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“New Space” Provides Many Opportunities for Engineering Students

January 12, 2021

Capitology Blog sat down with Dr. Alex “Sandy” Antunes to discuss the upcoming Virgin Orbit CubeSat launch tomorrow on Sunday, January 17 and why astronautical engineering is a growing field.

Dr. Antunes is a professor of astronautical engineering at Capitol Technology University.  He mentors and manages undergraduate payload projects that are student conceived and student led, including the Cactus-1 CubeSat mission and two summers with Brazil's “Science without Borders” exchange program, and has been a member of the NASA Academy of Aerospace Quality (AAQ) advisory board since 2015.

Question: What can you share about the upcoming launch?

Answer: The launch that we have with Virgin Orbit (Virgin’s space division) is via LauncherOne, a Pegasus-type launch craft. LauncherOne uses a rocket that is air-launched from a carrier aircraft. In short, it’s like launching a cruise missile up instead of down.

The launch, known as Launch Demo 2, will carry ten CubeSats as payloads, including ours. Capitol Tech’s CubeSat, Cactus-1, is carrying out two technology demonstrations. [You can read more about Cactus-1 in an earlier interview with Dr. Antunes.]

The project has been in development for several years, and the students who worked on the satellite, all now graduates, and faculty are looking forward to having the satellite in low-earth orbit.


Q: What else is happening in the world of astronautical engineering?

A: There is a “New Space” movement underway. I grew up at the end of the Apollo generation and this current generation is at the start of the new space movement. It’s a good time to be an engineer in this area.


Q: Why is there such a drive toward space innovation?

A: SpaceX is pushing the limits; Virgin Obit is pushing the limits. What’s driving the technology is the way to make it more affordable. It’s all about return on investment and returning the dollar per pound to get into orbit. This has led to opening up space to more entrepreneurial activity.

If the government is footing the bill, you don’t have to worry about it because you have to put up the spy satellites or communications satellites. Virgin, with their focus on space tourism, and SpaceX, with their focus on Mars, want to enable more people to be able to go to space. The benefit of cheaper spaceflight is not only for companies and individuals, but also for countries that can’t take advantage of a space program due to the traditionally high cost.


Q: What makes Capitol Tech’s Astronautical Engineering degree unique?

A: At Capitol, our astronautical engineering degree is one of the few. It’s not aerospace – it’s just the space segment. We’re one of the few focusing in that area because we’re near DC with the Department of Defense (DoD), key federal contractors, and NASA. Many don’t think of the military when it comes to space, but the Air Force space budget is larger than all of NASA’s budget. [Read more about the X-37B space plane].

One big focus we have is operations. There’s a huge number of jobs for operations engineering. Because we have the Space Flight Operations Training Center (SFOTC) they are ready to do spacecraft operations as undergrads. They’re going out and getting engineering jobs at a high salary. Most starting engineer jobs are in testing or operations.  


Q: What does a career in space operations look like?

A: Your job in operations is when things go wrong to figure out what has gone wrong. On most missions there is an anomaly or problem every 7 months. If you use a typical schedule, that means there are a half dozen to dozen anomalies during that time. And on top of that, you want to improve your operations.

If you are in operations you learn all of the systems, so you can do lateral career movement. I tell students, if you get a job offer take it – especially if it’s with one of the large companies. There is so much room for lateral movement in other space-related fields.


Q: What advice do you have for current or future Capitol Tech engineering students?

A: For high schoolers interested, focus in math up through pre-calculus and introductory physics. Much of engineering is Algebra and Excel Spreadsheets. You need to understand advanced math skills, such as calculus, for how to set up a problem and identify what’s going on with it, but not necessarily how to solve it on your own.

I would suggest students don’t fuss too much over what engineering program you pursue – the space industry hires all engineers. Within Capitol, within your first year if you want to switch degrees it’s pretty seamless between programs. If you’re in electrical engineering and decide you don’t like hardware, you might find an area of interest in astronautical engineering.

Capitol Tech offers a variety of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in aviation and unmanned systems, including astronautical engineering. For more information, contact