Stanford introductory seminar shoots for the stars

A freshman course takes students through the process of designing a space mission, ending with a presentation of their own mission designs to NASA scientists.

Stanford students in the introductory seminar How to Design a Space Mission: From Concept to Execution have the opportunity to do more than just learn about space missions – they design their own and present the plans to NASA scientists.

A panel of scientists and engineers from satellite startup Astranis answer questions from Stanford students in the introductory seminar How to Design a Space Mission about the challenges of space flight. (Image credit: Lara Streiff)

Before they can dive into the logistics of space flight, the students have to learn some of the basics. To give them a firsthand look of what goes into planning a space mission, as part of the course they visit engineers and scientists actively working on similar projects.

This year that meant a visit to Astranis, a small space technology startup in San Francisco. For many of the current students, this is one of the main reasons for applying to this course: the opportunity to launch right into their dream field of study.

“This course is really cool,” said Yash Chandramouli, the course development assistant who is currently mentoring students throughout the quarter and organizing aspects of the class, including trips into the field. “It’s normally the type of course you would take as a senior, certainly after declaring your major.”

To get into the class, each student listed this course as their top choice for a freshman introductory seminar and expressed an interest in either aeronautics, physics or engineering as a career path. Being mostly first-year students, none has officially declared a major.

Simone D’Amico, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics who teaches the course, has two reasons for targeting frosh: recruitment to his department and his space research lab, and more poetically, to change students’ lives by teaching them how to think through the mindset of a systems engineer.

Do you dream of space?

“Courses like this are why people come to Stanford, why they should come to Stanford,” current student Finn Paisley said. More than 100 incoming frosh, and even a few sophomores, applied for the seminar this year. Of those, only 20 were selected to take part.

The final group intentionally includes athletes, international students and an equal number of men and women. “Problem-solving benefits from diversity,” said D’Amico. He cites the recent first all-female spacewalk outside the International Space Station as proof of NASA’s own commitment to equal opportunity.

Several of the participating students were sporting NASA patches or stickers on their personal belongings as they headed to San Francisco. Some described wanting to be astronauts when they were younger, others about pondering the mysteries of the universe when looking up at the stars.

Though they may sound like dreamers, many of their current goals revolve around careers in physics or engineering, and this course makes those aspirations seem tangible. “This makes it feel in grasp,” said Anais Marroqui. “It’s opening me up to the kinds of things I want to do as a career.”

The same thing animating his students is important to D’Amico as part of the learning process: “They should get outside the classroom and see it live in the field.”

The NASA way

Several students point out one of the biggest draws of the course is the opportunity to see scientists and engineers in action. “I used to watch reports about space missions on TV, and you’d see that dark room with lots of people in it, all working toward the same objective,” said Xin Ran Song, “I wanted to learn about that – the behind-the-scenes.”

Taking advantage of Stanford’s proximity to advances in space technologies, each year D’Amico selects a new startup to visit, many of which occupy the same few blocks in downtown San Francisco. Although their missions may differ, the takeaway remains the same. “I expose the students to how space system engineering is done at NASA and small companies,” D’Amico says. “This way they can compare methods.”

Treated to a tour of the Astranis workspaces and demonstrations of some of the mechanics, students were able to see firsthand how the engineers are working to prep an oven-sized satellite to reach geostationary orbit. They were able to ask a panel of engineers questions about some of the challenges of designing and preparing equipment for space flight when working in a completely different environment than where your equipment needs to function.

These are the same kinds of challenges students will encounter when designing their own missions, which have the objective of improving life on Earth. Previously presented missions from the course included satellites for tracking terrestrial biodiversity and systems for mapping space debris.

The team of experts and engineers from NASA Ames Research Center, along with D’Amico, will assess the strengths and weaknesses of all the plans, and nominate a winning team for a Russell A. Berman Award for Excellence.

“The potential for growth is incredible,” D’Amico says. “They go from essentially being high school students to presenting to NASA within 3 months.”