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Fords in Four: Meet David Sternberg '08
The Haverford School

1. What piqued your interest in space, engineering, and robotics?

I became interested in aerospace engineering when I first entered the Flying Club, led by Mr. Archer, in Middle School. We flew a Microsoft Flight Simulator – without much proper training! Flying simulators led to taking flight lessons, earning my pilot license, and eventually to studying Course 16-1 at MIT. It was only happenstance during my freshman year that my first undergraduate research was in the Space Systems Laboratory, but after earning my S.B. and S.M., I am still there pursuing my Sc.D.! Flying will always be my favorite activity outside of lab research (I am now completing my helicopter rating), but space systems engineering will keep me challenged throughout my career.

We'll see the focus of the governmental space agencies shifting further into space. Robotic missions will likely increase in frequency as pathfinding missions prior to human exploration. Returning data or samples from new worlds and the possibility of travel throughout our solar system with international cooperation excites me because of how much new knowledge can be gained.

2. What is the next frontier for your field, or what excites you most about the future of your profession?

I believe the next frontier of space systems engineering will see the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where the private sector becomes the primary source of funding and launches to low orbital altitudes. There has been a significant growth of the private sector in areas such as global communication and imaging over the past decade. Companies have been relying on constellations, sometimes over 70 satellites per company, to provide uninterrupted global coverage. LEO is desirable because of the large number of flights sent to that altitude (such as hitching a ride as a secondary payload on a rocket heading to the International Space Station), the lower radiation hazards, and because of the comparative ease of removing the satellite from orbit at the end of its life by allowing drag to slow it to the point that it naturally deorbits.


Pictured above: Flight aboard NASA Reduced Gravity Aircraft for the SPHERES INSPECT System.

Another area of growing interest is that of space tourism, which ranges from suborbital flights to LEO altitudes to having inflatable habitats that would be "space hotels" with easy access and radiation protection from being in LEO. With the wide range of commercial opportunities in LEO, there is a general push for NASA and the other international space organizations to push further into space and allow the private companies to establish a new form of space commerce in LEO.

We'll also see the focus of the governmental space agencies shifting further into space. Robotic missions will likely increase in frequency as pathfinding missions prior to human exploration. Returning data or samples from new worlds and the possibility of travel throughout our solar system with international cooperation excites me because of how much new knowledge can be gained.

My doctoral studies have allowed me to focus on satellite proximity operations (a crucial step for inter-satellite docking, satellite servicing, on-orbit assembly, satellite or asteroid tugs, or active orbital debris removal) and ground test-bed development for the verification and validation of both enabling software and hardware for flight missions, which can be applied to a wide range of upcoming satellite architectures.

3. What are your career ambitions?

I am working to become a professor at a research university. My doctoral studies have allowed me to focus on satellite proximity operations (a crucial step for inter-satellite docking, satellite servicing, on-orbit assembly, satellite or asteroid tugs, or active orbital debris removal) and ground test-bed development for the verification and validation of both enabling software and hardware for flight missions, which can be applied to a wide range of upcoming satellite architectures. These architectures will require continual fundamental research as our spacecraft and mission demands become more complex. Additionally, I am again the teaching assistant for the aero/astro undergraduate senior capstone class at MIT, which has solidified my career goal of becoming a university professor.

4. Note a memorable Haverford experience or faculty member.

I certainly have innumerable memorable Haverford experiences, but one in particular that helped shape my career was assisting Ms. Kara Cleffi during a period between classes in preparing gels for the class lab. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to discuss her own research and to have additional time to work in a science lab. Now, I am envious of the current Haverford students and their ability to conduct research as part of the Advanced Research Cooperative.

David Sternberg is a senior MIT SPHERES doctoral candidate, having earned his S.B. and S.M. degrees in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He is currently working toward an Sc.D. in Space Systems Engineering. His work has led to the development and launch of several new pieces of hardware for operation within the International Space Station as part of the MIT SPHERES facility. Previously, Sternberg worked at Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, NAVSEA, Boeing, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was awarded MIT's Department of Aeronautics Best Graduate Teaching Assistant Award in 2015 and the Systems Engineering Team Award in 2012.

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