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Enabling undergraduates to explore the ‘democratization of aerospace’

​A new major in aeronautics and astronautics also includes electives to ensure that non-majors can work with UAVs, satellites, autonomous systems, and other flight technologies.
A new major in aeronautics and astronautics will enable undergraduates to help develop and apply the technologies of flight. | iStock/baona

Prodded by students and pulled by traditional firms and startups, Stanford is creating an undergraduate major in aeronautics and astronautics. “For almost 60 years we’ve had successful graduate and research programs,” said professor Charbel Farhat, chairman of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Now we have a way to help Stanford undergraduates find their places in this new aerospace century.”

Professor Juan Alonso, who steered the program through the Faculty Senate with professor emeritus George Springer, said the department wants to prepare majors for the different careers made possible as the aerospace landscape changes. Some students may see themselves on small teams developing tiny satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles, while others may aspire to leadership roles with established space or aerospace firms. The new curriculum also take non-majors into account, with introductory courses and electives to help them imagine how they might apply new aerospace technologies to their fields. The department will begin accepting new majors in the fall. (Learn more about the program here.)

“We are seeing the democratization of space and aerospace,” Alonso said. “Projects that once took the resources of governments can now be undertaken at relatively low expense by small teams.” As flight platforms become cheaper he expects aerospace technologies to become a pervasive underlying infrastructure, like computing, that engineers and non-engineers alike will apply in new and imaginative ways to environmental studies, urban planning, journalism and many other fields.

The department’s faculty already have some inkling of the student energy headed their way.

“It’s a new era of space exploration and the next generation of undergraduates want to be front and center,” said assistant professor Debbie Senesky, adding: “I recently had a student advisee tell me she wanted to manage a space hotel in the future.”

Student interest

Campus-wide interest in the new program is best demonstrated by participation in two student clubs populated mainly by graduate and undergraduate engineers, but with a fair representation of members from other schools.

Noa Glaser, ’18, is co-president of SUAVE, short for Stanford Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Enthusiasts, Engineers and Entrepreneurs. An electrical engineering major herself, Glaser said SUAVE's roughly 150 members attend technical presentations and get involved in designing, building and flying two main types of UAVs: fixed-wing craft that resemble small planes and, her favorite, multirotor craft known as quads because they rise on four helicopter-like rotors.

“Delivery has been in the news a lot but there are so many other interesting applications,” Glaser said. “Fixed-wing have been the universal choice for communication and land surveying where you need to cover a lot of ground. When you want to access hard to reach places, like for bridge inspections, you’d be better off with a quad.”

Elizabeth Hillstrom, ’17, is a former co-president of Stanford Student Space Initiative (SSI), a second club with about 200 members. SSI students design and build high-altitude balloons, small satellites and related platforms. Hillstrom, a mechanical engineering student, has spent more than two years helping design the moving parts for a satellite project staffed by a rolling team of 20 students. Newer SSI members are already taking over that mission with an eye toward an eventual launch into low-Earth orbit. Though she will have graduated by then, Hillstrom values her involvement.

“Engineering is an experiential field; you need good intuition as well as technical knowledge,” she said. “You need to work in teams, gain experience by doing projects, failing and figuring out how to do things better.”

Assistant professor Marco Pavone, faculty advisor to SSI and director of undergraduate education for the department, said the new curriculum incorporates the sort of project-based learning that Hillstrom describes and which is common in engineering. But in choosing what courses to teach, Stanford started with a clean slate, blending traditional aerospace training with exposure to the new technologies that enable smaller, cheaper, more capable flight platforms.

“We blend aerodynamics, propulsion and control techniques with artificial intelligence and autonomous system design,” Pavone said. “Our students will be prepared to work on airplanes, rockets, drones, small satellite or autonomous robotic systems, either on Earth or in space.”

Rich history

Flight engineering has been woven into the fabric of Stanford since 1904, when William Durand, known for his pioneering research on propellers, first joined Stanford’s mechanical engineering faculty. Durand died just before his 100th birthday in 1958, the year that aeronautics became a separate department.

Against the backdrop of Sputnik and the Cold War, Stanford aerospace researchers helped design aircraft to withstand transonic and supersonic vibrations. They developed satellites for communications and navigation, including contributions to the Global Positioning System used by smartphone driving apps today.

More recently, Stanford researchers have designed tiny satellites capable of working together in swarms, helped develop air traffic control systems to oversee unmanned aerial vehicles, and created space vehicles capable of autonomous exploration.

Yet Farhat felt the department had a weakness. “Among research universities Stanford has a particular commitment to undergraduate education but we weren’t pulling our weight,” he said.

So in 2014 when Persis Drell, then dean of Stanford Engineering and now Stanford provost, set a planning process in motion, Farhat took that as his cue. “I floated the idea of adding an undergraduate major,” he said.

As the university mulled the idea, the aerospace industry started to become vocal about talent issues. Traditional aerospace firms were experiencing a retirement wave at the same time that UAV and commercial space startups were hiring. When leaders in research and industry convened a workforce summit in 2016, they said “outreach, education and recruitment” would be essential to sustain innovation.

From his department vantage point Farhat has seen Stanford undergraduates anticipate that call. “People who choose aerospace careers are passionate,” he said. “Whatever they do, they dream big. For them the sky has no limits.”