Aerospace engineer’s inspiration came in middle school

Kevin Miller, 37, a principal propulsion engineer at SpaceX

SpaceX’s campaign to slash the cost of space travel and make human beings an interplanetary species rests largely on the firm’s ability to recover and refly rockets. Interplanetary transportation will also be needed, and that’s where Kevin Miller comes in as a principal propulsion engineer at SpaceX. After managing upgrades to the Falcon 9 Merlin first stage engine, Miller is now focused on developmental testing of Raptor, an engine for interplanetary transportation fueled with methane and liquid oxygen.

How did you become an aerospace engineer?

My grandparents took me to a space museum when I was in middle school where the Apollo 9 command module was on display along with a Redstone rocket and an F-1 rocket engine. I became fascinated with these machines and what they had achieved almost 30 years prior. From that point on, I was hooked on spaceflight, and read and watched everything I could about the history and mission of NASA. Growing up in Indiana, it was a natural choice for me to attend Purdue University and study aerospace engineering. I also had the opportunity to join NASA’s cooperative education program where I got to see a lot of the agency’s wide-ranging work in liquid propulsion from the space shuttle to advanced projects. In grad school, I studied combustion instability in liquid rocket injectors and performed experimental research at Purdue’s Zucrow Laboratories. I graduated with my master’s degree in 2005 and joined SpaceX right out of school. The last 12 years have been pure adventure. I started as a development engineer with the first version of the Merlin engine for Falcon 1, managed successive upgrades to the engine for Falcon 9, and am now focused on the development testing of the staged-combustion, methane-fueled Raptor engine.

Imagine the world in 2050. What do you think will be happening in space?

I believe the achievements of SpaceX and others in this decade have established that reuse in spaceflight is the future. Of course, there was partial reuse on shuttle, but expendable launch systems were still the norm for new designs after shuttle was operational. Today, it is hard to envision launch vehicle designs in 2050 that would not incorporate reuse capability. With reuse, we will finally realize an order-of-magnitude cost reduction of mass to orbit, and that cost will only get further driven down by the hardware and operational improvements from lessons learned across a growing flight experience base. Continued competition in the industry along with different overall mission objectives should translate to multiple reusable vehicle concepts with varying extents of hardware reuse and service life. Overall, that should mean many more flights, a share of those with people onboard, entering orbit, on a daily basis. I believe there will be a considerable amount of on-orbit assembly of larger spacecraft, and the start of deep space missions will occur from low Earth orbit rather than terrestrial launch pads. Ultimately, the most exciting and inspiring of those exploration missions will be humans setting out for Mars to establish a permanent outpost there.

Aerospace engineer’s inspiration came in middle school