Back from Space

One of the most-watched rocket launches in a generation required Bronco know-how.

As engineer, researcher, software developer, and manager, respectively, Cooper McDonnell ’17, David Ung M.S. ’15, Isaac Lee ’16, and Niko Agbayani M.S. ’10 played key roles in getting the first car into space in a test flight capturing imaginations around the world.

Almost everybody saw the images of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s 2008 Tesla Roadster floating above the blue and green Earth with dummy pilot “Starman” behind the wheel.

What most didn’t recognize was the work of the engineers and others who launched it—or the concept that made it possible. McDonnell, Ung, Lee, and Agbayani follow another Santa Clara alumnus into space work, Frank “Cepi” Cepollina ’59.

In the 1970s, Cepollina helped lower the price of space travel by advocating for standardized, easily replaceable systems. NASA put the plan into place.

The SpaceX team relied on the idea in part by relying on reusable rocket boosters to get Falcon Heavy both the lift it needed to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and an estimated reduction in per-flight costs. And then SpaceX got the rockets to land!

The low cost of SpaceX flights is part of why the Department of Defense awarded the company a launch contract for a 2020 mission. In order to keep that contract, those Santa Clara alumni on the Falcon Heavy project could need to help power three more test flights.

In the first test flight, McDonnell was a thermal engineer, Ung a division project director of research and engineering, Lee an enterprise software developer, and Agbayani the mission manager. All but Ung work from the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

post-image Broncos in the space industry helped SpaceX land a $130 million Air Force contract to launch a satellite into orbit in 2020. / Photo courtesy SpaceX
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