Alumnus shoots for trips to the moon

Steve Cook, head of a space craft design program at NASA, still visits the U.

Karlee Weinmann

University alumni have gone on to take jobs domestically and abroad in nearly every field imaginable.

But Steve Cook has taken a job that deals with more than worldly issues; he is responsible for the design of NASA’s new launch vehicles.

A Bloomington native, Cook became fascinated by the idea of space when he was a child.

“I remember seeing the later Apollo missions,” he said of the NASA initiative that first brought humans to the moon’s surface. “I always wanted to work in the space program, always.”

As he got older, his fascination with a world beyond the terrestrial one didn’t wane, though his focus adjusted and narrowed.

Cook, 39, received his aerospace engineering degree and began graduate study at the University. In 1989, his first year in graduate school, he was assigned a teaching assistant spot under Andrew Vano, who taught a design course for senior undergraduates.

In the class, students were divided into groups and spent substantial portions of the term – and for some, the academic year – cultivating space vehicles.

Vano said Cook emerged as one of his best teaching assistants, if not the best.

“He was incredible right from the get-go,” he said. “I knew from the first week I worked with him that he was going to go a long way.”

A grant from NASA enhanced the class and offered some students the opportunity to present their innovations before a NASA panel. As part of the same program, Cook was given his first taste of the town known as “Rocket City.”

In the summer prior to the beginning of his teaching assistant tenure, Cook traveled to Huntsville, Ala., to the Marshall Space Flight Center, part of NASA’s network.

There, Cook compiled knowledge pertinent to the senior design class and demonstrated his commitment to the course and dedication to the students, in addition to his careful organization skills, Vano said.

Cook combed through the facility’s library, copied documents and created a cataloguing system for in-class use.

“The goal was to learn as much as you can and bring it back (to the University) and teach senior students all about design,” Cook said. “I loved it, and I loved Huntsville.”

One year later, in July 1990, Cook headed back to the northern Alabama town, but this time he planned to stay.

Starting as a working-level engineer, Cook moved up the ranks to eventually become what he is today: director of the Exploration Launch Projects office.

Cook said he found a mentor in Bill Garrard, the University’s former Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics Department head. Garrard said he is proud of his former student, but is not surprised by his success.

“I knew that he was going to do something really good,” Garrard said. “He’s one of these people; you could just tell.”

Cook said he was hired on the tail end of a surge in the space exploration industry, spurred by former President George H.W. Bush’s plans to send Americans back to the moon.

Without funding, the zeal for such a project dulled. Now, Cook said, the possibility of such plans is being realized.

“We’re on the cusp of something that hasn’t happened since the 1960s,” he said of a growing interest in space travel, which he attributes to a loss of space innovation supremacy. “We (in the United States) still have the lead, but the rest of the world is going to catch up. We are eminent, but no longer preeminent in space.”

Cook currently manages the development of the Ares I and V launch vehicles.

NASA’s goals related to the Ares project include returning for an extended time to the moon’s surface and journeying to Mars.

Despite the responsibility associated with leading such an endeavor, Cook still maintains ties to the University, which brought him back to the Twin Cities last Friday. Along with other members of industry, government and the academic world, he sits on the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics’ Professional Advisory Board.

The group follows the progress and priorities of the department, and offers its insights and outside perspectives on what is good, what could be better and what students need to know to be successful in the future.

“The goal is to help guide future students and help universities guide new young students so they can better position themselves,” Cook said.

Gary Balas , now the department head of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics, began at the University when Cook served as Vano’s teaching assistant. Balas said stories like Cook’s reinforce the importance of life in the classroom.

“It makes us feel great to see the importance of (graduates’) careers, and education was the basis of their being successful,” he said. “That’s the best part of teaching.”

Though the face of the University has changed in Cook’s eyes, he said he still enjoys returning to his alma mater, especially to see how his former department is progressing.

“The No. 1 reason I come back is for interaction with students, to see the light in their eyes and the excitement for aerospace engineering,” he said. “I want them to learn and see what’s possible; if I can show them that, I do my part.”