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For release: 07/07/03
Release #: 03-102

40 years later, NASA propulsion guru Robert Sackheim wouldn't trade his chosen profession for anything

Photo description: Sackheim

After 40 years as one of NASA's leading authorities on space propulsion, Bob Sackheim wouldn't change a thing. But that doesn't mean the Marshall engineer and manager is ready to clear his desk just yet-there's a generation of young scientists and engineers to recruit first.

Photo: Sackheim (NASA/MSFC)

There is nothing small about Bob Sackheim. And even less that is ordinary.

Contemplating his desk -- stacked high with engineering texts, vehicle schematics, scale models of various spacecraft, and other paraphernalia befitting the office of a leading NASA space propulsion engineer -- one imagines the ease with which even the hardiest civil servant could disappear beneath all that paperwork.

But Sackheim isn't your typical civil servant. The assistant center director and chief engineer for space propulsion at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Sackheim is a burly, ruddy-cheeked, 6-foot-4-inch force of nature, whose cliff-like brow crashes down, alarmingly, as he ponders the clutter of books and papers.

"I'd clean it up," he says, and suddenly that rocky brow lifts once more.He breaks into a self-deprecating chuckle. "But then I'd never be able to find anything."

He sits, and the jumble, not the man, is diminished. He grins, waves at the mess. "Here it is -- the upshot of 40 years' obsession with space propulsion."

The upshot is far greater than that. From his office at the Marshall Center, Robert L. Sackheim supervises all NASA space propulsion research and development activities -- from Space Shuttle propulsion elements and conventional rockets, to innovative kerosene and liquid oxygen engines intended to launch next-generation spacecraft to orbit, to alternative propulsion technologies meant to carry them deep into the Solar System and beyond. In the 1980s, he wrote the book -- in fact, the entire curriculum -- on spacecraft design for the University of California in Los Angeles, and he continues to teach aerospace engineering classes today, at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He has authored more than 150 technical papers and contributed to four books on rocket propulsion. He holds eight patents in spacecraft propulsion and control systems technologies. In the 40-plus-year history of the Marshall Center, Sackheim is only its third employee ever to be elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, for his contributions to space and missile propulsion technology and programs, and he holds a slew of other awards and accolades from NASA, from the U.S. academic and aerospace communities, and from organizations and colleagues worldwide.

One doesn't come this far without accruing a lot of paperwork. And a lot of stories.

The call of the engineering field

Perhaps the least romantic of Sackheim's tales is the manner in which he caught the space bug that would shape the course of his life. No Hollywood clichés here. No open field, no telescope, no small boy with a Heinlein paperback in hand and visions of Mars in his head -- Sackheim is a native of New York City, where the vast starscape was dimmed by the bright lights of the Big Apple. And by the time the Soviet Union rocked the world by launching Sputnik in 1957, Sackheim was a sophomore at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he was too busy pursuing a chemical engineering degree -- the most promising new field of that period, he remembers -- to take much notice of the coming space race.

But like many of his classmates, Sackheim's education keyed on his Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship. In 1961, after obtaining his master's degree in chemical engineering from Columbia University in New York, Sackheim was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, assigned to the Air Force Research and Development Launch Crew stationed in Complex 15 at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

When Sackheim reported for duty, his whole life took an abrupt turn -- straight upward.

"I had a job all lined once I finished my four year stint," he says. "Union Carbide in Charleston, W.Va., a great job. But once I arrived at Cape Canaveral, everything changed. I realized what I was being tasked to do, and I just flipped. It was tremendous. I remember working 36 hours straight once, early on -- loading and launching a Titan II rocket. After that, I never strayed [from this field] again."

During his years at the Cape, Sackheim served as chief of the Titan II Propulsion Section. He also became integrally involved in Gemini, the successor to the Mercury manned space program. Sackheim led development and flight-testing of Gemini propulsion systems, preparing to send America's second wave of astronauts into space.

In 1964, at the end of his tour of duty, he left the Air Force -- without complaint. "If you stayed in, it was because you wanted to be a professional soldier," Sackheim says. "I wanted to be a professional engineer. No match."

Taking up Kennedy's challenge

By that time, the call of space -- and President Kennedy's challenge to the nation to put an American on the Moon by decade's end -- had seized him irrevocably. The Union Carbide job was ancient history. Sackheim went to work for Space Technology Laboratories (STL), a small but rapidly expanding company in Redondo Beach, Calif.

But Sackheim decided to leave the human element of spaceflight -- and the furious, high-profile work of the Apollo program to land Americans on the Moon -- to others. His primary fascination remained the hardware and propulsion systems necessary to hurl tons of metal into the sky and across the empty gulfs of space. Let others ponder matters of payloads and destinations; for him, the key element of Kennedy's challenge was the vessel. The means of flight.

"I was 28 years old, and there I was, project manager for Mariner's Mars Propulsion Subsystem," Sackheim recalls, still marveling. The Mariner program was a perfect fit. Intended to bolster national interest in America's spaceflight endeavors, Mariner was NASA's first effort to launch automated probes to Mars. Mariner 4, launched in November 1964, obtained and transmitted the first-ever close-range images of Mars in July 1965. Mariners 6 and 7, launched just weeks apart in early 1969, scrutinized the Red Planet's atmospheric composition, pressure, density and temperature -- laying the groundwork for research necessary to enable future missions, including potential crewed voyages being planned by NASA and its partners today.

Sackheim's contributions led to quick advancement within the organization -- by now called TRW Corp. and burgeoning into an international leader in the automotive, aviation and aerospace industries -- including senior management roles in TRW's product engineering department and hardware engineering laboratory.

