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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 / May 22, 2012

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.

John Raoux/AP

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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.

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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.

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.

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