Midwest Rocketry Forum, podcast highlight influential guests in space and rocketry world

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Purdue Space Program/SEDS, students created the Midwest Rocketry Forum that includes podcasts and workshops.

When Eric Williamson used the media request form on United Launch Alliance’s website in May to see if he could connect with CEO Tory Bruno, he really didn’t think it’d generate any traction.

The Purdue Space Podcast element of the reimagined Midwest Rocketry Forum had just been born, stemming from a desire to celebrate Purdue Space Program’s 25th anniversary in a cool way that couldn’t include an on-campus conference but still would highlight influential guests in the space and rocketry world.

So Williamson, the vice president for PSP and a junior in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, dreamed big. He filled out of a brief outline about PSP’s mission and the podcast’s intent on the form. And then he waited. After six weeks with no response, he found an email for the media coordinator and made another ask.

In July, Williamson heard back from a ULA rep that Bruno would be happy to participate. A moment of disbelief quickly turned to elation, and he hurriedly sent a message via Slack to the rest of the team.

“The entire Slack freaked out,” said Williamson, laughing.

Andrew LaPrade, a junior in ECE, designed MRF's logo and creates its social media graphics.

Snagging Bruno certainly was impressive and a windfall for MRF, initially designed as a conference that would bring rocketry teams from the Midwest together for a chance to collaborate and interact with groups that may only interact virtually otherwise.

MRF was conceived and loosely based on an old “Purdue SEDS Spring Space Forum”— PSP is the new name for Purdue’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) chapter — that started in the 1990s and was last held in 2013. In February, a weekend conference idea was pitched to the Purdue University Student Fee Advisory Board. The proposal was accepted and funded, so organizers geared up to host the event in Fall 2020 with guest speakers coming to West Lafayette from all over the country.

But that was the pre-COVID-19 plan. When the pandemic hit, effectively eliminating in-person events, plans had to be adjusted. A podcast and virtual workshops replaced the conference.

“It was tough leaving the conference idea behind, but the podcast idea still was super exciting, and it is turning out amazing,” said Maor Gozalzani, a junior in AAE and guest coordinator with MRF. “Honestly, you could say it was for the better because we would not have guests like Tory or guests from New Zealand if this was an in-person conference.”

Bruno may be the biggest name for the podcast series this fall, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the guests have been shabby. Each is accomplished in the aerospace industry, and a “big get,” if you ask the students involved in the podcast series.

“They’re all powerhouses,” said Braden Grossfeld, a junior in AAE.

The first episode featured Joe Barnard, founder of Barnard Propulsion Systems, and AAE alumna Amy Comeau, a satellite systems engineer at Boeing, and talked about the iteration process of aerospace projects.

The second included the development team for Kerbal Space Program 2 about its highly anticipated space flight simulator.

The third centered on propulsion with AAE alumnus Scott Meyer, an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer and the managing director of Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories, AAE alumna and Virgin Orbit’s Pau Pineda and Rocket Lab’s Simon Moffat.

And there’s much more on tap.

The series is scheduled to have nine episodes, wrapping Dec. 5. In November, the “Avionics Then and Now” episodes will include a team of four people who have reconstructed the Apollo Guidance Computer from scratch. Later in November, the group will welcome PSP/SEDS alumni to talk about their experiences in academia and industry after Purdue. That’s scheduled to include (at least) AAE alumni Rob Bayt, commercial crew program verification and validation manager at NASA; Steven Tragesser, an associate prof of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs; Jose Guzman, the senior project engineer of space development programs at The Aerospace Corporation; and Cindy Mahler, the strategic technical university program manager at Boeing.

Another podcast will discuss the challenges of bringing new vehicles to the market, and the finale will connect PSP students with peers across the country to sum up what they hope their generation can accomplish.

“We really have a wide variety of topics and guests, so you can learn a lot about many different things that we discuss and bring in guests for. Anything from a video game to propulsion engineering to interviewing the CEO of the largest space corporation in the world,” Gozalzani said. “It’s really cool to learn about and hear the interaction between our student voices and people who are really passionate and interested about coming into the industry and hearing from role models within the industry and that interaction back and forth. Students can relate to the hosts and the questions we’re asking, and if you’re not a student, you can learn a lot about the industry and people we have in it.”

Bruno’s interview will debut Oct. 31 as the fourth podcast. It was recorded Oct. 20, after Williamson spent hours doing research on Bruno’s background, on ULA and more, carefully assembling a wide-ranging list of questions that would appeal to aerospace engineers and space enthusiasts alike.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno was a huge get for the Purdue Space Podcast, part of the Midwest Rocketry Forum.

