University of New Hampshire (UNH) senior mechanical engineering major Charlie Nitschelm applied again and again to his dream job at SpaceX, but received an automatic rejection every time he applied. He didn’t let this stop him, and he kept applying and working hard on building a rocket with his team, the UNH student-led nonprofit Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).
Now, in addition to leading SEDS, he got personally hired at SpaceX by the company’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk.
In his third year at UNH, Nitschelm applied for the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship Program that connects current college juniors, seniors and graduate students with paid summer internships in the field of commercial spaceflight— he got the fellowship. He was connected with an internship at Rocket Lab, a private American aerospace manufacturer and smallsat launch service provider in California this past summer.
“Aerospace is very difficult, especially commercial space, to get into,” Nitschelm said. “It’s very competitive and a lot of the engineers want to work in it, because honestly it’s so exciting, so it’s very competitive.”
On July 25 he took a day off his internship at Rocket Lab to attend the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship Program summit with 24 other fellows, where people from the Aerospace Corporation, Boeing, Virgin Orbit, SpaceX and other companies participated in networking, debates, competitions and discussions between fellows and space industry experts.
This is where Nitschelm met Musk.
Nitschelm said about himself and the other fellows, “we’re all just nerds for Elon Musk.”
When Nitschelm and the other fellows met Musk, he said, “he came in and we were all stunned like, ‘oh this is actually him, we can see him in real life.’ So, we started asking him questions.”
“…you’re a very specific person with very concentrated dreams and those dreams, your dreams, are very long-term, some can be decades, even centuries, to really reach what you’re looking for. What are you doing to make sure after you’re gone it doesn’t pivot and change, so it’s guided after you’re gone?” Nitschelm said he asked Musk, adding that Musk danced around the question because it was a difficult question and he still has a lot of years left.
After they took pictures, Musk left and Nitschelm and the others started to go over to Boeing.
“And then suddenly his assistant came up to me and goes, ‘are you Charlie?’ And I go, ‘yeah I’m Charlie,’” he said. Then the assistant said, “Elon wants to talk to you.” Nitschelm said he didn’t know what to say as the assistant walked him over to Musk’s office and told him that “he [Musk] doesn’t usually do this.”
When Nitschelm turned the corner, Musk was there.
“I was ready, I’ve been wanting to talk to him and be able to understand him a little more than his personality online,” Nitschelm said. They talked about basic manufacturing, SpaceX, Tesla, the future and why Nitschelm hadn’t worked at SpaceX for an internship. Nitschelm explained that he got auto-denied every time. Musk then forwarded him to a recruiter and after a long interview process, Nitschelm was hired.
Nitschelm founded SEDS at UNH in the second semester of his first year after seeing a YouTube video of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster landing on a “drone ship on basically a needle in the middle of the ocean.”
“When I saw that, that was not only inspiring but instantly told me what I wanted to do,” he said.
Nitschelm is the president of SEDS and the propulsion team lead of the rocket team. There are 30 students in SEDS — half of them are seniors, half are underclassmen. Nitschelm said one of the things that makes SEDS special is that it’s not just a team of seniors or graduate students, but includes first, second and third-year students as well.
“You need to have underclassmen, someone to carry the torch after you’re gone,” he said. Next semester he said he will be handing over more responsibility to the underclassman so that when he and the other seniors leave, they will be prepared to be on their own and be leaders of the club.
The rocket team went to SpaceVision, the annual national conference for SEDS this November at Arizona State University; where Nitschelm was elected as the chair of the entirety of SEDS USA. There were many panels, workshops and networking there. During the STEAM fair event, UNH had two booths presenting their work on Usurper, UNH’s experimental hybrid rocket and QuadSats, a method for testing satellite data recording using quadcopters, according to the UNH SEDS blog on Nov. 11.
Nitschelm said whenever they have a problem, “it’s important to start from the fundamental laws, what is the point of this part, what does it need to do and what guides it, what’s the fundamental equations that define it? So, starting from that background physics is really important.”
