MTU – The Return


It’s been a week, but a pretty cool thing happened not to long ago.  I spent a day in Houghton, Michigan at Michigan Technological University, acting as a representative of JPL’s Quality Assurance program.  The description may sound neat, but let me add to the ‘neat’ part.

Michigan Tech (or MTU) is my alma mater.  I graduated from there with a BS in Materials Engineering back in 1995. Since that time MTU has developed an Aerospace Enterprise program, where undergraduate students forego their senior project work to join a team focused on designing, building, and launching satellites.  Since meeting with members of the team last fall, they’ve been interested in having someone talk to the challenges of quality assurance in spaceflight … and I was interested in that too.  The day was spent meeting the Enterprise team, talking directly with professors on what they are working on, then giving two seminars — one to Graduates who have to attend for a class (yet didn’t fall asleep on me, so that’s a win) and Undergrads who were a little more fun.

So finally — we made that happen.

MTU is located in a pretty remote location of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so remote that this was the first time I have been able to visit since I graduated.  I mean, I’ve had an interest to, but it’s a 6 to 8-hour drive from major airports.  Even when I tried to visit this spring, I got stuck in Chicago (see My Inconvenience).  I had to take an hour-and-a-half flight out of Chicago to Marquette, then drive two hours to Houghton — and that flight only runs once a day.  That’s all that you can accept for excuses for my absence.

I mean, it’s been 24 years since I have been to Houghton; and as much of a hurry I was to leave back then, I was glad to be back.

This trip seemed like career or personal validation to a certain extent but didn’t necessarily turn out that way.    I mean, you might picture some movie where a once something something student comes back to reconnect with their old professor … that didn’t happen and probably doesn’t anywhere.  The professors I connected when I was a student either left, retired, or probably didn’t have anything to do with what I do now.  Of those professors I sat down to talk to, only one was actually at MTU when I was there, and in a completely different major.  Still, they had a lot of great things to talk about.

Like studies going into mining water from rocks on Mars, opening the door to possible habitats.  Or developing energy sources from tidal conditions.  Or using small satellites to study hurricane data from above.  The real star is MTU’s Aerospace Enterprise program, a shining star in the growing world of university cubesat development.

My real curiosity came from what it would be like to visit a place that I hadn’t seen in so long.  I really wanted to know what had changed … and the answer was, not much.

The campus only had a few differences.  The fine arts theatre and environmental buildings that were just breaking ground when I left are now classified as ‘been around forever’.  Some of this is going to sound foreign to those of you who didn’t go there … but you’ll get the point.  The controversial covered bridge between Fisher Hall and the Library (because that wind tunnel that froze your face off outside was a right of passage back in my day, kids these days with their inside conditions).  The old ‘incline pine’ fell finally and now is replaced with the symbolic Husky … complete with its symbolic anatomically correct parts.  Windows are what stood out to me, big ones on the Library, and just more on old Wadsworth Hall.  Plus more living quarters and apartments.  Plus a clocktower that  … let’s face it … could be bigger.  Plus some great work areas in the M&M building.

I gave my graduate seminar in the EERC 103, a room I took only one class in for only a few weeks.  That class was Fundamentals of Electronics (EE301), a class I talk a lot about now because it was the only subject that seemed so difficult to me that I couldn’t for the life of me get a correct answer on any homework or test … and I swear it was simple math.  If my degree didn’t completely overhaul and dropped EE301 as mandatory, I likely wouldn’t graduate.  Instead, a guy who barely graduated was giving a Graduate Seminar.

Houghton, like the school, hadn’t changed much.  I stayed at one of the two hotels in town (the one with a restaurant).  Half the bars are the same, including The Library … the bar where I turned 21; like literally, at midnight the bartender served me my first legal drink.  There’s a microbrew where a cheap drink place is at; but other old school bars like the Downtowner, Dog House, and Ambassador seem as unchanged as the alumni told us as unchanged when we were still around.

Not just that, it was cold.  Los Angeles was topping out at triple digits when I was in Houghton, but up there it wasn’t going to break into the 60s.  A little dew on the grass, a little bit of a nip in the air, and even a little orange on the trees.  Winters in Houghton were notorious for their length, and it was just nice to remember that early September winters are possible.

Honestly, I don’t know if I will ever get a chance to set something like this up again.  It was hard to make happen, and I got what I needed as much as they go what they needed.  Still, going back to MTU and Houghton was refreshing, and gave me the desire to do it again … at least not wait another 24 years to go.

It’s just going to take some work.