I really never thought about it until I retired, but I guess I can claim to be a rocket scientist. My degree is in Physics and I worked from 1959 through 1994 (35 years) on guidance and control systems for rockets — with a couple of spacecraft thrown in. I worked on the proposal team for the Cassini project but we lost the competition for the actual contract.
My last assignment was working on the exoatmospheric kill vehicle, a little basket ball that sits in space and when a rocket comes up from earth that it doesn’t like, it throws itself at it with tremendous speed and kinetic energy. The kill mechanism is not an explosive, but a piece of depleted uranium (denser than lead) the size and shape of a pencil (actually, there are several pencils). By firing that pencil from a rail gun on earth to simulate the speed it would have in space, it penetrated the best 12 inch thick armor plating made. Twelve plates lined up in a row with about 12 inch separation between plates. As they say, speed kills.
What made me realize I was a rocket scientist was that the system engineer I reported to was a very good looking and brilliant 28 year old woman engineer with multiple degrees. She had found a large color poster of an equally good looking woman sitting at a bar dressed to the nines with a martini in her hand with the caption under it saying “As a matter of fact, I am a rocket scientist.” This hung over her desk.
Earlier in my career I designed circuits for the first unmanned Command Module that circled the moon to prove feasibility before they put men in it. The manned Command Module circled the moon and launched and recovered the lunar lander that put the first man on the moon.
I never did see a launch although I’ve watched the big rocket engines fired on test stands at Rocketdyne. Your whole body vibrates and the sound is horrific. For Randy and Kit, this has to be a great experience. The group I worked with is holding a reunion at the Cape in the next year or two and hopes to see a launch during the reunion.
Source: Friends of mine, Randy and Kit Cassingham, attended the January 19, 2006 NASA’s Pluto Mission Launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Most of this was written as part of a dialogue between several friends on the topic.
October 30, 2012 Update
This month in Los Angeles the news has been filled with the transfer of the Space Shuttle Endeavor to the California Science Center and today is the grand ceremony opening for the public. I had very little to do with the space shuttle, just two minor experiences.
First was doing a design review of the electronics that controlled the Space Shuttle fuel cells. When our sister Space Division wanted an independent review they often came to us for circuit reviews. I was tapped to review the fuel cells electronics. The review consisted of talking to the responsible design engineer in the Space Division, pouring over schematics provided, and doing some computer simulations. We probably had some of the most sophisticated computer circuit analysis programs in existence at the time and I was an expert in using them for analyzing power electronic circuits.. Everything passed with no problems.
Second was living with the full size Space Shuttle mockup built in 1972. The design team for the exothermic kill vehicle described above worked in the same hanger as where the mockup was housed. It had stairs that you could climb to examine it up close and I had a lot of alone time to look at it from all angles. It was used as a “fit check tool” for the building of the shuttles. When the Tierra Luna Marketplace was built on the land the hanger was on, the developers gave the mockup to the city of Downey where it is in storage waiting for a building to be funded and built to house it.
As long as I’m talking about my career, when I got a chance to visit Washington, DC and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 1978 about 18 years after I started to design circuits, I spotted eight vehicles and displays that had circuits that I had designed or maintained in them. This blew my mind and still does, although if I visited now I might see even more.
Also, if you search my name, Jerrold Foutz, in Wikipedia you get two hits, one on the Design of the D-37B computer power supplies, and one as note in the article on Switched-mode power supply.
Being a rocket scientist has been a very interesting and satisfying career.
Another morning talk over coffee and biscotti.