Nuclear Studies in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) Department

By Aliha Mughal '23 with the Department Detectives for ANT 245

On a face level, there seem to be no connections between indigenous studies and the MAE department. It also makes sense on a face level, considering the department is: 1) part of the BSE program, and thus has focus on studying the technicalities of engineering, and 2) generally focused on the studies of propulsion, materials science and energy, applied physics, robotics, and fluid mechanics. However, it is MAE’s focus on these research areas, namely their applications to nuclear science, that connects the department to Indigenous lives. 

To understand the MAE department’s connection to Indigenous lives, one must first understand its connections to nuclear science. Directly examining nuclear technologies, while relatively uncommon, is present in the department. A search for “nuclear” in the MAE thesis archives returns five results. Additionally, MAE faculty such as Alex Glaser are known to focus on nuclear studies. The majority of MAE’s connections to nuclear science lie in indavert applications of their research, however. The fundamental focus areas of the department lend themselves toward applications in nuclear science, even if they are not being explicitly studied. Particularly, study around propulsion has been used to find new pathways for nuclear deployment. Non-Ballistic Atmospheric Entry (NBAE) is one of the most notable forms of nuclear deployment being pursued in the present day. A search of the MAE senior thesis archives returns 45 results for this subject matter, reflecting the increased focus on this field. While NBAE is not inherently linked to nuclear technology, its practical application often lies in nuclear deployment. MAE thus holds strong connections to nuclear technology, both overtly and inadvertently.

The impact of nuclear studies has an inherent connection to Indigenous lives. It is inarguable that nuclear technology has not had a profound impact on the lives of the Indigenous people in the Americas. The development and testing of nuclear technology has a deep-rooted history in Native lands, such as nuclear testing done by the U.S. in Amchitka Island, home to the Aleut Alaska Natives1, and in the Trinity Test Site which was located near the Mescalero Apache and other Native communities.2 Future forms of nuclear technology and deployment are likely to similarly impact varied groups of Indigenous people. 

Is the MAE department aware of these connections between their research and nuclear studies? Fully answering a question would not be possible without consulting the entire department, but I hoped to glean some insight by speaking with Joseph Feng ‘22, a MAE graduate who focused on nuclear studies within his thesis. 

Feng expressed a lack of awareness within the department regarding their connections to nuclear deployment technology, and therefore the potential impact of their research on Indigenous lives. In his experience, the department did not generally push their students  to think critically about how their work interacts with society as a whole. While distribution requirements at the University exist to encourage students to study a variety of subjects, Feng noted that awareness around engineering’s distinct interactions with societal problems needed to be emphasized within the department. In his personal experience, everything he learned about Indigenous studies was separate from the department and came from his personal choice to pursue distribution requirements through social science courses. 

However, this awareness would not come by “babying engineering students.” He noted that engineering students were not blissfully unaware, but that the level of study done in the MAE department did not concern the use of nuclear deployment. However, as one of the largest industries was the military, it was where their innovations and technologies were ultimately sold. Those studying propulsion and rockets, both on the student and educator level, were not doing so with aims to further the development of nuclear deployment technology. They simply found an academic topic intellectually interesting, and subsequently pursued it in their studies. 

Feng noted one class in particular that was able to effectively merge the teaching of engineering alongside societal issues, and stated a course like this would be one of the better ways to promote a culture of awareness. The course in question was Professor Robert James Goldston’s “The Science of Fission and Fusion Energy.” While presented as an incredibly technical engineering course on paper, it combined its technical subject matter with real-life histories of their applications. Feng notably mentioned the course took the time to examine the technicalities behind design failures in nuclear disasters and their subsequent social impact. It was this course that developed his interest in nuclear science, and through further conversations with his professor around the topic, he was eventually connected to an advisor who helped him pursue the study of denuclearization in his thesis. While this reflects venues to study nuclear science in the department, it also reflects the effort needed to do so. It is not a field overtly present in the department, particularly when examining its connections to societal issues. 

Though this conversation cannot capture the nuanced landscape of the MAE department and its connection to nuclear studies, it offers some insight on areas where the department can promote awareness of how its subject matter has an impact on Indigenous lives. Nuclear technology remains an incredibly prominent and powerful technology in the modern world, and awareness of its power is paramount toward preventing further disregard for Native lives. Additionally, there is still much to be learned regarding its past and present impact on Native lives: a history that is unfortunately underrepresented within the MAE department and the university as a whole.