LOADING...
Text Size
Carl Guernsey - Principal Engineer
September 16, 2010

[image-12]

Tell us about the project that you are working on now.

Tell us about the career path that led you to your present job.

What attracted you to a career in rocketry?

What do you think are the challenges for the future in the field of rocketry?

What was the most interesting or unique experience in your career with NASA?

If you could spend an hour with a person who made a significant contribution to science or rocketry, who would that person be?

What advice would you give to students interested in a career in rocketry?


Tell us about the project that you are working on now.

I am actually working on multiple projects at present, but my main accountable task is chief engineer for propulsion on the Mars Science Laboratory Project. The MSL project is scheduled for launch in the fall of 2011 and will land a huge rover (weighing about 1 ton) that will have unprecedented capabilities to determine whether Mars could have ever been hospitable to the emergence of life. In order to land this massive rover, we had to develop two propulsion systems: one for midcourse corrections on the way to Mars and one for the powered landing. The landing propulsion is the highest-thrust spacecraft propulsion system that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has ever built, with eight throttled engines capable of a total combined thrust of over 25,000 newtons. It also contains eight smaller rocket engines that are used to steer the vehicle during entry to direct it toward the desired landing site. This was a major challenge, with many new developments, but we have delivered both propulsion systems for integration into the overall vehicle.

> Top of page

Tell us about the career path that led you to your present job.

My career path started as a co-op student at Goddard Space Flight Center, which led to a full-time job in the Propulsion Branch after graduation. As it happened, I was originally drawn to Goddard by friends who worked there whom I met through model rocket competitions while in high school. While working at Goddard, I was assigned a task that introduced me to a number of engineers working at JPL who had some really interesting projects. I applied to JPL and was hired to perform rocket exhaust plume impingement modeling. This modeling deals with the fact that some of the exhaust from a rocket engine in space will strike the spacecraft, which can cause unexpected forces heating, or contamination of spacecraft surfaces. Over the years I worked tasks related to spacecraft contamination, propulsion subsystem design, rocket engine test and data reduction, laser propulsion, and many others topics. That wide-ranging experience base helped prepare me for my current job.

> Top of page

What attracted you to a career in rocketry?

I became a space nut after watching the first American manned space launch in 1961. That summer my family saw the Echo satellite fly overhead while camping in Canada, and my parents bought me the "How and Why Book of Space Travel." I was addicted. A few years later, I discovered model rocketry and spent a lot of time at competitions, conventions, etc. In addition to meeting kids with similar interests, that gave me an excellent chance to interact with graduate students, NASA engineers, and others who helped nurture my interests. I especially focused on propulsion because it seemed to me then, and still does today, that propulsion technologies are ultimately the limiting factor in our ability to explore the universe. I am much more aware of how hard it is to make progress in that respect that I was then, but the desire is still there.

> Top of page

What do you think are the challenges for the future in the field of rocketry?

The fundamental challenge for space propulsion (of which rocketry is a part) is that the technology has achieved a very significant fraction of the performance theoretically possible, so advances tend to be evolutionary, rather that revolutionary. This has led many to conclude that this is a mature technology not requiring continuing research and development. That has led to decay in the technical depth available both within the government and industry. Folks are literally forgetting the lessons of the past. Aggressive research and development activities are needed to maintain and build on the strength of the community. In the longer run, breakthrough propulsion technologies that would truly revolutionize the field await the discovery of new physical principles to generate and direct the enormous energies required.

> Top of page

What was the most interesting or unique experience in your career with NASA?

It was unquestionably the landing of the Mars Exploration Rovers in January 2004. JPL arranged for those of us who had worked on the development to have a space to watch the preparations and monitor for data return on the night of landing. Like most of the team, I had a small part in the overall project, but an absolutely critical one: if my solid rocket motors didn't perform properly, the mission would fail. The same was true of most of the people present, and the tension was palpable. The moment we received indications of a successful landing is one no one in that room will ever forget!

> Top of page

If you could spend an hour with a person who made a significant contribution to science or rocketry, who would that person be?

I think the answer would have to be Albert Einstein. In addition to making prodigious discoveries in physics he was a prolific thinker and writer on broader issues relating to the human condition. His essays on economics and peace are well worth re-reading every so often. He was a man of great intellect and reportedly of great charm. Yes, I would very much like to have an hour with him.

> Top of page

What advice would you give to students interested in a career in rocketry?

First of all, learn the basics. Rocketry is an interdisciplinary venture requiring knowledge of physics, chemistry, thermodynamics and heat transfer, metallurgy, fluid dynamics, machine design, and fabrication. No one can master all these fields, but a good rocketeer should be conversant in all of them. Try to get both analytical and hardware experience: All the theoretical knowledge in the world won't help if you don't understand how things are built. Everyone will have different strengths and weaknesses, but you should strive for wide experiences. In addition to technical skills, strive to be your best at written and verbal communication skills. A great idea that isn't communicated well is no idea at all.


Related Resources:

> NASA's Jet Propulsion Center
> NASA Education

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services

Image Token: 
[image-47]
Carl Guernsey with a small rocket for spacecraft
Name: Carl Guernsey Job Title: Principal Engineer Education: B.S. in Engineering Science from Purdue University; M.S. in Aeronautics from California Institute of Technology NASA Center: Jet Propulsion Laboratory Hometown: Lafayette, Ind. Hobby: Hiking, Driving sports cars
Image Credit: 
NASA
Image Token: 
[image-12]
Image Token: 
[image-75]
Page Last Updated: February 25th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator