Rocket engineer propels Gonzaga engineering program
Former SpaceX employee bridges theory, applicationNovember 9th, 2023
Ryan Kellogg wanted to be part of a company that was doing important work and where he could be surrounded by people inspired to be part of something greater than themselves.
While he was trained as a mechanical engineer, he also had an interest in manufacturing, which led him to apply for jobs at companies that had begun manufacturing in the U.S. The Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technology Corp., commonly known as SpaceX, and Tesla Motors, both led by Elon Musk, fit the bill, as did Cupertino, California-based Apple, Inc.
“I sort of serendipitously ended up in a world in which the United States really started valuing manufacturing again,” he says. “It was similarly coincidental that I entered the field around the time that rocketry was becoming a civilian endeavor again.”
After spending seven years with SpaceX working on rocket propulsion systems, Kellogg, a born-and-raised Spokanite, returned home, and stepped into a new role at his alma mater as the academic director for the Center for Engineering Design and Entrepreneurship at Gonzaga University.
A graduate of the program himself, he intends to use many of the principles he learned at Gonzaga as well as equip senior engineering students in the program with applicable skills such as communication and business administrative skills that can prepare them better to step into roles in the real world, he says.
“In order to go and be successful in the industry, you need to be able to bridge between theory and application,” he says.
Kellogg graduated from Gonzaga in 2014 and was recruited immediately by SpaceX. He worked at different sites around the country, starting out as a build engineer for the Dragon 2 capsule, which can transport cargo and crew members to the International Space Station. He left the company as a senior propulsion engineer for Starship, a spacecraft currently under development that is intended to be fully reusable. In 2022, SpaceX reported annual revenue of $4.6 billion. As of 2021, the company reported having over 8,000 employees spread across various locations and departments.
Kellogg says SpaceX is an innovative company that is constantly focused on improving its technology. Therefore, it gives its employees access to necessary tools and privileges to achieve their goals. Kellogg was given lots of responsibilities and liberties early in his tenure.
“There’s a system behind you. There are lots of resources,” he says. “The right idea wins … everybody is focused on what is the right technical decision, and then also what is the right thing to do.”
While Kellogg was able to manage his responsibilities, it was evident that some of his colleagues didn’t have experience in handling administrative tasks or making financial decisions.
“I could tell some people hadn’t had those experiences,” he says. “And they were saddened by it as I was, because nobody wants to enter industry and say, how do I buy things in a company where the money is centralized, and what is the basics of a purchase order?”
When he became the academic director at the the Gonzaga center, he wanted to make sure that students learned how to complete a purchase order, answer emails, conduct peer reviews, present to a nontechnical audience, and work collaboratively in a team among other things.
“The stereotypical vision that comes with engineering sometimes is that it is a very individualistic endeavor where you just sit at a desk and you just make things happen,” he says. “The reality of engineering is you have to work with a lot of people and navigate not just complex engineering systems, but you have to navigate company systems, legal systems, and a variety of different things.”
Currently, the center has 165 senior engineering and computer science students in its two-semester program. Kellogg and other staff members collect project proposals from sponsoring organizations ranging from local businesses to national and international corporations. Projects are then selected that cover a wide range of engineering and computer science topics.
Seniors then vote on their favorite projects. A capstone committee assembles the teams of two to five students. Each student is assigned a faculty member as a project adviser that provides guidance and evaluates their performance. The program also has a group of professionals on its Design Advisory Board who volunteer their time to work with students.
“Most of them tell me it’s kind of fun working with young people and helping them navigate these problems that have various levels of difficulty and also helping them learn those basic skills,” he says.
The sponsoring company works with the student team throughout the year. Spokane-based sponsors have included Kaiser Aluminum Corp., Medcurity Inc., Key Tronic Corp., and Itron Inc.
Each sponsor has one or more designated liaisons who provide feedback to the team, which creates accountability and professional influence, he says.
The program is successful due to the diversity of the professionals, who also often hire the students they’ve worked with over the school year, says Kellogg.