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The Search for the Commercial Space Technologist: A Comparison of Aviation and Commercial Space-related Postsecondary Programs

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Hands-on Activities and Student Learning in Aerospace Engineering - II - Student Papers

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Paper Authors


Tracy L. Yother Purdue Polytechnic Institute

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Tracy L. Yother is an instructor in Aeronautical Engineering Technology and a PhD candidate in Career and Technical Education in the College of Education at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. Ms. Yother currently teaches the undergraduate Powerplant Systems and Design Supportability courses in the Aeronautical Engineering Technology (AET) program. She possesses a B.S. and M.S. in Aviation Technology. She also holds an airframe and powerplant certificate.

Ms. Yother has 18 years’ experience in the aerospace and defense industry working for companies such as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, and Pratt and Whitney. She has held positions in product support, customer support, and program management.

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Cooper G. Burleson Purdue University Orcid 16x16

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A Graduate of Purdue University’s College of Technology with a B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering Technology and an M.S. in Aerospace Management, Cooper’s field of expertise lies in Commercial Spaceport and Commercial Space Platform Operations. He has previously worked in Washington D.C. at the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, where he oversaw the drafting of new-age commercial space policy pertaining to the commercialization of the International Space Station, as well as coordinated the launch of Moon Express’s TM MX-model Lunar Landers. Most recently, he has worked at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas on NASA’s MAPI contract. While in Houston, Cooper has supported the MAPI contract as a systems engineering and integration engineer, as well as consulted for the contract’s prime contractor Barrios Technology Ltd. on the effort to commercialize the International Space Station by 2028.

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James M. Thom Purdue University

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J. Mark Thom is an Associate Professor at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. He teaches courses in the Aeronautical Engineering Technology program, as well as courses in design analysis. He is a co-director in Purdue’s National Test Facility for fuels and propulsion, and has been a PI on work related to the FAA's Piston Aviation Alternative Fuel development program. He has maintained research interests in propulsion systems and in fuels testing, in areas related to the recruitment of women into aviation, and into the development of engineering technology in aerospace. He has worked on methods for re-integrating hands-on skills into engineering and engineering technology education. He was a team member on an international working group studying inappropriate crew response to engine malfunctions, and was a task force member examining root causes for general aviation accidents related to engine failures.

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Brian Kozak Purdue Polytechnic Institute

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Dr. Brian J. Kozak is a faculty member in the School of Aviation and Transportation Technology at Purdue University where he teaches in the Unmanned Aerial Systems and Aeronautical Engineering Technology majors. He also teaches at the graduate level. Dr. Kozak developed new courses on aeronautical statics, autonomous vehicle operations, and drone operations in outdoor flight environments. He is currently collaborating with industry partners to teach skills that are required for a new generation of aviation graduates.

Dr. Kozak earned his B.S. in Applied Physics, B.S. in Interdisciplinary Science, M.S. in Aviation and Aerospace Management, and Ph.D. in Technology from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He has strong personal interests in aviation where he enjoys piloting aircraft and building a composite airplane. Dr. Kozak holds FAA private pilot, airframe and powerplant, and remote pilot certificates

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Student Paper

The aviation industry met its need to fill manufacturing, support, and design functions by the use of design engineers, engineering technologists, and technicians. Post-secondary programs focused on commercial space, while training the technician and the engineer, were not training the technologist. The commercial space industry used technicians, managers/operators, and expanded the role of the design engineer to fill the vacancy of the missing university trained technologist. As commercial space organizations have grown aviation technicians have been brought in to fill the need for detailed component manufacturing and assembly tasks. However, the technicians who are brought in to perform specific high skilled work, lack the education and experience to manage the higher level programmatic logistics issues. Additionally, the trained engineer were drawn further from their expertise and training in research design, to be responsible for the logistics and program support.

As the commercial space industry continues expand, the question begins to emerge as to whether the areas of expertise in design support, manufacturing, and vehicle support are fundamentally different than that traditionally seen in aviation. Intuitively, engineering and program support activities must evolve to mirror the structure of legacy aviation where the design engineers focus on the discipline of engineering and design while support and deployment activities are performed by a different specialization. The purpose of this study is to categorize and compare the content of traditional aviation programs and commercial space programs for differences in characteristics, traits, and paths of program focus. This paper examines the question of what training and education needs exist for commercial spacecraft technologist, and seeks to identify a gap in the skills and competencies that are relevant to the portion of the industry in which the technologist is to be engaged. This understanding leads to more questions regarding the traditional model used by legacy aviation and aerospace where engineering technologists are better equipped to serve the area between the engineering and the technician. The authors see this primarily as a workforce development issue, as more than not just an engineering issue. The concepts of workforce development and engineering are inseparably linked, due to the fact that without a support workforce adequately knowledgeable in the concepts of this field, advanced engineering cannot take place.

The authors see three options to compensate for the missing technologist dilemma. The first is to use aviation trained engineering technologists. The second is to modify existing technologist programs to switch their focus from aviation to the commercial space industry. Lastly, the use of the workforce from military space or legacy aviation/aerospace. It is unlikely only one path will be chosen. Regardless of the path, or paths, selected, there is ample work to be done.

Yother, T. L., & Burleson, C. G., & Thom, J. M., & Kozak, B. (2019, June), The Search for the Commercial Space Technologist: A Comparison of Aviation and Commercial Space-related Postsecondary Programs Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33423

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