Small-town boy works hard to make his aerospace dreams come true
By Debra Werner|July/August 2019
Brandon Stiltner, 33, guidance, navigation and control engineer, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
A movie inspired Brandon Stiltner to leave his hometown in the Virginia mountains to study aerospace engineering. Now a systems engineer for technical services company Jacobs Engineering Group, Stiltner works at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, analyzing flight dynamics for the Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket designed to transport humans to the moon and Mars.
How did you become an aerospace engineer?
The only industry I was exposed to as a child was coal mining. I saw the movie “October Sky” on a school field trip. Homer Hickam, the main character, grew up in a neighboring town. I thought, “He went to college, became an engineer and worked for NASA. If he could do it, so could I!” I attended community college for two years before obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech, the same school as Homer Hickam, who coincidentally was my commencement speaker. I had two internships. After my junior year, I assembled fighter jet radomes. After my senior year, I designed, built and flew unmanned aircraft for a small R&D company. It was tremendous fun, but my true passion was space exploration. After five years, I took a job with a startup that relocated me to Huntsville, Alabama. After that, I was a Missile Defense Agency contractor for two years before getting an interview at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Since 2015, I’ve been a NASA contractor. I currently work on a Space Launch System team, analyzing vehicle flight dynamics from liftoff to orbit insertion. We analyze all staging events with a high-fidelity simulation. I’m also a member of the guidance and control team for Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, a cubesat that will collect detailed images of an asteroid’s surface.
What do you think will be happening in space in 2050?
By 2050, I think our space frontier will look much different than it does today. I believe there will be a permanent base on the moon, occupied by astronauts from a partnership of nations like the International Space Station is today. I think we’ll have begun sending humans to Mars, if not to the Martian surface then certainly on rendezvous-and-return missions similar to the Apollo 8 and 9 missions. I also believe that support structures, potentially including habitat modules, food, water supplies and a Mars-to-Earth return vehicle will be on Mars, awaiting the arrival of humans to the Martian surface. I believe we will have placed several robotic landers or rovers on other bodies within the solar system. In particular, I think there will be landers or rovers on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan. I also believe a mission will be underway toward our neighbors orbiting Proxima Centauri. Last but not least, I think we will see a growing presence of commercial activity in space, potentially including harvesting and mining of asteroids.