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The Career of a Rocket Scientist

The Making of a Rocket Scientist

January 31, 1958 – A group of us had just returned from an evening MOONWATCH session to the apartment of Robert and Cindy Citron when the radio announced that America’s first satellite, Explorer I, had reached orbit. As station director, Bob called an alert for the next morning and we began contacting the other team members. About twenty people showed up before dawn at the station in Woodland Hills with the hope of glimpsing a tiny point of light in one of the MOONWATCH telescopes. As the sun came up we headed for our jobs and classes.

That was how 1958 began for me. It would be an exciting year, but first some background....

Explorer I
In October, 1956, three months shy of my 17th birthday, I began my college career at Northrop Aeronautical Institute in an industrial area close to the Los Angeles airport in Inglewood, California. NAI had been founded during WWII at Northrop Aircraft in Hawthorne to train aeronautical engineers and aircraft mechanics. It was later moved to the Inglewood location and opened to the public. When I enrolled, the school offered a two-year program that did not lead to a degree. At the conclusion of the program, one could go to work for one of the many aircraft companies in the area or complete a degree program at an institution that accepted Northrop’s credits. I expected to do the latter but things would change...

Over half of my classmates were Korean War vets going through on the GI bill – men (there were no women enrolled in the school) several years older than me who were supporting families and holding down jobs at night. In that environment, a 16-year old kid grows up fast or doesn’t last: I lasted. Classes were all day, five days a week – just like going to work. We had two weeks off in the summer and two weeks at Christmas.

There were a few PhDs on the faculty but also several instructors who didn’t have degrees. But they had worked for Northrop during and after the war on aircraft such as the famed Flying Wings. They knew how to build airplanes and that’s what we were there to learn. It wasn’t all classroom work: we spent time in the shops learning how to make dies for forming aluminum and riveted together aluminum briefcases from sheet metal.

I had been fascinated by airplanes since I was ten years old, but more so by rockets and space travel. Like most boys my age I had singed my eyebrows by firing “rockets” filled with match-heads. But I also devoured everything I could read on the subject from the factual to the fanciful – from von Braun to van Vogt. Thus I entered Northrop Institute knowing I wanted to be – a rocket scientist.

It didn’t take me long to discover and join the Northrop Student Branch of the Pacific Rocket Society. The PRS was one of the early amateur rocketry groups in the US, but “amateur” belies that fact that many of their members were professionals employed in what was coming to be known as the “aerospace” industry. The PRS operated a firing range in the Mojave desert with a similar organization called the Reaction Research Society. More about this later, but first click on the picture for what could have been the un-making of a rocket scientist..

That experience naturally motivated me to want to build rockets. Soon after I enrolled, the Northrop bookstore stocked George P. Sutton’s Rocket Propulsion Elements, which PRS members like myself quickly snatched up. Challenged by the equations and graphs, we devoured this and other texts to grasp the technical fundamentals of rocket propulsion.

Rocket Encyclopedia Illustrated, 1959
PRS members were fortunate to have access to the shops on campus and we had members who knew how to use the machines. Building rockets was a group effort: someone would machine a nozzle, another would cut the tubing to length, others would weld on fins, etc. The ingredients for the propellant we used were zinc dust and sulfur, which we mixed to make “micrograin.” This sounds like an unlikely combination, but when ignited with a black-powder squib it produced the hot gas that propelled the rocket. I never figured out the chemical reaction or if the entrained air played a role but I was told that the specific impulse was about 40 seconds, well below that of commercial propellants. The advantage of micrograin was its stability and safety in handling. Some of the members eventually improved the performance of their rockets by compressing the micrograin with a hydraulic press instead of just tamping it into the casing. Some of these rockets were 4 inches in diameter and 8 ft long, and two-stage vehicles were also launched.

All through 1957 we anticipated the launch of the first earth satellite with America’s hopes pinned on the Vanguard project. Of course, we were stunned by the Soviet success with Sputnik I on October 4. We had hoped the US would be the "first in space" but were still fascinated by the fact that it had been done: a satellite was in orbit! For my recollection of the event, click on the picture.

Imagine California before the Interstates. Drive north out of the San Fernando Valley to Mojave and continue northeast for several miles. Turn right onto an unpaved dirt track, bounce along for a few miles and cross a couple of gullies to arrive at the Mojave Test Area. The nearest habitation was the town (?) of Garlock, which was a few lights on the horizon at night. Elsewhere: desolation, and from the Google Earth images it hasn’t changed in 50 years. The images themselves are a testament to how far we’ve come in space technology.

Today the area is famous as the launch site of SpaceShipOne from the Mojave Airport to claim the X-prize. This vehicle represents the culmination of hybrid rocket technology (using liquid and solid propellants) but the first hybrid rockets on record were launched at the Mojave Test Area before I joined the Pacific Rocket Society. I would eventually start to build my own hybrid rockets, about which more later. Suffice it to say that the “amateurs” in the Mojave Desert were about 50 years ahead of Burt Rutan when it came to building hybrid rockets.

The test site was about 30 miles north of Edwards AFB and we always notified them when we were going to launch. We were buzzed by fighters on a few occasions, fortunately not as we were about to launch as some of our rockets reached altitudes over two miles. Which brings me to what evolved as my main contribution to amateur rocketry during my college days.

We didn’t have a way of estimating the altitude a rocket reached other than the time from when it appeared to stop climbing and it hit the ground. That meant someone had to see it land, which was a challenge given the distance the rocket might travel and the desert terrain. Attempts to deploy parachutes and recover the rocket or a payload (like a camera) met with mixed success. For some reason I was tasked with developing a tracking system, which became known as NERTS for Northrop Electronic Rocket Tracking System. NERTS became operational at the Mojave Test Area during 1958 and we tracked a few rockets with it.To see how the system worked, click here.

