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'OSRA' Means You Don't Need to Be Rich to Be a Rocket Scientist

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

A new age of space travel is here and now, and if Open Source Rocket Academy—code name OSRA—has any part of it, there will be a whole lot more aerospace engineers to confront the challenges ahead.

“We're seeing a massive growth, and I think that's so exciting,” said Kathleen Joslyn, a PSU undergraduate studying mathematics. “I think we really are headed into a second golden age of spaceflight.”

But in an industry dominated by prestige, it’s hard to break through, and OSRA, a finalist in this year's Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge, hopes to make it easier for a broad spectrum of students interested in aerospace engineering to make the leap from the classroom to career.

The trick: provide hands-on rocketry experience in one of the hottest research areas, liquid propulsion.

OSRA will offer open-source rocket stand designs, the main teaching tool in rocketry, for anyone to find on the internet and build for free, and the founding members will offer instruction at a fee for anyone who wants or needs it. “We realized that that hands-on experience was extremely valuable and was what helped us get into the industry,” said Joslyn.

“We've learned that the most interesting thing that companies want to know is, what have you done?” added Teresa Nguyen, a mechanical engineering student at Portland Community College. “What have you gotten your hands on?”

Far from a golden ticket into the industry, an engineering education is an important first step, but students with direct experience in rocketry are much more attractive to the industry and will experience a greater rate of success finding jobs.

Portland State has no dedicated aerospace engineering program. Instead, students interested in aerospace engineering organized independently to build satellites and launch liquid-propelled rockets as a way to develop into preferred talent. Called the Portland State Aerospace Society, Portland State’s largest project-based student group, PSAS provided a gateway for budding aerospace engineers to apply what they were learning.

Lacking the strong funding of widely recognized and dedicated programs at universities like Purdue and MIT, the students at PSAS organized around competitions like Base 11 Space Challenge, a competition to launch the first university-led liquid-propelled rocket to the edge of space, and Portland State’s Cleantech Challenge, which rewards grant funding for sustainable, environmentally friendly innovations. Liquid-propelled rockets are a clean-burning alternative to solid rockets.

“PSAS has a longstanding reputation of being kind of like a scrappy underdog,” said Nguyen. The student organization relies on grant funding to function. “But we've been around for a while as well, and we really want to make rocket science and the ability and the desire to want to learn it as accessible as possible.”

What started as PSAS evolved into something greater. In the process of participating in the Cleantech Challenge, the founders of OSRA discovered an urgent problem they were uniquely positioned to solve: helping other aerospace engineers develop the hands-on experience with rockets that could groom them for a career in rocketry.

More specialized than many fields, aerospace companies typically require and pay for significant training after a candidate is hired. Because the extra investment is costly, graduating engineers interested in joining the field may face structural obstacles that make it harder for them to find a job.

“There are people who have perfect GPAs and they could do well in school and they have serious problems finding any sort of job in the aerospace sector after they graduate because they have no hands-on experience,” said Joslyn.

Only universities with better-funded, dedicated programs have the resources to organize rocketry teams, which Joslyn says is essential for growth in the industry. “It's pretty hard to get a rocketry club or a group of students going without money, really, without funding. So if you're not in one of those, you know, highly funded schools for aerospace, it's hard to get into it.”

Alongside the resources and prestige of those programs comes the high cost of attendance and the high demands of applicants who typically start off in a much better socioeconomic position.

“If a student was very, very determined to do so, they could talk to an adviser or try to talk to an instructor roughly within their field who might know somebody who knows somebody,” said Nguyen. Nguyen is a post-baccalaureate student who returned to PCC to follow an engineering dream. "Trying to make connections where the resources aren't there, that's almost a full-time job in and of itself. And so as far as difficulty goes, it really depends on that student's gumption."

Those fresh out of their undergraduate careers may simply lack the awareness of the programs that are available. Or they may face other challenges that limit their ability to find and secure work. "You gotta build your networking,” Nguyen said. "And if that is not something that you're entirely familiar with, but you want to get started, it can be overwhelming in that regard.”

The socioeconomic divide between students in dedicated aerospace programs and students elsewhere is persistent and hard to solve. “A lot of the people that I meet within the industry come from either upper middle class or higher class backgrounds,” said Joslyn. “I never saw myself in an industry like this as I was growing up, just because I didn't think I would ever be in a place where I could go to a school that would really teach me this."

That’s true for all of OSRA’s founding members. Nguyen left home at 18; independent ever since, they supported themselves through their undergraduate and post-baccalaureate education in part through a career in nonprofit grassroots advocacy.

Jennifer Jordan, a rising senior in electrical engineering and mathematics from Warrenton, Oregon, attended Clatsop Community College for a year, but she dropped out for financial reasons. She worked for 2 years at Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen to save enough money for school. After her first year at Portland State University, she earned an academic scholarship that allowed her to finish her undergraduate education.

Risto Rushford, a Portland State graduate student in mechanical and electrical engineering, grew up in poverty in Oysterville, Washington, where a Fred Meyer and a pawn shop were the only outlets for his curiosity about electronics.

“It wasn’t until I was an adult in my mid-twenties that it ever seemed feasible that I could actually work on developing technology myself,” Rushford said by email. “For us, it’s not just about the big flashy picture of four young rocket scientists wanting to start a company. We come from lived experiences where our efforts, backgrounds, and academic achievements were often overlooked, undervalued, and financially stalled. Because life happens. And we had to readjust our personal plans to try again from a different angle.”

OSRA measures success by leveling the playing field for any student who wants to become an aerospace engineer. Its founders are its prime examples, and OSRA hopes to use lessons they learned at the Portland State Aerospace Society to close the socioeconomic gap by providing more openly accessible training at a fraction of the cost.

The industry will become more available to more diverse candidates, and aerospace companies will be able to limit the costly training required to prepare new talent. It’s a win-win.

“PSAS has been kind of like a teacher in that,” Joslyn said. “You don't have to come from a rich background to be in this industry.”

For their own part, Nguyen understands that the right effort at the right time can yield remarkable results. The wisdom gained could be invaluable for other rising aerospace engineers.

“I'm going into an industry where, number one, when I started, I did not see myself doing that or I didn't know how far I would get,” they said. “All I really wanted was just to see if I could do it, just being an engineer. I didn't realize how fast and how wide the doors would open."

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