The aerospace industry in Long Beach has changed so much in recent years, with the departure of Boeing and the arrival of newer companies like Rocket Lab and SpinLaunch. But one constant throughout Long Beach’s aerospace history has been the expertise coming out of Cal State Long Beach.
I was curious to hear how the university sees its place in the rapidly evolving local industry, so I reached out to Hamid Rahai, who is the associate dean for Research & Graduate Studies for CSULB’s College of Engineering and a professor in the Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Department, to get his perspective.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HAYLEY MUNGUIA: First off, can you tell me a little bit more about the department? Is there a lot of overlap with how CSULB approaches mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering, or are they two very distinct paths that students can take?
HAMID RAHAI: Generally, these are two different majors, and they are managed by one department: the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Initially, until 2000, they were separate departments, but in 2000, the faculty—because of the similarity and also kind of joint operations that they had been doing in terms of research and also sharing labs and resources—they decided to merge.
Now, these are two different degrees, although generally the foundations are all the same in terms of the math and science. Up to the junior level, students are all taking the same classes, and then at the junior level they start branching out into more specific courses. So aerospace engineering is taking aircraft design, space vehicle design, avionics and controls—it’s more major-specific curriculum, and mechanical engineering is more machine design, manufacturing thermal design, general control systems for all these things and so on. So they branch out, but they are very similar in the sense of engineering fundamentals.
HM: So what has CSULB’s relationship with the local aerospace industry been like over the years?
HR: Our relationship with aerospace in the city actually goes way back to the time of McDonnell Douglas. At the time, there was no aerospace engineering—it was all mechanical engineering. So McDonnell Douglas had great internship opportunities, and we also did a lot of services for them in terms of testing and in terms of design and design optimization services, and then we also had research projects that were more focused on optimizing aircraft structures and understanding the fundamentals of airflow characteristics around vehicles and the new generation of aerospace technology and so on.
There was a lot of work done during that period, and later, when McDonnell Douglas became the Boeing Company, then we also started working with Boeing, and we established a Boeing manufacturing lab on campus that was a hub for more research and contract opportunities, including internship opportunities for our students. Boeing engineers and researchers came and worked on campus, allowing students and faculty to work on different projects. It was a great lab on our campus. There were actually three new technologies that were developed that are now being used in 737 and 747 manufacturing.
But then before COVID hit, with everything happening with Boeing, they decided to actually reduce operations here. There was not much needed in terms of the kind of activities we used to do. So Boeing left, but the partnership is still continuing in the form of service contracts and internships for our students.
HM: OK, and what about this newer crop of aerospace companies coming to Long Beach? We’ve got Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab, SpinLaunch and Relativity, to name a few. Does CSULB have any type of relationship with them?
HR: Yes, we have a great relationship with them, with Virgin Orbit and with the other newcomers that are coming here including Wisk, which is establishing a kind of air taxi that is going to be starting at the Long Beach Airport. We are part of the Long Beach Economic Partnership, and as part of that partnership, there is a group called the Air Mobility Working Group, and this group is with Wisk. We’re looking at what kind of engagement we can have with this company. They actually gave a contract to the Economics Department to look at feasibility studies on routes that they have to choose and the type of customers they can serve, so they have a prototype and autonomous aircraft right now that they are testing, and they’re hoping this is the first generation of aircraft.
HM: Interesting. So how is your department involved?
HR: The Engineering Department is involved in the technical analysis, but we are just getting started. The partnership is very new, and this is a Bay Area company that is coming to Long Beach, so we’re still exploring the engagement and the type of relationship that we’ll have.
HM: OK, so bigger picture: Can you tell me about what these types of partnerships mean for students and how it affects their job placement after they graduate?
HR: That’s something we’re always thinking about. So in addition to partnering with these bigger companies, we also try to engage with their suppliers, which is a much bigger pool. For example, Boeing has 20,000 suppliers. So we think that if we can engage with these suppliers, then first of all it creates opportunities for our students in terms of jobs or internships. And at the same time, we are positioned to really serve this group because these are small companies that produce single components or small parts and different kinds of services, and being a large engineering school here, we have more than 150 joint faculty. We have more than 35 research labs. We have all kinds of capabilities.
I say this because we’re kind of in a moment of flux. Up to 2019, before the pandemic, we have had structured internship programs. On average, we had, for example with Boeing, we had 15-20 paid internships each year, and I can tell you more than 90% of them got offered permanent positions.
But the pandemic has disrupted a lot of things. We couldn’t sustain our service contracts. Our student interns could not work on site. So a lot of things were discontinued. We are trying to re-establish those programs, but the pandemic has changed the business world. Boeing has gone through a restructuring and has different objectives—the same as many other companies now. So we are trying to re-establish the same kind of activities that we had with these companies, but it could be in different forms.
They’re still offering some kind of internships, but we used to have structured internships before—guaranteed internships for our students on an annual basis. We don’t have that now, and I do not see the companies committing to that kind of relationship, so it is a work in progress.
HM: So do you have a sense yet of what these relationships will look like moving forward?
HR: We have to come up with new ways of doing things. We need to figure out what the new norm is for us and how we can take advantage of this new norm.
But I think we’re in a good position to do that. We have hired more than 50 new faculty over the past six, seven years. We’re hiring another eight this year. It’s basically a really new generation of faculty that we are bringing on board with significantly different advanced expertise, and our goal is to serve our local community and local industries around us. That’s where we are going. We are going to see a significant increase in our partnerships—obviously the aerospace industry is dominant here, so we are looking forward to re-establishing and expanding our relationships with the aerospace industry, but at the same time we are looking to expand our relationships with utility companies, with the ports, with biomedical companies and so on.
There is a lot happening, and we’re looking forward to continuing to serve our local industries in new ways.