“For people who don’t know who he is, I wanted to give them a brief history, so we went through his childhood, then his college years and then his early years in industry before he became CEO and president. Within that, I focused on the different projects he worked on and asked questions about that,” Williamson said. “He’s a big supporter of space infrastructure for fuel depots. We have a petroleum reserve in the United States. He wants a liquid oxygen reserve in space for rockets. It was cool to talk to him about that. I definitely wanted to touch on that because he’s a vocal supporter of that. They have a new rocket coming online next year, so I wanted to touch on that and get details about that process.”

Nothing was off limits, and Bruno spent nearly two hours on WebEx call with Williamson and Jack Costello, MRF’s chairperson. Williamson managed to stay professional, he said, though there certainly were pinch-me moments.

When Williamson and Costello were setting up the audio for the call, Williamson happened to look up at the video screen and saw Bruno sitting in his office, ready to go. Bruno waved. Williamson alerted Costello, and they waved back.

“It was surreal,” Williamson said of the interview. “It was really cool to get a more behind the scenes look and learn more in detail about what they’re doing. Because ULA is doing some insane stuff that really doesn’t get that much publicity.

“For the most part, it was just him and me talking back and forth. Not how I expected that Tuesday to go.”

Each podcast episode is hosted by a PSP student, rotating between Costello, Gozalzani, Grossfeld, Williamson, AAE sophomore Mark Paral and Brynne Hunt, a junior in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Andrew LaPrade, also a junior in ECE, is webmaster for PSP and creates social media graphics for MRF. Hall of Music Production Services manages the recording and editing for all the episodes, producing a professional-quality podcast. 

The students target the guests and make requests every way they can, whether it be “cold” emails, direct messaging on social media, getting contact information from advisors or filling out forms on websites, like Williamson did for Bruno.

Williamson, left, spent about two hours interviewing Bruno.

“The first thing we do is find someone we think would be interesting to talk to. We want someone we think we could have a good conversation with that people would like to hear from and has a lot to say and could tell a good story,” Grossfeld said. “It’s been a lot easier of a process than a lot of us thought. It’s good to know people want to come do this and like to engage, especially with college students.”

The process from start to finish for each episode has provided a unique learning experience for engineers, too. They’re accustomed to doing research for papers or projects, but data collection to prepare for interviews has been a bit different. And, then, the experience of actually conducting the interviews has provided some cool takeaways.

Learning, for one. Grossfeld interviewed Barnard, who does a lot with control algorithms. Grossfeld considers himself a “propulsion guy.” He has had some experience with controls but not a lot on the software side, so he found the preparation process to be enlightening and the interview even more so, steep learning curve and all.

Gozalzani’s preparation so impressed Meyer, Meyer actually double checked to see if the questions were prepared by a student. That episode with the propulsion group was a highlight for Gozalzani.

“We had three incredible, talented propulsion engineers that we all look up to, and I got to sit there and hear them have a conversation about their experiences, which was amazing. Sitting there for two hours and just listening to them talk about what they’ve learned, how they go about being a successful engineer, it was really cool,” he said.

For students who want a more interactive experience with industry professionals and PSP students, the Midwest Rocketry Forum has that covered, too. It hosts weekly workshops, every Tuesday night, and those topics vary as much as the podcasts. They have included topics on “Rockets 101,” securing internships, rocket photography and “How to Start a Rocket Team.”

Workshops, like this one on rocket photography, are hosted on YouTube live each week. 

“We thought of the workshops more as if we were doing a conference still. It’d be like a panel for a conference, so that’s the setup,” Grossfeld said.

The workshops will continue through the end of November, just before students leave campus.

And maybe well beyond.

The success of the workshops and podcasts have the MRF group thinking “Season 2” in the spring. They’re already working to line up guests for the podcasts — knowing any potential stress that comes from wrangling guests again will be outweighed by the experience.

“I have learned so much from making this series,” said Costello, a junior studying multidisciplinary engineering, “a lot of it from guests and a lot of it from just having to organize a big media project. I’ve gotten a lot better at sending cold e-mails and working around busy people’s schedules. Sometimes our team had to reschedule episodes because our guests will be at mission control launching an actual rocket, which is maybe the best excuse for a rain check I’ve ever seen. Things come together at the last moment a lot, and it can be exhausting to operate like that when the clock is ticking.

“It’s a whole lot of fun, though, and so rewarding. Every guest I’ve interacted with has been a pleasure to work with, and ultimately, I think I’m the podcast’s No. 1 fan. The highlight of my week is always listening through the final draft of each episode.”