Embracing Life’s Roller Coaster | Dr. Thomas Lipp ’04 Inspires in his Return

On the day the Malone Science Center opened its doors in the Fall of 1999, Dr. Thomas Lipp ’04 was among the first group of students to step inside. As an eighth grader, Lipp’s love of science had already begun to bloom, and the building and its state-of-the-art classrooms represented an exciting new chapter in both the School’s future and his. The building promised to usher in a new era of innovation and exploration. Lipp was more than ready to be a part of it.

“I remember that the science rooms were all in Baldwin Hall and felt dated, like you were in a
1950s movie, so there was this overwhelming sense of possibility when we walked into Malone,” recalled Lipp.

Coincidentally, embracing change was one of the key themes of the presentation Lipp delivered
to the Hopkins community during an all-school assembly in the Fall of 2023. A Guidance Navigation and Control Engineer at SpaceX since 2014, Dr. Lipp returned to Hopkins as part of the School’s Fellows program to share the science behind rocket ship launches and landings, while also imparting his personal wisdom to students about pursuing their passions and achieving their own desired trajectories. 

Getting On The Ride

“So how did I end up at SpaceX? Honestly, kind of by accident,” said Lipp to the Hopkins community as he began his speech. “I have a lot of coworkers who are really passionate about space and have been working their whole lives to make it to this career. I’m a little embarrassed to say that’s not me,” he added.

Conducting groundbreaking work in the field of aerospace engineering wasn’t quite the trajectory Lipp had in mind while he was a self-proclaimed “nerdy kid, even by Hopkins standards,” walking the halls of Baldwin. While in high school, his engineering interests were instead focused on roller coasters, which he aspired to design in his future career. Roller coasters were an enjoyable passion that provided an opportunity for Lipp to apply his strengths in math and science. But as college decisions loomed, he decided to stay open minded.

“I wasn’t willing to limit myself to technical schools or close off other options just yet,” said Lipp. 

This move proved beneficial, as he would eventually discover the limitations in the field of roller coasters, notably the scarcity of interesting opportunities in the United States, as the industry is concentrated in Europe. 

Realizing that his initial passion wasn’t the path he was going to pursue taught Lipp an early
life lesson that he was quick to impart to Hopkins students, especially those who feel that their
lives need to be carefully planned out beginning in their adolescent years.

“Your dreams can change and they should because you’re going to grow and develop as a person,” he said. “Life can take you to a lot of unexpected places. Go with it,” he encouraged.

A Career Takes To The Stars

The inspiring words Dr. Lipp delivered at Hopkins were backed by real-life experience, as going with it is exactly what he did on his professional journey. His career has been driven less by calculation and more by curiosity, which he followed at every turn. 

Take, for example, Lipp’s pivot toward his current profession, which began in his junior year of
college at Princeton University. It was there that he encountered control theory, a field of mechanical engineering and applied mathematics that deals with the control of dynamic systems and has applications in everything from rocket ships to economic models. Lipp said the discipline, previously not on his radar, intrigued him profoundly. 

“I found it not only intellectually stimulating but also enjoyable,” recalled Lipp. 

This realization prompted him to seek further opportunities in the field of controls, leading
him to a two-year stint at a defense subcontractor. During this period, he engaged in  controls-related work, specifically focusing on high-precision GPS positioning for army training simulations.

Despite enjoying the work, Lipp recognized the need for advanced credentials to progress in
his career. He earned a PhD at Stanford, where he focused on convex optimization, a field
closely related to control theory. Much of Lipp’s doctoral research focused on automated racing,
and he assumed he would work on self-driving cars after graduating.

Lipp’s transition to SpaceX was somewhat serendipitous, as his unique skill set—a deep
knowledge of convex optimization and trajectory planning coupled with a background in control
theory and mechanical engineering—made him an ideal fit for the company. He began working
there while completing his PhD, eventually joining the company full time in 2015. 

“My decision to join SpaceX wasn’t driven by a specific interest in space or space exploration,” said Lipp. “Truthfully, I was driven by a desire to work on challenging and interesting projects,” he said.

Among those challenging projects were the designs for over a dozen Falcon 9 rocket missions, including the first mission by a commercial launch provider to send astronauts to the International Space Station. During those launches, SpaceX webcast viewers could hear Lipp making callouts such as, “Trajectory nominal” and “Vehicle supersonic.” However, the accomplishment Lipp said he is most proud of is the one he was first hired to achieve: writing the landing burn guidance algorithm that allows SpaceX rockets to land themselves. It turns out he did end up working on self-driving vehicles, just not cars.

Life And Rockets 

During the Q & A sessions following his presentation, as well as in extended conversations with current students as he attended classes, Lipp astutely recognized that, while his inspirational advice had resonated, some students were primarily interested in rocket-related questions. He
didn’t disappoint, offering an insider’s perspective on the meticulous process of landing rockets
and emphasizing the importance of precision and perseverance. 

In detailing his work and breaking down the complex aspects of the job into understandable segments for his student audience, Lipp also drew parallels between the process of testing
rockets to learning from life itself. 

“You refine, you test, you fail, you figure out what happened, you update the models, you update the algorithms, you get the simulation working perfectly. And then eventually you’ll land and then you’ll land again and again.”

For now, Lipp’s career has indeed landed him in a deeply challenging and rewarding professional field, but if his journey thus far is any indication, it may just be one roller coaster ride of many more to come.

About The Hopkins Fellows Program

Our Fellows program was established in 2005 to enrich the Hopkins learning experience by
exposing students to alumni who can inspire, challenge, engage, and educate by sharing their unique life experiences. 

This article was originally printed in the 2024 Issue 1 edition of Views from the Hill. Click here to browse the full issue.
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