He used to aim rockets at people, now he aims them at the stars .
The fire power that he once used to kill while serving in the United States Air Force now powers his goal of becoming the first college student to launch a rocket into space.
In a cramped Long Beach State engineering lab, a crisp white 8-foot tall rocket – with “BEACH 1” painted down its length– towers above Andrey Ruf. He stands beside it and his broad white 6-foot-4-inch figure mirrors the rocket, almost making it look small.
Ruf, a former sergeant had traded leading a flight crew over Afghanistan to now leading a team of aerospace engineering students into the vastness of space.
“I could no longer destroy dreams, I wanted to build them,” Ruf said while pointing at the rocket with his five-eighths-wrench.
Ruf recalled the turning point to leave his “military family” during his second deployment to Afghanistan when he learned that one of his service friends had been killed in a roadside bombing.
His decision to enroll in college in 2014 as a 26-year-old veteran was an easy one after the “horrible things” he witnessed in combat. He soon realized university life was a lot more relaxed than his strict previous life.
The transition wasn’t nominal – his priorities changed from fighting a foreign enemy to fighting for a “mediocre grade point average.” But the commonality of missiles and rockets had become the bridge he needed to piece his worlds together, he said.
“Rocket exploration is one of the only collaborations in the world where different cultures have the same goal,” he said. “The only fight is to see who can do it first.”
A senior now, Ruf joined the rocket club his freshman year when he learned that a new space race had emerged among the college community. His yearn for military-like structure and his major in aerodynamics combined to get his college life off the ground.
Change for Ruf started early at the age of 10 when he and his mother emigrated from Russia to escape the oppressive rule of President Vladimir Putin, he said.
“Growing up in a country with so much uncertainty terrified my mother,” Ruf said. “It was the welcoming culture of the U.S. that made me realize that I wanted to serve the country someday.”
It was at that moment that his love for aircraft and aeronautics had been born – almost symbolic of himself being reborn in his new country. He knew he wanted to fly aircraft for “the good guys.”
When Ruf enlisted it didn’t work out like his 10-year-old-self had dreamed. Flight school became out of reach when he was assigned immediate mechanic duties due a shortage during the war.
Ruf did not give up on his dream. He rose through the ranks where he got his chance to fly combat helicopters into contested areas of Afghanistan to support American ground troops.
He has since landed in the rocket lab – where he often spends long nights formulating and testing complex algorithms for the rocket’s success. His strict demeanor radiates through the lab as the team fights to stay grounded with a $1 million first prize on the line.
“Andrey’s experiences have been what our team has needed to take us to the next level,” said Sean Won, project manager of the rocket club. “He’s not afraid to keep everyone on task, even if it’s 3 a.m.”
But with the space competition on the distant horizon — still years away and Ruf nearing the end of his time at LBSU–he somberly looks to the future.
He will soon the giant step into the unknown of the aerospace job market, but much like the industry, he continues to aim up.
“I’ve looked up my whole life,” he said. “I’m not stopping now.”