Student Spotlight: Alex Cucos

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 - 8:30am

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Most children go through the phase of obsession with space. Whether they want to be an astronaut, build a rocket ship or study the stars in their backyard, we all have this innate desire to examine the unknown. Alexander Cucos was no exception. 

Cucos’s interest in space started when he was a child, as many of us can relate to. In an interview with The Daily, Cucos shared that “I’ve always been interested in planes and rockets and that sort of thing, but what little kid isn’t right?” But he never thought he could make a career out of his interest until he got to high school. “I got this PC game, Kerbal Space Program. I taught myself some super basic orbital mechanics, transfer maneuvers between planets and that sort of thing, from Wikipedia in order to play it,” said Cucos. “I thought ‘Huh, I could totally do this for the rest of my life.’”

Now he is an aerospace engineering student at the University, set to graduate in 2020. His education at the University has allowed him to explore many different facets of aerospace. “We have to learn a little bit about circuit design, coding, structural analysis, control theory, and, of course, aerodynamics,” Cucos said. “It’s basically systems engineering with a focus on things that fly.”

There is a wide variety of classes offered to aerospace majors, as they can focus on one of two tracks: aeronautics, the study of aircrafts, and astronautics, the study of spacecrafts. They can take everything from a hoverboard design class to pilot training classes. “I honestly think my favorite class so far has been my 300-level Aerodynamics class,” Cucos said. “It’s super cool to be able to take any shape you want, and use math to determine exactly how the flow moves around it, and what kind of forces are applied to it. It kinda sounds geeky, I know, but I think that stuff is so cool.”

The opportunities his education gives him span a wide range of careers. “You can work for the military on fighter aircraft or missiles; you can work for NASA on spacecraft operation, orbital mechanics or trajectory analysis; you can design commercial aircraft with a company like Boeing or Airbus; you can go over to a company like ULA and design rockets; or you can work on aerospace propulsion systems, jets, rockets, electric thrusters, that sort of thing,” Cucos explained. “There’s definitely something for everybody.”

This past summer, he had the opportunity to intern at a company in Arizona called Raytheon that primarily builds missiles for the government. Aside from a distaste for the climate, Cucos found the job fascinating. “I was working on the Modeling, Simulation and Analysis team, which basically means I was coding holistic software to simulate the entire use cycle of the product” said Cucos. “I can’t really say a whole lot more than that, because, you know, defense contractor and all that, but it was a very interesting experience overall.”

With this experience under his belt, Cucos has big dreams for after college. “My dream is to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). They are responsible for designing and building all of the spacecraft that NASA uses, such as satellites, deep-space probes, and landers/rovers,” Cucos said. “Specifically, I would love to work on extraterrestrial, endo-atmospheric vehicles, things that fly in the atmosphere of other celestial bodies.”

Projects like these may seem inaccessible to the public, but aerospace engineering has so much importance in everyday life. “There are the obvious big things, like the GPS satellites that power your navigation app, or the communications satellites that let you watch a rugby game in the UK from your house,” Cucos elaborated, “but one of the beauties about NASA is that they often fund the things that nobody else wants to. NASA funding paid for everything from Velcro to solar panels. NASA funded the invention of the digital image sensor, which is the technology found in every smartphone camera. Every time you use Snapchat? You’re using space-grade technology!”

What makes the study of space so special to Cucos is the sense of unity it brings to everyone. “Space is dangerous and exciting to everyone,” Cucos exclaimed. “Space doesn’t care what your nationality is, or what your religion is; if you mess up, it will kill you. It takes all of us working together to go to space and achieve great things.” Sharing a fascination with space helps bring us together as a species. Whether it’s working cross continent to create a space station or stargazing with friends, space unites us in a way that is out of this world.