The Future in Aerospace: Two Voices on the Emerging Aerospace Industry
By Alci Rengifo
The future is today and changing traditional labor patterns is our first hint of its arrival. Robotics is being touted as the harbinger of the future workplace, even McDonald’s now has automated systems to take your order. But as a species we have always looked upward in our pursuit of progress. Space is truly the final frontier as aerospace technology and travel begin to take on a more commercialized, popular form. Leading the way are companies such as SpaceX, which developed launch vehicle designs like the Falcon 9 and Dragon to deliver payloads. In 2016 Elon Musk unveiled plans for a massive project entitled the Interplanetary Transport System, which could potentially set the road for plans to explore and eventually colonize Mars. There is nothing science fiction about it either. Made in U.S.A is fast becoming an aerospace brand orbiting Earth.
Such ventures are sure to change the industrial character of the country, especially as a new generation of bright minds discovers new frontiers in the aerospace technology workforce. Christopher Orwoll is the Executive Director of the New Mexico Museum of Space History, which is located in the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. This was an area of high importance to the nascent space program between the 1940’s and 1990’s and a prime site for the testing of aircraft in preparation for a venture which would eventually result in humans walking on the Moon. For Orwoll there is no doubt about where the future is headed. “The advancements we are seeing in the commercialization of space travel today are equivalent to the heady early days of the aviation travel industry,” said Orwoll. “The companies currently working in this arena, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic just to name a few, are pushing the boundaries of what was thought impossible just a couple of decades ago. Cost per launch of satellites has dropped precipitously. SpaceX’s Falcon rockets and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are in an amazing race to see who can put the first tourists into suborbital flight.”
For Orwoll the recent SpaceX ventures and media-grabbing events such as the launch of a Tesla Roadster into space as part of the Falcon Heavy rocket, serve to remind the public that the United States remains in the space exploration game. “A current misunderstanding is that many think the United States is out of human spaceflight because they don’t see shuttles flying anymore and haven’t for a number of years. They think nothing is happening, which is why things like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch, Virgin Galactic’s pending space tourist flights, etc. are so important to keep the public engaged with spaceflight in general.”
Romina Mir is an international student from Iran currently majoring in mathematics and statistics at the University of California in San Diego. She has a particular interest in aerospace technology as she ponders which career path to follow upon graduation. Mir is a classic example of a new generation of minds training for a world where space holds the promise of a flowering industry. “I believe the main jobs in aerospace technology will be manufacturing and propulsion jobs designed to come up with less expensive, reusable designs for rockets, as well as create new products with the best efficiency such as the materials astronauts use, food and equipment, with a safer choice of propellants,” she explained.
“As those costs decrease with more repetitive flights and more competitive options, space will open up to more and more people of all income ranges,” said Orwoll. Key to this evolution is the idea of space travel as something truly accessible and not government projects only. “Human space travel will finally move from the domain of government sponsored programs only to something more common and accessible to the everyday person and that will spark even more companies to join the race.”
From the perspective of someone still being trained in the halls of academia, the range of careers which will be affected by the expansion of space exploration as an industry is quite wide. “Geologists, geophysicists, engineering geologists, they are conducting investigations to find resources on the earth and outside of it; within the framework of future jobs involving aerospace technology, their main job would be finding organic and inorganic materials and extract them.” It is more than evident that if we are to send more explorers deep into space, specialists will be needed to prepare them for the journey. “More astronauts will need to be educated to go up to other planets, such as Mars, to get more information, and learn to survive and live up there.”
But before we venture too further into imagining travels deep into the cosmos, Orwoll emphasized the way technology is utilized for space travel will begin affecting travel on Earth as well. For example, imagine taking a space flight from one continent to another. The results would make for quicker flights than what we are currently used to with the average airline. “There may be significant leaps in the near future with supersonic aircraft, but the next big leap will be with rocket technology and traveling to/from destinations via space or near space. The ability to travel from continent to continent via space could revolutionize the way we do our job and the jobs available,” said Orwoll. “Aerospace technology continues to change the way we travel and could have major changes in the very near future with some of the rocket technology coming online. The aviation industry continues to operate as it has for years, but the demand for pilots will increase as the Baby-Boomer generation retires in the near future.”
Orwoll made it clear that students should pay attention because emerging space companies will soon evolve in the same fashion of the early airliners. “They need to look at today’s aerospace industry as an analogue to what happened back in the early days of the last century when so much innovation was happening in the aviation industry. Those same innovations are happening today in spaceflight and the same path will be tread by today’s space companies.”
The academic world is already preparing students for the ongoing and coming changes which will place an emphasis on space travel and aerospace technologies. Orwoll cites work being done in the southwest as one example, such as in nearby El Paso, Texas where the local university Dean of Engineering Theresa Maldonado has put together a program combining all of the engineering disciplines to focus on this field. “The University of Texas at El Paso has created the Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research (CASSMAR) and they are doing cutting-edge undergraduate student, graduate student, PhD, and faculty-based research on the forensic analysis of the Columbia Space Shuttle remains and what they’re learning is being used to make current and future spacecraft safer for human travel.”
For Romina over in San Diego this approach makes sense, especially since space travel in the future might involve more than the simple questions of commerce and leisure. “Humans need to be a multi-planetary species not just to survive, but to improve the quality of their lives,” she emphasized with a particular urgency. “Having a plan B is always better than no plan. We don't know what’s going to happen to the earth soon. Having another planet with similar characteristics will help humans plan their future.” As climate change forces our species to ponder how inhabitable parts of the world might become, it is through the technology of aerospace that new opportunities arise for expanding our home and eventually its lifespan.
Orwoll concurred that increase in space travel, and its accessibility, could have positive results for humankind that go beyond travel. “Access to space will increase awareness of our planet and the universe around us. It will speed up human travel around the globe like air travel increased human travel in our country. People and nations will, hopefully, be brought closer together. Humans are encoded to explore and the more opportunities to explore and experience that are available the better.”
Header image caption: Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX spacesuits unveiled in 2017.