Reaching for the Stars
THE NEXT SPACE RACE IS ON, AND ONU ALUMNI ARE RIGHT IN THE THICK OF IT, WORKING IN BOTH THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SECTORS OF THE AEROSPACE INDUSTRY
There is just something about space exploration that people remember. Just ask a 60-year-old where he or she was when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, or someone in their 40s about the Challenger tragedy. You’ll get more than an answer. You’ll get a story about where they were and what they were doing. They’ll even tell you how they felt.
As space makes us remember, it also makes us dream. Even after more than 60 years of human exploration, outer space is still largely unknown. We’ve merely scratched the surface of what many believe is possible, and space exploration – once the bastion of superpowers – is now in the hands of those believers. We find ourselves at the beginning of a second space race, but this time, everyone – including many Ohio Northern University graduates – is working together.
With the establishment of NASA in 1958, the United States ushered in a new era of scientific discovery and exploration. But NASA served another purpose as well. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union raced one another to complete every successive “great achievement” in space exploration. This scientific battle served as a proxy war between the two nations, and the Soviet Union took an early lead, launching the first satellite (Sputnik) and man (Yuri Gagarin) into space. But NASA turned the tide, and by July 1969, the space race peaked when American astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and captured the imagination of a nation.
Today, we find ourselves in another exciting period of space exploration with the partnership of state-level space programs, like NASA, and private-sector companies, like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. But unlike the original space race, this one isn’t about beating the competition. It’s about pushing space exploration farther and faster than ever before.
Ohio Northern graduates are employed on both sides of the modern aerospace industry, and, in general, ONU is rather well-represented in the field. So how does a school that doesn’t offer an aerospace engineering degree produce so many “rocket scientists”? The answer, says Dr. Jed Marquart, BSME ’80, professor of mechanical engineering, is pretty basic.
“The intellectual gap between mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering is rather small, and there is a significant overlap in the knowledge and concepts used in both fields. But as a mechanical engineering student, you learn the basics really well, as well as other aspects of engineering that are crucial to the aerospace field, like communication and working in teams,” he says.
Marquart knows of what he speaks. He himself graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from ONU; earned master’s and doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Dayton; and began his career working for Arvin/Calspan, SofTech Inc. and, eventually, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. When he joined the faculty at ONU, he brought his aerospace engineering experience with him.
“I loved working in the aerospace industry. It’s what I’d always wanted to do before I discovered teaching,” he says. “And when I got to ONU, I saw everybody going into the automotive industry, and there’s nothing wrong with the automotive industry, but there’s other cool stuff out there.”
Marquart’s passion led to the creation of ONU’s aerospace engineering concentration, which students can pursue alongside their major program. The courses required for the concentration help students learn a number of fundamental skills used in the aerospace industry. Students are introduced to aircraft design, advanced thermodynamics, computational fluid dynamics and finite element analysis.
They participate in the ONU chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), compete in the annual SAE Aero Design Competition, and tackle a senior capstone project sponsored by the Air Force Research Labs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base or NASA Glenn Research Center. Earning an aerospace concentration gives students who wish to enter the field upon graduation or apply to graduate programs an added layer of experience on top of a well-rounded, comprehensive engineering education.
Years from now, it will be interesting to see if anyone remembers where they were when Elon Musk launched his Tesla roadster into space. But you can be sure that future societal flashbulb memories will be formed from the next “giant leap for mankind.” And who knows, maybe we’ll all have an ONU Polar Bear to thank for it.
MEET A FEW OF THE ONU GRADUATES WORKING IN THE AEROSPACE INDUSTRY TODAY.
As a senior test development engineer at SpaceX, I am responsible for conducting the testing of rocket engines and components as well as for development testing of future hardware. It is my job to ensure that the engines and components we are designing and manufacturing can withstand the rigorous demands of space flight. The coolest part of the job, by far, is watching a launch and booster landing knowing that I had a hand in making that incredible feat happen.
At SpaceX, our ultimate goal is to make human life multi-planetary by colonizing Mars, but it is going to take a lot of work to get there. We are developing the world’s first re-usable orbital-class rocket boosters, making access to space more economical than it ever has been. I want to help SpaceX send astronauts to the International Space Station on one of our rockets. I want to help make economical travel to Mars a reality. I look up at the night sky and see an endless frontier for us to explore.