Rescuing NASA's voice in the sky

TRW and NASA were fortunate as well, especially in April 1983 during STS-6, the first flight of Space Shuttle Challenger. Its primary payload, Tracking and Data Relay Satellite 1, or TDRS-1, was a unique new asset, a high-powered communications satellite intended to permit easier communication between NASA and its orbiting hardware, including the Shuttle itself. Its successful deployment would nix the Agency's reliance on multiple, low-orbit communication satellites and relay stations around the world.

But when TDRS-1 was deployed, a motor failed during its climb to geosynchronous orbit, sending the $100 million craft into a fearsome spin -- 180 revolutions per second and 9,000 miles short of its mark.

Sackheim spent the next 45 days of his life figuring out how to first get the satellite to stop spinning, and then to proceed to its correct position in geosynchronous orbit -- 22,500 miles up. "It was quite a challenge," he says, "getting a signal to the satellite to override its sequence and gain control, then stopping the spin without draining the thermal batteries or causing the thrusters to overheat." He and his team worked around the clock, even after others suggested they give up the satellite for lost.

They solved the problem, and guided TDRS-1 into its proper orbit. "Twenty years later, that satellite is still working," Sackheim says proudly.

Sackheim later served TRW as propulsion manager for the Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle project, begun in 1986 and intended to yield a short-range "space tugboat" that would ferry payloads to and from the Space Shuttle and orbiting satellites. His last role at TRW -- from 1993 to 1999 -- was manager of the propulsion systems center in TRW's Space and Technology Division, where he was responsible for design, development and testing of high energy chemical lasers, materials technologies, and combustion and fluid system products.

Inspiring the next generation of explorers

During those years, Sackheim also created and taught a professional-level propulsion engineering course on spacecraft design and propulsion for UCLA's respected aerospace engineering program.

"I enjoy teaching," he says. "One of the best ways to learn something is to teach. And I'm delighted that UCLA is still offering that class today." Taught by one of Sackheim's former students, as a matter of fact -- a legacy that offers him the same deep sense of accomplishment he gets from his own individual achievements in the field.

"When you get to a certain age, what else is there?" he says. "When I think of all the things that were done for me by my own mentors and teachers over the years, all the people who guided and coached me, I have to give something back.

"Teaching, passing on knowledge, is an immensely rewarding way to do that," he adds.

Joining the NASA team

Most engineers would have been content to retire after 35 years with the same company and so many academic and industry achievements under his belt. But in 1999, a former colleague at TRW named Art Stephenson, who had just been tapped to assume the directorship of the Marshall Space Flight Center, approached Sackheim about coming to work for him in "Rocket City" -- Huntsville, Ala., home to the nation's original rocket research think tank and still a key leader in NASA's space propulsion R&D.

Sackheim took him up on the offer. He and his wife of 40 years, Babette, moved from California to Huntsville, where Sackheim joined the Marshall Center as assistant director and chief engineer for space propulsion.

The chief draw, even 35 years after his initial romance with rocket propulsion, was the work.

"It was the chance to have an impact on things I felt were important to the country and to the space program," he says. "A chance to try to regain the momentum we had in the 1960s, to restore that excitement to the culture. Yeah, there are days when I beat my head against the wall. But I haven't given up. I can't."

Sharing NASA's spaceflight mission

Today, Sackheim still balances practical research and his NASA duties with teaching and writing about his chosen occupation.

"People are leaving the profession," he says, "and we're not doing enough to replace them, to stimulate science and technology training at the student level. We've got to rekindle young people's interest. We've got to be inspirational." He continues the effort himself wherever possible -- holding forth on the subject of aerospace propulsion each semester at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He is also co-authoring a new book on designing launch vehicles and space transportation systems, which he expects to see published in 2004.

When it comes to rekindling that same interest among older Americans, Sackheim brusquely dismisses the jaded criticisms of naysayers and media pundits, pointing out the marvels the Agency has accomplished in the past four decades.

"Go back to the Apollo era, point out its astonishing success, and people will invariably say we'll never accomplish anything like that again," Sackheim says. "Why not? Why can't we? Look at the International Space Station. It's one of the modern marvels of engineering. Built all over the world, integrated for the first time in space -- and it all works. People are up there living in it, 250 miles above the Earth's surface. We ought to be celebrating that!"

That cliff-like brow drops again, brooding. Sackheim is no political slouch; after years of budget wrangling, he knows the arguments for exploring space will never be as indisputable as the mathematical laws that prove the feasibility of doing so. He sighs, waves out his window at the monolithic test facilities and assembly structures that rise from the foliage across the Marshall campus. Some of them verified the capability of the Saturn V rocket engines that lifted men to the Moon. Others were used to integrate propulsion elements of the fledgling Space Shuttle prior to its inaugural leap to orbit.

"This country has always progressed in direct relationship to the technology advances that have forged the way -- steam engines, railroads, automobiles, airplanes," Sackheim says. "We need to reclaim the visionary courage to continue the course, to take the necessary steps to propel us forward the way those previous technologies have done. Pioneering is part of our genetic makeup. We need to open up the space frontier, rediscover the romance of exploration for the sake of the planet.

"When people tell me there's no need to spend further dollars on research, when they say propulsion is a mature technology, I tell them the first person to say that was the caveman who invented the wheel," he says.

And suddenly, that ruddy-cheeked young engineer -- the one who looked around Complex 15 at Cape Canaveral in 1964 and saw the future -- is back.

"Just look around," he says. "Look how far we've come since then."

For more information:
News release
Diversity News

Dave Drachlis
Public Affairs Office
(256) 544-0034

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