The Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit focused on the space enterprise, is working with Virginia Tech students and faculty to address complex challenges in space.

The Center for Economic and Community Engagement and the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research (Space@VT) have been collaborating closely with the Aerospace Corp. since 2018 to bring new opportunities to faculty and students. 

“The Aerospace Corp. has created tremendous experiential learning opportunities for students in several majors,” said Afroze Mohammed, associate director of strategic alliances for the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, part of Outreach and International Affairs.

The Aerospace Corp. has sponsored senior design projects in aerospace and ocean engineering, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and computational modeling and data analytics thus far, with plans to expand to other disciplines.

A key part of the Center for Economic and Community’s mission is to engage with communities across the commonwealth, working to increase economic prosperity and bolster the workforce through research projects and partnerships with organizations such as the Aerospace Corp.

“Partnerships between the university and industry allow students to gain skills through internships and experiential learning opportunities that better prepare them for the workforce. Our faculty also gain direct insights about the knowledge and skills most valued by industry in their future workforce,” Mohammed said.   

According to Scott Bailey, professor of electrical engineering and director of Space@VT, NASA’s planned return to the moon and the government and industry’s interest in expanding the utilization of space that lies between the earth and the moon, or cislunar space, requires technology development in nearly all fields of engineering and a need for workers to fill emerging roles.

Mohammed, Bailey, and Jonathan Black, co-director of Space@VT and professor of Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, have jointly organized workshops with the Aerospace Corp. on the cislunar enterprise, facilitating and participating in panels on workforce and technology development.

A workshop in July 2022, “Building Confidence through In-Space Testbeds and Proving Grounds,” brought together leaders from government and industry to discuss the role of in-space servicing, assembling and manufacturing in sustaining cislunar ecosystems.  

The Aerospace Corp. and Virginia Tech continue to collaborate on technology, policy, and economic development issues related to cislunar space.

“Virginia Tech is encouraging an interest and excitement about space, creating students who are fluent in space science and eager to start careers in the field, which is a boost for the industry as well as the economy as a whole,” said Jim Fishenden, general manager at the Aerospace Corp. and executive lead for the Virginia Tech partnership.

 “It’s been great to see the students gradually produce more polished products as they evolve over the course of their experience with the Aerospace Corp.,” said John Janeski, director of the digital communication implementation department at the Aerospace Corp., and mentor for major design experience projects in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “This experience gives them a glimpse into what the rest of their career will be like. It takes them out of the classroom environment and is often their first exposure to an open-ended problem.” This year’s major design experience project began in January 2023 and will build on the efforts of the previous project.

Through his participation in the major design experience, a two-semester team-based capstone project, Murphy Smith ‘21 worked with the Aerospace Corp. to develop an alternative to GPS for a satellite. He said the experience helped prepare him for his current role as an optical engineer at Northrop Grumman.

“The experience provided a great introduction to customer meetings, which I do now on a weekly, if not daily basis. The design reviews the professors had us work through are used in real life and are really important in the field,” Smith said, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the College of Engineering.

The Mechanical Engineering senior design team, under the guidance of mechanical engineering faculty Erik Komendera and Robin Ott, had the opportunity to visit the Aerospace Corp.’s labs during their spring break in 2022 to put their CubeSat prototype through environmental testing, a stress test that involved subjecting the prototype to a vacuum, vibration, and heat.

“Being able to see their design undergo testing similar to what would be seen in space was an invaluable experience for these young engineers getting ready to begin their industry careers,” Ott said. This year, Mechanical Engineering senior design students are working with the Aerospace Corp. to address the challenge of packaging and deploying a large antenna in a cubesat and will test their prototype at the Aerospace Corp.’s labs during the spring semester.

 “The beauty of space is I can think of no more daunting or challenging environment to test the resilience, survivability, and quality of the engineering solutions and products that we produce,” said Scot Ransbottom, professor in electrical and computer engineering and director of the major design experience. “These topics provide a basis for useful, great engineering projects to grow the next generation. Exposing young engineers to these realistic environments is a game changer that’s going to help them make a direct contribution more quickly to the various industries they work in.”