Listening to a rocket scientist talk about work is impressive, but tough for the scientifically challenged. It's not unlike having a conversation in a foreign language you barely know. Talk of black holes and exploding suns switches to gyroscopes and accelerometers before you've processed what you think you heard, let alone understood. But then, as the cliché suggests, it is rocket science.
Keoki Jackson and Bob Polutchko knew they'd become rocket scientists from early on. "I was born on July 22nd, 1969," said Jackson. "Mom used to talk about watching the Apollo moon landing from the maternity ward with me in her arms. Maybe that gave space exploration added significance, but I clearly remember being very affected when I saw pictures of the first drop-test landing from Space Shuttle in the eighth grade."
The connection was even more direct for Polutchko. "My father was an engineer on the Mars Viking Lander mission, so aerospace engineering was always a consideration," he said. Both Polutchko and Jackson earned advanced degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
"I conducted before-and-after studies of astronauts on Shuttle missions to research how humans interact with the space environment," Jackson said, "examining how people adapt to zero gravity, how the brain takes sensory information and puts it together. Now I'm with Lockheed working on unmanned spacecraft for communications and global navigation. Specifically we handle overall performance of the satellite bus for clients like NASA, or the United States Air Force as well as commercial corporations."
Polutchko researched cooperative control of two spacecraft on rendezvous in orbit for his master's thesis. "Usually one spacecraft is passive and chases the other down. The new idea suggests that you may want to have both vehicles maneuvering simultaneously," Polutchko said. He went on to work as a guidance, navigation and control engineer on the Space Shuttle. Now he manages the development of guidance systems at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.
"We're creating first-of-a-kind miniature inertial navigation systems using micro-electro mechanical systems inertial instruments," Polutchko said. "The use of Draper gyroscopes and accelerators has allowed us to shrink a guidance system that used to be the size of a basketball down to the size of a coffee cup. In addition, these instruments are extremely robust. We have successfully guided an artillery shell shot out of a navy gun at 6,500 Gs. That's a very stressful environment - considering that 8 or 9 Gs would knock out a human pilot."
No doubt becoming a rocket scientist is the ultimate thrill for the mathematically and scientifically inclined, but getting there requires enormous focus and intellectual application. While rocket science used to be the preserve of white males, recent enrollment of women and minorities in the MIT aeronautics and astronautics program has shown steep increases.
"The rewards of the career are great," said Jackson. "It's something everyone can immediately respond to, especially kids. You definitely make a contribution, working on programs often critical to national defense or NATO. It's work that attracts very dedicated, often patriotic people who really understand the wider implications of what they're doing," he said.
The day-to-day business of aeronautics and astronautics can involve a lot of drudgework - testing components, assemblies and so on. But maintaining focus and accuracy is critical. "The stress factor can be severe," said Jackson, "especially where the rubber hits the road. Like when you're launching a new satellite and something goes wrong. These things cost between $150 million and $1 billion, and you're sitting there looking at streaming data, a big flurry of activity around you, wondering, 'If the numbers were really right, then why is the satellite pointing the wrong way?' It all comes down to that moment, working on the fly, trying to save a mission that took years to design and test. And if it just floats away, that's devastating." Float away! Surely not set loose in space? "Certainly. You'd be amazed at how many stray satellites are out there," Jackson said, chuckling.
Considering the feverish rewards for software engineers in the dotcom world, some might think rocket science is relatively underpaid. Entry-level salaries start around $40,000, and many new recruits have at least a master's degree and often take time out for a doctorate. Salaries rise as you go up the ranks but stabilize around the $125,000 mark. According to Polutchko, it's not about money, "although that's a factor, of course. This is an endeavor that attracts true believers, people with serious, long-term scientific objectives. It's all about the intellectual allure of solving really hard problems. And hopefully, seeing what you've worked so hard on actually fly."