Unconventional Career Paths in Aviation and Space

Air = Pilot, Space = Astronaut.  If you played career word association, some jobs would probably jump immediately to mind. But whether it is related to flying low or searching the depths of the cosmos, the jobs people do in the fields of aviation and space exploration are both innumerable and fascinating. And as technology continues to evolve, those career paths likewise branch and grow—often in ways we couldn’t have predicted just a few years earlier. In this issue of ASQ, we present some examples of lesser-known ways people in incredibly diverse specialties are embracing those challenges and answering questions that help us better understand our universe and ourselves.

The Boeing 747-400 in the foreground is using GE’s LEAP engine—the first engine to use additive manufacturing to “grow” complex, yet lighter engines. (GE Aviation)

You Can Print That

Additive Manufacturing Engineer

In 2015, a small engine part became a huge industry story.

General Electric’s bestselling Leap aircraft engine requires 18 or 19 fuel-nozzle tips, each one containing cooling pathways that render the engine capable of withstanding temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As such, each nozzle tip would need to be manufactured from 20 separate parts—at least that was the expectation until GE began making each tip as a single part, created with powdered metals that were fused together. The nozzle tips are now produced at GE’s facility in Auburn, Alabama—the aviation industry’s first mass manufacturing site for engine parts made with additive manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing (AM)—sometimes known as “3D printing”—is the generic term used to describe techniques that use computer-aided design to build objects out of materials ranging from humdrum plastics to exotic metal alloys. Once the stuff of science fiction, AM became a reality in the 1980s, and entry-level 3D printers are now so cheap and simple to use that almost anybody can buy and operate one. But the big news in the field is at the other end of the spectrum, where complex industrial-grade machines are revolutionizing design in the aerospace industry.

“Competition for engineers with additive manufacturing training is extremely high right now,” says Carnegie Mellon University mechanical engineering professor Jack Beuth, faculty co-director of the NextManufacturing Center, a consortium devoted to additive manufacturing R&D. “If students knew how desperate companies are for talent, they would be flocking to additive-manufacturing courses even more than they are already.”

For decades, AM was focused on the so-called polymer process, which involved melting thermoplastic and extruding it out of a nozzle like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. This was perfect for rapid prototyping and parts that aren’t subjected to serious structural loads, but not so good for heavy-duty industrial applications. But about 10 years ago, researchers developed techniques using lasers to fuse metal powder into components featuring almost unimaginably complex geometries.

Velo3D’s metal printing process can produce parts with geometries that were unattainable through conventional manufacturing methods. (Velo3D)

“It’s really a welding process, basically a bunch of 150-micron weld pools stitched together,” says Greg Brown, vice president of technology at Velo3D, which sells million-dollar-plus printers to such companies as Boeing, SpaceX, and Boom Supersonic. “You can get mechanical properties very equivalent to what you would get with wrought material. That makes a big difference in critical applications like the hot section of an engine, where people are not willing to give up performance for manufacturing flexibility.”

When GE Aviation began using metal-based AM to build fuel-nozzle tips for the LEAP engine, the industry began to grasp the technology’s full potential. The internal architecture of the nozzles was more complicated—and, therefore, more efficient—than anything that could have been fabricated by hand or computer-controlled mills. Also, the components were stronger structurally since they were created as single monolithic units rather than 20 pieces welded together.

“That was a real lightbulb moment,” says Brown. “Companies realized that this wasn’t just prototyping anymore. Since then, there’s been an explosion of growth in additive manufacturing. Pretty much any major original equipment manufacturer that is producing metal parts is now investing seriously in additive manufacturing.”

At the moment, AM makes the most sense in designing and building parts for esoteric, high-stress environments such as jet and rocket engines. But it’s already percolating into other branches of aerospace. As the technology ramps up and prices come down, AM will be adopted by many other industries. There’s never been a better time for engineers to acquire AM expertise.

Although many universities offer classes in AM, both Beuth and Brown recommend that would-be engineers pursue a broader curriculum. “Additive manufacturing divides along two main branches,” Beuth explains. “One is mechanical engineering and process development. The other one is material science and materials development. For students who are interested in this field, it’s a real advantage to have experience in both.”

