Selecting the right career isn’t rocket science, but working on challenging problems that could pave the way for deeper explorations in space most certainly is !

Sunil Raghuraman, our next pathbreaker, System Design & Analysis Engineer at Boeing, works on the SLS (Space Launch System) program, solving a variety of problems related to Avionics in a deep space rocket!

Sunil talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about opting for a strong foundation in mechanical engineering and building a solid propellant rocket for his bachelors project which paved the way for a career in Space Engineering !

For students, there isn’t a greater thrill than solving engineering problems on insanely complex systems that could open up a new frontier in space travel !

Sunil, tell us about your background?

I was naturally a curious child. I was always inclined towards understanding the little things and used to ask my parents lots of questions. I received a gift one day. The gift was an electronic board which had the 9 planets beautifully illustrated on them (there were 9 planets at the time, yes). I was really interested in understanding what those were. The board used to give out information about each planet, distances between planets, every planet’s uniqueness and also had trivia questions! That became my favorite toy to play with and I would memorize everything. I also visited my school library and read every book they had in the space category. My teacher was immensely impressed by my interests and one day asked me about stars. She asked me, “Sunil, do you know if our Sun is a planet or a star?”. I was dumbfounded by this question and didn’t know where to categorize the Sun. She helped me understand that the Sun is a star and there are thousands of billions of stars in our sky! That further kindled my curiosity and my interests towards learning about Astronomy and Space grew.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I kickstarted my career by pursuing a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering in Chennai, Tamilnadu. I was keen on choosing this career despite my interests in Space since I wanted to have a broad understanding of engineering. I’d definitely made the right choice since I learnt about a wide variety of principles in engineering, all the way from bioengineering to mechatronics and I had great professors who helped me through the years. During my senior year at the university, I worked on building a solid propellant rocket as my project to conclude my Bachelors degree. This paved the way for my double-masters in Aerospace Engineering and Space Systems and Management from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

As with the case for most of us, taking up a masters means that parents would spend a large sum of money. In my case, I was very fortunate that my parents had just enough to fund my studies. I was aware that this would mean there are sacrifices on their end to get the funds ready. I challenged myself to support in any way possible. I was working at the dining courts, grading papers and pretty much tried to earn as much as I could while focusing on my courses. Eventually I got selected as a GSI (Graduate Student Instructor) where I could teach the basics of mechanics in Physics. It helped support me financially and I was able to attain great experience teaching concepts I’m very passionate about.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

My career started prior to my first full-time job. I had worked at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. I worked as an intern in their Thermodynamics lab. I had my first look at the insanely cool things that NASA works on in their research labs. There I saw the world’s biggest plasma tunnel where they perform tests that take temperatures over 2000K! I had a mentor assigned to me and it was a really great learning experience. My full-time job started right out of grad school (University of Michigan) at The Boeing Company in Huntsville, Alabama. I’ve been naturally inclined towards rockets and of course, I’d think I belong in the Rocket City of the USA. This was the time when SpaceX brought in reusable rockets with their Falcon 9 line and was a great time to be in the rocket industry. Their first few successful launches and landings really did make a huge impact on me – as it did to all of the rocket engineers of the world.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I had a couple opportunities including a consulting position at Toyota and an internship at NASA Ames. During a semester in my master’s degree, I heard about an opportunity with Toyota where they needed support writing scripts to support one of their projects. I was new to coding in Python and I thought it will be a great opportunity to get work experience as well as learn more in the process.

My experience through my internship at NASA Ames proved to be an integral factor in getting my full-time job. My job at The Boeing Company is in the area of Flight Systems – Avionics team where we work on all of the electronics that go aboard the SLS Rocket. 

The SLS (Space Launch System) is a deep space rocket that is a part of the Artemis program. The program aims to bring the first woman and next man back to the moon. NASA aims to visit the moon, build a gateway and eventually take humans to mars. The only rocket capable of this journey is the SLS rocket. Boeing is the prime contractor for the CS (Core Stage) and EUS (Exploration Upper Stage) of the SLS rocket.

This is a project with NASA (our customer) and my job requires regular coordination and communication with our customer. Hence, my internship proved to be handy in being able to prove that I have experience working with our customer.

At college, I had focused on Flight Dynamics and Controls and hence had the right experience to take up responsibility to work on Navigation and Guidance Avionics boxes that will be installed on the rocket. My experience in my Master’s degree and courses I’d taken were definitely handy in being able to understand and apply theory into the insanely complex systems.

