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Libby's O'Rourke sets his sights on space

by HAYDEN BLACKFORD
Daily Inter Lake | May 13, 2023 12:00 AM

Isaac O'Rourke, a 2021 Libby High School graduate and current student at Montana State University in Bozeman, attributes much of his success to hands-on classes he took in high school.

O'Rourke is majoring in mechanical engineering technology with a double minor in aerospace and mechatronic engineering.

"I would like to use the knowledge learned here at MSU studying mechanical, aerospace and mechatronic engineering to someday work for an aerospace company and help design, build and prototype anything from rockets, thrusters, satellites or rovers, ultimately accomplishing my goal of working on something that will one day end up in outer space," O'Rourke said in a statement.

During the next school year, O'Rourke will work for the Borealis program, run through the Montana Space Grant Consortium and funded by NASA.

O'Rourke's duties will include designing high-altitude weather balloons to take a variety of payloads around the country into orbit to better understand and research the atmospheric and gravitational waves during solar eclipses.

The consortium coordinates with all the schools in Montana that have a STEM program. They conduct outreach to involve and interest students in science and space.

"MSU is actually the central hub for that program in the Northwest and we coordinate with 40 different schools for this program," O'Rourke said in a recent interview.

With MSU being the central hub, the school is in charge of the engineering and computer science required to lift payloads as high as 80,000 to 100,000 feet, O'Rourke said.

"All majors are welcome to help out and participate, but they are basically in charge of designing the balloon systems, valves and the camera tracking devices that go on the balloons so that the other 40 schools around the country can get their payloads and atmospheric testing devices up to the desired altitudes," O'Rourke said.

The Borealis program is primarily funded and run through NASA, and the intro-level internship course and project take students from all over the state involved with MSCG.

"It's a pretty cool opportunity here in Montana that basically gets your foot in the door," O'Rourke said.

O'Rourke grew up in Libby on a small ranch north of town.

"I just grew up working on the ranch, working on the machinery, constantly working with my hands which got me interested in things," he said.

In high school, he got into trades and industrial art classes, like wood sheet welding and drafting. He said the classes that would further his education and help set the stage for furthering a career in the engineering field.

"I was always pretty good at my math and sciences, so I figured that coupling those with a background in mechanical devices would just be a good fit," he said. "The reason I chose to go with mechanical engineering technology instead of just a normal mechanical engineering degree is because it's a bit more applied."

O'Rourke would like to use this internship as a stepping stone to a larger aerospace company, whether that be NASA, SpaceX or any of the smaller aerospace companies.

Still, O'Rourke says that this all began with his high school education and the opportunities he took advantage of there. He advises others to take one wood shop class or one welding class to gain knowledge.

"Without it you kind of get left in the dust," he said. "Just emphasizing the importance of getting those experiences early is really important."