Brown, for example, came from a material-science background. He studied traditional applications, such as casting, when he was an undergraduate. Later, while earning his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of California, Berkeley, he focused on semiconductor manufacturing. He joined Velo3D six years ago—a year after the company launched—and more or less learned on the job. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have a formal education or specific courses in additive to get started in the industry,” he says. “If someone said they were interested in pursuing this as a career path, I’d tell them that a solid background  in  physics is what you’d want, although a few courses in additive wouldn’t hurt.”

Meanwhile, Beuth sounds like a kid in a candy store when he talks about the trajectory AM has followed during his 30 years studying it: “There aren’t that many circumstances where an academic at a university can do cutting-edge fundamental research that also has near-term impact on industry. We’re able to graduate students who have skill sets that are exactly what companies are looking for. It’s great.”

—Preston Lerner

An artist’s depiction of Europa, a moon of Jupiter that has a vast ocean beneath its surface that might be capable of supporting life.

Seek Out New Life


Astrobiology is the study of and search for life in the universe. And while it’s a topic that has fascinated science-fiction writers for centuries, it wasn’t always taken seriously by the scientific community, which sometimes derisively described the field as “a science in search of a subject.” How could anyone study alien life, they asked, when there was no alien life to study?

But in the 1990s, astrobiology began to flourish when astronomers found proof of planets orbiting other stars and NASA spacecraft revealed that our own solar system had more potentially habitable worlds than we imagined, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa—an ocean world beneath a layer of ice.

It’s a common mistake to assume that all astrobiologists are biologists—it’s in the name, after all. But in practice, it’s a multidisciplinary field that also encompasses sciences as varied as astronomy, planetary science, and geology. “Current projects include research on environments for the origin of life, the nature of the Earth’s early atmosphere and climate, the chemistry of the subsurface ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, the geochemistry of the surface of Mars, and the habitability of rocky exoplanets,” says David Grinspoon, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

Underlying this research are complex questions that drive the search for life in our solar system and throughout the cosmos: What conditions are required for life to emerge? Would we recognize alien life if we found it? Where are the most promising places to look?

Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz has conducted stellar research that could help determine which exoplanets are capable of harboring life. (Flickr: Ryan Lash/TED)

Such questions were on the mind of Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer based at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, when she conducted studies about stellar magnetic activity. “When we want to figure out whether a planet might be able to host life, it’s actually the starlight we are talking about—asking how much light from this star reaches the planet?” explains Walkowicz. “The amount of light tells us whether the planet could potentially be warm enough for liquid water to exist on its surface. But there’s a catch: The amount of light that most stars emit is not constant. Many stars have bursts of energy, known as flares, which shower their planets with high-energy radiation.” This radiation can potentially sterilize the surface of a planet, erode its atmosphere, and drive mutations if any life is living there. Says Walkowicz: “By studying flares on stars, my research contributes to a better understanding of the radiation environment that exoplanets experience and can help guide our understanding of whether these worlds could harbor life or not.”

If and (hopefully) when extraterrestrial life is discovered, whatever its form, it would have profound implications for the study of biology on Earth. While the earliest forms of life on Earth are lost to deep time, we might find clues preserved on other worlds. Robert Craddock, a geologist at the National Air and  Space Museum’s Center for Earth and  Planetary  Studies, has found evidence that ancient Mars once had a wet, warm climate. “My research indicates that all the same processes that we think went into creating life here on Earth also occurred on early Mars,” he says.  “That means that it could be possible to find the pre-biotic chemical elements that went into creating life on Mars.”

Craddock sees his field as one that offers unique contributions to astrobiology, since it takes “a geologist to assess any possible environmental niche where life may have originated—or where life may be hiding,” he says. 

Confronted with such complex questions, aspiring astrobiologists might wonder where to begin this career path. “Imagining your day-to-day life can help you decide,” says Walkowicz. “Do you want to go out on field expeditions to far-flung places on the Earth? Do you want to work analyzing samples in a lab? Do you want to analyze data from space at home, on your laptop? Do you want to study how people think about what it means to find life beyond Earth?” Looking ahead, Walkowicz also sees a need for social scientists to help astrobiologists understand the ethical and social implications of their research and to communicate across disciplines. “You’d be surprised how hard it is for two astrobiologists to come to a common understanding sometimes,” she says.