The team is currently working on finalizing frame design as well as trying to get their hybrid rocket, Runaway, ready. They are also working on burst caps, which is a tool to ensure they have sufficient pressure and temperature in the engine before nitrous oxide, which is the oxidizer, flows through the chamber. They are working on testing all of those to be proof tested to 150 Psi and after that in the beginning of next week they are hoping to do their hot fire, where they test the rocket.
The SEDS team got into the SpacePort America Cup, which is a competition in New Mexico this upcoming June. America Cup requires the team to build a hybrid rocket, which they’re doing right now, using the rocket to get to 10,000 feet. Nitschelm said that he’ll do the competition with his team then go to Los Angeles to start his job at SpaceX.
Silas Johnson, a senior mechanical engineering major and the operations lead of SEDS, said that he got involved with SEDS during his second year at UNH. After he graduates, he is excited to work with the Missile Defense Agency in the United States Department of Defense.
“It’s a good way to get involved,” Johnson said about SEDS. “We’ve met a lot of people and made a lot of friends through it.” He said SpaceVision was a great opportunity to hear from lots of engineers in similar positions that their team is in.
“It’s cool to hear their perspective and where to take things in the next few years,” said Johnson, who manages the planning of SEDS’ rocket tests. Johnson talked about the UNH-owned sandpit in Lee where they have coordinated with UNH police and risk management fire. They always have a police officer with them to make sure everything is safe. “If you like things that go fast, rockets, it’s pretty fun to get involved with, especially because we take all ages, not just seniors,” he added about the club.
“SpaceVision was a major event, just getting to meet a lot of people in the industry” and “being in New Hampshire there aren’t a ton of aerospace opportunities, so this really helps,” said Alice Wade, a first-year mechanical engineering major and a frame engineer and treasurer for SEDS.
UNH SEDS “is really kind of turning into a family of passionate students, because there is no aerospace engineering at UNH,” Nitschelm said. A lot of engineers that work in aerospace engineering are mechanical engineers, “because rockets are mechanical, it’s a mechanical part, it’s a mechanical thing… you don’t have to have an aerospace engineering program to get students to work at some of the most amazing companies in the world.”
One of the most important things about SEDS according to Nitschelm is that everyone chooses to be there, and some of the members will spend 24 hours working on something.
“That passion is far more important than the school you go to,” Nitschelm said, adding that the hardest part about SEDS isn’t the engineering–it’s the communication and team work, so that the team has “a common vision.”
This week at the UNH SEDS meeting, they had three engineers from GE Aviation come in and talk to the club about job opportunities and what it’s like working as an engineer in the aerospace field. The engineers also announced that GE Aviation was giving SEDS $3,000. This means the club now has a total of about $23,000 for this year. Last year they had $5,000 and the year before that they had $2,000.
Nitschelm’s new role as the chair of SEDS USA is taking up more of his time so he has to make sure he doesn’t overwork himself and still has a little free time but, “space always comes first.”
Most people in the aerospace industry do it because they love it and want to make a change in the world.
“They don’t want to figure out how to make a better button. They want to figure out how to get humans to Mars, they want to figure out how to advance new technology to make life better on Earth—and that’s done via aerospace,” he said. He believes that “by the time we’re 50 or 60 we can go to the moon, pay for a ticket and go to the moon.”
He thinks in 20 years we will have the first person on Mars.
“There’s literally hundreds of things we haven’t figured out yet,” said Nitschelm. “When you need to figure that stuff out, especially things that are really cool, you grab the best engineers and you figure them out,” he said.
New technologies that they will create to go to Mars will have a ripple effect and also help in other industries to make advanced technologies that will create better lives for all people, Nitschelm said.
“We learn from exploring new areas, being able to…see a new spot you’ve identified new things and you figure out new ways to survive in new environments,” Nitschelm said. “If we didn’t move, we’d still be stuck in, wherever, our first cave. Exploration is something that’s super needed and space is the next frontier, to quote Star Trek. It really is.”