AEM student and future astronaut shoots for the stars

Leadership and research headline Robert Halverson’s UMN experience

When eight-year-old Robert Halverson’s mother asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he always said, “Bob the Builder.” Since being a cartoon character wasn’t exactly in the cards, he eventually settled on “astronaut.” Now, Halverson is a senior studying aerospace engineering in the College of Science and Engineering—and he’s held on tightly to that dream.

“I’ve always enjoyed looking up to the sky and looking up at the stars and seeing what's out there,” said Halverson, who was born in Minnesota but later moved to Arkansas.

He jokes that his affinity for the Discovery Channel show “MythBusters” is what kick-started his passion for engineering. At the University of Minnesota, he’s gotten to apply that interest by participating in CSE student groups and undergraduate research.

Halverson is also the first in his family to attend college. He’ll graduate this spring and head to Colorado for a summer internship with Blue Canyon Technologies, a small satellite technology company. After that, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota. Then, onto NASA, he hopes.

“It felt like a big thing for me, going to college and especially getting a degree that’s basically shorthand for rocket science,” he said.

“You get to work on meaningful projects that have a great impact on humanity, and I figured that's a good way for me to be productive in advancing technology, while waiting on my chance to walk among the stars, as they say,” Halverson said.

Literally rocket science

To say that Halverson has made the most of his time as a Gopher is an understatement.

In addition to taking a full load of classes and doing research with one of his professors, he works as a peer assistant for the CSE Career Center; plays trombone in the North Star Philharmonia campus orchestra; and is a member of the UMN Rocket Team’s propulsion sub-team; and served as president of the UMN chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Oh, and he teaches taekwondo.

Halverson won’t quickly forget his experiences with the rocket team. In summer 2019, he drove down to New Mexico with the team for the Spaceport America Cup, a national rocketry competition. The CSE students launched a 100-pound rocket 30,000 feet in the air—and won.

“It’s certainly a valuable experience working on an engineering project with a team because there isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer,” Halverson said.

“I’m not able to resubmit my homework seven times until I get it completely right,” he said, "but when you're designing a rocket, you prototype it, build it, test it, and go back and change it. You don't get to do that in lecture.”

Despite the pandemic, and with safety protocols in place, he has continued his undergraduate research in Assistant Professor Ryan Caverly’s Aerospace, Robotics, Dynamics, and Control Laboratory in CSE’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics.

Halverson started doing research his sophomore year on the control of spacecraft flexible appendages. Now, he’s working on a Martian satellite project that could eventually help support future robotic and crew missions to the surface of the red planet.

He has contributed to two research publications and presented last January at AIAA’s 2020 SciTech Forum and Exposition, the largest aerospace engineering conference in the world.

“Getting to [present at SciTech] was probably one of the highlights of my college career,” Halverson said. “It was something that this university, college, and department made possible through the insane amount of research that we do here.”

From mentee to mentor

Being an effective leader is another tangible he’s taking away from his research experience, courtesy of Caverly and the graduate and Ph.D. students in the lab.

“My viewpoint of a leader is it's not someone who's above anyone,” he said. “It’s someone who helps their group advance and sets others up for success. Being the mentee in this research experience certainly has shown me that anyone can be a leader and you don't have to put a title on it.

Whether it's giving or receiving, there are so many opportunities [at the U of M] to learn from other people and to help other people, whether it’s in academics, career, or just life,” he added.

Halverson puts those values to work in his role as a peer assistant in the CSE Career Center, where . There, he helps other students find their career paths, understand how interviews and resumes work, and ultimately get internships.

He hopes to continue being involved in leadership after graduation. And no matter what, Halverson wants to keep doing meaningful work related to spaceflight.

“With the way that the world has changed in the last 50 years since we've been to the moon, imagine how much that can change when we go to Mars,” he said. “And there are a lot of problems that need to be solved along the way, and I want to contribute to those.”

So move over, John Glenn. Robert Halverson is coming.

Story by Olivia Hultgren

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