By Mark Witten
When Alex Potapov quit his job as a Canadian Tire auto mechanic, he was looking for a new challenge. In 2006, he enrolled in Concordia’s mechanical engineering program and set his sights on becoming an automotive engineer. But Potapov had no inkling then that he would play a pivotal role on a successful mission to win the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge, making Concordia the first Quebec university to design and build a satellite that will be launched into space. Nor did he ever imagine the competition would be a launching pad for a dynamic career as a payload design engineer with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), a leading satellite company and employer in the aerospace industry.
“I’d never considered anything to do with the aerospace industry,” says Potapov. “I came into the Space Concordia project in my final semester knowing absolutely nothing about space. It’s such an alien environment and the more I learned about it the more fascinated I became. I soon realized I wanted to stay in the field.”
Shortly after coming on board, Potapov was asked to become mechanical team lead. His previous hands-on experience building a race car for an international competition, through the Concordia chapter of the Society for Automotive Engineers, prepared him for the role. “I learned everything I know about teamwork and leadership from the race car project,” he says. The problem-solving skills he learned in courses helped too. “The program taught me to think in a different way and how to solve problems in engineering.”
Concordia’s low-cost CubeSat satellite, which placed first among entries from 12 Canadian universities, was chosen for its mature design and performance in rigorous testing at the Canadian Space Agency’s David Florida Laboratory in Ottawa.
“We had to design a structure that was lightweight, but strong enough to withstand the very violent forces of being blasted off the planet. We used a pessimistic design philosophy, making the satellite as simple and failure-proof as possible. When we won, I felt overwhelming joy and it was surreal,” Potapov recalls.
While working on CubeSat, he spoke several times with an MDA manager about the satellite design and led a group presentation to the company, asking for sponsorship. “My current manager was very interested in the design. He stayed after the presentation and asked me questions,” says Potapov, who was offered a job and started work as a payload engineer in April 2012, a few weeks before graduating.
He’s now a designer on a subsystem of the spacecraft for an international communications satellite that will provide high-speed Internet access. “I learned a huge amount at Space Concordia that’s useful today. I had to broaden my perspective as a mechanical engineer to work with other subspecialties, like communications, electrical and software engineers. That’s real life. We always work in multidisciplinary teams here,” he says.
The fast-paced, high-adrenaline culture and performance demands are similar too. “Space Concordia was a lot of pressure and the deadlines were tight,” says Potapov. “It helped me because [at MDA] we also have crazy deadlines.”
The 29-year-old alumnus is excited about today’s challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead. “I feel lucky,” he says. “My career is just beginning and I love it. I’ve got a job I enjoy every day and I do actual engineering design work.”