SpaceX launch: private industry inspires new generation of rocketeers (+video)

SpaceX launch a reminder that NASA isn't the only game in town anymore. Aspiring engineers, rocket designers, space geeks look to 'New Space' companies to boldly go where only governments used to go.

By , Staff writer

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    The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., early Tuesday, May 22. This launch marks the first time, a private company sends its own rocket to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
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 If SpaceX's destination – the International Space Station in “ho hum” low-Earth orbit is certain to be uninspiring to a new generation of would-be rocketeers, someone forgot to tell many of those rocketeers-in-training.

The prospect of working for private companies launching cargo to the space station and, eventually, humans into space has emerged as an alluring option for a new generation of aerospace-engineering students, some educators say.

The evidence is anecdotal; no formal surveys have appeared to validate the trends these educators say they see.

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And while graduates with advanced degrees are peppering long-established giants such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, as well as NASA, with resumes, so-called New Space firms that have emerged during the past 10 to 20 years – SpaceX, among them – hold a special attraction.

“It used to be that the hottest job you could get was at NASA,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and associate dean for entrepreneurship. “Ten years ago, if someone got a JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] job, they never rejected it,” even if the student had received a more-lucrative offer from one of the aerospace giants.

Now, he says, when students with newly minted graduate degrees consider offers from NASA and private industry, “New Space wins hands down,” even though the salaries tend to be lower that those the big corporations or NASA pay.

Elsewhere, students graduating with advanced aerospace engineering degrees may spread themselves a bit more evenly. In an economy still struggling to rise from the so-called Great Recession, getting a foothold in one's chosen field, even if the employer is not a first choice, beats the alternative.

Still, NASA's new direction – contracting with commercial launch providers to carry cargo and people to destinations in low-Earth orbit while focusing on human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit – is putting extra spring in students' steps.

“What we're looking at here is not Apollo 2.0, it's a whole new future in spaceflight,” says Robert Braun, professor of space technology at Georgia Tech and former chief technologist at NASA. “And that is something that I can tell you reverberates with a lot of energy and excitement on college campuses across the country.”

Part of the interest may lie in the novelty the new companies represent, some specialists say. But a big part of it surely lies in the big ideas these companies are pursuing.

Even before its Dragon capsule launched on a Falcon 9 rocket to the space station, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) announced a joint marketing deal with Bigelow Aerospace in which SpaceX would launch people and payloads to Bigelow's inflatable habitats on orbit, a type of space module originally developed at NASA. Bigelow has two small-scale prototypes circling Earth now. The market the two companies see is international – providing access to space for countries outside the usual cast of spacefaring nations.

Meanwhile, in December, entrepreneur Paul Allen announced the formation of a new company, Stratolaunch Systems. It teams Allen with SpaceX, Scaled Composites, founded by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, and another company, Dynetics, to build an air-launched rocket system. A multistage rocket would be released at high altitude from an enormous jet with six engines used on Boeing 747s. The rocket would carry cargo and people to orbit.

These big ideas highlight a point that emerges from conversations with educators and one-time students now hard at work designing and building hardware. Although the Apollo program that carried men to the moon in the late 1960s and 1970s continues to serve as a kind of eternal torch of inspiration for some, the generation at hand appears to draw much of its inspiration from the space program at hand.

Pick a point in time, and they find something that inspires them.

For his part, Dr. Braun was four years old when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar excursion module and into history as the first human to set foot on the moon. Braun says he has no recollection of the event, although his parents told him he sat in front of the TV watching it with them at the time. His passion for space blossomed with the Viking missions to Mars in the mid-1970s, he says.

For Zachary Krevor, it was a high-school visit to NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. “I had a really great experience there,” he recalls. Much of what he saw involved work the center had done to support the space shuttle program. That kindled an interest in spacecraft design that shaped his college career.

In 2007, Dr. Krevor took his newly minted PhD to Lockheed Martin, where he worked on the Orion program – the multi-purpose crew capsule NASA envisioned as part of President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. “The prospect of being close to the hardware really excited me about that opportunity,” he recalls.

Three years later, he moved to Sierra Nevada Corporation, a privately held aerospace firm developing its “Dream Chaser” craft, one of the four development projects NASA is funding under its commercial-crew development program. The craft looks like a mini space shuttle, minus the aircraft-like tail.

The Orion program was on the rocks. NASA was supporting the development of private-sector alternatives for carrying crews to and from the space station. And the opening at Sierra Nevada “was a step up in terms of responsibilities,” he says. “It was a pretty exciting opportunity, one I decided I couldn't pass up.”

The excitement factor is a strong one with his top students, says Dr. Zurbuchen. The students tend to have a entrepreneurial spirit, he says, and gravitate toward the opportunities that may be risky in terms of job security, but give them the feeling that, “hey, we're going to kick in some doors and have an impact,” he says. “The feeling now is that the place to do that is in these small private companies.”

“It's not easy to work for some of these,” he says. “In fact, they're a little bit crazy.”

But the students that sign on with these companies “get a lot of satisfaction; they think they're changing the world,” he says.

Beyond the buzz lies a deeper attraction, suggests Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace. The company is designing a winged vehicle to take people and payloads on 30-minute suborbital flights.

When he was graduating from college, he considered a career in the aerospace industry, but he says. “I decided not to because it didn't look like I'd ever get to work on anything that flew. What kind of a career is that?”

“Now that there is an emerging competitive landscape, by the nature of competition people are always trying to improve or replace the product, so there are a lot more things being developed that are going to fly,” he says. “That makes the whole field enormously more exciting.”

Nor are students waiting until the eve of graduation to make contact, explains Norman Fitz-Coy, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville and director of its Advanced Space Technologies Research and Engineering Center.

“These kids are making their connection along the way with social media,” he says. Because of the popularity of SpaceX and other New Space companies, “the students are reaching out to those companies” well before recruiters come to campus.

These companies also represent a motivational force in class, Fitz-Coy adds. He says he might frame an assignment in a spacecraft-design course in terms of “SpaceX wants to launch a constellation of satellites; what are the requirements of the vehicle?” Instead of a generic problem, it's pegged to a specific company, providing a basis for name recognition later on.

And while Fitz-Coy says he's having a hard time getting representatives of the New Space companies to visit his classes, “I am getting visitors from the more traditional companies like Boeing,” which may be feeling the competition from the New Space upstarts.

What does the level of student interest look like from a New Space company's perspective?

“I have stacks of resumes from every school that has a aeronautical-engineering program in the United States,” Mr. Greason says. “People are beating down the door to get into these businesses.”

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