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Students Gravitate toward “Careers in Space” Panel

Despite the restrictions on in-person gatherings on campus this semester, engineering student organizations have found ways to keep their members engaged. This November, Villanova’s chapters of the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) and ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) partnered with the College’s CubeSat club to present a Careers in Space panel. Students’ interest in the space industry was evident as more than 140 registered to participate in the two-hour event.:

Careers in Space Panel

AIAA faculty advisor Dr. Sergey Nersesov, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering, welcomed the evening’s six panelists:

  • Carlos Blanco, Manager, 747/767 Airplane Level Integration Team, Boeing
  • Tiffany Dunn '87 EE, ‘90 MSEE, Electrical Systems Engineer, Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space
  • Gerry Gleckel ‘93 CLAS, Director, Launch Facility Development, Blue Origin
  • John Palmé ‘88 ME, ‘91 MSME, Consulting Systems Engineer Architect, Northrop Grumman (formerly with International Launch Services)
  • Tom Sanzone ‘68 EE, United Technologies (retired)
  • Samantha Testa ‘16 ME, ‘17 MSME, Lead Design Engineer, SLS Emergency Egress System, NASA

After each panelist introduced themselves with their job titles and employers, student moderators Nicholas Florio ‘20 EE, ‘21 MSEE, president of AIAA and the CubeSat Club; Taleen Postian ‘24 CLAS, vice chair, Branch Affairs for AIAA; and ASME president Samuel Thomas ‘22 ME posed a series of questions to shed light on the space industry, which has steadily grown in popularity with undergraduates. In addition to detailing their own career paths—most of which began with a lifelong passion for space—the panelists were asked about the biggest surprise they discovered along the way. Dunn replied that the rotational program which began her time at General Electric introduced her to survivability engineering, a field she didn’t even know existed and which ultimately changed her trajectory. Sanzone remarked on the number of young adults who were leading the space program when he began working in 1968. “The average age of a flight controller when we first landed on the moon was 26,” he said. Testa noted that when she started with NASA in 2017 she was one of very few recent graduates. Today, she added, “The private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin skew younger.”

The panelists were also asked how the industry has changed and a common theme was the trend toward new companies entering the industry. “Many are under the impression that little is happening in the way of space development today when there is actually more taking place than at any time in our history,” pointed out Gleckel. Blanco said that when he started in this field 20 years ago, no one would have imagined that private companies would be going to into space.

Invited by Nick Florio to “boast,” the panelists then shared the projects they are most proud of. Dunn talked about having worked on the Falcon program’s telemetry system from design and test to flight. Sanzone noted that while the Apollo 11 mission is certainly a highlight, he’s most proud of his work on the development of the space suit. Testa reported that her current work on the astronaut centrifuge training program tops her list.

The evening closed with student participants’ questions, among them, “What are these companies looking for in new hires?” Responses included “related extracurricular activities;” “communication skills;” and “enthusiasm, energy and drive.” Dr. Nersesov asked about the value of a business minor, to which Gleckel replied, “Pure gold,” and added, “A diversity of knowledge is invaluable, even if it’s not in the form of a minor, your extracurricular activities can lend themselves to that.” Sanzone shared the expression, “We hire for skills, we retain for values,” and he emphasized that there is no better place to find professionals with values than Villanova.

Other questions included how to find your way into the industry, the place for women and diverse candidates, and the biggest challenges for new hires. Ultimately, the best advice included:

  • Say yes to every opportunity, even if it’s something you think you’re not interested in.
  • Be flexible.
  • Do what you love and love what you do.
  • Work hard.
  • Find a mentor.
  •  Take advantage of the Nova network. Alumni are willing and eager to help

A video recording of the Careers in Space panel is available here. For additional information about the College of Engineering’s history with and passion for the space industry, see “Villanova Engineers Shoot for the Stars” in Villanova Engineering Update, Spring 2016 (page 4). A video recording of the 2018 Ward Lecture, “The International Space Station: Engineering the Unknown” with NASA flight director Brian T. Smith ’93 EE, is also available on the College website.