Student Programs Developing Next-Generation Engineers

By | March 1, 2008 | Feature

During the 1960s and 70s, the space industry attracted
America’s best and brightest. But look around at nearly any conference and many of the attendees can be best described by a four-letter word: gray. Satellite companies have found it difficult to attract the next generation of engineering talent, but universities are working to reverse that trend.

According to the American Institute of Aeronautic and Astronautics, the median age of its membership is in the low 50s, meaning the satellite industry may soon see a large exodus of highly skilled workers. It is well known that the United States needs to develop more engineering talent to remain competitive in the global market place. Fewer students are entering engineering in the United States, while the strong economies in emerging markets are stoking the fires of advanced learning. “The mean age is closing in on 55 years,” says John Roth, CEO of MicroSat. “We need to be very attentive to how we develop the next generation of engineers. We need to excite young students about becoming engineers.”

But merely turning out more engineers may not solve the satellite industry’s problems, as the allure of Silicon Valley has been pulling engineering talent away from space and into new fields. Recruiting young, talented engineers is certainly a top priority at space-related businesses but finding new workers never is easy. “Headhunters call me all the time asking if I know of any engineers looking for a job,” says David Kanipe, chief of the aeroscience and flight mechanics division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Recruiters are having a hard time finding enough qualified engineers to place. It is certainly not a buyer’s market.”

“On-The-Job” Training

One way to attract and develop engineers to the space field is gaining traction at more and more universities throughout the United States. With abysmally small budgets, some of these schools have developed their own space programs that allow students to conceive, design, build, and in some cases, launch and operate orbiting satellites. These programs go beyond theoretical education, providing students invaluable experience that normally would be gained only through on-the-job training and helping to build a love of space in a new generation of technology experts.

When Helen Reed become head of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M in December 2004 she brought with her the concept of a student-led satellite program. Her previous efforts in developing satellite programs at Arizona State University led to the 2000 launch of the 6 kilogram ASUSat1 spacecraft on the inaugural U.S. Air Force Minotaur mission with Orbital Sciences and the launch of two of the three satellites in the Three Corner Satellites program on the Boeing’s Delta 4 heavy demonstration mission in 2004. Reed recruited Joe Perez, a 20-year industry veteran, to help her run the AggieSat Lab Student Satellite Program, which  exposes students to the entire engineering process involved with building, launching and flying a satellite. “The program is voluntary and is open to all students, even if they aren’t engineering majors,” says Reed. “They are exposed to every level — from the proposal phase, to building and testing, and  all the way to launch and operation. Students do all of the work while professors serve as advisers and mentors.”

Between 30 and 40 undergraduates and a smaller number of graduate students work on the AggieSat program, and the laboratory usually is very crowded at night and on weekends, says Ryan Goodnight, a graduate student who serves as the lead adviser. “You might be surprised how busy the lab is between midnight and 2 a.m.,” he says. “The students are very excited about the chance to work on a real satellite. It is real-world engineering experience, plus they get exposed to other disciplines as well.”

The AggieSat program includes an eight-year, four-mission campaign with Johnson Space Center. AggieSat 2 will be one of two satellites that will work together to demonstrate autonomous rendezvous and docking technologies and will test a GPS device designed and developed by Johnson Space Center. The University of Texas at Austin will design the other satellite, Paradigm. Each of the two satellites will have identical capabilities but not necessarily be identical in design. AggieSat 3 is a separate collaboration among between Texas A&M University, NASA and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The satellite will investigate close proximity navigation using a stereo vision system and is designed to compete as part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Nanosat 5 program.

“The AggieSat program is a good example of the really great university space programs here in the United States,” Kanipe says. “Students learn how to collaborate and work as a team. They learn about the importance of writing good documentation and learn that a customer can change their mind. We need to do a better job enticing students to enter the fields of math and engineering. If we don’t, we will lose whatever edge we have. The AggieSat program is the kind of program that will entice gifted high school students to go into engineering because it adds a new dimension to their education. Dr. Reed’s vision has really invigorated the whole program.”

Michael Swartwout, who runs the Aerospace Systems Laboratory at Washing University at St. Louis, has seen his program grow from just four students six years ago to several dozen core members and another group about the same size on the periphery. “The satellite program gives the students a taste of what industry looks like,” he says. “They have to work together as a team and they get to make colossal mistakes. In our program, this might cost $1,000 and delay a project six weeks, not millions of dollars and several years. There is definite value in burning your fingers when the cost is low. Our students learn that you can’t cut corners and there is a definite value in documentation and following procedures.”

The relatively low cost of the programs also provides the students the opportunity to try things that companies might not want to risk on programs with much larger budgets. Some of Washington University’s satellite programs are straightforward while others are cutting edge, perhaps even visionary. “We can test out things that are too leading edge or too risky for industry,” says Swartwout. “Even if they don’t work, you have learned something.”

