Saturday, December 12, 2009

A great CSU success story

Until this morning, I didn’t realize that aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan was a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the flagship campus of the California State University system (my employer).

At SJSU, we are proud of our alumni who achieve success in sports, business, and the arts; our greatest claim to technical success is that Intel co-founder Gordon Moore spent 2 years here (where he met his wife) before transferring to Berkeley. The distribution of famous alumni is similar at San Diego State, our sister campus and closest rival. The breakdown of famous Cal Poly alumni are also broadly similar, although they have two astronauts.

So Burt Rutan is a clear outlier. I learned a lot more this morning about Burt Rutan, the man, who is in the news as the technical brains behind Richard Branson’s efforts to create a commercial space travel industry.

Rutan came to fame designing the Voyager, which flew around the world without refueling during nine days in 1986. It’s one of five Rutan-designed planes held by the Smithsonian. Another is VariEze, an earlier kit plane that revolutionized home-built airplanes.

Also in the Smithsonian is his first spacecraft, SpaceShipOne — funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen — which won the Ansari X Prize for flying to 100km twice in two weeks in 2004. As intended, the X Prize award provided a stepping stone for commercial space development — in this case Sir Richard and the SpaceShipTwo unveiled Wednesday. (It was modestly termed the VSS Enterprise, presumably to suggest a fleet of 40-50 Virgin Space Ships to be operated by Virgin Galactic.)

Because of Sir Richard, the FT thought it newsworthy to publish an interview Saturday with the greatest aeronautical engineer of our generation. It alludes to his modest roots in central California, and his efforts designing and testing model planes as a kid.

Such modest beginnings are part and parcel of the California State University system, the largest university system in the USA. We take students who don’t have the grades or the money to go to the more prestigious University of California system, as well as those who can’t leave home to attend college. (My dad commuted from home to SDSU for the first two years before transferring to UC Berkeley; my mom started at SJSU before transferring to Berkeley a few years ahead of Gordon Moore.)

Rutan got his B.S. in aeronautical engineering from Cal Poly in 1965. His senior project won the national student paper competition from the AIAA, the industry professional society.

Apparently the mothership for SpaceShipTwo — called WhiteKnight Two — bears the Cal Poly logo. In a 2005 speech at his alma mater, he encouraged students to get involved in creating the next round of space exploration. He also called for students to demonstrate their passion to make things happen.

As a kid, I barely heard of Cal Poly, perhaps because most of its alumni end up living in the Bay Area or the Central Coast. I only knew of it at all because my older cousin left Gilroy to go to Cal Poly before moving to Alaska to build the first Alaska pipeline.

Today, I know from other parents that today Cal Poly admissions are tougher than several UC campuses. Cal Poly is one of the top US engineering program among teaching schools (i.e. those without a PhD program) — along with the service academies and the vastly under-rated Harvey Mudd (east of LA).

In six years, I plan to encourage my daughter to apply to Cal Poly along with the UC campuses, Harvey Mudd and perhaps the Air Force Academy. (This assumes she continues to be a math whiz who likes to make things — and thus an ideal candidate for engineering school). Let’s hope the campus continues to turn out bright engineers for California’s economy, despite the legislative mismanagement that is giving the CSU system a death by a thousand cuts.

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