A Graduate Student Perspective: How Engineering Research Can Reshape Space Exploration
Five questions with Siddarth Kaki
Siddarth Kaki, who earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from The University of Texas at Austin in 2018 and has remained at the university to pursue his master’s degree and Ph.D. in the same field, has been selected by Aviation Week Network and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) for its prestigious award program, “20 Twenties.”
20 Twenties recognizes 20 of the nation’s top students pursuing STEM degrees. Honorees must be in their 20s and are nominated by their universities based upon their academic performance, civic contribution and research. Each year, the 20 recipients join a powerful network of aerospace industry experts to work together on solutions to some of society’s most complex problems.
We sat down with Siddarth to learn more about his research and how he hopes to change the world.
“For me, there is something deeply romantic about the exploration of space, of the grandeur of discovering a new world, and maybe even discovering life there.”
1. Why did you choose to attend UT? What is your favorite part of being a Texas Engineering student?
Academically, UT is on par with any other leading institution. But UT has so much more to offer than most universities in terms of extracurricular opportunities, student organizations and diversity. And, that’s my favorite part of being a Texas Engineering student — the sheer diversity of academic and extracurricular opportunities available. We have some of the most accomplished professors in the world offering research opportunities and well-established student groups offering practical, hands-on experience. The student population is also very diverse, both in the Cockrell School and university overall.
2. In a few words, can you summarize the focus of your research? What effect do you hope your research will have on society in 10–15 years?
My research falls under the broad area of engineering known as Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) for aerospace vehicles. I’m interested in developing autonomous technologies to drive exploration and science in space. My long-term research goals involve developing the underlying technologies for multiple spacecraft to collaboratively perform tasks in the space environment, be it mapping or inspection of space stations, performing Earth-science observations from orbit or exploring distant worlds.
I hope my research will enable new space exploration and Earth-observation missions. New autonomous technologies will drive not only robotic exploration but human exploration as well. NASA plans to establish human bases on the moon and Mars over the next several years. Developing and maintaining the large-scale infrastructure needed for such bases would be more realistic and economically efficient with autonomous robots performing the requisite construction and inspection tasks. Because these bases would be so far away from home — and the round-trip communication time would render real-time ground-based remote control infeasible — high levels of autonomy are needed to support future goals for human exploration.
3. What changes do you foresee in the aerospace industry in the coming years?
One change is certain: the entire industry is moving toward more autonomy in applications. With the growth in autonomy, there will need to be further development in human-robot interaction. Robots should not necessarily replace humans but rather complement them in solving problems. We will also see more efficient and safer transportation methods in the form of autonomous long-range flights and short-range air taxis. We will explore more distant and difficult-to-reach worlds in the search for extraterrestrial life. We will see human footprints on other planets. We will benefit from more accurate and widely available data about our own atmosphere, oceans, lands and ice sheets.
To truly reap the full potential of these benefits though, we will have to learn to work together and collaborate more effectively. I think the role of private companies will continue to grow, leading to more widespread government-industry partnerships.
4. What is your vision for the future of the aerospace engineering industry?
Fundamentally, the goal of any engineering discipline is to solve problems. My vision for the aerospace industry is to solve those problems from the unique vantage points the air and space environments provide: vital earth-science via airborne or spaceborne sensors, pioneering exploration of distant worlds that might harbor life, efficient transportation methods through the skies, etc.
For me, there is something deeply romantic about the exploration of space, of the grandeur of discovering a new world, and maybe even discovering life there. Looking back down on our own planet inspires a sense of awe and urge to care for it better. The aerospace community is well-poised to take on these challenging and meaningful tasks.
5. Aside from your research, you also work to inspire younger students to explore careers in STEM. What has led you to be so passionate about introducing the next generation to STEM?
It’s really about paying it forward. I have been blessed with tremendous mentors and advisors over the years who have been driving forces behind my success. The debt of such support can only really be repaid by doing the same for others. I truly believe education is the great equalizer. I’m an immigrant whose family moved to the U.S. to seek better opportunities, and it is an education that provides those opportunities. Knowledge knows no boundaries; it benefits anyone and everyone.