The sky's the limit

August 27, 2010

As a child growing up in Russia, Northeastern University junior Timur Starobinets dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

But his self-described "obsession" with intergalactic travel really took off when he landed a co-op with a space-transport company in California called SpaceX.

SpaceX was working on a rocket called the Falcon 9, hoping to become the first private company in the world to successfully launch a mid-to-heavy lift rocket into space.

So when the electrical and computer engineering major got the co-op, he says, he couldn’t wait to dig into a lot of "high-tech design challenges and achieve something that’s never been done before."

As it turned out, he did just that.

From January to June, Starobinets designed avionics for spacecrafts and rockets, including engine controllers and solar panels. He performed destructive tests on circuit boards, with an eye toward building next-generation technology using the most durable materials.

Working at SpaceX, he says, "helped me understand what’s going on behind every component of the circuit." Plus, he felt right at home in the laid-back work environment. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (who also cofounded PayPal and Tesla Motors) is "a very relaxed, very down-to-earth person" who chats openly and easily with employees, Starobinets says.

By the end of the co-op, the Falcon 9 had lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Starobinets’s fingerprints were all over the successful launch.

"That’s the cool thing," he says. "Things I was working on were on the first launch or will be on the second—things actually got into space."

Starobinets says this experiential-learning opportunity not only gives him a leg up in class, it prepared him for entrance into an uncertain job market. That’s because SpaceX has offered him a full-time position after he graduates next year.

"One of the best things about this university is the co-op," says Starobinets, who opted for engineering at Northeastern over aerospace programs at other universities so he could get practical, hands-on experience under his belt.

He has also completed co-ops as a systems engineer at Raytheon, in Marlborough, Mass., and as a design engineer at Advanced Micro Devices, a Boxborough, Mass.–based company that develops computer processors for the commercial and consumer sectors.