What’s it like to build rockets for a living – Aaron McNeill

In this post we talk about Aaron McNeil’s experience studying Mechanical Engineering (ME) at the University of Strathclyde, and then take a look at what he does in his current job at Raptor Aerospace.

Aaron took Maths, Physics and Chemistry as Highers. Throughout school he had always wanted to work in the aerospace industry and knew that he wanted to study engineering. He feels that this was partially due to his enjoyment of rocketry throughout his time at school.

Raptor’s Peregrine ATV in Australia

After leaving school Aaron joined the City of Glasgow College Engineering Academy. This course is a partnership between the City of Glasgow College and the University of Strathclyde. It teaches the first year of Mechanical Engineering before you then join the second year of the BEng at Strathclyde. Aaron found his time at college fairly simple and easy to adjust to but noticed a bigger jump when he moved to university. This was because the college course went into less depth in some areas such as the mathematical theory than the first year course at Strathclyde did. However, Aaron found that he had covered some areas in more detail than the university students.

Aaron’s favourite part of his course was a design-and-manufacture project on a flywheel-powered dragster. This project took place over two semesters – the first spent on the design, the second manufacturing. It was run like a business with subcontractors being hired in to help manufacture certain parts. Aaron really liked this as it gave realistic industrial experience in dealing with the project management as well as just engineering.

Aaron’s least favourite part of his course was the maths-based theory which was covered in the second year. He much preferred modules where he could apply his knowledge to practical tasks and the pure maths didn’t allow this. Aaron also didn’t like sitting exams and this was one of the modules with the most theory exams.

During one of his summer holidays Aaron did an internship at Spirit AeroSystems, an American company with a site at Glasgow Prestwick Airport. On this internship he did a lot of design work using Catia, a widely used CAD software in the industry. He also learnt about industry compliance. The next summer Aaron returned to Spirit, this time learning lots about business improvement. He also gained experience in designing with composites, learning how they could be used to achieve desired mechanical properties. Aaron would definitely recommend doing internships and finding industrial experience, as in some cases this can be as valuable in finding a job as the degree itself.

After graduating from Strathclyde, Aaron found a temporary job at Breedon Aggregates whilst he decided where he wanted to go with his career. After around 4 months at Breedon, Aaron moved to Raptor Aerospace. Raptor is a startup in the launch vehicle area. They manufacture sub-orbital vehicles whilst also providing the launch service to their customers. Lots of Raptor’s customers tend to be groups of students with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) projects.

One of the most exciting projects Aaron’s worked on was the design of a rocket for a low altitude supersonic launch, which had to break the sound barrier in around 1 second due to altitude restrictions at the launch site. This was called the Sledgehammer and is shown in the photos above. Aaron also gets the opportunity to travel to launches and has been all the way to Australia for a sub-scale aerodynamic test with the Peregrine ATV. This was in preparation for Raptor’s upcoming space capable sub-orbital launch vehicle, which is the main focus of the company. He looks forward to growing the business and gaining more international clients as this will allow him to travel to even more interesting launch sites. The video below is from Raptor and shows the launch of the Peregrine ATV.

Under normal conditions, Aaron works on the design and physical manufacturing of the rockets in the workshop. He really enjoys this as it allows him to do a lot of hands-on work. Due to quarantine Aaron is working remotely from his laptop at home, and he is planning on staying at Raptor as he wants to help the company grow and be there whilst it happens.

Aaron’s main tip for a student interested in engineering is to try and find as much experience as possible as this is a great way to supplement your degree in any job applications. In terms of studying he thinks that it would be best if you can get your time management skills sorted out earlier on as this saves a lot of headache and stress when you get busier.

If you can’t find work experience or any other placements you should try your best to find some small projects you can work on by yourself or with friends. For Aaron, this was rocketry. Looking back on it he thinks that his experience with model rockets throughout school was one of the main factors that got him into Raptor. Other alternatives include designing in CAD and printing projects with a 3D printer as these are becoming increasingly affordable.

Thanks very much to Aaron for the interview. The launch vehicle market in the UK is rapidly growing with Raptor Aerospace as one of the companies leading this and it was really interesting to hear about what they are doing. If you know of anybody who is interested in launch vehicles or even engineering in general it would be a great idea to share this article with them so they can see a possible entry route into a career in the field. Each share also helps us keep producing these interviews, so anything you can do to spread the word is greatly appreciated!

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