Q&A: The Future of Aerospace Engineering

The Future of Spaceflight

What appealed to you about physics, and motivated you to explore aerospace engineering?

I was attracted to physics because it was about discovering the underlying causes of how things work. Physics is about trying to find the kernel of a pattern, and then applying it to another situation to see if you can predict how things will work.

Honestly, I ended up in a career in aerospace because as a PhD student, I needed part-time work in order to earn enough to eat! I found a position with Neptec, helping them get ready for the first mission equipment that they flew. After I worked part-time for a couple of years, they offered me a job to run their office in Houston. I eventually ended up running the company.

 How did your education prepare you for a career in enabling space exploration?

The work that I did in my master’s and PhD had little directly to do with the work that I did when I started at Neptec. So it’s kind of interesting, in terms of getting an education and training for a specific position in the end, I learned a lot of skills by doing graduate-level research that were very important when I started working at Neptec.

I was also a member of Canada’s Primary Reserve, the military, for 13 years—since age 16. You get a lot of hands-on leadership and operational training in the military, which did come in handy in many of the jobs that I’ve . There are parallels between the structure at NASA and the structure of any kind of hierarchy, like the military.

Could you tell us a bit more about your role with NASA and at the Johnson Space Center?

I worked with astronauts. In fact, I worked with Chris Hadfield on his first flight back in 1994. I taught him to use our system, which was a very small part of the overall mission as he flew on Mission STS-74. It was very interesting to help train astronauts, to help to write the procedures. We had Neptec people who worked in Mission Control with every flight to ensure that the equipment worked properly.

It was very exciting to be in Mission Control; even just to see the space shuttle launch and return safely, and to know that you’ve had an active part in making that happen.

What might your role look like in the next 10-20 years?

Well, the role that I play now will probably look very similar, as it has a lot to do with politics and government. What I do now is translate politics to the industry, and the industry to politicians. So long as aviation and aerospace continue to remain critical industries, there will be government policy affecting it directly. And so long as there’s government policy, there will be a need for someone to be doing my job.

And in the context of the private sector?

Based on the way the numbers and trends are looking, I think we are probably on the verge of another expansion in the world civil space program, especially because of emerging players like China and Brazil. The developed space nations will be challenged to keep their leadership by keeping pace with some of these other countries. This will force them to expand some of their programs. That kind of civil space program will be a kind of resurgence over the next couple of decades.

Do you see the progressing fields of robotics or artificial intelligence changing the aerospace industry?

It’s unbelievable how manufacturing has changed. The airplanes don’t look like they’ve changed much to the person sitting in the airport terminal. But if you’d been to a manufacturing facility, you wouldn’t recognize it. The advances are present in not just in robotics and artificial intelligence, but also in automation. Now, literally everything is tagged. There’s a system that keeps track of everything to ensure that nothing is missing, nothing was left behind, everything has been assembled correctly: even the amount of torque that has been applied to a bolt to ensure its correct installation.

Do you see prototyping and R&D processes changing and becoming more efficient as well?

Well, everything moves at the speed of business. The aerospace industry is a very R&D intensive. In Canada, the aerospace industry spends more per capita than any other industry on a variety of research and development: from process innovation to materials innovation, to new designs. The aerospace and space industries are businesses where, if you’re not getting better every day, you’re being left behind.

What are some skills necessary to entering—and surviving in—the field of aerospace engineering?

The industry is looking for two tracks of people: those with the technical skill to work in maintenance and overhaul facilities, and those with the engineering acumen to work in new designs and innovations.

It’s not always that important what you studied in school. It’s more important to arrive with the skills to do the research and contribute, and to work productively within the company’s process. It’s always better to have someone with a deep education and the right attitude, than to have someone arrive with exactly the right qualifications who isn’t ready to learn.

What is critical for anyone who is looking for a job is to have a clear understanding what they can do to help the company they want to work for. The process of hiring someone to do a job is the process of finding a resource that is going to contribute your business’s profits. If you can’t articulate how you’re going to do that, then you won’t be able to tell them how you can help the person who is going to give you a job.

 

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