—Mark Strauss

Standard explosive ordnance disposal techniques don’t work in sub-zero temperatures, which is why the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron is instead packing bags with snow.

The Solve Shop

JFWORX Engineer

First Lieutenant John Despard didn’t join the U.S. Air Force to blow up snow with C4. It just worked out that way.

Stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Despard found himself unexpectedly drafted into the fight against an enduring problem in Alaska. There, the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base detonates unexploded bombs that have landed too close to military buildings and roads during training exercises. The standard explosive ordnance disposal technique is to use water-filled jerry cans or sandbags to deaden the shockwaves. But water and sand freeze in subzero temperatures, which makes them impractical and potentially dangerous.

Last year, Master Sergeant Chance Rupp approached the base’s local grassroots innovation team, called Iceman Spark, with a novel solution: use packed snow. It made sense, but the squadron had no idea how to prove it. “I’m not an engineer, and I’m not a scientist,” says Technical Sergeant Nicholas Cavanaugh, the 354th Fighter Wing’s director of innovation. “How do we make this a real experiment?” Air Force associates recommended he talk to the Junior Force Warfighters Operations, or JFWORX.

Run by the materials and manufacturing directorate of the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), JFWORX has a singular purpose: to turn the innovative ideas of enlisted personnel into proven prototypes. Cavanaugh had never heard of JFWORX (pronounced “GIF Works” with a hard G) before he contacted them. “I emailed out of the blue and said, ‘Hey guys, here’s this idea that we have,’ ” he says. “Let me know if you’re interested in helping.”

The Alaska explosive ordnance disposal project quickly caught Despard’s attention. As a lead engineer with JFWORX, he evaluates potential innovations, putting him at the nexus of engineering research and practical expertise from the field. “We do a lot of small solutions to sometimes local problems,” he says. “But sometimes solutions that are local can scale up.”

One of the best things about working as a lead engineer with JFWORX is the range of ideas that come through the program. Within the last year, Despard’s projects have developed everything from replacements for the cardboard boxes used by surgical anesthesiologists in the field to creating a screw-removal tool for A-10 combat aircraft. Yet another JFWORX project built a deployable infrared lighting system for use in austere landing conditions.

For Despard, creating a “snowplosive shield” is all in a day’s work. After reaching out to experts at AFRL and within the wider explosives-disposal community, he designed a structure for sandbags filled with snow and created a test plan to measure their dampening effect. In Alaska, Cavanaugh managed the project’s funds and briefed senior leaders while JFWORX and the explosive ordnance disposal team coordinated a series of six high-explosive tests.

Despard flew off to Alaska to get loud with the 354th on the range. The live-fire detonations, measured with blast gauges, proved empirically that the snow bags worked. The solution is now being evaluated with larger explosions at the home of joint military explosive ordnance disposal research, the Indian Head division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Maryland. One master sergeant’s idea could become standard operating procedure in Arctic conditions for all U.S. services, plus the Canadian military.  

Standard explosive ordnance disposal techniques don’t work in sub-zero temperatures, which is why the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron is instead packing bags with snow.

Being a more agile and innovative Air Force can happen from the ground up only if those working on airbases have somewhere to take their new ideas. “The fact is, I just emailed AFRL’s innovation team and within a month and a half we’re on the ground doing experiments,” says Cavanaugh. “Traditional methods would’ve taken years—and likely it would’ve never happened.”

Developing hardware and generating data are key to the success of the program, which is designed to move fast to break through bureaucratic hurdles. From funding to field testing, the focus is on proving an idea works so that the wider Air Force will adopt it. Time is a constraint because personnel can be reassigned and a good idea abandoned—unless there is a tangible legacy left behind.  

JFWORX, now nearly a decade old, is seeing an elevation in status. “It’s not just a local maintainer that’s calling us now, it’s the commander,” says Despard.

The group’s reputation for quick problem solving seems to be growing even outside the military. JFWORX is currently working on a project with the FBI on methods to use lasers to disable doorbell cameras, a necessity for agency personnel to conduct surprise raids. It’s a long way from C4 explosions in Alaska, but for Despard the variety is part of the JFWORX appeal.

