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Philip Eberspeaker - Chief of the NASA Sounding Rockets Program Office
December 1, 2010

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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 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?

Would you like to "bust" any myth about science? What would you say?

Are you involved in any student rocketry projects as a mentor or advisor? If so, please tell us about it.

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


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

The NASA Sounding Rockets Program supports a wide variety of NASA and government projects. NASA sounding rockets are used to carry scientific instruments to altitudes four or five times higher than the orbit of the space station. Sounding rockets have been used to boost scramjet engines to their supersonic test conditions and to test experimental inflatable re-entry vehicles that may be used to explore the solar system in the future. The missions we support study the aurora borealis, sun, planets and distance galaxies as well. Our rockets are also used to inspire and educate the next generation of scientists and engineers. In summary, we specialize in conducting suborbital rocket missions on a shoestring budget.

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

I have been interested in rockets since elementary school. I took all of the math and science I could in high school and then attended North Carolina State University (NCSU) to get a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering. I joined the cooperative education (coop) program after my freshman year and was lucky enough to land a job at the Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility. I was assigned to the sounding rocket program, which was a fantastic opportunity because I got to work on NASA suborbital rockets that were similar to model rockets - only much bigger. I was offered a job in the Sounding Rockets Program's Flight Vehicles and Systems section after I graduated in 1986. I was responsible for the parachutes and recovery systems that brought the payloads back down to Earth. I quickly became a project manager and became responsible for entire missions. As a project manager, I had to become familiar with all of the sounding rocket systems including telemetry, attitude control, power, rocket motors and launch operations. I was lucky enough to travel all over the world in support of these missions. Eventually I became the head of the entire NASA Sounding Rockets Program and now have responsibility for all aspects of the program. The best career decision I made was to join the coop program because it gave me experience in my field of work and exposed me to real-world problems that showed me the value of what I was learning in school.

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What attracted you to a career in rocketry?

I was given a beat-up old model rocket when I was in the third grade, and I was fascinated as it floated to the ground on its parachute after I threw it in the air. At that time I couldn't afford to buy rocket motors so I had to rely on arm-power. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I had a fleet of model rockets and I would demonstrate them several times per year in my science class. As time progressed, I began designing my own rockets and payloads. I guess it was just something in my blood, and I was lucky enough to settle into a career that was consistent with my childhood passion.

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

As the Navy used to say, "It's not just a job, it's an adventure" - this sums it up! As a member of the NASA Sounding Rocket Program, I have had the opportunity to travel to some very interesting and unique places around the world. Locations have ranged from the outback of Australia, to the tropical islands of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, to the frozen north of Alaska and Norway. I have been to Japan, Germany, Puerto Rico and a host of other foreign countries as well as countless locations around the U.S. This travel has exposed me to interesting foreign cultures, and I have made friends around the world. While the travel was great, nothing could compare to being there every time a rocket blasted off! The smoke, the noise, the quest for science was awesome.

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

I have always admired Dr. Robert Goddard. He was a forward thinker and pushed forward even when others doubted what he was doing. He was an inventor, sort of like me, and became the father of modern rocketry by tinkering in his barn and inventing things that never existed before. He was a very creative man and didn't let the naysayers stop him from achieving his goals. I would love to talk to him about what he was like as a kid, to see if we had any similarities.

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Would you like to "bust" any myth about science? What would you say?

I have had a passion for busting a myth that science is boring - in reality, science is fun, and you don't have be a "geek" to be an engineer or scientist. I have been very active in educational outreach, and in fact, I started a hands-on science museum where I live just to prove science is fun and understandable. I built all kinds of interesting hands-on science exhibits that made learning about science fun and interesting. While the museum no longer exists (I got too busy with family and work), I still actively conduct interesting and exciting programs for NASA. I think it is very important that all students (and adults for that fact) have an interest in, and even a passion for, science and math because it affects us every second of every day.

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Are you involved in any student rocketry projects as a mentor or advisor? If so, please tell us about it.

I have been a promoter of student rocketry projects for a very long time. I ran a high school rocket club for many years and now enable student rocketry projects via the NASA Sounding Rockets Program. I have assisted a local space camp for many years where I taught basic rocket physics and provided interactive simulated missions to Mars - complete with a control center and a remotely operated rover. University student experiments are flown on an annual basis and secondary school experiments have been flown many times in the past. We are currently developing a new middle and high school initiative to involve schools around the nation in spaceflight activities. I have also mentored many high school students as part of NASA intern programs. I have had some excellent students and have given them challenging projects to work on in hopes of preparing them for college. I am a firm believer in the use of sounding rockets to inspire and excite students to attract them to the fields of science and engineering.

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

I have always told students to work hard in all of their classes. English and history are just as important as math and science. I also try to stress that they need to be curious. Wondering why a jet leaves a contrail at some points in the sky and not at others provides a "reason" for learning about weather or what is going on inside a jet engine. For students interested in rocketry, I would suggest they build and fly model rockets and purchase (or write their own) software to predict the rocket's flight path. This provides an important connection between the theoretical and the real world. I also would suggest (there) is science "education" and there is science "training." In my opinion, training comes from doing, and doing adds meaning to education.

Related Resources:

› NASA's Wallops Flight Facility
› NASA Sounding Rockets Program
› NASA Education   →
› Dr. Robert Goddard   →

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services

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Phil Eberspeaker
Name: Philip Eberspeaker Job Title: Chief, NASA Sounding Rockets Program Office Education: B.S. in aerospace engineering from North Carolina State University NASA Center: Goddard Space Flight Center, Wallops Flight Facility Hometown: Salisbury, Md. Hobby: Science, engineering and inventing things
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NASA
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Phil Eberspeaker stands next to a sounding rocket payload
Sounding rockets used by NASA can reach altitudes higher than the International Space Station.
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NASA
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Page Last Updated: February 25th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator