An Interview with a (Soon to Be) Aerospace Engineer

As a final ode to Human Space Flight is Out of this World, I interviewed a soon-to-be aerospace engineer to hear his thoughts on the future of human space flight.  Vincent is currently a junior at the University of Florida, and is enrolled in the Aerospace Engineering program.  The following does not reflect the opinions of the University of Florida.

What made you choose aerospace engineering? 

I chose it as my collegiate major because I wanted to be a surface warfare officer on an aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy, so I applied for an NROTC scholarship for which an aerospace engineering major was recommended to me for what I wanted to pursue. I chose it for those reasons, and even after declining the scholarship and changing my career plans, I thought the major was interesting and stuck with it.

Sum up aerospace engineering in one sentence.

Aerospace engineering is the study and practice of anything that flies within the atmosphere and beyond it.

When was the moment you realized aerospace engineering was truly what you wanted to do?

When I initially started undergrad, I realized I was undertaking a tremendous challenge, and part of what made me so interested, and keeps further interested, is how challenging aerospace engineering can be.  It’s widely known that aerospace engineering requires a lot of education/intelligence, and I don’t see myself as a naturally intelligent person, so this requires a dedicated work ethic.

What are your thoughts on human spaceflight?

For the sake of science, it’s not worth our investment of resources to put squishy things (humans) in space.  Excessive over-design is required to accommodate humans on space flights; these include pressurized capsules, food, water, and oxygen.  A human doesn’t make that huge of a contribution to the discovery of science whilst in space, any of their tasks can be done much more effectively with a machine. The resources saved can be reinvested in much more capable machines to discover more science.

For the sake of pride/passion/interest, it is exciting to put humans in space.  It shows how we can overcome boundaries and push further and further with science and technology. Although, the expense of resources to put them there outweighs the ineffective benefits.

Where do you see the future of human spaceflight going? 

We are going to continue our current endeavors because for entertainment, people want to see what we can do. That is where a lot of the funding comes from, a lot of government programs aren’t interested in space science–it’s more of a publicity stunt, people would be interested if we went to Mars.  We’re just going to continue to see how far we can go, how far from Earth–to see if we can find other lifeforms/another planet for after we destroy Earth.

What would you like to see come out of these human spaceflight missions?

My opinion is that we should make it more about the sciences we don’t understand, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, and use space as a grounds for researching how our universe works, because we can apply what we learn here on Earth or beyond there.  As for human spaceflight, I feel like it should only be used as a secondary tool to make that scientific research possible when machines cannot. It’s more about understanding the world around us, and we will learn plenty of things from it, should we ever need to send humans to another planet, we can apply that found science and technology from unmanned missions.  As of right now, humans do not add any benefit to missions, machines can do anything a human can do–humans just make it more complicated.

Do you believe in aliens?

Depends on your definition of aliens…


ESA’s Last Descent to Mars

In space, every second matters.  The European Space Agency (ESA) learned that the hard way in October.  Upon descent, their Schiaparelli probe slammed into the surface of Mars.  After an investigation, it was determined that the probe misread the distance to the surface.  Specifically, the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) on the probe sent poor data to the lander’s computer that it had already landed on the surface or was about to, and prematurely released its parachute.  In a statement, the ESA stated that the IMU’s saturation reading only lasted one second, however that was enough to disrupt the whole system.

Schiaparelli probe detaching from the Trace Gas Orbiter via ESA

Fortunately, for ESA, the probe still delivered a ‘wealth of data’ while entering Mars’ atmosphere.  However, it should be noted that the rover was only intended to last a few days on the surface–but given the crash incident, the ESA has been under fire.  It is questioned if ESA will be able to garner the $330 million to assist in funding a 2020 mission with Russia.  As context, another component of the first half of the ExoMars mission was its Trace Gas Orbiter, which the ESA successfully launched.  Its main purpose is to collect data from Mars’ atmosphere, however it will also be utilized to relay data from the rover vehicle (the showcase payload for the 2020 mission) to be launched by Russia.  Now as a result of the crash, ESA members are not enthusiastic about funneling more financial resources into the ExoMars program.

Screen Shot 2016-12-05 at 2.28.40 PM.png
via ESA

Read more below:

European Space Agency Ministers Decide to Meet

In early December, ministers of the various nations composing the European Space Agency decided to meet.  Amongst a myriad of issues they have to discuss, a prominent one is the future of their Mars rover.  The ExoMars rover has been long-discussed and has encountered its fair share of issues-nearly being abandoned on several occasions.  One issue being the high cost, in addition to the inconsistency of the production/testing schedule.  The purpose of the rover is to assist human spaceflight by sampling the soil on Mars in search for life.

The ExoMars now needs an additional $430 million if it is expected to launch on schedule. Following a technical review, if given the funds, the ExoMars will remain on schedule.  The director of the ESA made it explicitly clear that member states need to either provide full financial support or none at all in order to make a firm decision, instead of providing minimal funds that do not benefit it.

Ultimately, if ESA chooses to provide funding, this would spark new interest in space travel.  Perhaps new opportunities will arise for European astronauts to link up with the ISS and will allow for the chance for ESA to create a service module for the Orion crew ship.


Virgin Galactic Returns with the VSS Unity

Virgin Galactic had its fair share of struggles, as any new aerospace company would face. However, their crash two years ago weakened their reputation.  In October 2014, during its fourth powered test flight, the co-pilot of the VSS Enterprise prematurely unlocked the vehicle’s feathering mechanism, which caused the tail section to lift as the vehicle accelerated, reaching Mach 1.  The company’s vehicle manufacturer, Scaled Composites, was criticized for not taking greater precautions to prevent premature unlocking.  Following this accident, Virgin Galactic used the time to work on further developing the vehicle’s hybrid rocket motor, as it had been causing quite a predicament.

