Conquering space in an engineering lab.

For the curious and creative, the real action is sometimes in designing the space machines not in flying them.

By Jenny Ford

Devon Island looks like Mars. Its surface is red and dusty-looking with cracks and hills. There’s a vastness to its rocky terrain, a sense that you’ve stumbled upon some no man’s land. But this island, just north of Baffin Island, is the perfect location for testing, says Braden Stenning, an aerospace engineering PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. And it’s the perfect location to test his team’s rover.


Braden is working on a guiding system for the robot, a way for it to figure out how to orient itself and follow a path. “The robot can build up a map of the environment and determine where it can drive safely,” he says. It’s an essential system when traveling on the unknown surfaces of Mars and the moon.

Braden is investigating one of the many aspects of aerospace engineering. It’s a field aimed at deepening our exploration of the skies and what’s beyond our atmosphere focusing on the design and construction of aircraft and spacecraft. There are two basic areas of aerospace: aeronautics (our skies) and astronautics (outer space, also known as “rocket science”). Within these two areas are many different groups of study including design, construction, aerodynamics, controls and properties.

“Aerospace is a pretty exciting field,” says David Zingg, director of the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies. “You have to be someone who is on the cutting edge, someone who has creativity, curiosity and also someone who has rigour and the fundamentals.”

Only a handful of universities across Canada offer aerospace engineering, especially at the undergraduate level. Most of these are in Eastern Canada and include Ryerson University, Carleton University and École Polytechnique de Montréal.

Some universities, like the University of Toronto, offer undergraduate engineering programs with specialized subject matter in the later years. At the University of Toronto, explains David, students in their third-year can choose a specialization in aerospace generally, studying both aeronautics and astronautics. At the graduate level students can pick a specific area of aerospace, like aeronautical aerodynamics for instance.

That being said, graduate studies aren’t mandatory when it comes to finding a job in the industry, but it helps, says Hugh Lui, associate director and graduate co-ordinator at the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies. “For the undergraduate students to get a job it’s quite competitive. A postgraduate degree will help a lot in terms of getting into the industry and starting their career development,” he says.

The type of degree can somewhat determine the type of job. Undergraduate degrees are less specialized and geared more toward the fundamental elements of aerospace design. A masters still has its hands-on component but includes more research and investigation, while a PhD gives more in-depth, specialized knowledge geared toward specific industry research.

Joel Spark is working on his masters in aerospace studies, but instead of staying in Canada, he decided to look farther a field. After completing his undergrad in aerospace engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, Joel decided to pursue his masters in Strasbourg, France, at the International Space University. It’s a one-year program that not only focuses on the design aspects of spacecraft but also gives a complete picture of the industry including business, law and policy.

“I always really liked building things,” says Joel. “I found designing satellites and other spacecraft interesting simply because space is such a rigorous environment to operate in. To fly in space, you have to fly at over eight kilometres a second, in no atmosphere, in hard radiation, where temperatures can vary hundreds of degrees from the sun to the shade. It’s an impressive design challenge.”

But before traveling overseas to pursue his goals, Joel completed his aerospace undergrad at Carleton University. He was in the co-op program and worked with the company Mechtronix in Montreal, which specializes in designing flight simulators. Joel worked on re-designing replicas of cockpit flight controls. The challenge was to design components that would act like real controls even though there wasn’t a real aircraft. He designed things like the flight control stick, whose movement is usually governed by what the aircraft is doing.

David says job prospects for aerospace engineers are positive right now. The two biggest hirers in Canada are Bombardier, in Quebec, for aeronautics and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., in British Columbia, for the astronautics. The average starting salary is around $60,000, but this depends on your degree type and also where you are in Canada. The average salary, depending on how specialized a company’s engineering requirements are, can range between $70,000 to upward of $100,000.

Like all careers, aerospace is not without its challenges. “In aerospace, compared to other disciplines, everything just barely works,” says David. “If you make a plane twice as heavy as it needs to be, it won’t fly. Aerospace is a very delicate thing and the margins for error are very small, which also makes it exciting.”

Braden understands this idea all too well on the robotics side of aerospace engineering. “In robotics, the art is in the integration of all these complex systems,” he says. “It’s hard getting everything to work together, so you spend a lot of time in the lab. It’s long hours. I’m lucky enough to enjoy it, but there are always points where you get frustrated. The trick is to stay positive.”

Braden’s hard work has taken him to the corners of Canada to test his path-finding and localization device on the rover. Sudbury, northern Labrador and Devon Island all have good terrain for testing the equipment, he says. One day, he hopes his machine will be Mars-ready.

“Originally I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I found out it wasn’t the astronauts that got to design the spacecraft,” he remembers. “You really have to put a lot into this work. Get your hands dirty, work with real systems. It helps to enjoy what you’re doing.”

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