—Joe Pappalardo

Heather Wilson flies a Cessna 206 during her aerial survey of Pacific black brant geese in the lagoons around Cold Bay, Alaska in October 2019. (Erinn Springer)

Fly Among the Birds

Pilot Biologist

Heather Wilson’s career—and motherhood—have been up in the air.

When the pilot biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was breastfeeding, her boss gave her latitude to figure out ways to get her babies into the Alaskan bush where she was conducting migratory bird surveys. Wilson purchased a ticket for her sister to fly with her children to a house in a remote village where she would later meet them. Meanwhile, mechanics had built a system that provided Wilson power to pump in the airplane.

“It’s just a real balancing act,” says Wilson. “I don’t know how it works in other organizations, but we’re so committed and passionate about what we’re doing that you just make the rest of your life fall in line or you don’t and you don’t do this.”

Like her fellow pilot biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Wilson has routed her life around a career in aviation that is at once grueling and rewarding. Pilot biologists conduct low-level aerial surveys of migratory birds and other animals across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The data they collect is used to chart population trends, inform conservationists, and set hunting regulations.

Migratory-bird survey pilots are away from their families for weeks or a month at a time, lodging at federal bunkhouses on National Wildlife Refuges, camping, or even sleeping at a local gym or firehouse. Their schedules are mercurial; pilots wake up checking the weather and check it again another half dozen times before taking flight.

The Pacific black brant survey was like an aerial safari, with humpback whales swimming below. (Erinn Springer)

The multi-tasking element of the job might not impress other pilots, but the highly specialized nature of their observations could dizzy even the most eagle-eyed aviators. They must become attuned to bird behavior: how the animals get up and flush, fly, and look at different angles. They should note the smaller size, more rapid wingbeats, and reddish head of the male green-winged teal, in comparison to the long, sleek  “greyhound” profile and white chest of the northern pintail, all while gliding at just 200 feet above ground level.  It’s quite different than birding from the ground with a nice pair of binoculars.

“When you first start, it’s very hard to imagine you can do it,” says Wilson. “But little by little, it becomes second nature.”

Mark Koneff— standing next to a Quest (now Daher) Kodiak 100—ascended to chief of the branch of migratory bird surveys at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Courtesy Mark Koneff)

Though advanced photography can capture images of flocks over the sea, where the background is relatively uniform, the waterfowl surveys for which bird plumage blends into complex habitats filled with rich vegetation have proven more difficult to automate. That means that even in the 21st century, most pilot biologists are surveying with the naked eye. “[It] isn’t like there are people with super vision doing this,” says Wilson. “A lot of people wear corrective lenses. We’ve had observers who are emeritus coming back in their 70s, but they all have to be pros at identifying and counting birds quickly out of an airplane.”

Astigmatism had quashed Mark Koneff’s ambitions to get his wings through the U.S. Air Force, so he became a pilot biologist. Armed with a degree in wildlife management, he ascended to chief of the branch of migratory bird surveys at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“There were several things that intrigued me about the [migratory bird] program,” says Koneff. “We’re truly an international program—the work we do crosses the continent. I was also interested in the historical context and legacy of the program. They were really the pioneers in starting to deploy aircraft for wildlife management.”

—Leigh Giangreco

Images made with LIDAR have revealed previously unknown ancient Mayan structures. (PACUNAM/Francisco Estrada-Belli)

Reveal Lost Cities

Space Archaeologist 

When archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli did his graduate field work excavating Mayan ruins in Central America during the 1990s, he used a handheld GPS device to try to locate unexplored sites. At the time, archaeologists had been experimenting with large-scale aerial and satellite photographs using infrared and multi-spectrum cameras to pinpoint buried settlements and artifacts. Trees were a clue—those that were less vibrant or off-color in the infrared photos gave hints of Mayan structures underneath. But image resolution was still comparatively poor; even ground-penetrating radar from the air, used by archaeologists since the 1980s, yielded too many false positives.

Then came LIDAR, an advanced form of laser scanning that fires pulses of energy earthward, measuring reflections and distances of objects hidden on and under the ground. LIDAR (short for light detection and ranging) penetrates the thickest rainforests and jungle vegetation, sand dunes, and water sources, revealing an accurate 3D map of surfaces underneath. At Tikal, an ancient Mayan settlement spanning Guatemala and Mexico, “we could see undulations of the ground, and used software to make [structures] immediately visible,” Estrada-Belli says. “It’s revealed a Pandora’s box of archaeological features—hundreds of thousands of features [including] massive Mayan fortifications, evidence of drained wetlands tens of square kilometers wide, and causeways leading out of cities—many of which we had no idea about.” 

Estrada-Belli’s work in Central America is part of a fundamental change in how archaeology is now done. “Space archaeology,” as the term implies, weds traditional on-the-ground excavation, known as “ground truthing,” with high-resolution images and topographic maps obtained from satellites, drones, helicopters, and conventional airplanes, enabling scientists to uncover remarkably rich evidence of human activity in the distant past.

“This is a completely new era of archaeological exploration,” says Sarah Parcak, a National Geographic fellow and professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “It’s helped to increase the pace of discovery a thousand-fold or more.” Parcak is a leader in the field, refining remote-sensing technologies for discovery while writing a textbook on space archaeology used by universities worldwide.

The tool box is complex. Using technologies ranging from radar and LIDAR to thermal multi-spectral scanners, archaeologists can now detect minute differences in temperature, radiance (brightness), ground elevation, slope, water depth, water clarity, and distance between objects and structures.

Remote sensing is another example of a tool that has rapidly evolved, following the launch of Landsat satellites that, in the early 1980s, delivered land and sea images with spatial resolutions of 79 meters per pixel, rendering the darkest to lightest objects in six-bit digital data streams producing 64 shades of gray. But by 2017, Landsat 8 had accelerated resolution to 15 meters per pixel, and in much finer detail, rendering objects and structures on Earth’s surface in 4,096 shades of gray. Commercial satellites today offer even finer resolutions, at 20 to 25 centimeters per pixel.

“In the 1990s, archaeologists in my region used a lot of SPOT (Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre) and Landsat imagery and then we transitioned to using Ikonos and QuickBird in the early 2000s, as did archaeologists everywhere, and then of course there are huge numbers of such satellites now,” explains Damian Evans, a senior research fellow at École Francaise d’Extrême-Orient. The difference in resolution, he adds, has made a huge difference in terms of the level of detail. “At 100-meter resolution, you can tell whether an area is urban or forested; at one-meter resolution, you can map individual houses and trees,” says Evans.

“Think of [space archaeology] as a space-based X-ray system where we can map sites much faster,” says Parcak, who began her career as an Egyptologist two decades ago while completing a doctorate at Cambridge. She was inspired to study remote sensing because of her grandfather’s military work in aerial photogrammetry. (“He was a Screaming Eagle in World War II, and kept aerial maps in his uniform to see where his troops were located,” she says.) Over decades, her team spotted more than 3,000 ancient Egyptian settlements.

Archaeologist Sarah Parcak was inspired to study remote sensing because of her grandfather’s military work in aerial photogrammetry. (Bret Hartman/TED)

The entire scope of archaeology is changing as aerial and satellite tools have become sharper and more available. Young scientists are now taking on issues of modern encroachment and overpopulation at ancient sites, rising sea levels, looting, pollution, and mysterious gaps in our common ancestry. And they’re developing a deeper understanding of the details of ancient life that were not always apparent in earlier, more conventional excavations. For instance, in Cambodia, Evans uses LIDAR to discover how ordinary Khmer people lived under the Angkor kings and built an empire (802 AD to 1327 AD). “The monuments and great temples are well understood,” says Evans. “But what’s not particularly understood is how people actually organized their cities, how they lived and died.” 

For archaeologists aspiring to work in the field, Parcak advises students to train not just in traditional archaeology and anthropology, but also in remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), and data analytics. “I’ve ended up mentoring a lot of masters students and Ph.D. students, and I tell them space archaeology is a problem-solving tool,” she says. “One of the criticisms of the field of remote sensing is that ‘you’re just putting dots on a map’—but that’s the starting point. Your science is only as good as the questions you ask about the data—[whether] you’re looking at animal habitats, changing ice densities in the Arctic, penguin poop, or finding a map of ancient sites. It’s part of a big field.” 

—Arielle Emmett

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