UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It’s safe to say that Michael Policelli’s career goals are pretty ambitious: supporting the effort to launch manned missions to Mars in a quest to colonize our neighboring planet.
But Policelli, a Penn State graduate with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering, doesn’t see it that way. Policelli, now a propulsion development engineer for SpaceX, a private aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company, uses his background in engineering to tackle the task one step at a time, regardless of its challenges.
“Materials science and engineering gave me the background to be able to analyze a problem critically and come to a solution,” said Policelli.
That’s an important skill because much of what SpaceX does, quite literally, “goes where no one has gone before.”
Policelli landed the competitive job in 2014 after completing an internship with the company, where he tested rockets at their McGregor, Texas, facility. He said his aerospace engineering background and his work with the Penn State Lunar Lion Team — a student team developing a rocket system for lunar exploration to expand humanity’s knowledge of the Moon — bolstered his resume. But his materials science background really stood out.
While working at the Applied Research Laboratory’s Laser Processing Division and the Penn State Lunar Lion Team, Policelli became comfortable troubleshooting concepts using 3-D printing and modeling using metal alloys. When vying for an internship, he stressed his experiences at Penn State and how he was “actually making things instead of just talking about concepts.”
“Ultimately you’re going to have to do a lot of learning when you get to any job, and this one is no different,” said Policelli. “So, if you can demonstrate that you can go out and teach yourself what you need to succeed at a task and then iterate until you succeed, that’s what they’re looking for.”
Policelli has been working on SpaceX’s Merlin engine for the second stage of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, in support of several missions including one where he was able to see all of Earth from the viewfinder.
“You see the ground shrinking away and the edge of Earth with a thin little layer of atmosphere and get that perspective of what it’s like to be in space, and it’s pretty breathtaking,” said Policelli.
He said it’s an exciting time to be working for a company that plans travel to Mars within a decade. SpaceX is already delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and is slated to begin human flights there as early as 2018.