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Headshot of Ashley Kulikowski

Eyes on the Sky, Boots on the Ground

Like many people who grew up staring at the stars, Ashley Kulikowski dreamed of having a career in the space industry. In a few months, that dream will come true.

“I get asked all the time if I’m going to be an astronaut,” she laughed, gesturing at her T-shirt printed with a design of the Vitruvian Man in a space suit. “But there’s so much more to space than just astronauts! There’s all the people who make the rockets and satellites work.”

Kulikowski will soon be monitoring and protecting satellites as an officer in the US Space Force. Just like a satellite launch, though, Kulikowski’s career plans took a lot of time—and one enormous push—to get off the ground.

Love of Space and Service

Kulikowski has many fond memories of building model rockets and taking in the night sky with her father. Though an active military member, he always had time to appreciate rare astronomical events with his family.

“When my dad knew that space events like meteor showers were coming up, he’d wake me up at two in the morning and we’d go into our backyard to watch,” Kulikowski said.

His dedication to both space and service inspired Kulikowski.

“Seeing my dad serve when I was a kid, it felt really important for me to be able to give back where I could,” she said. “That was something I wanted to be able to do.”

A Smooth Takeoff in UT’s AFROTC

In high school, Kulikowski discovered a love for higher math and physics. While considering how best to combine that passion with military service, Kulikowski visited the University of Tennessee—and everything fell into place.

“When I came and toured UT, I fell in love with the campus,” she recalled. “The atmosphere, the team mentality that this university has, you don’t see that in a lot of other colleges.”

To support her interest in math and space, she opted to major in aerospace engineering. Her excellent grades and physical fitness earned her an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) high school scholarship, which covered the majority of her college expenses. Assuming she performed well in her classes and AFROTC training, it also gave her a guaranteed job after graduation.

As long as she met the expectations she had set for herself, in five years she would be a commissioned officer in the Air Force.

Then, six months into her plan, a different path appeared.

Taking a Chance and Landing an Interview

On December 20, 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law, marking the birth of the US Space Force.

While the new military branch was intriguing in theory, Kulikowski kept her focus on her AFROTC duties.

“I was trying to convince myself that it wasn’t what I wanted,” she recalled. “I don’t know why, because I always had that interest in space. It kind of challenged what I thought my career was going to look like and I think that intimidated me a little bit.”

Then, in January 2023, Kulikowski had the opportunity to compete to join the Space Force. If she submitted an interest survey and qualified for an interview, and the interview went well, she would be offered a commission in the Space Force.

With the deadline approaching fast, Kulikowski struggled to make a decision.

“I kept wanting to fill it out but telling myself no,” she said. “Then, the day that it was due, I had a serious conversation with myself: ‘Okay, for the last four years you’ve told yourself you’re going to be in the Air Force, but now this new opportunity’s presented (itself). Why are you hesitating? It seems like it’s what you want.’”

On an impulse, and with hours to spare, she submitted the survey—and landed an interview. After four years looking ahead to an Air Force placement, Kulikowski had launched herself into the unknown instead.

“Looking at what I wanted to do, and my interests, it was the right call. It’s what I wanted,” she said. “I’m glad I did it.”

Bringing the Space Force to UT

Once she embraced the idea of being in the Space Force, Kulikowski let herself explore everything the new branch had to offer.

While awaiting the results of her interview, Kulikowski joined AFROTC cadets from across the country in the Azimuth program at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado. Azimuth cadets receive specialized training related to their interest in commissioning with the Space Force.

During Azimuth, Kulikowski also learned about i5 Space, a national student organization focused on space education and operated in conjunction with the Space Force’s Space Training and Readiness Command (STARCOM).

“As of right now, only about five people from UT’s AFROTC have commissioned into the Space Force,” said Kulikowski. “I wanted to bring this organization back to Tennessee to hopefully get more people interested in space.”

With help from the i5 members she met in Colorado, Kulikowski started the i5 Space squadron within UT’s AFROTC in September of 2023. The squadron meets multiple times a month to learn about and discuss space history, cyber capabilities, recent rocket launches, and developments within the Space Force.

Kulikowski was awarded her job in the Space Force shortly after starting the i5 squadron. Most of the squadron’s members still plan to go into the Air Force after graduation—but Kulikowski hopes that with a better understanding of space, the Space Force, and available career options, some will follow her lead.

“Space is a growing industry and it’s only going to keep growing,” she said. “We as a country are going to have to start looking at the laws we have that apply to space, what research in space we can do. Space provides a lot of opportunities.”


Izzie Gall (865-974-7203,