Mines News

Release Date Friday, March 15, 2019

Space Cowboy

The cover story on the most recent issue of the Hardrock Magazine is about Dakotah Rusley, a Montana ranch kid who came to South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and ended up at NASA.

When a tractor, or a pickup, or even a post hole digger breaks down on an isolated ranch in eastern Montana, there is little chance that outside help or the right spare parts will be available for repairs. Those who grow up in rural environments learn that problem solving with limited resources is only accomplished with hard work, ingenuity, and grit.

These are a few of the same ingredients that make excellent scientists and engineers, and Dakotah Rusley is no exception. His family has farmed and ranched for the last four generations about 35 miles outside Baker, Montana. This upbringing proved to be a solid foundation for an engineering career.

“The tenacity needed to persevere through a tough situation where you might not have all the answers, but you figure it out—that’s what we do here,” says Rusley. “This is one of the advantages Mines students have.”

But Rusley’s success is one that almost wasn’t. When he was a senior in high school a guidance counselor told him he’d never succeed at a science and engineering university. The advisor warned the fast-paced study and challenging curriculum were just too difficult for a ranch kid to handle. Thankfully, he didn’t listen. 

“I decided to come to Mines mostly out of stubbornness,” he laughs. Rusley found a place at Mines studying computer engineering. The small class sizes felt like home. “I by no means came from a prestigious school, but Mines still gave me the means to follow my dreams,” he says. 

Dreams don’t come true easily. Rusley cites the importance of perseverance and persistence when it comes to success in any engineering discipline.  “In my junior year I sent out 731 internship applications, and I got denied for all of them. I came close to quitting after that,” he says. “But I’m glad I didn’t.” He applied for the NASA Pathways Internship four times before finally landing a spot in 2017. The tenday annual window sees about 150,000 applicants. Despite beating the odds, Rusley maintains the kind of humility common among those with rural roots. He refuses to take all the credit for his successes. Instead, he points to the professors, small class sizes, and hands-on curriculum at Mines that helped shape his development and encourage him along the way. 

“While it hasn’t been easy, it’s really cool to see all the hard work realized,” he says. Hard work is part of the fabric of rural America; and so is another key ingredient—ingenuity. Rusley gives praise to the culture at Mines that supports creative problem solving and outside-the-box thinking. “That renegade cowboy attitude is kind of fostered here,” he says with a laugh.  To illustrate this, he points to an experience during his junior year on the Mines Moonrockers team. The annual robotics competition at NASA challenges universities to build the best off-world mining robot. “The team that got first place had a robot worth tens of thousands of dollars,” Rusley says. “One single component on their machine was basically worth more than our entire robot,” he adds. “We took second place with $150 worth of components we bought off Amazon, and NASA officials were blown away at this,” he says. “But, that’s what makes School of Mines graduates so valuable. We are used to an environment where you don’t have millions of dollars to solve a problem; you have to use your brain.”

Rusley’s brain is in full use at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center following his graduation in December of 2018, but he is not leaving his alma mater completely behind in his new career. He is one of the founding members of the Mines CubeSat Team and will continue to work with the student team and graduate researchers alike to help Mines become the first university in South Dakota to launch a small satellite in the coming years. He also plans on serving as a sponsor and technical adviser for future senior design and research projects at the university.

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About SD Mines  

Founded in 1885, the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is a science and engineering research university located in Rapid City, S.D., offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The university enrolls 2,654 students with a student-to-faculty ratio of 15:1. The SD School of Mines placement rate for graduates is 97 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $61,300. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Snapchat

Contact: Mike Ray , 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu

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