Gearing up to take flight

Stanford grad turned professor reflects on his time on the Farm and milestones since

Room 001 of the William F. Durand Building in the Engineering Quad, the Space and Systems Development Laboratory (SSDL), is clustered with a variety of tools and machinery. At the entrance, there is a shelf lined with rovers that once moved across the Quad in search of water on an extraterrestrial planet. On one of the shelves, there is a black and white photograph of The Stanford Daily’s photography team in 1981. The walls are covered with satellite images, and flow charts and formulas are sprawled across whiteboards.

Sitting behind his desk is Andrew Kalman ’85, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, typing away on his computer.

“I have been playing catch-up with my schedule for, like, 10 years now,” he said.

In 1981, when Kalman was an undergraduate at Stanford studying electrical engineering, he was an avid biker, frequently visited the Dish and photographed for The Daily. While he was on the Farm, he discovered the mechanical engineering shop and spent most of his time working there, indulging in his passion for design.

Breaking and Mending

While he was working on his doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Florida, Kalman started working as a junior engineer at Stanford Research Systems, a company started by Stanford graduate students. He later left to start another company, Euphonix, with a few friends. The company grew to be a dominant pro audio-mixing console company in the United States. However, he also left Euphonix in 1994, not entirely satisfied because he was not a musician at heart.

He went on to found Pumpkin in 1995, which, initially meant to be a data acquisition company, soon became a real-time operating system company.

In 1998, Kalman returned to Stanford, where he learned about small satellite activities. He started teaching and doing research at the University, later becoming a consulting professor in aeronautics and astronautics. In line with Kalman’s interest in small satellites, Pumpkin launched the CubeSat kit, a small satellite that was built to go into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) missions.

Around 2008, he became the director of SSDL, where he focused on ensuring that students have the chance to gain real hands-on experience.

“I think it’s critical that students go beyond writing up a proposal and doing some analysis in MATLAB…to actually building the real thing and iterating upon that,” he said.

Kalman said his best learning experiences are often not his successes.

“I learn by doing and by making mistakes,” he said. “I’ve broken many machine tools. I’ve screwed up parts when I was making them…but by doing so, it’s made me a better engineer.”

Over the course of his engineering career, Kalman found that he became better at looking at ways he could improve his own performance.

“I think as a student you have to be more than a little bit receptive to criticism,” he said. “I think at this stage in most young peoples’ lives, everyone thinks they know everything.”

Kalman said two important ways of coping with failure are to keep trying and to seek help from teammates who have more expertise.

Progress “doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “You’ve got to work on that and work on that and work on that.”

Looking to the future, Kalman said having a diversified skill set might be a key factor in differentiating engineers. Kalman himself is a digital and analog electronic engineer, an embedded coder and also works on PCB board layout and mechanical design.

“I try to be as multidimensional as I can, and I’ve developed those skill sets over 25, 30 years at this point,” he said.

Kalman noted that one of the best parts of his job at Stanford is the opportunity to interact with students.

“The students at Stanford now are way smarter than they were when I was here. I don’t think I could get in anymore,” he said, laughing.