One such program on which Swartwout’s students are working, called Bandit, involves extremely small deployables, which are tiny satellites with nonessential equipment stripped off. The free flyers work in conjunction with a mother ship which houses navigational equipment and other essential systems. Freed of major subsystems, the spacecraft are very small and could serve as inspectors, photographing parts a spacecraft such as the tiles of the space shuttle, from very close range and then returning to the mother ship. “You could create a swarm of 10 to 15 free flyers, with each satellite being a separate data collection point,” he says. “This concept would be great for asteroid exploration. During a fly-by, data received from the multiple satellites could provide instant 3-D reconstruction of the surface.”

Chris Koehler oversees the space program at the University of Colorado at Boulder and also oversees the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-funded organization involving 13 colleges, universities and institutions around Colorado that provides students access to space through telescope and satellite programs as well as interactive outreach programs. The program at Boulder five satellite courses providing engineering students four different levels of challenges. The entry-level program, BalloonSat, calls for students to design payloads that operate at 100,000 feet in altitude. “This is a very difficult design specification. If you have seen photographs from 100,000 feet up for all practical purposes, you are in space,” he says.

The next level is RocketSat, in which payloads are designed for altitudes of 300,000 feet and launched on sounding rockets. Upon completion of the first two steps, students can then take on the CubeSat program, in which students design satellites weighing 1 kilogram and are launched into low-Earth orbit. The final step, NanoSat, involves building and operating a nanosat-class satellite. “These satellites are more advanced scientifically and require a different level of expertise,” he says. “They are generally a longer term design effort spanning three to four years.

Program Constraints

Mason Peck is responsible for the space program at Cornell University and oversees roughly 80 students. Engineering students at Cornell are required to do a senior design project and are given credit for working on the satellite program due to its complexity. “The CUSat program is a rare opportunity for students to work on a real spacecraft. NASA has been focusing their attention in recent years on practical engineering and hasn’t done much research and development work due to budget cuts. That is a great void for universities to fill,” he says. “… CUSat is part of the curriculum and it provides the rare ability to synthesize whole systems. It provides students a cradle-to-grave engineering experience. It is really a large-scale homework problem and cements in your mind what you have learned.”

But the popularity of the program forces students to compete in order to participate. “There certainly isn’t a shortage of qualified students. The scope of work and the funding demands simply limits participation to about half of those who apply,” he says. “… If we are chosen as a finalist in the Air Force’s Nanosat program we are awarded $110,000 to develop a satellite over a 24-month period. When you think about it, that isn’t a very large amount of money and it limits the type of satellite we can develop.”

Reed’s long-range goal is to launch a new satellite every two years so a student can participate in a complete design cycle even if they join the team in the middle of the design effort. “Seeing a satellite make it into orbit is exciting for the students. It is the culmination of all their hard work,” she says.

“Space is still a pretty good draw,” says Swartwout. “The emotional lure of space is still there. The trick is to make it achievable. The current 7-to-14-year life cycles for space hardware aren’t very appealing to students when you consider that companies in Silicon Valley release new products every six months. Students want to see their contribution make a difference much sooner,” he says.

Peck echoes the sentiments of his colleagues. “These students are very enthusiastic about their work,” he says. “Outsiders don’t understand why students are in the lab at 2 in the morning. It’s about creating something that is really cool. I just don’t see the same passion for the work done in Silicon Valley. There is definitely hope for the future, but it is difficult to keep satellite programs working without funding. If you pour in a little money, you get a lot of results in return.”

The other problem for the universities is the expense of finding a slot on a launch vehicle. Getting a student-built satellite into space is challenging and finding a ride often is hard, frustrating work. At first glance, piggybacking onto a commercial launch seems like it would be a cost effective solution; however, a detailed risk analysis to determine if the student payload might interfere with the primary payload must be done, which is expensive and time consuming. Compounding the challenge, the U.S. military has reduced opportunities for civilian payloads to go into space on its rockets. The exception is the Nanosat competition, which is held every two years. The winning university gets placed into a launch queue for a ride on a future Air Force mission.

“We write proposals to NASA, the Air Force, the federal government and industry for help with launch costs,” says Reed. “To meet our goal of a new launch every two years we need to get the funding squared away. We don’t have it in place now but we will get there.”

Bright Outlook

Graduates of university space programs are being well received by industry and are being offered challenging and rewarding jobs. Chris Hoeber, senior vice president, program management and systems engineering at Space Systems/Loral, speaks glowingly of the graduates coming out of the space programs. “In the past, design engineering was taught in engineering schools,” he says. “Now they are teaching systems engineering. The satellite programs are very exciting because they are teaching students not only how to design satellites but to manage satellite programs, which is a major sea change.”

It is clear that space still holds the interest of young people and the growing space programs at universities across the United States have tapped into this interest by making space both interesting and relevant. Support from industry in the way of additional funding, donations of hardware and software, and mentoring programs would have a positive effect. Today’s space programs are turning out some of America’s best and brightest. Look for graduates to take prominent positions in the satellite industry sooner rather than later. America can produce enough engineers to meet future needs. It just needs to turn its attention to the heavens.

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