How did you get your first break? 

My first break would definitely be the NASA Ames internship opportunity that I took up during the summer. It gave me plentiful experience in my field of interest and was integral to my entry into the Aerospace industry. During my masters, I attended a lot of courses with my colleagues and one day, I received an email stating that NASA was looking for interns to fill in positions at the Ames Research Center. During that period, I’d been applying for internships on a daily basis and to me, this seemed like just another opportunity that I would probably never hear back from. However, I was thrilled to see that they had selected me from the university and hence, I had to drop another internship opportunity that I had initially accepted. I most definitely had taken the right decision even though it may not have been ethical to drop an internship opportunity after accepting it. Getting big names on your resume at your early career stage is very important and I’m very glad I had what companies were looking for in terms of expertise and experience.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: I’d say my biggest challenge was losing my dad at an early age. My father was and will always be my first and best role model. He got sick when I was in high school and died due to cancer. It made me really depressed and under confident. However, my mom really pushed through and supported me till the end. I will be ever grateful for my family’s support and trust in me. 

Challenge 2: Another challenge was one I faced during college. In my first semester of my master’s, I was just trying to take too much at once. Hence, I pushed myself to try to save money by working during afterschool hours – when I should be using that time to study and complete homework. It really did hit me hard at the end of that semester but I really pulled through with the help of my fiancé (girlfriend at the time)! I reassessed my priorities and came back with a bang.

Challenge 3: A big challenge at work was working on a rocket, I’ve never had to work on a project at this scale before. I was overwhelmed at the amount of information that was in front of me. There were definitely moments where I had the “deer in the headlights” look. However, my team was really great and patient enough to help answer my plethora of questions. Though I took my time to understand the system, there’s no way one person can comprehend the complexity of the entire rocket. This is most definitely a team effort.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role at Boeing

I work at The Boeing Company as a System Design & Analysis Engineer working on Avionics on the SLS (Space Launch System) program. I solve a variety of problems on a daily basis involving systems engineering principles, architecture of systems, navigational boxes and even some about batteries and power systems in a deep space rocket! I perform tasks involving writing requirements for specifications and assist the supplier in producing the equipment that will need to be installed. I work on a rocket and do rocket-science at my job – there isn’t anything else I’d love doing more!

How does your work benefit the society? 

My work is assisting NASA to carry out their mission to get the first woman and the next man onto the moon. It has been over 50 years since we first landed on the moon and it’s about time that we get back. NASA has amazing plans to get back and we are doing all we can to make sure that it happens!

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I’d go back to my college days when I really loved coding. I’ve worked so much on writing scripts and automating processes. One really memorable time was when I was a graduate student instructor at the Physics lab at the University of Michigan. I was given the task to teach and assist students in learning the basics of mechanics. There was also some basic coding in Python that I would need to help teach. This helps students to visually understand the physics in motion.

There were some outstanding students in my class with brilliant minds. I always gave them challenges beyond the scope of the class to make sure they learnt more than what they signed up for. I made sure they understand how to expand on what the book talks about and set them up for a deeper understanding of simple topics. I enjoyed giving them career advice based on my experiences. Those times were really memorable. A really good teacher can absolutely make a huge difference.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I’d say the most important aspect of education is to embrace the process of transitioning to a career. It’s absolutely not easy. I’ve had to do applications on a daily basis for over a year and it never gets easy. However, there are ways to really help and push your resume through. 

  1. Networking – Do not hesitate to network a lot. Talk to a bunch of people. Explain your passion. Talk about their work. Ask a lot of questions and show that you’re really willing to put in the work. You’d be surprised to see how many call backs you get.
  2. A job is a job – There’s a quote I always tend to remember. “It’s a job and you’re working for someone else. You’re not lucky to get a job – someone else is extremely lucky to get you to work for them. Never put yourself below anyone else.”

Future Plans?

Since I’m fairly new into this industry, I’ve not thought too much about future plans yet. I realize there’s just so much to learn – it’s a vast ocean out there and there are plenty of resources to learn from. So far, I’ve been taking courses online with MIT learning about different aspects of Systems Engineering such as Model Based Development techniques and so on. I really think I need to get some experience in a job like mine to be able to understand exactly what’s going on and carry forth my experience into my future endeavours. Eventually I’d really be impressed with myself if I could potentially use my expertise and experience to start up a business in the field of Aerospace Engineering. I’d love to see myself grow into the shoes of an engineer, but also be a businessman and understand the trade.