Name: Kiril "Kiko" Dontchev
Hometown: Ann Arbor, MI
Degree(s): BSE Aero 2008, M.Eng Space Systems 2010
Job Title: Power Systems Engineer
Location: Hawthorne, CA
Michigan Engineering alum Kiko Dontchev never planned to work on spacecraft for a living. He grew up being fascinated with airplanes, and knew from an early age that he wanted to be an aerospace engineer. But he currently works as a power systems engineer at SpaceX, designing and testing lithium ion batteries.
It all started one afternoon during his senior year at U-M. Kiko approached his aerospace engineering professor Jamie Cutler one day and asked: “So, why don’t you like me?”
Jamie’s answer? “Because you don’t DO anything.”
“That really lit a fire under me,” said Kiko. Up to that point, Kiko had been very involved with creating, planning and getting support for a new satellite program called M-Cubed, but the project hadn’t yet come to fruition. Cutler’s comment sparked Kiko to start manufacturing, and it was a game changer for him.
Kiko set out to build a new battery system for the Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX) satellite, which was launched in 2009. “It was something I had never done before, but over the next year I essentially learned how to be an electrical engineer, building circuit boards and designing batteries.”
From there, he continued his work on both the RAX and M-Cubed satellite projects through graduate school, getting interest from NASA along the way. The next thing he knew, there was a budget of almost $1 million secured for the project, and the satellite became the first CubeSat to test a NASA instrument for major space missions.
That’s part of the advantage of being a student at Michigan, says Kiko. You can accomplish anything you set your mind to. “It’s like this blank canvas the university gives you and says, ‘Go paint whatever you want to paint. No one will get mad at you.’”
Kiko began working at SpaceX in 2010. His primary duty is to design and develop high-performing batteries for use on spacecraft such as the Dragon and Falcon 9. Kiko says he was thrilled to get the job at SpaceX, a private company founded in 2002 that designs, manufactures and launches spacecraft. It recently became the first-ever commercial vehicle to successfully deliver goods to the International Space Station.
“The thing I like the most about SpaceX is the team,” says Kiko. “It’s absolutely incredible. The support group and the team that we’ve developed is absolutely awesome. You feel like you can do anything if you have smart people surrounding you.”
That team mentality was a large part of his experience at Michigan, and he encourages students to seek it out. “Get involved in whatever you can and find something you’re passionate about to work on with people who are also passionate about it. Having a great team is absolutely critical to whatever you’re doing, whether it’s a little CanSat project or building Dragon and sending it to the Space Station.”
Kiko and Jamie, now old buddies, joke about that encounter from four years ago. But Kiko claims it made all the difference in his life. “I got my job strictly because of the CubeSat project. If I hadn’t gotten involved, I would be doing something totally different, and SpaceX never would have hired me.”