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Rocketman: From UWA to NASA and beyond

21/07/2020 |

Despite originally believing his dream career was out of limits, UWA alumnus Justin Kruger proves you can do anything once you set your mind to it. A graduate of physics and mechatronics engineering study and a UWA Fogarty Scholar alumnus, Justin harnessed the skills and knowledge gained in his UWA degrees to set his career sights far and wide. As far as outer space, in fact. 

“I’d always been interested in a space engineering career, but 10 years ago I didn’t think that was entirely realistic, especially if I wanted to stay in Australia,” he says.

After graduating from UWA, however, Justin decided to give it his best shot. His first experience was at the Australian National University in Canberra where he developed satellite testbeds. Soon after, Justin applied to universities in the United States to further his experience in the area of space exploration. 

“Companies like SpaceX were pushing new, exciting boundaries and UWA had given me a strong foundation to work with, both in terms of developing lifelong skills and providing fantastic opportunities to pursue my interests in research.”

Justin Kruger

Justin earnt a spot at Stanford University, California, where he commenced postgraduate studies in Aeronautics and Astronautics. He remains at Stanford, currently completing a PhD as a member of the Stanford Space Rendezvous Laboratory, with research interests in spacecraft swarms, autonomy and navigation. He has also conducted research at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, assisting the Intelligent Robotics Group on planetary rover control systems. 

“My personal focus is on improved spacecraft autonomy and spacecraft swarms, with which we can unlock exciting new paradigms for space exploration,” Justin says. “I’ve loved seeing my research impact real space missions.”

UWA alumnus Justin Kruger

As for his current work, Justin’s assisting with NASA’s Starling1 mission, due to launch in 2021, seeking to demonstrate key technologies required for using spacecraft swarms in deep space. If the mission is successful, he says we could see similar swarms of satellites completing an array of useful tasks, like monitoring lunar space stations and running interplanetary communications networks.

“I’m also particularly excited about the new Australian Space Agency and the rapid growth of the Australian space industry. I’d love to facilitate some collaborative projects between Australia and the United States, and help expand the Australian space sector further. Australia has so much it could contribute in this field, so I’m glad it’s finally happening.”

Justin has always been inspired by the “promise of space”, whether it’s curiosity about our vast universe, a drive to explore or a belief in the countless benefits space technology can bring to society.

“Our use of space already provides so much to our society and, ultimately, I think it’s necessary and inevitable for humanity to grow beyond one planet, and one star, if we’re to survive as a species, he adds.

“I find it fascinating to consider what our society might look like at that point and how such progress might benefit other aspects of our lives.” 

Through his work, Justin hopes to play some small part in bringing about the ‘magical, science-fiction future’ he absorbed as a kid. So much so, he wishes to publish a science fiction novel in the near(ish) future. 

So if there’s one take-away from Justin’s journey, it’s to always come back to the things you enjoy and the ideas that inspire you. “It might seem challenging to translate those directly into a career,” he says, “but if you keep them in the back of your mind – and stay open to new passions and inspirations – you’ll find the chance to do something you love”.


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