VSS Enterprise being carried by the White Knight II plane via Reuters

Finally, on December 3rd, Virgin Galactic conducted its first free flight of the second SpaceShipTwo (VSS Unity) out of the Mojave Air and Spaceport.  Even though this flight was the fifth for VSS Unity, at an altitude of 50,000 feet, it was the first in which it glided independently for ten minutes after being release by a carrier aircraft; its rocket engines were not used.  After its ten minute glide, it glided back safely to the runway.  This glide flight was declared a success, and ultimately leads to the next phase of testing.  Testing is expected to take a long time, as VSS Unity’s purpose is to carry space tourists and research payloads to an altitude of about 62 miles, while exposing them to several minutes of microgravity.  This glide flight is the first of many in a series in an effort to test the aerodynamic performance of the vehicle.  Once the glide flight phase of testing is completed, the next stage is to begin powered test flights.

Read more here and here!


Supersonic?…More Like Hypersonic

That’s right, supersonic is practically a thing of the past (not really!).  According to information from the Forum on American Aeronautics–aviation, aerospace and military experts from the Mojave Air and Space Port, U.S. Air Force, NASA, and Lockheed Martin stated, “the world of aviation is about to be transformed as the advent of hypersonic planes is almost here.”  As great as it would be to hop on the thirty minute flight from New York to London, hypersonic planes are not nearly ready for preliminary testing, let alone commercial flights.


Although you won’t be boarding a hypersonic plane within the next year, it is clear efforts are being made to bring the aviation industry to that level, as it has been relatively stagnant.  NASA and Lockheed Martin are in the experimental phase of designing a plane that can fly at supersonic speeds without producing a sonic boom (one of the many reasons the Concorde is no longer with us, and why we can’t make any more Parent Trap references about it, but I digress).  Member of the House Science Committee, Steve R. Knight has led the committee’s involvement with getting NASA to focus efforts on ‘a new set of experimental aircraft.’  Knight’s father was the last person to achieve a flight speed (in an airplane) of Mach 6.7, thus breaking the hypersonic barrier–back in 1967.  This meant the airplane was actually flying 6.7 times the speed of sound!

NASA’s goal with Lockheed is to develop the technology to significantly reduce the sonic boom, which if successfully completed, could result in a lift in the ban preventing supersonic flights over land.  This would result in a new beginning for air transportation, and lead to further development of revolutionary technologies.

Read more:

Supersonic Is Out. Hypersonic Is In.

Trump’s Plan For Space

This week, it was announced that Donald Trump would become the next President of the United States.  Up until mid-October, the Trump campaign failed to mention any plans regarding what a Trump Administration would mean for space flight.  On October 26th, former congressman Robert Walker spoke to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in his role as space policy advisor for the Trump Campaign. He spoke of a proposed space policy, that he described as containing four attributes: “it’s visionary, it’s disruptive, it’s coordinating and it’s resilient.”

Walker went on to detail nine aspects critical to the space policy’s implementation:

  1. Walker explained that the policy had “a commitment to global space leadership,” and it would bring more jobs to the U.S.
  2. The National Space Council will be reinstituted, in an effort to reduce inefficiencies. It will be headed by Michael Pence.
  3. A very lofty goal of human space flight across the solar system by 2100; this is supposedly an effort to motivate creation/improvement of new technology.
  4. Cut NASA’s climate research, and redirect that to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Instead, NASA should focus on ‘deep-space exploration.’
  5. Development of military and servicing satellites.
  6. Control global hypersonic technologies-proposed use for the military.
  7. Allow the commercial sector to take control of operations in low Earth orbit.
  8. Extend the International Space Station’s life; perhaps through financing from additional private and public partners.
  9. Instill a mandate for all federal agencies to develop plans on how they would utilize “space assets and technologies” in order to further mission needs.

Unsurprisingly, Walker failed to mention the budgeting logistics for this new lengthy space policy. While the goals remain broad, the Trump campaign has not detailed specific actions they will take to accomplish them.  Ultimately, it is clear human space exploration is a main goal under this new administration.

Read more:

What a Trump administration means for space

What’s Shaking with Orion?

In mid-October, NASA released an update regarding the Orion spacecraft.  Orion underwent a series of tests ensuring it could withstand the intense vibrations it will experience when it is launched and travels to space atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.  One of the tests involved ‘shaking’ it on the world’s most powerful vibration table; the table is 22-feet wide and 55,000-pounds.  These tests were conducted by engineers at NASA Glenn’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio.

Throughout the summer, engineers conducted a total of 98 vibration tests on Orion.  As NASA mentioned, despite that they designed “Orion and its service module to endure launch and ascent vibrations as Orion travels into space,” it is critical to test on the ground to “verify those designs before the mission.”

According to Jerry Carek, the facility manager at the Sandusky station, “We started at about 20 percent of the maximum test level and gradually worked our way up to 100 percent with vertical movement. Then we did the same thing with lateral movement.”

The vibration tests were in coordination with a series of tests Orion will have to endure before launching on its first journey atop the SLS rocket, in which it will venture tens of thousands of miles beyond the moon, as part of the Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).  The next stop for Orion is “the assembly high bay area, where engineers will fire pyrotechnics to simulate the shocks the service module will experience as Orion separates from the SLS rocket.”

EM-1 is set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in late 2018.

Read more here.