Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
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AEM spotlight:

Alumnus heads NASA launch vehicle development

Steve Cook

Steve Cook, a BAEM graduate, is in
charge of the office developing NASA's
next-generation launch vehicles, which
will carry astronauts back to the moon,
and possibly beyond.

A University alumnus is at the center of NASA’s next mission – one set for the moon, and eventually Mars.

Steve Cook, a 1990 BAEM graduate, now heads the Exploration Launch Projects office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The office oversees development of NASA’s next-generation Ares launch vehicles, designed to be the workhorse of the Constellation program. The Constellation program aims for human flight by 2014 and a return trip to the moon by 2020.

For the first time in many years, NASA’s primary aim has returned to its heritage – space exploration.

“This is the first exploration class launch system this country has built in four decades,” Cook said.  “The big deal about this is it gets back to the roots upon which NASA was founded.”

The launch vehicles, Ares I and Ares V, are named in part for the Greek word for Mars and in part for NASA’s famed Saturn I and Saturn V rockets, the first vehicles built especially for human flight. The Ares I is a two-stage launch vehicle that will carry NASA’s next crew vehicle, Orion, beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Ares V is a heavy-lifting vehicle that will carry large scientific payloads, and could help bring humankind to Mars.

After President Bush’s announcement in 2004 of the United States’ intention to return to the moon and to eventually travel to Mars, NASA began exploratory studies of new launch vehicles, and Cook was selected to head development.

“It’s an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Cook said of the project.

Even before Cook’s career at NASA, he was drawn to the stars. As an undergraduate at the University, Cook tended more toward space mechanics and design rather than strictly aerospace systems like most of his peers.

The fundamentals of aerospace engineering he learned as part of the BAEM program quickly turned into applicable knowledge when Cook began working with the department’s co-op program, where student spend time in industry or
government working on technical projects, and as an intern at General Dynamics.  

Ares V
Image credit: NASA
Pictured above is the heavy-lifting Ares V launch

“That was extremely powerful for me,” he said. “I saw I could apply (the fundamentals) to real-world problems.”

Yiyuan Zhao, a past professor of Cook, echoed his sentiments.

“Students armed with a solid background in both fundamentals of engineering and the importance of practical applications can easily adapt to new problems and challenges in their careers,” Zhao said.

In addition to the BAEM’s focus on fundamentals of aerospace engineering, Cook said more specialized classes helped further define his interest.  The BAEM program provided Cook with “strong fundamentals in engineering principles and practice, a capability to work with others, and work though and solve problems,” which, he said, “is really what engineering is all about.”

For BAEM students, his best advice is to seek out internships, Cook said.

Ares I
Image credit: NASA
The Ares I launch vehicle, which will hold NASA
next crew vehicle, Orion

“The biggest thing students can do is go get some experience. Jump in the water and see what you like. And don’t just do one internship in one group; see if you can move around or go to a different company. That is what really crystallized what I did and did not want to do.”

Find out more about the Ares launch vehicles and the Constellation program at:

For more information regarding internships through AEM, please visit:

The Minnesota Space Grant Consortium also offers internships, namely through NASA:

Last Modified: Wednesday, 22-Aug-2012 10:54:16 CDT -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation