An Interview with Illini
Astronaut Lee Archambault
Col. Lee Archambault, director of flight operations for Sierra Nevada Corporation, the Dream Chaser Program
What sort of work are you doing now with the Sierra Nevada Corporation?
As the director for flight operations, I oversee six different functional areas that range from mission operations, mission simulation, mission systems, cargo integrations, test operations and training all of which will support our NASA mission to the international space station.
When you were a student here at Illinois, did you envision your career taking this path?
I never even had more than about a five-year look over the horizon. You know, when I was an engineering student at the University of Illinois, I got out and I actually finished my bachelors degree still not sure exactly where I was going yet, so I took the wonderful opportunity to work on a master’s degree here and received a nice assistantship from one of the professors. About the time I was finishing my masters, I realized you’re only young once so I wanted to dive into a different area and wanted to be a pilot so I joined the Air Force. I joined the AF thinking I would be out in about 6 years and I’ll do something else. I’ll go back to an engineering job. Well it took my 28 years to get out of the Air Force. The last 13 were spent at NASA. After finally retiring from the AF I jumped into private industry and joined the Sierra Nevada Corporation.
Looking back at your history, you've really been at the forefront of aerospace science.
Yeah, I was the user of a lot of great technology. I started off flying older aircraft in the AF – the F-111 and moved on to the F-117 Stealth Fighter, which of course was state of the art at the time. And I had the unique experience to fly that during the first time it was really used in combat, during the Gulf War. So I was really appreciative of the fact that the technology was as good as it was. Our unit flew 1200 missions and we brought all the aircraft and all the pilots home. So that was a wonderful tribute to the great technology that went into that aircraft. I moved on from there to be a test pilot for the F16s. I was now not just using the technology but helping to develop the state-of-the-art as a test guy. And of course went from there to NASA where I was a recipient of the great technology developed in the 1970s – the space shuttle. Even though I didn’t fly the shuttle until 2007, it was just amazing to think back at the technology that our engineers developed back in the '70s. Of course the space shuttle didn’t even fly until 1981, but 26 years later when I flew my first shuttle mission – that this space craft was as good as it was – was a real tribute to our space program and the engineers that built that thing.
Where do you see the technology moving for future aerospace engineers?
Well I think we're going to stay in space but I see a lot more automation, a lot more autonomy – the pilotless type vehicles. You know, I’m a pilot so I hate to say it but we're moving toward where a lot more of our vehicles are gonna be autonomous. Not even remotely piloted. Just autonomously operated. We’re already seeing it. With drones and everything. But things are going to continue to move in that direction over the next 10-20 years. Not to say that any new aircraft aren’t going to be piloted – sure, we’re still going to be building those. But I think the biggest breakthrough is going to be the autonomous vehicle. We’re at the beginning stages of it right now.
You were also a hockey player here at Illinois. What's your best memory from that experience?
Oh... man... I’ve got a lot of good memories from being a player here. I don’t think collectively there’s one memory that stands out. It’s really just about being associated with a fun group of guys for four years, doing something you really loved to do very often. Really, the thing that stands out is the Illinois fans. That’s what I remember. The Illinois fans were always the most boisterous – if you’re an opposing player the most obnoxious fans – so it was a lot of fun to be on the home team when you’re playing at Illinois. It was a lot of fun playing in front of our fans. They’re a hoot and I know they’re no different now. It’s a rowdy crowd.
As an Illinois engineer, do you ever run into other engineering alumni?
Yeah, I just sat next to Mike Hopkins. You know Hopper? Yeah, it’s surprising - sometimes you’ll be talking to someone and you find out where they’re from – Illinois. Really? No kidding! You had no idea. I’d like to see a lot more Illinois. It’s one of the things I’d like to do. The Dreamchaser Space Program - we have a big influence of University of Colorado and we have great engineers from there. But man, there are great engineers here and I’m going to do what I can see if we can attract a few more engineers from Illinois to come out and do an internship with us. It’s a phenomenal program and how many times as a young engineer are you going to have a chance to work on a brand new spacecraft that you’re developing for NASA to go to the space station?
What excites you about being back on campus?
Number one is to see how beautiful this campus is. I don’t even recognize if from when I was a student here. I haven’t been on the engineering campus for 10 years. But I also got a chance to meet some of the professors. None of them were here when I was. Actually one of them still is. It’s amazing. The guy’s over 90 years old. Prof. Harry Hilton. I'm excited to see that at Illinois, the work being done here is on the forefront of this autonomation of space craft – of air craft. It’s really nice to see the development that’s going on – the research that’s going on. So Illinois will certainly continue to be at the forefront of that technology.
The College of Engineering is obviously world-renowned. So much technology that we see out there every day started here. Certainly we have professors here that are known around the world for what they do. The research is phenomenal. The instruction is outstanding. The faculty we have here is second to none. This is an engineering program that was always great and it’s even better than it was when I was here. It continues to improve. It’s really gratifying when I come back to see it all. Just to see all the new facilities now, it’s just - it’s world class.
It’s an honor to say that you were part of this program at one time.
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