Jason Niebuhr moved to Colorado for the weather, but stayed for a job that fuels his passion for aircraft and academics. Since 2010, the Nebraska native has worked as senior engineer for the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Center for Aircraft Structural Life Extension. After graduating from Wichita State University with a degree in aerospace engineering, he worked for NASA in Houston before migrating to the Springs. Niebuhr took some time this week to sit down with the Business Journal and discuss his work at the Center, its role at the Academy and his own passion for knowledge.
Could you explain what role CAStLE plays at the Academy?
CAStLE is the research center at the Academy associated with the Department of Mechanics that focuses on the problems of aging aircraft — fatigue, fracture, corrosion, things of that nature. Part of what we do here I think makes for an interesting crossroads between academia, research and customers. We have a close tie to our government customers, so we’re able to quickly respond to what they need; we have a contractor workforce that can help us be agile and scalable to take on big projects; and then we have the research, where we bring in unique facilities and unique talents. This intersects with the cadets, because we’re able to bring all of that work into the classroom and help them understand. Something that was very important in my experience was getting out there in the real world when you’re in college to help you clarify what it is that you’re wanting to do: I think that is invaluable.
What sparked your interest in the aerospace industry?
My mom tells me that at about 2 years old I was on my first commercial airline flight and was jumping up and down with joy upon take-off. And I’ve been interested in airplanes ever since. We had a friend of the family that was a pilot and he took me up a few times. That was a lot of fun, but in the end I realized that I had this passion to make things and create something tangible — and so engineering it was.
How did your career path take shape after college?
After my internship at NASA, I got a full-time job there and spent about 10 years in Houston working on a number of interesting projects. Probably the most fun was the advanced resistive exercise device, which is the weight-lifting machine on the International Space Station right now. So that was a challenging project and it was a lot of fun — I learned a tremendous amount from that project and from the people that I worked with there.
What brought you and your family to Colorado Springs?
I met my wife in Houston and we loved our careers there at NASA, but we got tired of the bugs, the humidity and the big city. So we moved to Colorado Springs to be a little bit closer to family, but also to balance that out with having interesting careers.
Do you think this is a good environment for young professionals?
Yeah, I think it is. There are a lot of comparisons made to Denver, and I do hear colleagues and friends talk about it — more arts, more entertainment, more culture, more professional sports, what have you — but that’s in a different league and it also comes with its own drawbacks. We left Houston because we didn’t like the big city life; we liked the small-town feel of Colorado Springs. And so, for us, that’s important. I think that can coincide with young professionals, because people want to have good careers and still do interesting things. You just have to temper your expectations with what you’re looking for and where you’re at.
What goals/aspirations do you have for your future at the Academy?
I think professionally it’s just a great place, because I have this innate desire to learn. So to be surrounded by all of the smart people here that are still trying to get smarter — that’s an encouraging environment to be in and I think it makes you push yourself. And then you see the cadets coming up and that also pushes you and it’s kind of a fun and youthful environment that helps reinvigorate you. I really love that continuous learning aspect. When the family commitments settle down a little bit, I might consider getting a master’s degree or getting a professional engineering licensure or something else of that nature.