involved in the national discussion on space policy. “My writing for outlets like Space Review got me exposure to the broader audiences working on space policy issues.”

He was invited to speak with the National Space Council within the Executive Office of the President about some of the challenges facing our country, like space norms and rules of behavior and Transparency and Confidence Building Measures. “It was cool to go to the Executive Office Building. I got a level of access that I couldn’t envision in my lifetime,” said Matt.

One thing he discussed there was the question of creating a national registry for cleared space objects so that we understand all of our country’s materials in space and where their parts are coming from in the supply chain.

He also addressed the challenge of overcrowding in space. “The space we humans use is actually really, really small,” said Matt. “If we put up lots of satellites, it will be an issue and increases the likelihood that they will collide.”

In a briefing to staffers from the House Homeland Security Committee, Matt reviewed the challenges associated with U.S. dependency on space-enabled technology. He discussed the sizes of orbits and satellites, the growing numbers of satellites in space, the space-enabled technology that we use daily, threats in space from our adversaries, and vulnerabilities that exist in our space capabilities.

In both briefings, Matt made sure to explain that he was not speaking as a member of the military, but on the basis of his academic research at IWP. “The education I received and the encouragement from my advisor to do more really helped,” said Matt.

Matt Jenkins with a rocket
Please note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) or Military-themed visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Continuing to build satellites for the Intelligence Community

Matt’s current project with Space Force, “Silent Barker,” is an effort to improve situational awareness in space. Matt is in charge of building and launching satellites that are designed to provide greater knowledge of what is happening in space.

“We know that China, Russia, and other countries are looking to create enhanced space capabilities,” said Matt. “Russia has shot things out of space. The U.S. recognizes that there are times that we don’t know exactly what other countries are doing with their satellites.”

Matt and his colleagues are putting systems in place to monitor what “normal” looks like in space. Once our country has a good understanding of “normal,” we can figure out what the deviations are and, if there is a deviation, what to do.

Matt in front of a Wideband Global SATCOM satellite—where he first got into satellite manufacturing and test
Matt (left) in front of a Wideband Global SATCOM satellite—where he first got into satellite manufacturing and test

Continuing to impact space policy in the future

Space policy is a new and rapidly developing area. “We don’t have a Mahan, Corbett, or Clausewitz in space policy yet,” said Matt, referring to foundational thinkers in naval strategy and the political aspects of waging war, respectively. “Now is the time to think about the strategic challenges we will absolutely face and what some of the solutions might be.”

Having graduated in May, Matt continues to write articles on these topics and is writing a chapter for a forthcoming book. He would like to teach a class at IWP on the geopolitics of outer space.

Eventually, he hopes to serve in the national policy apparatus at a level that makes an impact: “I would like to shape the future of space policy for our nation.”

Please note: These are Matt’s personal views and do not constitute endorsement by the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Space Force.

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Doctor of Statecraft and National Security

Doctoral Graduates 2023
Matt with fellow doctoral graduates in May 2023