Launching a new discipline
And…we have liftoff! On our new aerospace engineering (AE) major, that is. Our first class of incoming freshman began instruction last month with a curriculum that includes aero design, solid mechanics, dynamics, fluid mechanics and controls. According to faculty director Panos Papadopoulos, the college is also working on a new state-of-the-art sophomore-level aerospace design course, for which we’re renovating a 4,000-square-foot lab space in Hesse Hall. A powerful wind tunnel will be installed there by December. This fall’s freshmen AE students will hear from senior aerospace leaders in private industry and government, who will share their insights about working in the field. And a senior-level capstone course and many more elective aerospace-related courses are in development.
Read on to hear from several Berkeley Engineering alumni who are already soaring in the aerospace industry.
The sky’s the limit
When the SpaceX Crew-6 mission heads to the International Space Station (ISS) in spring 2023, Berkeley Engineering alum Warren “Woody” Hoburg (M.S.’11, Ph.D.’13 EECS) will be, quite literally, launching a new career. A NASA astronaut since 2017, Hoburg will be taking on the role of pilot on the spacecraft Dragon for the first time, applying years of intensive training.
“I always thought being an astronaut would be the coolest job ever, but I had no knowledge of how to get there,” he said. “It was only in hindsight that my skills and background made sense.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics, Hoburg came to Berkeley to earn his master’s and Ph.D. After two years, his original plan to research machine learning for robotics changed direction. “While studying convex optimization, I realized that a special type of optimization, geometric programming, was well-suited for aircraft design,” he said.
Much of Hoburg’s doctoral study was completed from a staging area in Yosemite National Park, where he worked during the summers of 2010 and 2011 on the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team. He trained as an EMT and learned to hang off ropes to save stranded rock climbers. It exposed him to high-stakes decision-making — the kind you’d need when encountering unexpected situations on a space mission.
Having earned his Ph.D., Hoburg spent a year at Boeing Commercial Airplanes developing software for composite manufacturing processes, learning about the industry and how his optimization work could add value to the market. He then joined the MIT faculty, leading a research group that developed software for aircraft design.
But when Hoburg heard through a friend that NASA was accepting applications, he took a shot and applied. “Somehow I was lucky enough to get that once-in-a-lifetime phone call,” he said. He joined NASA as a member of the 2017 astronaut class.
Five years later, Hoburg is in the thick of mission training, focused on two separate functions: first, preparing to fly Dragon to the ISS and back; and second, training for six months of living and working in space.
The voyage to the ISS will take roughly 24 hours, depending on orbital dynamics. Once the crew docks with the ISS, it will stay aboard to conduct scientific research in the weightless environment. Rather than conducting their own experiments in space, crew members are hired as generalists who understand the scientific method and can operate a range of experiments in collaboration with teams of experts on the ground.
The astronauts will also use themselves as human test subjects. For example, Hoburg will be eating a diet rich in flavonoids, lycopene and omega-3 fatty acids to see if it could help on longer-duration missions.
The crew’s other big task is continual maintenance of the ISS systems. “We’re space plumbers, we’re space electricians,” Hoburg said. “We fix things when they’re broken, and sometimes that requires us to go outside on spacewalks.”
Hoburg has now found the right balance between his technical, engineering side and his operational side. “I was always seeking ways to combine these two passions, but they never aligned perfectly until I got to NASA,” he said. “This is a place that needs highly technical people who love math and problem-solving, but who also want to do operations. I finally feel truly at home.”
A soaring partnership
According to Eugene Tu (B.S.’88 ME), there’s never been a better time to pursue a career in aerospace engineering: We’re learning more about the origins and future of the universe, potentially finding life elsewhere and extending human presence to other worlds. There are great opportunities to benefit society, to revolutionize the use of our airspace and to understand our planet from the unique vantage point of space. As a result, growing numbers of private sector companies are investing and working in aerospace.
Tu speaks from experience. As director of the NASA Ames Research Center, he oversees its mission and program activities in aeronautics research, science, human exploration and space technology. He’s responsible for operations of the center and its major facilities, including the largest wind tunnel in the world — the most capable aerothermal testing facility for atmospheric entry and NASA’s fastest supercomputer complex.
“At a strategic level, one of my key roles is working with center and agency leadership to establish a long-term vision for Ames that will take us through this century and beyond. And our partnership with UC Berkeley in creating a research presence at Moffett Field with NASA Ames is a major part of that vision,” Tu said.
Like so many others who have pursued aerospace careers, Tu was interested in airplanes and space from a young age. He originally wanted to become a pilot and considered applying to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Physics was one of his favorite subjects in school; once at Berkeley, he quickly developed a passion for mechanical and aerospace engineering. A dedicated aerospace engineering program didn’t exist here when it was time for him to pursue his graduate studies in that field. So, even though Tu’s entire family “bleeds blue and gold, especially during Big Game week,” he ended up earning his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at a university “about 50 miles to the south of Berkeley.”