The image on the right shows the launch site. It is from a 16mm film taken through a telephoto lens with the NERTS tracking system. To see one of the flights from launch to landing, click on the picture.

Vanguard was the US contribution to the International Geophysical Year that actually ran 18 months from July 1957 through all of 1958. The part of the IGY that involved the PRS was the MOONWATCH program run by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. This was a world-wide network of volunteers who set up stations to track the first satellites. Each station had fourteen small telescopes sighted along the meridian at different elevations from the north and south horizons and an observer looking into each one. If and when the observer saw a bright point of light that was obviously not an airplane he would mark the time it entered the field of view, crossed the center reticle and exited as well as estimating the approximate bearing. All of this information was electronically recorded and forwarded to SAO headquarters where it was compiled with reports from other stations to establish the satellite’s orbit.

Bob Citron took the lead in organizing the MOONWATCH station and served as its director. Through PRS members who worked for the Rocketdyne and Atomics International units of North American Aviation we asked for money to buy the telescopes and set up the station on campus. The company stalled until – October 4, 1957. A check soon arrived and the station became a reality.

Viewing conditions in that part of LA weren’t the best – this was the smoggy fifties – and we shortly moved the station to a cliff-side location in Woodland Hills on the San Fernando Valley side of the Santa Monica mountains. This meant a long drive (I lived in Redondo Beach) to get to the station when a sighting was predicted, but the sky was much clearer. Also, you could hear the test firings at Rocketdyne in the Santa Susana mountains. Hard to believe but twenty people would show up before dawn for a chance to sit at a telescope and maybe see a satellite or to help out in other ways.

John Porter (left) and Bob Citron are pointing at the star chart and I’m seated between them. The MOONWATCH telescopes and observers are on the right.

Bob Citron made satellite tracking a career with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory after graduating from Northrop and later became a leader in the private rocket field
This picture is fraught with history and irony. It is from an article on the X-15 in the Spring 1958 edition
of a North American Aviation house publication. The MOONWATCH picture above and the Explorer I launch photo are from that magazine. For the story of these test pilots click on the picture.
I managed to work my interest in rockets and spacecraft into my courses at times. One project in a class on aircraft systems was to design a hydraulic system. Since we could choose the aircraft, I selected the manned Martian glider that, as conceived by Wehrner von Braun and illustrated here by Chesley Bonestell, would glide to a landing on Mars. The forward part would separate at the end of the mission, firing a rocket to return the crew to Earth. I had to design the control surfaces for a wing with ten times the surface area of a B-52 to land in an atmosphere about 7% as dense as the Earth’s. The hydraulic system I designed was for the flaps, elevons and landing gear. The landing gear was simple: it had to extend a pair of skids but not retract them, as that part of the vehicle would remain on the surface.
I still have the plans if NASA’s interested.
PRS members were frequently approached by people, usually students, who wanted to build a rocket. Often they would bring a small tube or pipe they wanted to fill with match-heads or black powder, a good way to maim themselves. We would invite them to work on a micrograin rocket instead and see it launched. It was in such an encounter that I met Don Sandbach and thus began a long collaboration.

Don actually built and launched a couple of micrograin rockets but his ambitions led him to experiment
with higher-energy propellants. He was an expert machinist and we pooled our talents to build hybrid rockets during my final months at Northrop. Our first attempt was a thrust chamber and oxidizer tank three inches in diameter that would use liquid oxygen as the oxidizer and Thiokol rubber sealant as the solid fuel; hence the name “lox-Thiokol.” The hardware is seen in a Polaroid (remember them?) on the left below. We got as far as casting the grain and flow-testing the lox injector, but never test-fired or launched the rocket.

Thnking big, we decided to build a hybrid rocket six inches in diameter, which would have been the largest flown at the time. We found some aluminum tubing and bar stock of the right size and Don proceeded to make the thrust chamber, bulkhead and injector to my design. The injector is the most critical part of a hybrid rocket as it has to spray the oxidizer evenly over the inside of the propellant grain while operating at cryogenic temperatures. In the picture on the right, the lox tank is at the rear and the thrust chamber is on the left. The injector, which is also the lower bulkhead for the lox tank, is the disk on the bottom – the other one is the forward bulkhead. The black cylinder is the graphite block from which the nozzle was to have been machined.

One of my classmates, Bob Wheelock, worked at Wyle Laboratories at night in the “boom room” where he tested pressure vessels under cryogenic conditions and thus had access to liquid nitrogen and the equipment we needed to test our injector. It cracked on the first run and we decided to be more careful in torqueing the bolts on the next one. That one worked perfectly: a beautiful symmetrical spray of LN2 erupted from the injector holes and it held together. Unfortunately, we didn’t accomplish anything else on the rocket before I graduated and I wasn’t able to interest Aerojet in sponsoring our further efforts while I worked there.

As the end of my two year program approached in the fall of 1958, the California legislature passed a law that let private institutions like NAI grant academic degrees. Consequently, after getting our diplomas in Aeronautical Engineering Technology in October some of us continued taking classes (at what had been re-named Northrop Institute of Technology) to fulfill the state requirements for a BS in Aeronautical Engineering. The school administration took a pragmatic approach, realizing that the majority of the students wanted a piece of paper that would get them a good job and the sooner the better. Thus, after courses in chemistry, logic, business law, history and economics that took until June, 1959, I received my degree from none other than John K. Northrop himself, the creator of the Flying Wings.
To read about my career as a rocket scientist click here