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Michigan engineering alumni help to develop the SpaceX Dragon

SpaceX's Dragon, the first cargo-carrying private spacecraft, made its way back to Earth Thursday, and it was helped along the way by Michigan engineers.| Medium Read

SpaceX’s Dragon, the first cargo-carrying private spacecraft, made its way back to Earth Thursday, and it was helped along the way by Michigan engineers.

“Our students are flocking to companies like SpaceX,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, professor of space science and aerospace engineering at U-M. “Many of them started out at another company and then left to go work there. They are leaving higher-paid, more stable jobs for this, which is amazing because it is much higher-risk and more challenging.”

There are more than 20 U-M graduates who have been employed by SpaceX, Zurbuchen estimated, and many are involved with the Dragon mission. While SpaceX declined to allow their engineers to speak to the media during the mission, a search for their employees confirmed that estimate.

SpaceX’s successful Dragon mission marks the first time a privately-run company has docked with the International Space Station and delivered cargo and supplies to its crew. The mission is the first of twelve scheduled flights contracted by NASA, at the price tag of $1.6 billion dollars.

The company aims to inject new energy into the space exploration field “by developing a family of launch vehicles which will ultimately reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access by a factor of ten,” according to its website. “Coupled with the newly emerging market for private and commercial space transport, this new model will re-ignite humanity’s efforts to explore and develop space.”

The SpaceX model is re-invigorating the field of aerospace engineering and space travel, and it is not the only private company wooing young engineers. But its successful mission could mark a turning point in the space industry.

“Now that companies like SpaceX have proven that they can get into space and deliver cargo, there’s no real reason for NASA to do that anymore,” said aerospace engineering junior Ryder Liu. “So I think that NASA will focus its efforts on researching and developing new technologies for deep space exploration to places like Mars.”

And private space companies offer additional employment opportunities for young graduates, although that employment is often very high-risk. “What SpaceX did in aerospace probably makes it the most innovative company in space right now,” said Zurbuchen, who is also associate dean for entrepreneurship. “But it’s a little bit crazy. If SpaceX had failed in the two to three early flights, the whole company may be dead right now.”

But the drive to do something “a little crazy” still seems to appeal to many. “I know if I was a Michigan Aero grad today I would be trying to go to Virgin Galactic or SpaceX instead of NASA,” U-M alum and current NASA employee Michael Interbartolo recently commented on Michigan Engineering’s Google+ account. “Morale is low here, we are stuck on this plateau of Low Earth Orbit for who knows how much longer (easily another 10 yrs). Congress is mandating big rockets that we haven’t any clear definition on what to do with it and these upstarts are making more progress in less time and for less budget than we have spent on Orion.”

So why are so many Michigan Engineering graduates taking the chance? Zurbuchen believes it’s due to the culture of learning promoted at U-M. Today’s students are encouraged to take risks, and to pursue what he calls a “deep set” of experiences, taking them outside of the confines of a classroom and exposing them to hands-on projects and team ventures.

Liu, who is also part of the engineering crew on the U-M Solar Car Team, is an example of that. “There are lots of opportunities that allow us to explore pretty much anything we want,” said Liu, who is responsible for the aerodynamics of the car. “It’s a great experience. There are applications for aerospace, mechanical, electrical and computer engineers in Solar Car and elsewhere outside of the classroom.”

In fact, Zurbuchen says one of his former students who is currently employed at SpaceX is using a software program that he developed while involved in a U-M team. “That’s something he didn’t get in my classroom. He did it on his own as the leader of a student team, and he now implements it in his work at SpaceX.”

As innovation in space continues forward, Zurbuchen hopes U-M will be even more involved. Next year the Michigan Aerospace Engineering department celebrates its 100th anniversary, making it the longest-running university aerospace program in the country.

To mark the event, and to increase excitement for space exploration, a U-M student group called Epoch is planning a four-day event in Ann Arbor for August 2013 that is described as the “Woodstock of space conferences.” The mission statement for the event is “revamping society’s perspective on space,” and the group hopes to rekindle people’s excitement for space exploration.

According to Galen Kreutzberg, a biomedical engineering senior and director of the group, Epoch hopes to rekindle the public excitement about space exploration through cultural and educational events. The group is still in the planning stages, but have already begun reaching out with a new website, backtospace.org, which features video from its members and encourages the public to voice their opinions about the future of space exploration.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to witness a nighttime shuttle launch when I was 5 years old,” said Kreutzberg. “The image of the shuttle lifting off the pad and lighting up the sky was burned into my mind. Ever since that moment I have wanted to go into space to explore and discover. There are so many things we don’t know, so many questions we can’t answer if we stay Earth-bound. Space is the one thing that can unite the whole human race and inspire us to dream again.”

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