Kennesaw State student pursues childhood dream through research

KENNESAW, Ga. | Jun 24, 2024

Ken Kubiak
In 1981, NASA launched into orbit the space shuttle Columbia, which made 37 revolutions around Earth before safely landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California two days later.

The mission was wildly successful, demonstrating the shuttle’s ability to not only take off like a rocket and carry a crew through orbit, but also land similar to an airplane.

It also instilled in Ken Kubiak a lifelong fascination with space travel.

Kubiak describes how his peers looked to Star Trek to spur their interest in space, but he distinctly remembers seeing the launch of Columbia on television. After the mission, everything was about space and flying.

 “Space has always been my main interest,” Kubiak said. “I enjoy telling people that in a nutshell, I am trying to make Star Trek a reality.”

Kubiak, a mechanical engineering student, enrolled at Kennesaw State University in 2022 to pursue his second bachelor’s degree.

He previously worked in cybersecurity for 20 years, including a five-year stint in the U.S. Senate, where he worked under the Sergeant of Arms as a senior information security specialist.

Despite his success, Kubiak did not feel as fulfilled as he thought he could be, believing he had not given his passion for space enough attention, and decided to return to school with his wife’s full support of his dream.

At this time, his wife received a promotion that moved her to Atlanta, and after Kubiak was accepted to KSU, he began his mechanical engineering degree, with minors in nuclear engineering and aerospace engineering.

“At some point I realized that I wasn’t too old to try to learn new things, so I decided to give it a shot and see how I would do,” Kubiak said.

Kubiak also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the University at Buffalo, plus a Master of Science in Information Assurance from Norwich University.

So, while he wasn’t a stranger to the higher education system, Kubiak’s return to school was still a massive change for Kubiak and his wife.

Despite unwavering support from his wife, Kubiak experienced anxiety as he gave up his career to become a full-time student and left his wife to be the sole breadwinner in their household.

“I have to admit that not only was I concerned as I hadn’t had a math class in over a decade, but I also didn’t know if I would fit in,” Kubiak said. “Ultimately, I have had many classmates who are working full-time, have families with kids, or even have just been married, and I realized that I really wasn’t that different from them.”

Kubiak is currently part of the Summer Undergraduate Research program, sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research, where he works with Gaurav Sharma, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Advanced Aerospace & Propulsion Lab (AAPL).

The project strives to make deep space travel more accessible and easier to achieve by exploring options for using vortex engines, which effectively inject fuel around the combustion chamber in a circular pattern to keep the rocket engine cooler while providing a higher thrust. The team will then apply this concept to nuclear propulsion rockets, which have yet to be developed.

 “The value for the research I'm conducting with Dr. Sharma is to help enable faster and cheaper access to deep-space destinations in order to make space exploration and colonization economically feasible and reduce the risks to astronauts posed by space radiation and biological changes from microgravity,” Kubiak said.

 Kubiak is also President of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) student chapter here at KSU and a member of Kennesaw Rocketry, which is where he originally met Sharma, who became the advisor for the group in the fall of 2023. The team participates in competitions throughout the year, including the NASA Student Launch challenge and the Spaceport America Cup.

 Sharma spoke to the group about a variety of research opportunities with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

 During his time at KSU, Kubiak has gathered an impressive array of awards, including landing on the president’s list and receiving a nomination for the Goldwater Scholarship, presented annually to the nation’s top undergraduate scholars in the sciences, mathematics and engineering.

 “Though I was not awarded the Barry Goldwater Scholarship this year,” Kubiak said, “I was fortunate to be a recipient of the first Bob Greene Scholarship from the Atlanta Chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).”

 Kubiak intends to continue studying in this field in graduate school but has not decided whether he will complete a second master’s degree or go straight into a doctorate program.  

– Story by Alyssa Ozment

Photos by Matt Young

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit