Sophomore Seminars

It IS Rocket Science!

AA 121Q

It's an exciting time for space exploration. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are launching rockets into space and bringing them back for reuse. NASA is developing the world's most powerful rocket. Startups are deploying constellations of hundreds of cubesats for communications, navigation, and earth monitoring. The human race has recently gotten a close look at Pluto, soft landed on a comet, and orbited two asteroids. The upcoming launch of the James Webb Space Telescope will allow astronomers to look closer to the beginning of time than ever before. 

The workings of space systems remain mysterious to most people, but in this seminar we'll pull back the curtain for a look at the basics of "rocket science." How does a SpaceX rocket get into space? How do Skybox satellites capture images for Google Earth? How did the New Horizons probe find its way to Pluto? How do we communicate with spacecraft that are so distant? We'll explore these topics and a range of others during the quarter. We'll cover just enough physics and math to determine where to look in the sky for a spacecraft, planet, or star. Then we'll check our math by going outside for an evening pizza party observing these objects in the night sky. We'll also visit a spacecraft production facility or Mission Operations Center to see theory put into practice.

We'll use case studies of past and future space missions that will include not only the rockets and spacecraft but also the human element of the businesses and organizations that actually accomplish them. There will be a heavy emphasis on the real world of space missions with a guest speaker, a field trip, and a sky observing session. No prior engineering or programming experience is required, and students will learn to use simple MATLAB programs provided by the instructor.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Andrew Barrows

Andrew Barrows

Andrew Barrows began his aerospace career at Cape Canaveral sitting on his dad's shoulders watching Apollo 17 blast off for the Moon. He later earned his S.B, S.M., and Ph.D. degrees in Aero Astro from M.I.T. and Stanford. He has co-founded and sold two avionics companies and now teaches Space Mechanics in Stanford's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He can often be found flying small planes from the Palo Alto Airport.