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Professor Hiel from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Belgium received the prestigious prize at the White House in January from former President Barack Obama. The Tibbetts Award was given to him for the radar tower made from composite materials which Professor Hiel and his team designed for the American Airforce.
Clement Hiel is living every boy’s dream: he works for the aerospace industry. At the moment he runs his own company in the US which works for the American Space Agency, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). “My job is completely focussed on bringing innovation to the air and space industry sector. We start up new trends in technology, especially where it concerns materials and thrust systems, and we make suggestions to NASA in terms of demonstrations and implementation”, explains Professor Hiel.
His team, which consists of some 10 colleagues, developed amongst other things the light-weight concepts for ‘SpaceShip-One’, which recently received a prize in California where it was launched twice in one week in the Mojave Desert.
From possibility to creation and innovation
Professor Hiel is extremely happy with his job: “I have an enormous amount of freedom and the possibility to create and innovate. This requires a certain measure of discipline and wisdom to decide whether to continue with certain developments or to hold off.” He also finds communication with colleagues from other disciplines highly interesting. Because he lives in the US he doesn’t get to see his friends and family much, “This means I often miss some fun social activities”.
Fascination for the moon landing in 1969
1969 was the year of the first lunar landing. Clement Hiel was 17 years old then: “I was particularly fascinated by the scientists and technicians who were at the heart of this amazing breakthrough. But it seemed like a faraway-dream for a boy from East-Flanders to ever be part of such a team. I was always busy with engines and if I’d been asked back then what I’d want to be when I grew up, I’d have answered, a specialist in diesel engines.
PhD and post-PhD in Virginia
After finishing school, Clement Hiel decided to study technical engineering. His graduation work for Bell Telephone (Alcatel) was a success. “The engineers at Bell encouraged me to start studying civil engineering and told me about the VUB.” After finishing his degree, he became an assistant in the department of Applied Mechanics of the Continium. This lead to a PhD and a post-PhD in Virginia (US) and to the first contacts with NASA. He was invited to join NASA as an engineer in 1987. “Meanwhile I’m also a lecturer at the VUB, where I’m still teaching today”.
A wide knowledge base matters and being careful not to become a narrow-focussed specialist
“Knowledge is what the current economy thrives on”, thinks Clement Hiel. “The knowledge economy needs innovators, people with an open mind. My advice: make sure you get an as wide knowledge-base as possible”, he says, “and be careful not to become a too narrow-focussed specialist”, he warns. “Strive towards an as wide as possible communication, also outside your specialist field”.