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Formula SAE

Formula SAE teams line up their cars before competing in the open track autocross event during the Formula SAE series in Lincoln in 2014

Over the past decade, entrepreneurial space companies in Southern California have set their sights on such goals as launching small satellites, carrying space tourists and colonizing Mars.

As they hire young engineers, those companies and more-traditional aerospace giants are finding talent in an unlikely place: a college race-car competition in Nebraska.

This week, 100 university teams will bring their prototype race cars to the Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) competition in Lincoln, where they will be judged on design, manufacturing, performance and business logic.

The aerospace leaders who help judge the contest that starts Wednesday say it’s also an opportunity to hear students explain design and production decisions, present their business cases and adapt on the fly.

“Race cars and rockets are pretty similar,” said Bill Riley, a Formula SAE alumnus from Cornell and competition judge who is now a senior director of design reliability and vehicle analysis at SpaceX. “It’s lightweight, efficient, elegant engineering. Those basic principles are the same, no matter what you’re designing.”

SpaceX has had “fantastic success” recruiting new hires and interns from Formula SAE teams, and from sister competition Baja SAE, which focuses on building an off-road vehicle, and other hands-on engineering competitions, said Brian Bjelde, the Hawthorne, California, company’s vice president of human resources.

Of the 700 students who intern at SpaceX each year, 50 or 60 come from Formula SAE. And as of three years ago, about 50 percent of the company’s 300-person structures team had worked on some sort of project-based design team in college.

“For any candidate, the ones that are most successful at SpaceX have a combination of passion, drive and talent,” Bjelde said. “And to me, (Formula SAE) plays into the passion piece.”

Aaron Cassebeer experienced the highs and lows of competition firsthand 10 years ago as captain of a Lehigh University team that won several design awards at competitions. But when a hose came loose and spilled oil into the car’s chassis, a few drips landed on the track and the Lehigh team was disqualified.

It ended well for Cassebeer, though. His work with light, composite materials eventually impressed Scaled Composites, a cutting-edge Mojave, California, aerospace firm. That led to a nine-year career where, among other things, he designed flight controls for an early version of the space plane that Virgin Galactic aims to use to fly tourists to space.

“The type of work I did happens to fit in really well with what Scaled Composites does—design and prototype, over and over again,” Cassebeer said.

The basis of the Formula SAE competition is that a fictional manufacturing company contracts teams to build a prototype race car that is low-cost, high-performance, easy to maintain and reliable.

Industry judges question students on the design process, scrutinize their cost sheets and inspect the vehicles to make sure they are technically sound. The internal combustion engine car competition is the most popular, though an electric vehicle contest was added in 2013.

Race cars that pass technical inspections get the green light to hit the course at the LNK Enterprise Park for performance trials, testing things such as maneuverability, acceleration and endurance.

During the endurance test, two people drive the car around a course marked by traffic cones for a little more than 13 miles, which can take about half an hour and involves a driver switch. Many teams have a hard time finding a large, open space for testing, meaning the endurance test could be one of the few times the car runs that long without breaks.

“The great thing about (Formula SAE) is it’s a full production cycle,” said Dolly Singh, SpaceX’s former head of talent acquisition who is now chief executive of high-heel designer Thesis Couture. “These kids build the car from scratch. They have to test in a high-pressure situation and see how it performs.”