SpaceX mission launches career for SFU mechatronic student

Cheers arose from hundreds of SpaceX employees gathered at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, CA when its Falcon 9 rocket shot into space on Jan. 14 carrying a payload of 10 communications satellites.

Watching the live webcast from his home in Coquitlam, B.C., SFU mechatronic systems engineering student Ian Woodbury breathed a sigh of relief.

During a year-long co-op placement with the private spaceflight company, Woodbury worked on crucial aspects of this highly anticipated launch.

“We were responsible for everything that connects the satellites to the rocket,” says Woodbury, the only intern on the payload systems team.

“I made a lot of decisions about the architecture, but it was a team journey. Even as an intern, if you have a good idea and it’s scientifically sound, you won’t get pushback.”

Founded in 2002 by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX, a pioneer of reusable rockets, plans to send humans to Mars within a decade. Understandably, the company is a magnet for ambitious engineers determined to push boundaries and defy the odds.

“You’re working with a bunch of really smart people on the ragged edge of what’s possible,” says Woodbury, a competitive sailor who has raced in championships all over the world.

 “The aeronautics industry is where serious people go to play. They’re in it for the mission, and they truly believe in the values of the company.”

The stakes were high for lift-off on Jan. 14, after a launch pad explosion on Sept. 1, 2016 destroyed a different Falcon 9.

In preparation, 60-hour work weeks were standard for Woodbury, who found his mechatronic skills in high demand.

“I used my coursework more at SpaceX than in any previous internship,” he says.

“I worked on everything from hardware and mechanism development to logistics and satellite integration and more. You’re filling a mechanical role, but you need to have a functioning understanding of electrical engineering and programming, too. As a mechatronics student, I could bring that to the team.”

The mission was a triple success: a smooth launch, followed by successful satellite deployment and recovery of the rocket’s reusable first stage. It was also a personal success for Woodbury, who has accepted a full-time job offer with SpaceX upon graduation.

“I’ve signed the contract already,” says Woodbury, who is currently completing his studies at SFU and plans to graduate in fall 2017.

“I’m very proud of my achievement, and really excited about the projects we’ll be working on in the future. I’ve found a career where going to work means more than just a paycheque.”