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Rise of the Rocketeers

By Jack Feuer

Published Oct 1, 2012 8:00 AM


UCLA Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Ann Karagozian.

In May, a rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral and sped into space with a Dragon on its back. The reusable capsule hitching a ride on the Falcon 9“ launch vehicle” contained supplies, but no passengers — except history. Dragon, made by Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, became the first spacecraft built by a private company to dock with the International Space Station.


The Dragon spacecraft attaches to the International Space Station with an assist from the station’s robotic arm.

The docking is a feat of technology derring-do previously accomplished by only four government entities: the U.S., Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency. It’s also one giant leap for the commercial space industry and a not-so-small step forward in the creation of new industries for California’s future. And, not surprisingly, a legion of UCLA alumni helped make it happen.

In all, more than 40 UCLA graduates worked on both the Falcon 9 and the Dragon projects, from interns to engineers to the manager of turbopump development. They join an impressive legacy of Bruins who have played a pivotal role in humanity’s reach for the stars, both on manned and unmanned missions. In fact, the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science estimates that as many as 4,000 of its alumni work at aerospace companies.


Eight UCLA graduates have become astronauts, and seven of them served on manned missions, spending a collective 327 days in outer space.

The strong background that UCLA students receive in aerospace and mechanical engineering prepares them very well for work at aerospace companies such as SpaceX,” says UCLA Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Ann Karagozian ’78. “We have a broad range of fundamental undergraduate and graduate courses, as well as classes in space-related technologies and aeronautical systems. And in addition to our cutting-edge aerospace-related research activities, our undergraduate student groups pursue a number of exciting hands-on projects each year, including hybrid rockets, design-build-fly projects, UAVs, autonomous robots and many others.”

Across the campus, Bruin faculty also have played major roles in our explorations of the heavens, from the very beginning of our space program to the present day. UCLA , home to some of the world’s most famous astronomers, such as acclaimed scientist Andrea Ghez, is involved in the vast majority of NASA ’s unmanned space exploration missions in some way, from simple data analysis to mission leadership.

The calculations of longtime UCLA mathematics professor Basil Gordon, who worked with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, helped propel the very first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit in 1958. Today, UCLA Professor of Geophysics and Space Physics Christopher T. Russell serves as principal investigator for NASA ’s Dawn mission to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

And this summer, UCLA Professor of Earth and Space Sciences An Yin discovered plate tectonics on Mars — a geological phenomenon involving the movement of huge crustal plates beneath a planet’s surface that, until this discovery, was only thought to have occurred on Earth.