By Mark Cramer
Aerospace Engineering taking off at NMSU
In four short years, New Mexico State University’s aerospace engineering program has gone from concept to launch. With the program’s rapid growth and an aggressive plan to continue expanding and thriving as the state’s only aerospace engineering program, it’s safe to say that it’s now heading into orbit.
In 2005, Gov. Bill Richardson signed SB-190, which appropriated $160,000 for NMSU to start an aerospace engineering department. That same year, Thomas Burton, Ph.D., came to NMSU from Texas Tech University to build the program. The first students to major in aerospace engineering enrolled at NMSU in 2006.
“The impetus for the program’s initiation began three to four years before I arrived,” said Burton. “Paul Jaramillo and Christina Lohn in particular were instrumental in getting the program off the ground. Despite the presence of White Sands Missile Range, Los Alamos and Sandia Research Labs, there was very little aerospace presence on college campuses in New Mexico,” Burton said. “Kids wanting to pursue the field had to go out-of-state.”
Brett Beckett, a junior at NMSU, cultivated an interest in aerospace engineering while still at Onate High School in Las Cruces. He had already planned on attending NMSU before the aerospace program was fully realized, with the intention of majoring in mechanical engineering.
“Steve Castillo, the former dean of engineering, would come to Onate and talk to us about the program, and I was set on aerospace,” said Beckett, who began taking mathematics classes at NMSU at 16. “I planned on using my mechanical engineering degree to get a job in aerospace, so I was really happy when the aerospace degree materialized.”
The husband and wife team of Drs. Jaramillo and Lohn are president and vice president, respectively, of White Sands Research and Developers LLC, a Las Cruces engineering firm.
Spurred by the lack of in-state opportunity for potential aerospace students, Jaramillo and Lohn conducted a study in 2003 to investigate establishment of an aerospace engineering program in the state. While 60 programs exist across the United States, none were in New Mexico.
The study, “Background Data to Support the establishment of Aerospace Engineering Degree Program in New Mexico,” found that the state’s youth had a strong interest in aerospace engineering, which Jaramillo and Lohn felt could eventually lead to it becoming one of the largest and most sustainable academic engineering disciplines offered in the state. In short, the study produced hard data to justify, design and facilitate the establishment of aerospace engineering degree programs in New Mexico.
“We estimated that we spent probably a man-year and a half, about 3,000 Ph.D. hours on the study,” Lohn said. “Between research, going to Santa Fe to meet with representatives and senators, Paul testifying before house and senate, we really put in some time and work.”
Later in 2003, White Sands Research and Developers began spearheading the effort to secure pledges of private funds for an endowed chair for the future Department of Aerospace Engineering at NMSU. Jaramillo and Lohn worked exhaustively with New Mexico Rep. Antonio Lujan and Sen. Mary Jane Garcia to initiate calls for the program.
“You could see the spark in Rep. Lujan’s eye,” said Jaramillo. “He deserves a ton of credit – he was a freshman legislator that year and this was the first project he took on. He got Sen. Garcia on board right away.”
NMSU became the logical choice for the state’s inaugural aerospace engineering program, in part because Gov. Richardson signed legislation in 2006 to construct Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences; and because it could piggyback on the already well-established mechanical engineering program.
“It’s already so close to mechanical engineering as a discipline,” Burton said. “NMSU was already offering some aerospace content within the mechanical engineering major, so it was easily adaptable.”
Burton pointed out the work of Professor Ou Ma in unmanned aerial vehicles and Assistant Professor Young Lee in aero elasticity as research and development that blurs the line between mechanical and aerospace engineering.
The programs follow the same track until the student’s final two years, in which aerospace offers 10 courses. In fact, with one extra semester of work, students in either discipline can earn a double major in both.
The work and dedication to the program have paid off, just as Jaramillo’s and Lohn’s study indicated. This year more than 60 entering freshmen declared themselves aerospace engineering majors – the largest year-to-year increase in the program’s history.
“Civil, mechanical and electrical have long been the ‘big three’ engineering programs on campus,” said Crystal Lay, director of aerospace and special programs at NMSU. “Aerospace is already right up there with them.”
Lay had coordinated major projects to bring interest to the fledgling program. Perhaps her biggest success so far is an agreement established with Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua (UACH) in Mexico. Beginning next fall, NMSU will begin accepting transfers from UACH into the aerospace engineering program.
“Students will take six semesters at UACH and finish with three semesters here, graduating with a dual degree from both universities,” she explained.
Burton and Lay estimate that the partnership with UACH will deliver 40 to 50 students a year once it reaches full capacity. The goal is to have at a minimum 90 UACH students revolving through the campus.
“They’re a very sharp and very dedicated group,” Burton said. “With this program and with the high interest we’re getting from high school students throughout the state, we calculate that within three to four years we could be among the top 15 schools in the nation in graduates.”
With these agreements in place, the NMSU aerospace engineering program is poised for far-reaching influence and notoriety.
“The state of Chihuahua wants to develop an aerospace industry, so in five to 10 years our students could be instrumental in building a program in Mexico,” said Burton.
There are challenges to continuing to grow the program, however. Lay noted the program’s recurring state funding was cut by one-third last year. The current economic climate does nothing to suggest that departmental funding will get any easier in the near future. The program employs two fulltime faculty members at present, with two more projected to start in the fall semester of 2010. Ideally, says Burton, the program would employ seven faculty members.
The importance of more faculty is tied to major news: in December aerospace engineering received the necessary approvals to move forward with graduate and Ph.D. programs. Burton worked through the process, which, as he pointed out, was much more labor-intensive than establishing the undergraduate program. Initial graduate level courses will be offered next fall.
“In the end, if you are going to get national prominence you have to have these advanced degree avenues,” Lohn said.
Beckett is set to graduate in May 2011, with minors in mechanical engineering and mathematics. He plans to attend graduate school out of state, simply for a change of scenery, but believes the graduate program at NMSU is going to be hard to beat.
“Aerospace engineering is a natural fit for New Mexico State,” he said. “As the Spaceport continues to grow, it will bring more private companies to the area, and that’s going to open up a lot of job opportunities. We’ve only been flying for just over 100 years, and Mach 1 fighter jet technology has only been around for a generation—there is so much room for growth. Aerospace engineering is going to be in demand for a while.”
Despite the economic challenges currently in play, Burton and Lay are high on aerospace’s upside, for the university and the state in general. Despite the program’s youth, it’s already received an estimated $3 million in federal research grants.
“Aerospace engineering is a fascinating discipline and a very lucrative profession,” Burton said. “The last big influx into the field was from NASA’s glory days, and most of those guys are retiring now. That’s creating a vacuum that’s being backfilled by new graduates, but you’re losing an awful lot of knowledge and experience, so demand will continue to be high. Once the Spaceport takes off and civilian space exploration becomes a reality, things will really take off.”