I never set out to be a “rocket scientist” from the get-go. Throughout most of my youth, I was nearly certain that I was going to be a veterinarian. It wasn’t until I reached high school that I gravitated towards engineering. But I do remember very distinctly seeing a video of the Challenger disaster on a news story on the anniversary of that day. I remember how heavy the story felt, and it left an impression of how difficult a task space flight is. That’s a story I always keep in the back of my mind, as it’s a lesson that none of us in the aerospace field should forget.
I am in the Structural Dynamics Branch at NASA Langley Research Center, where I conduct research in the areas of structural dynamics, specifically aircraft crashworthiness and safety. It is a very broad field that involves everything from composite materials development and testing, to structures testing, to crash-test-dummy testing, all the way up to full-scale aircraft crash testing. Additionally, because NASA is currently trying to certify three spacecraft for astronaut use, NASA’s Orion, the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew capsule, I have also been spending a considerable amount of time working on spacecraft certification and testing.
My particular area of expertise is in aircraft- and spacecraft-landing dynamics. There is an old adage: “What goes up, must come down.” I deal with the “must come down” part. For the past decade, I’ve worked at the Landing and Impact Research Facility, a one-of-a-kind, full-scale crash facility for both aircraft and spacecraft. Fun fact: It was originally built in 1965 to train the original Apollo astronauts to land on the moon and was converted to its current configuration in the 1970s.
When I think about the future of space exploration, I think of one word: opportunity. Space is very big, and we’ve got lots of smart people out there with great ideas on how to best utilize it. Once we figure out how to land two tons of mass and a spacecraft full of humans on the moon safely, there will be nothing stopping its colonization. From there, we’ll see commercial suborbital trips, space hotels and lunar getaways. I hope that we will be going into and out of space as easily as we fly commercial airlines today. I feel that the next generation of rockets, habitats and space stations will really be a sight to see.
I design, build and operate a test stand that enables us to test the components that go on the rocket and engines. I ensure that the components of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are safe for flight. I work with a team to screen these components for any possible failure modes and qualify them to ensure they can handle any situations they may see during flight. Currently, these rocket engines are used to transport satellites into orbit, but we eventually want to transport astronauts. After all, the primary mission of SpaceX is to enable humans to colonize Mars and other planets.
When I was a child, I knew I wanted to be an engineer, as I always enjoyed the process of thinking of something new and then building it. I was always into LEGO and robotics. My earliest meaningful memory of manned space exploration was watching the space shuttle launches as a kid and learning about them in school. When I look to the future, I see the possibility for increased exploration and am excited for what lies ahead.
I think the next big thing humans do in space will be to build a base of operations on the moon that we will use as a starting point for space exploration. By 2071, ONU’s 200th birthday, I think we will possess the capability to travel to several different planets very quickly; it will be an everyday occurrence to see rockets taking off all over the world.
I lead the COMPASS Lab (Collaborative Modeling for Parametric Assessment of Space Systems) at NASA Glenn Research Center. In about two weeks time, we design a complete spacecraft concept from beginning to end. We do about 15 concepts a year.
Some of the things we are asked to find solutions to are pretty wild. For instance, in 2012, our team came up with a viable plan to actually catch an asteroid out in space. We’ve designed a submarine to explore the liquid methane oceans of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and a vehicle to sail across the surface of Venus. We are currently trying to figure out how to send a spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa, drill through 20 kilometers of ice and search for life beneath. It’s proving to be quite the challenge. If somebody wanted to hide life somewhere, that’s where they'd hide it because it’s so hard to get to.
I think I’m able to do my job because of what I learned at Ohio Northern. I learned the basics really, really well, and it means that I can lead a diverse team. We’ve got electrical engineers, thermal engineers and aerospace engineers. And it isn’t just engineering. Our cost engineer was a math major, the person who is working on solar cells was a chemistry major, and I didn’t get a degree in any of those fields. But I learned the basics at ONU that allow me to work with them. I learned how to learn at ONU, and that has served me well.
In terms of the future of space exploration, I think it is imperative that we become a spacefaring nation. I’m a planet and moons guy. I’m not a theoretical physicist who is going to figure out how to travel to other solar systems, but I look up and see Jupiter with all those moons and I know we can figure out a way to get to them. It’s exciting to be able to go to work every day and do just that.