Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan


U-M Engineering Alumni Help Develop SpaceX Dragon

Posted: June 17, 2012

U-M Engineering Alumni Help Develop SpaceX Dragon

SpaceX's Dragon, the first cargo-carrying private spacecraft, made its way back to Earth Thursday, and it was helped along the way by Michigan engineers.

“Our students are flocking to companies like SpaceX,” said AOSS and Aerospace Professor Thomas Zurbuchen. “Many of them started out at another company and then left to go work there. They are leaving higher-paid, more stable jobs for this, which is amazing because it is much higher-risk and more challenging.”

SpaceX’s successful Dragon mission marks the first time a privately-run company has docked with the International Space Station and delivered cargo and supplies to its crew. The mission is the first of twelve scheduled flights contracted by NASA, at the price tag of $1.6 billion dollars.

The company aims to inject new energy into the space exploration field “by developing a family of launch vehicles which will ultimately reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access by a factor of ten,” according to its website.

“Coupled with the newly emerging market for private and commercial space transport, this new model will re-ignite humanity's efforts to explore and develop space.”

The SpaceX model is re-invigorating the field of aerospace engineering and space travel, and it is not the only private company wooing young engineers. Private space companies offer additional employment opportunities for young graduates, although that employment is often very high-risk.

“What SpaceX did in aerospace probably makes it the most innovative company in space right now,” said Zurbuchen, who is also associate dean for entrepreneurship. “But it’s a little bit crazy. If SpaceX had failed in the two to three early flights, the whole company may be dead right now.”

So why have over 20 Michigan Engineering graduates taken the chance to work at SpaceX? Zurbuchen believes it’s due to the culture of learning promoted at U-M.  Today’s students are encouraged to take risks, and to pursue what he calls a “deep set” of experiences, taking them outside of the confines of a classroom and exposing them to hands-on projects and team ventures.

In fact, Zurbuchen says one of his former students who is currently employed at SpaceX is using a software program that he developed while involved in a U-M team. “That’s something he didn’t get in my classroom. He did it on his own as the leader of a student team, and he now implements it in his work at SpaceX.”

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