Feature

Physicist Earns Title as Kennedy's Best
12.08.09
 
Bob Youngquist
Image above: Bob Youngquist is the lead of Kennedy Space Center's Applied Physics Laboratory. He has worked at the center for more than 20 years. Photo credit: NASA/Glenn Benson
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Bob Youngquist rarely is happier than when he’s solving problems for the space program.

As someone might expect, the launch business offers plenty of unusual opportunities for Youngquist and NASA Kennedy Space Center's Applied Physics Laboratory, which he leads.

A day can bring in a request to find a better way to dry a shuttle's heat shield tile, a need to improve an existing hydrogen fire detector or a chance to predict the outcome if a solid rocket booster accidentally ignited inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.

"I come into work every day expecting to think and hoping to solve something," Youngquist said. "Anytime where you can come to work and it's a different duty. I don't see how you could have a better job than that."

His enthusiasm and the solutions developed by him and the lab earned the 20-year Kennedy veteran the center's first Engineer/Scientist of the Year award.

It's a far different career outcome than Youngquist expected.

Youngquist earned two bachelor's degrees in math and physics and then turned to applied physics for his master's degree. He followed that with a doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University in California.

"I was planning on being a professor," the physicist said. "I had never considered aerospace."

Working at University College London in England was wearing Youngquist out, though, and he came back to the United States.

Youngquist had lived in Florida since he was seven, having moved down from New York, so the Space Coast was a natural home base for him. He took a post with a contractor in 1988, then moved to a NASA position in 1999.

With a specialty in fiber optics just as the field was burgeoning, Youngquist earned nine patents. His work at Kennedy would earn nine more.

Throughout the 1990s, almost all the work the lab did was focused on the Space Shuttle Program. It often dealt with ground support equipment, launch needs and inventions to help analyze shuttle components after a mission.

The current decade has seen a shift as the engineers turn their attention to the needs of the Constellation Program. They also work with the Launch Services Program on the expendable rockets that loft scientific and observation spacecraft for the agency. These days, shuttle program work accounts for 40 percent of the lab's manifest.

Still, Youngquist said he doesn't know what to expect. Depending on the problem, a solution can be as simple as suggesting a new way to do something, or it might require an invention.

"There have been so many unique days out here," he said. "I spent a Sunday afternoon at the top of the fixed service structure with acoustic equipment measuring the pressure waves as they set cannons off to scare away birds."

With seven other NASA engineers in the lab, Youngquist doesn't have to research and solve each problem himself.

"It's a very diverse lab and we get involved with a large number of activities," he said.

The award also is a recognition of Youngquist's work with students and engineers working toward higher degrees.

When engineering and math students visit the lab, Youngquist said that "in almost every case these students unanimously agree that this is where they would like to work."

 
 
Steve Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center