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The students who shoot for the stars

Sam Wolson/Daily
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Published November 10, 2009

Space was sexy in the 60s. The decade is known for the Space Race, when the United States sent men to the moon in an effort to outstrip the Soviet Union in space exploration. Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. became national heroes. Armstrong’s famous quote — “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — reverberated in the heads of every U.S. citizen who witnessed his first step onto lunar soil on July 20, 1969.

Satellites the size of shoe boxes are much less expensive alternatives to traditional research equipment, which have opened up the opportunity for students to see their work go to space.
Sam Wolson/Daily
Aerospace graduates secures the top of their satellite, M-Cubed, during a demonstration in the S3FL labs.
Sam Wolson/Daily
Aerospace engineering students Kiko Dontchev and Ken Gmerek discuss the operation of the S3FL thermal vacuum chamber that emulates near space conditions to test the stability of equipment.
Sam Wolson/Daily
Stratospheric balloons carry “payloads” that include data-taking devices and a cell phone that aerospace engineering students use to be able to locate the equipment after the balloon lands.
Sam Wolson/Daily
Kiko Dontchev, an aerospace engineering graduate student, stands in front of packs containing stratospheric balloons that are launched to test equipment in near-space conditions, about 100,000 feet above the ground.
Sam Wolson/Daily

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Armstrong’s legendary steps would not have been possible without billions of dollars of federal funding poured into space research during the decade. Funding for NASA peaked in 1966, when 5.5 percent of the total federal budget was devoted to the program. The excitement surrounding the moon landing was reflected in both the public and political realms.

But federal funding for space research decreased dramatically in the early ‘70s, marking the end of the legendary Apollo program. Only one percent or less of the federal budget has been devoted to NASA since 1975.

Along with the decline in federal funding after Apollo, public opinion of NASA and the space program became tainted with the notion that the research is not worth the expense. People today are more inclined to see a rocket launch as tax dollars that are senselessly shot into space. But most Americans have an inaccurately high concept of how much government funding NASA receives, according to a study conducted by former Chief Historian Roger Launius in September 2001. In his presentation of the study at the NASA headquarters, Launius also noted that those polled had no idea of the breadth of projects and objectives NASA pursues outside of rocket launches.

The final frontier has lost its allure for the majority of Americans, which hinders the future of aerospace research. But the tide might be turning for the beleaguered field. While NASA hurts from a lack of funding and interest, the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University is thriving. With enrollment at a record high, more students than ever are buying into the Hollywood image of space exploration. And this is no mere theoretical education. Aerospace engineering students build the equipment that makes it to space and apply their ingenuity to make those projects cheaper and more practical. The scope aerospace research applications — from monitoring climate change to inventing household items — makes it clear that students need to pursue space research today to assure a strong America tomorrow.


The University has a long history of space research. When it was created in 1914, the Department of Aerospace Engineering was the first collegiate aeronautics program in the country. One of the best undergraduate research curriculums in the world, the aerospace engineering program allows students to work on the cutting edge of the field. Besides the renowned faculty and state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, student researchers are frequently afforded opportunities to collaborate with NASA and major players in commercial aeronautics.

Aerospace engineering consists of the design, construction and science of aircrafts and spacecrafts. Within the University, the program focuses on gas dynamics, structures and flight dynamics and control. It is a broad, interdisciplinary industry that includes all engineering departments that contribute to the study of spacecraft and flight — such as electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. Even though NASA may be shrinking, several different job opportunities still exist for the increasing number of students in the University’s program.

“We have reached an all-time high in our enrollment last year,” said Wei Shyy, the chairman of the Department of Aerospace Engineering.

The department has experienced a surge in student interest, increasing its enrollment from 210 in 2000 to 370 last year. The graduate program has also grown. Shyy attributes this growth to a shift in the industry. Many aerospace engineering jobs disappeared in the ‘70s when NASA downsized after ending the Apollo Project, but aeronautic companies in the commercial sphere that demanded the same skill set are growing.

But the rich history and prestige of the University’s program is also another likely factor in attracting students. Since its establishment, the Department of Aerospace Engineering has always been among the five best in the country. The program’s alumni include five astronauts who have orbited the earth and three who have gone to the moon. Such prestige not only lures students, but also Boeing and NASA, which visit on a regular basis to recruit students and sponsor projects.

“We are currently one of the most active and one of the most highly regarded departments in the country,” Shyy said.