Professor Timothy Sands

Timothy Sands

Professor of Practice in Space Systems
Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
449 Upson Hall


Dr. Timothy Sands is on the engineering faculty at Cornell University since 2020, where his research and teaching focus on astronautical engineering and systems engineering. From 2010 through 2020, he was an executive and senior leader of both military postgraduate universities (the Air Force Institute of Technology and the Naval Postgraduate School respectively), serving sequentially as Chief Academic Officer, Associate Provost, Dean, Associate Dean, and research center Director in addition to serving as a Fellow of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He executed the DARPA Challenge for digital manufacturing analysis, correlation, and estimation (DMACE), investigating the science behind the burgeoning field of digital manufacturing.

During nearly three decades of active duty service in the U.S. Air Force, he performed space mission design and space experimentation for the Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program (STP) including the middle atmosphere high resolution spectrograph investigation (MAHRSI) flown in the pallet system on space shuttle mission STS-66; as well as the polar ozone and aerosol measurement (POAM) geophysical research mission flown on the French SPOT-4 satellite; and also the beryllium induced radiation experiment flown on Russian RESURS satellite. His other interesting space experiment missions include the polar orbiting geomagnetic survey flown on the defense meteorological satellite program; the remote atmospheric and ionospheric detection system on TIROS-J; and the solar wind interplanetary measurement flown on the NASA WIND satellite. He was the propulsion engineer of the Atlas space launch vehicle, the reliability engineer of the Centaur upper stage, and an electronic warfare engineer and operator, having flown over six-hundred hours in combat in four countries, being thrice decorated for single acts of combat gallantry and bravery in addition to other decorations for achievement and meritorious service.

His areas of academic expertise include space mission design; guidance, navigation, and control; estimation; adaption and learning; and nonlinear systems; and his minor fields include electrical engineering topics of electronic warfare and autonomous systems. His background represents a breadth of leadership experience in space experimentation across academia, the aerospace industry in general, and particularly the defense department. His research has been funded by DARPA, ONR, AFOSR, AFGSC, and AETC and has been awarded one shared patent in spacecraft attitude control.

Recognized for his teaching and mentorship at the Naval Postgraduate School and Air Force Institute of Technology, Dr. Sands remains broadly interested in social sciences disciplines of deterrence, command and control communications, and international relations as well as technical translation, particularly of engineering developments written in Chinese.

Research Interests

My career goal is to apply a broad background to the problems faced by the nation and the world, particularly emphasizing student growth and expanded critical thinking abilities. That broad background has merged into the initial expression of a method of deterministic artificial intelligence, where physics-based mathematics are used to establish self-awareness augmented by both simple and optimal learning methods, and the results enhance system autonomous robustness in the face of significant damage applied to electrical systems, mechanical systems, and complex systems such as global temperatures and sales of electric vehicles. In the near-term, I will emphasize application of my methods towards space robotics, electric power beaming from space, and robustness and recovery of electric circuits to the deleterious effects of electromagnetic pulse.

Teaching Interests

My formal teaching responsibilities include a course in adaptive and learning systems for the systems engineering program and a course on astronautic optimization for the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Both of these courses have been designed to accommodate students of disparate backgrounds to contribute to the state of knowledge, and they are taught with my unique teaching style that blends the learning methods of the military with those of traditional academia. I also teach M.Eng. projects, currently emphasizing defensive maneuvers in space without using propellant, space robotics, adaptive and learning systems, and astronautic optimization.

In service to the university and my colleagues, I remain interested in teaching Defense Space Systems Engineering, Deterministic Artificial Intelligence, Nonlinear Systems, MAE 4730/5730 Intermediate Dynamics, MAE 4780/5870 Feedback Control Systems, MAE/SYSEN 4816/5816 Space Robotics, SYSEN/MAE 5830/6830 Adaptive and Learning Systems, MAE 6060 Spacecraft Attitude Dynamics, Estimation, and Control, MAE 6760 Model Based Estimation, MAE 6780 Multivariable Control Theory, and MAE 6850 Hamiltonian Dynamics

Service Interests

My goal is to make Cornell astronautics known throughout the defense department as well as the commercial space enterprise including Varda Space Industries, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others. I seek to align my personal research interests with student learning, actual spaceflight, and job placement visibility for students. Having already performed years of university service at very senior levels, I henceforth focus solely on student successes as Professor of the Practice.

