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.
Craig Kluever’s childhood dream of becoming an astronaut turned instead into the pursuit of the science behind the rockets. Today, the Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering seeks to solve the kind of problems involved in space missions—like how to take off, and most importantly, how to return safely to Earth. Kluever came to this area of research in graduate school when he had a fellowship with NASA, developing computer programs to help solve problems involved with mission designs that use electric propulsion (as opposed to chemical propulsion). At the time, Kluever recalls, electric propulsion was a brand new technology, and NASA needed predictive computer models to calculate missions, for example to map a trajectory from Earth to Mars using electric propulsion.
The first space mission to use electric propulsion was Deep Space I. Launched in 1998, it was a test mission for electric propulsion, one on which a lot of people worked to see the mission to success. “It had a very modest target,” Kluever says – basically just to fly by an asteroid – “and it was able to complete that mission.” Since then there have been some very big plans to send spacecraft to Jupiter or other outer planets using electric propulsion. “But the problem with electric propulsion (and NASA) is that these technologies cycle,” observes Kluever. “Sometimes they’re politically in favor and sometimes not. Right now they’re out of favor,” largely due to budgetary restraints.