One of the most critical lessons he learned at Berkeley was the value of always being open to learning new things. As an undergrad, “I learned so much from my professors, mentors, my internships and my fellow students,” he said. “Today, I lead such a diverse set of domains at Ames that I need to be able to receive advice and opinions from the experts around me.”
Tu is thrilled by the launch of Berkeley’s new aerospace major, and he’s working with the College of Engineering to advise on the program. Given the inherently multidisciplinary nature of aerospace and its strong connections to all the other engineering and science fields, he feels the new major is extremely well suited to Berkeley.
“As the director of NASA Ames, I’m very proud to be supporting our growing partnership with UC Berkeley in this new endeavor,” he said. “Working together, we can achieve so much to enrich the educational experiences of students — and the research innovation in California and across the nation.”
Wayne Goodman (M.S.’83, Ph.D.’87 ME) remembers exactly when the inspiration first struck: watching the first Apollo spacecraft launches on television, which led to building and flying his own model rockets growing up. “I’ve always been fascinated by the challenges associated with space systems and how to overcome them,” he said. “They’re constrained by size, weight, power and leaving Earth’s gravity safely. It’s remarkable when you think about all the things that need to come together and work right for a successful launch.”
He should know: Goodman is now executive vice president of The Aerospace Corporation, a leading architect for the nation’s space programs, based in Southern California. The national nonprofit corporation provides technical expertise that bridges connections across the defense, civil and commercial sectors to support critical space missions for the U.S. Space Force, NASA, and others. Its experts take a wide-reaching and holistic perspective for space architecture development, hardware and software acquisition, and system operations, including rockets, satellites and ground systems.
As the second-highest officer at the company, Goodman partners with the CEO and other executives to advise and support government decision-makers in delivering systems that will shape the future of national space capabilities. Over nearly 35 years, he’s risen through 13 positions, including three different executive officer positions.
All these years later, Berkeley Engineering still informs Goodman’s professional outlook. He considers his time at Berkeley as his “first career” because of the wealth of knowledge and experience he gained while pursuing his graduate degrees. “I learned to conduct independent research and that I could solve hard problems by persisting, even when the solutions seemed out of reach,” he said. “Those skills have served me well throughout my career, and even today are what push me to seek out growth opportunities and experiences that will challenge me.”
But as a grad student, there were a few things Goodman hadn’t yet learned. Over the course of his career, he came to appreciate the importance of non-technical skills such as leadership, public speaking, writing and building consensus. “Those skills have turned out to be equally important and, in some cases, even more important than my technical skills,” Goodman said. “Hard problems are seldom solved alone, and being able to align diverse stakeholders to a shared vision is very valuable. I’ve come to appreciate how both skill sets are important to achieving success.”
Goodman strongly believes in developing fundamental skills but also in staying flexible to evolving interests. “When I started at Aerospace, I expected to use the knowledge and skills that I learned at Berkeley to be a world-class structural engineer,” he said. “But over time, my interests changed. The problem-solving abilities I learned at Berkeley allowed me to excel in new areas, and that continues to be true today.”
With his bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a master’s from the University of Santa Clara, Armen Askijian (B.S.’02 ME) started out in the construction industry, but it wasn’t long before he found his way into aerospace. As a staff mechanical engineer with Lockheed Martin’s satellite mechanisms group, he was able to apply his engineering education to complex satellite design programs, including spacecraft separation from launch vehicles, solar array deployments and precision mechanisms for pointing antenna and optics.
In that role, Askijian led an engineering, analysis and manufacturing team through design, hardware fabrication and integration of multiple complex products for national space assets. He loved the combination of designing for the harsh environments of space — extreme hot, extreme cold, vacuum, radiation — and the critical importance of successful operations; any performance glitches could result in total satellite mission failures.
“First principles are the foundation upon which everything is built — developing an intuitive understanding of physics and mathematics is essential, as well as learning how to test and validate your ideas,” said Askijian. “Building and testing your own models, code, prototypes and experiments are key to linking the theories you learned in school to real-word challenges.”
Today, as the chief technology officer and head of engineering at Airbus U.S. Space & Defense in Denver, Askijian is responsible for leading all technical development and research activities. He’s one of the primary designers of the OneWeb Gen1 satellite and its underlying modular platform (Arrow150); its development ranged from high-level mission definition and satellite constellation design to launch and in-orbit operations. There are currently 428 Arrow150 satellites operating successfully on-orbit, and Askijian’s team is now developing a larger successor — the Arrow450 satellite.
To alumni interested in a similar career, Askijian advises a balance between depth and breadth. A singular passion in a niche field can create a rewarding path to narrowly focus on an academic or industry career, but broadening to other technical areas might lead to unexpected career directions.
Above all, he recommends savoring the journey, allowing your interests to grow beyond purely technical fields and nurturing relationships you’ve made along the way. If Askijian’s trajectory is any example, it’s a sure way to launch a great career.