February 23, 2004
Stanford's spacecraft design course among first educational offerings at new Space Technology Center
By Dawn Levy
Two new technology centers have opened at NASA Research Park, a 213-acre campus in Mountain View just outside the gates of NASA Ames Research Center. The aim is to bring together academic, industrial and nonprofit partners in support of NASA missions, including space exploration with humans and robots.
On Feb. 5, the Space Technology Center (STC), a consortium of academic, industrial and government partners led by San Jose State University and including Stanford, Santa Clara and Utah State universities and the Aerospace Corp. of Los Angeles, held its grand opening. The center's goal is to educate workers in space technology, which officials hope will help drive the economy and the future of space exploration.
"Since its inception 45 years ago, NASA has pushed the boundaries of exploration and science, a philosophy Stanford shares in its academic pursuits," said Jim Plummer, dean of Stanford's School of Engineering. "We're looking forward to playing a role in NASA's storied tradition by providing world-class engineering programs to the Space Technology Center."
A stone's throw away from Hangar One, the center will share classroom, laboratory and office space in Building 583C with the Metropolitan Technology Center (MTC), established in 2001 to promote research collaborations between NASA Ames and the California State University system, including its campuses, organized research units and affiliates.
NASA officials hailed the partnership as an opportunity to conduct joint research in cutting-edge technologies and to develop new ideas to improve the region's education infrastructure. Activities will focus on education, workforce development, research and technology transfer in fields such as biotechnology, energy, sensors, wireless communication, disaster mitigation, human factors research and information technology.
"This work in education and research and development in space technology is exactly the kind of thing that we need to do as a community here in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area in order to take advantage of our premier education institutions, of our incredibly talented workforce, of our young folks who are so interested in robotics, so interested in information technology, and the communities that we have here of our industrial partners," said G. Scott Hubbard, director of NASA Ames Research Center.
While Stanford has long had a research presence at Ames, the STC gives the university an arena in which to establish an educational stronghold.
Among the first educational programs to be offered by the STC is Stanford's renowned graduate engineering course series "Spacecraft Design." Taught by Consulting Professor Bob Twiggs, this one-year, four-course sequence totaling 14 units challenges students to design, build, test and launch small satellites to carry out a space mission that the students have designed. Through the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department offers the same course taken by Stanford students to professional engineers, who earn a certificate instead of a degree. The program gives engineers working at NASA as well as at Lockheed and other Silicon Valley firms a chance to hone their skills or develop a new skill set. Students from industry no longer must depend on a lab being available at their companies; they can instead come to the STC for lab work, said Cam Moore, SCPD director of academic programs.
"What we're hopeful will happen is that the more veteran engineers who are practicing will provide insights about the world of work to the younger engineers who don't yet have that experience," said SCPD Executive Director Andy DiPaolo. "So it will strengthen the academic exercise on campus as well."
Said Moore: "[Twiggs' course series] was an ideal way for Stanford to get involved with the Space Technology Center. It allows us to bring Stanford curriculum there, and it allows us to come in with a curriculum focus, which I think is very important. It was Bob Twiggs' interest in providing some of that curriculum that really allowed us to move forward."
Brian Cantwell, chair of Stanford's Aeronautics and Astronautics Department and the Edward C. Wells Professor in the School of Engineering, concurred. He called Twiggs "the driving force behind the Space Technology Center" and "an incredibly engaged teacher as well and a source of energy." For an engineer in industry working on a space project like the Mars exploration endeavors, the period from conception to completion can easily be a decade. It's difficult for an engineer to get a complete project experience.
"The vision behind Bob's course is that the students come in and they do an entire project from conception to completion -- that is, from the defining of requirements to the designing of the equipment to building to testing to flight -- in less than a year," said Cantwell.
Companies appreciate this approach, which with part-time on-site and distance learning makes practical the lifelong education necessary to keep the workforce current.
"Our relationship with [NASA] Ames is a really crucial one," said Cantwell. Since 1980, about 100 doctoral students in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics have had a NASA Ames researcher as co-adviser (in addition to the student's primary faculty adviser). The Mechanical Engineering Department has had an even greater number of NASA co-advisers, he noted.
The co-location of universities will enable faculty to collaborate with colleagues from the University of California-Santa Cruz, Carnegie Mellon West, community colleges and others. And co-location of companies may produce better partners for NASA.
"The days of the single person, the single company, the single inventor, are long gone," Hubbard said. "We still have ideas as individuals, but implementing them, making a reality out of something as complex as nanotechnology and nanoscience, requires a team of individuals. It requires fundamental education starting down in primary school. It requires higher education. It requires investment from venture capitalists."
Cantwell closed his remarks by saying, "We are engaged in a mutual process of learning through research. Our research and our teaching are one and the same." He told of applicants to his department inspired by aerospace engineering and enticed by prospects of both manned and unmanned space flight. "That vision is what motivates our students. It's what motivates Bob. And so when they come out here to Stanford, they come with the expectation that there will be a place like this for them to learn. This is really fulfilling the beginning of their dreams as well as ours."