Spacecraft Preliminary Design

When we last left our heroine, the semester had barely begun and she had lost her keys in the Salt River.

Now, more than 1/3 of the way through the semester, and fully recovered from the key losing incident, Kerianne has made it through her first round of exams and settled fully into her classes.

Now, for the moment you have all been waiting for with baited breaths. Spacecraft Preliminary Design: the intro to the pinnacle of the Astronautical Engineering curriculum. Or as the aerospace engineering department likes to call it: the senior capstone design project.

The senior capstone design project spans two semesters.  During the first semester, preliminary design, students work on the conceptual design for their project.  During the second semester, detail design, students actually build and test their design or some portion of the design, depending on the scale of the project.

The name of the degree at Embry-Riddle is Aerospace Engineering, which is fairly generic and can get you a job designing planes or designing satellites.  For the degree, students get to choose a concentration: Aeronautics (Airplanes) or Astronautics (Spacecraft).  In my experience, people tend to choose the degree that first inspired them to become engineers.

For me, I knew when I was six years old that I wanted to work on spacecraft after visiting Space Center Houston. I chose to take the “Astro” track for my concentration. I’ve met other people who chose the “Aero” track because their original inspiration was flying on an aircraft or seeing a fighter in flight as a child.

Each track has a different Capstone project.  This year in Astro preliminary design, we could choose to work on one of two projects: a university CubeSat project, or an AIAA Undergraduate competition to design a mission to remove 10 pieces of orbital debris from a 82-83 degree inclination and a 900-1000 kilometer orbit.  Guess which one I chose?

The Orbital Debris project sounded very interesting, relevant, and exciting. For a project on this scale, the team will design the mission in our preliminary design semester.  At the end of this semester we will submit a 100 page paper documenting our research, design, and justification and verification of design components to the AIAA for evaluation.

One of the cool things about our class is that one of our professors, Dr. Ron Madler, Dean of the College of Engineering at Embry-Riddle, actually wrote the section on Orbital Debris in my Space Mission Analysis and Design textbook.

During detail, students usually build their project, but in cases such as ours with such a complex project, actually building the components of the mission isn’t exactly feasible. Instead, the professors will likely have us join in on the CubeSat project or work on the university’s student build satellite simulator.

The aero track is a little different.  During preliminary design students design an aircraft from back of the envelope calculations through to a wind tunnel model that they test and evaluate in the university’s wind tunnel labs.  During detail, depending on the project, “Aero” students will do a “design-build-fly” or a “design-build-break” cycle.

My boyfriend is currently working on a fighter aircraft design for his preliminary design project.  As you can’t really build an R-C version of a fighter, he is going through the “design-build-break” cycle.  Next semester, his team will build a component of the aircraft such as a horizontal stabilizer out of composites or metals and do structural testing on it to see how it stands up to the team’s predictions.

One of the things that’s really cool about the “design-build-break” cycle is that the professor for the class worked for Northrop Grumman for 20 years before he came to teach at Embry-Riddle.  He then designed the structural testing lab at the university based on what Northrop Grumman used to do their structural testing.

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