Craig Kluever’s dream was born as he found himself awestruck in front of a grainy black-and-white television screen watching Apollo 11 land on the moon. He was in kindergarten. As he puts it, “that just made a big impact on me. Of course, the first thing I wanted to be was an astronaut.” Those early dreams of becoming an astronaut turned instead into a pursuit of the science behind the rockets. Today, the MU Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering works behind the scenes to solve the kind of problems involved in designing space travel—such as how to take off, how to reach a target, and, more importantly, how to return safely to Earth.
The guidance system Kluever worked on for the X-33 shuttle was to have robustness built into its designs for guidance and control systems. Although the existing Shuttle works very well, Kluever says, “it does not have a lot of robustness built in.” If it comes in on a flight path that is too steep, too shallow, or too fast, it has very limited capabilities for altering that flight path and still making the planned approach for landing. “Fortunately the Shuttle hasn’t had any major mechanical failures (like a broken rudder) on the way down. But if failures occurred, it would have limited maneuverability.” Kluever’s contribution to this project will allow a new shuttle’s guidance system to not only maintain the exact amount of energy to reach the landing area, but also to recognize and steer toward the runway. “Robust” describes a new guidance system that is more automated and adaptable, and therefore, a new generation of safer shuttle vehicles – “so that if some major failure occurred—like the rudders didn’t work and it had limited banking ability, or the elevators didn’t work, and it had limited pitching capability—you could recalculate a trajectory that would still take it to a safe landing. That’s what’s meant by robustness.”
In the most basic definition of his field, Kluever explains that engineers apply math and science knowledge to real problems, taking existing knowledge from mathematics and the physical sciences to construct some real device or to make some system better. “What do engineers do at work?” he laughs irreverently, “they go to a lot of meetings, they work on projects, and they try to stay on budget!”