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A New Space Race Launches CSU Endeavors

October 19, 2011

Category: A Closer Look

Last week, a Los Angeles ceremony celebrated NASA space shuttle Endeavour’s new home. Beginning in 2012, the aircraft will be housed at the California Science Center. Although Endeavour is California-bound, it will no longer live up to its name or original purpose.

After its 135th flight, NASA’s shuttle program ended this year. Endeavour and sister ships Atlantis and Discovery—American icons for human innovation and space domination—will be museum pieces, resting next to models of Sputnik and Explorer 1, among other artifacts. Reminders that everything, even NASA’s shuttle program, must come to an end.

NASA Chief Charles Bolden says the shuttles will now inspire a new generation of explorers. Hopefully inspire them to go into aeronautical engineering—because right now, America doesn’t have a way to send our astronauts into space.

The agency says it doesn’t have plans to create a new line of shuttles. In the meantime, U.S. astronauts will rent seats on a Russian shuttle. However, NASA plans to work with commercial companies to create aircraft capable of space travel so our astronauts won’t need to hitch a ride with the Russians.

Fueled by NASA’s competition-fosters-innovation approach, aeronautical engineering programs at Long Beach, Pomona, San Diego, San José and San Luis Obispo are hard at work developing new space-worthy concepts.

“The shuttles were a 60’s and 70’s model system,” said Periklis Papadopoulos, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at San José State. “There’s a lot of innovation that needs to be done to catch up.”

To help bridge the gap, Papadopoulos makes sure SJSU’s aerospace engineering learning environment is as hands-on and innovative as possible. For example, in a common learning exercise, students are given a “mission objective” and then work in teams to come up with a mechanical/electrical system capable of meeting it.

“The students are also getting experience at the local NASA Ames Research Center,” Papadopoulos said. “Their current research projects include creating an internal navigation control program and a project in collaboration with MIT.”

The experience is bound to pay off as the end of the space shuttle program has incited a new “space race” between private companies. CSU aeronautical engineering graduates are landing jobs at companies like Southern California’s SpaceX, which has worked closely with NASA, already completing successful space launches. A CSULB aerospace engineering alum leads vehicle development at SpaceX, and Papadopoulos says many of his programs’ graduates work there, too.

“With the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, the students realize that the future of space travel lies in their hands,” Papadopoulos said. “And it’s inspiring them to become even more innovative.”

“The end of the shuttle program is actually positive,” added his colleague San José State aeronautical engineering professor Nikos J. Muortos. “Private companies are excited. Our students are excited, too.”

So, perhaps Endeavour will continue to live up to its name, just in a different sense of the word. Instead, its retirement just might inspire kids to pursue aeronautical engineering – into college and into a career.

And just maybe designing something that will go into space.

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