Pittsburgh Campus, PA
Program: Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT)
Employment: Astra, Director of Launch Operations
When you think about the kinds of jobs that are possible with a trade school education, you may not immediately think of flying to space. But as former race car mechanic and Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics (PIA) alumnus Chris Hofmann’s work with Elon Musk’s SpaceX project and his new role as Director of Launch Operations at Astra have proven, the possibilities for a trade school career are truly limitless.
From 2013-2015, Hofmann worked at SpaceX on the team that built the Merlin Vacuum engines for the Falcon 9 rocket. Today, Hofmann has a two-part role at Astra: “I perform logistics, test planning, schedule planning, and procedure writing for all of our launch and rocket testing. I also run the procedures we need to launch our rockets, and I guide and keep our entire team safe during launch events, as well as serving as ‘the voice of the countdown.’”
Hofmann’s career in rocket science is the culmination of his lifelong love of fast-moving vehicles. Long before he graduated from PIA in 2011 with his 21-month Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT) degree, Hofmann was trained as a machinist in his high school vo-tech program. He also spent years as a mechanic working with National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and NASCAR vehicles.
“Having that kind of background made me very mechanically inclined,” says Hofmann. “My background in car racing and my time spent doing heavy aircraft maintenance as an A&P showed the hiring managers at SpaceX that I understood technical drawings and documentation, and that I could work under pressure and deadlines.”
He credits PIA for advancing his mechanical skills and helping him lay the professional foundation for his success in the aerospace industry. “I work with some very talented engineers, but they don’t always know the mechanical ins and outs of what we do. But I worked with people of all different backgrounds and experiences at PIA, and that makes you rethink how to attack challenges and communicate better with your coworkers and teammates.”
As important as mechanical skills are in the aerospace industry, Hofmann also recommends that aspiring aviation and aerospace professionals should improve their networking skills, too.
“The ‘new space’ companies are always looking for good, skilled techs,” says Hofmann. “And the aviation and aerospace industries are very small worlds. I keep meeting new people and finding that our professional paths lead back to colleagues I worked with in years past. When it came to starting my own aerospace career, I was lucky that I had a friend working at SpaceX who knew of my potential and helped get me an interview. So don’t be afraid to network, because you never know where making a good impression will lead you.”