October 11, 2023
Purdue community and No. 6 graduate program attracts aerospace engineers across continents
About This Series: This story is part of an ongoing Purdue Today series highlighting programs ranked in the Top 10 or Top 10th percentile among our peers nationally, demonstrating the university’s persistent pursuit of excellence, innovation and transformative learning.
Rodrigo Schmitt has been transformed at Purdue University. Moving to Indiana from Brazil was a big step, but he wanted a doctorate in aerospace engineering — and he wanted it from the best school possible. He had joined a rocketry club while pursuing his undergraduate degrees in astronomy and physics, and it lit a fire in him.
“It made me realize that if I wanted to be at the cutting edge of space exploration, I needed to be in a place that was pushing those boundaries — and the United States is the leader in aerospace advancements,” Schmitt says.
The Gambaro Graduate Program of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue was a top contender in Schmitt’s comparisons, with its aerospace engineering graduate program ranked No. 6 by U.S. News & World Report in its 2023 survey released in April.
When Schmitt began digging, what he saw went far deeper.
“Purdue isn't just about academics. It's a community that encourages a holistic educational experience,” he says. “Overall, the combination of top-tier education, cutting-edge research opportunities and a vibrant community made Purdue the ideal choice for my graduate studies.”
Schmitt is now feeding his intellectual curiosity in the Center for Integrated Systems in Aerospace (CISA), building an explainable artificial intelligence (XAI) model that could make space missions easier to design and run.
“XAI helps engineers make better decisions. It's like having a supersmart assistant that goes beyond suggesting what to do by explaining why it makes sense to do it that way,” he says. “We're using this technology to build a new framework that could assist in planning more frequent trips to the moon while spending less money than we did for the old Apollo missions.”
On a SEARCH for Mars, and more
Schmitt finds that work exhilarating and demanding — he says it has given him the rigor needed to earn his PhD. But, as he suspected, he’s found more at Purdue than academic excellence.
“The most transformative experience I've had at Purdue — perhaps even in my life — has been creating and developing the first organization at Purdue dedicated to human space exploration: the Space & Earth Analogs Research Chapter (SEARCH). The accomplishments we've made so far reflect what can only be achieved by an exceptional team of passionate students and advisors sharing the same hopes and dreams,” he says.
The club has attracted guest speakers from NASA's Johnson Space Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Mars Society, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. They also supported Purdue's mission to the Mars Desert Research Station in January 2023.
Despite having traveled to another continent, Schmitt also found warmth at Purdue.
“AAE has been incredibly welcoming to me, both as an international student and as a Brasileiro. The department goes above and beyond to foster an inclusive environment. For example, their Minority Engineering Program specifically reaches out to support students from diverse backgrounds, including Latinos,” he says.
“But it's not just about existing programs; it's about a willingness to grow and adapt. The faculty and staff are open to discussions about how they can better serve the Latin American student community, which I find exceptionally comforting. They've even organized sessions to discuss ways to make students from this region feel more at home, thousands of miles away from their native countries.”
A global leader in connections, capabilities and expertise
Schmitt’s experience is only a partial reflection of the enormous scope of opportunities available in this program.
“One of the great features of our graduate program is our close connection to both government and industry,” says AAE professor Jon Poggie. “Right now, my graduate students are working on projects sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Army Research Laboratory and the Stratolaunch company. Our close connection to the technical staff at these institutions gives insight into how our academic research supports applications and provides an exciting atmosphere of collaboration on cutting-edge technology.”
Joe Jewell, the John Bogdanoff Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says the program benefits from being both balanced and comprehensive.
“It’s truly an example of excellence at scale. Purdue pursued hypersonic work — now recognized as absolutely critical — even during the leaner decades of research funding in this area. As a result, Purdue now has world-leading capabilities in low-disturbance ‘quiet’ wind tunnels, high-enthalpy reflected shock/expansion tunnels and hypersonic measurement technology,” he says.
“What’s more, we also have the computational expertise to pull all of it together and link it to flight test programs and real-world challenges.”
William Crossley, the Uhrig and Vournas Head of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says AAE’s program is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, with research facilities that are unrivaled. Crossley cites:
- Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories as the world’s largest academic propulsion labs.
- The Purdue UAS Research and Test Facility (PURT), the world’s largest indoor motion-capture facility, doing UAS and autonomy research with world-class precision.
- The world’s only Mach 6 quiet wind tunnel and an even faster one under construction, alongside yet another matches enthalpy conditions up to 25 times the speed of sound
“We also have advanced manufacturing, large-scale additive manufacturing, composites and digital twin research for aerospace at HAMTC and CMSC. And those are just some of our laboratories,” says Crossley, referring to the Hypersonics Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center and Composites Manufacturing and Simulation Center.
“Combine those with faculty that are internationally recognized in their fields — like our professors working on spacecraft trajectories for Earth orbit, for Cislunar space and for interplanetary exploration, as just one example — and it’s easy to see why we continue to attract the best grad students from around the world.”
Writer: Alan Cesar, email@example.com