Selected Publications

Student authored

  • Raigoza, K., Sands, T. Autonomous Trajectory Generation Comparison for De-Orbiting with Multiple Collision Avoidance. Sensors (IF 3.847) 2022, 22(16).
  • Koo, S., Travis, H., & Sands, T. Impacts of discretization and numerical propagation on the ability to follow challenging square wave commands. Journal of Marine Science and Engineering (IF 2.744) 2022, 10(3), 419.
  • Zhai, H., Sands, T. Comparison of controlling nonlinear van der Pol systems. Sensors (IF 3.847) 2022, 22(16).
  • Osler, S. N., Sands, T. A. Controlling remotely operated vehicles with deterministic artificial intelligence. Applied Sciences (IF 2.838) 2022, 12(6), 2810.
  • Sandberg, A.; Sands, T. Autonomous trajectory generation algorithms for spacecraft slew maneuvers. Aerospace (IF 2.660) 2022, 9(3), 135.
  • Zhai, H., Sands, T. Controlling chaos in Van Der Pol dynamics using signal-encoded deep learning (Highly Viewed Paper) Mathematics (IF 2.592) 2022, 10(3), 453.
  • Yao, P.; Sands, T. Micro satellite orbital boost by electrodynamic tethers. Micromachines (IF 3.523) 2021, 12(8), 916.
  • Shah, R.; Sands, T. Comparing Methods of DC Motor Control for UUVs. Applied Sciences (IF 2.838) 2021, 11(11), 4972.
  • Smeresky, B., Rizzo, A., & Sands, T. A. Optimal Learning and Self-Awareness Versus PDI (Editor's Choice Article Award) Algorithms (IF=2.267) 2020, 13(1), 23.
  • Smeresky, B., Rizzo, A., & Sands, T. A. Kinematics in the Information Age. Mathematics (IF 1.105) 2018, 9(6), 149.
  • Cooper, M., Heidlauf, P., & Sands, T. A, (2017). Controlling Chaos - Forced van der Pol Equation. Mathematics (IF=1.154) 2017, 5(4), 70.

Published to aid learning in courses

  • Sands, T. Flattening the curve of flexible space robotics. Applied Sciences (IF 2.838), 2022, 12(6), 2992.
  • Sands, T. Treatise on analytic optimal spacecraft guidance and control. Frontiers in Robotics & AI (IF 4.331) 2022, (9).
  • Sands, T. A. Countering the deleterious effects of electromagnetic pulse. Frontiers in Electronics, 2021, 10(2), 727994.
  • Sands, T. Virtual sensoring of motion using Pontryagin’s treatment of Hamiltonian systems. Sensors (IF 3.847) 2021, 21(13), 4603.
  • Sands, T. Control of DC Motors to Guide Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. Applied Sciences (IF 2.838) 2021, 11(5), 2144.
  • Sands, T. Development of deterministic artificial intelligence for unmanned underwater vehicles (Best Paper Award Winner) Journal of Marine Science and Engineering (IF 2.458) 2020, 8(8), 578.
  • Sands, T. A, (2019). Comparison and Interpretation Methods for Predictive Control of Mechanics. Algorithms (IF=2.175) 2019, 12(11), 232.
  • Sands, T. A, Optimization Provenance of Whiplash Compensation for Flexible Space Robotics. Aerospace (IF 1.659) 2019, 9(6), 93.

Selected Awards and Honors

  • Best Paper Award, Journal of Marine Science and Engineering 2021
  • Editor’s Choice Article Award, Algorithms 2020
  • Eminent Engineer, Tau Beta Pi 2012
  • Theodore von Kármán Award 2010
  • Fellow, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) 2010
  • International Scholar Laureate, Golden Key International Honor Society 2009
  • Science and Engineering Award, U.S. Air Force's Air Combat Command 2009
  • Air Medal for single act of combat gallantry/heroism 1999, 2001, 2003


Ph.D. Astronautical Engineering, Naval Postgraduate School
Graduate Certificate Astronautical Engineering, University of California, Los Angeles
Grad. Certificate Aeronautics and Astronautics (distance learning), Stanford University
M.S. Space Studies (distance learning), University of North Dakota
M.Eng. Space Operations (distance learning), University of Colorado
Degree of Mechanical Engineering (distance learning), Columbia University
M.S. Mechanical Engineering (distance learning), Stanford University
B.S. Mechanical Engineering, North Carolina State University