Meridian native Gary Benton has made significant contributions to some of NASA's milestone moments since joining the space agency in the early 1990s. He now works as an engineer at NASA's Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi.
Benton is the son of Meridian residents and educators Dr. Gary Benton and Diane Key. Dr. Benton recently retired after many years as a teacher and administrator at the Mississippi State University campus in Meridian. Key is a computer lab teacher at Crestwood Elementary School.
The younger Benton was at the forefront of rocket engine testing work at SSC when NASA announced in 2006 that SSC will test the new rocket engines that will return America to the moon. The Constellation Program is NASA's plan for fulfilling the nation's vision for space exploration – returning humans to the moon, then traveling to Mars and beyond. The J-2X rocket engine, based on technology proven by the lunar landings of the Apollo Program in the 1960s and '70s, will power the new spacecraft that will take them there. SSC was established in the 1960s to test the J-2 engine for the Apollo Program's Saturn V moon rocket.
As SSC's J-2X rocket engine project manager, Benton oversees that engine's development and the testing of its components. NASA plans to test the complete J-2X engine at SSC in 2010.
"It is an exciting time," Benton said, though a career in space exploration wasn't what he envisioned as a boy.
As a young man, Benton was an active Boy Scout, a band member and excelled in math and science. His interest in aerospace engineering might have been sparked by his Meridian High School chemistry and physics teacher, Danny Alexander.
A self-professed NASA fan, Alexander was among 11,000 teachers in the early 1980s who applied to become America's first Teacher in Space. Instead, he was chosen to spend two weeks at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama "for a crash course in rocketry," said Alexander, who now teaches at Meridian's Lamar High School. "It was very inspiring, and I guess I passed some of that on to my students. Gary just caught on fire with it. He was an outstanding student, very sharp."
"I remember him telling us that engineers were going to be in high demand in the future," Benton said of his teacher.
Although he chose engineering as his major, Benton spent his first two years of college at Meridian Community College on a music scholarship, playing trombone and piano with a jazz band. He transferred to Mississippi State University in 1988, and there finished his bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering in 1991.
"If you live in Mississippi and you want to be an engineer," Benton said, "Mississippi State is the logical choice. When I toured the campus, I was really impressed with the Raspet Lab, and it sold me on aerospace as an engineering specialty."
MSU's Augustus "Gus" Raspet Flight Research Laboratory has an international reputation as a center of expertise in aerodynamics. MSU has produced many outstanding future NASA engineers and leaders, including SSC's former Center Director Dr. Richard J. Gilbrech (now associate administrator for Exploration Systems, NASA Headquarters, Washington) and Deputy Director Arthur "Gene" Goldman, both MSU engineering alumni.
In 1988, Benton's career with NASA began at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., through NASA's Cooperative Education Program, which offers college students a chance to combine academics with on-the-job training by alternating periods of academic study with equal periods of work. The program is designed to train students who may become full-time NASA employees when they graduate. After graduating from MSU, Benton became a full-time NASA engineer at Kennedy Space Center, building and testing experiment hardware for Space Shuttle Spacelab Payloads.
In 1997, Benton transferred to SSC to get closer to home and accept a new challenge in propulsion testing operations. Although SSC was built to test the rocket engines for the Apollo Program's Saturn V moon rockets, testing and flight-certifying all the main engines for the Space Shuttle Program became the center's main line of business in the mid-1970s. SSC will continue to test the main engines until the shuttle retires in 2010. Benton is helping develop and prove the engines for the new Ares rockets that will replace the space shuttle.
Benton's first job at SSC was working on the X-34 Fastrac Project at SSC's B-2 Test Stand. The Fastrac was an engine slated to propel a testbed spacecraft, the X-34. Its successor, the X-33, provided a knowledge base for Benton's current work. The pumps and valves on the X-33's Linear Aerospike engine were identical to those on the J-2, which powered the second and third stages of the Apollo Program's Saturn V rocket. The J-2X, a direct descendant of the J-2 engine, will power the stages of the Ares rockets.
Benton began conducting the rocket engine test-firings, then helped manage the construction of SSC's E Test Complex, which serves as a research and development facility for testing that involves ultra high-pressure gases and supercold fuels.
Benton's career took a dramatic turn as NASA worked to return the space shuttle to flight after the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. NASA suspended shuttle flights until it could determine what had caused the loss of Columbia and what measures had to be taken to ensure the safety of the space shuttle and its crews.
When investigators determined Columbia was lost due to foam shedding from the external fuel tank, Benton helped lead the team of SSC engineers that simulated weather conditions typical of Florida space shuttle launch days to see what kinds of ice and frost would form on the orbiter's external tank when it's filled with the supercold fuel. The team "grew ice" by freezing foam-covered panels, then collected data to help NASA make decisions about safe operating parameters. Benton was heavily involved in other SSC projects supporting the shuttle's return to flight, including tests on the main engines' cutoff sensors and diffuser.
Benton now lives in Carriere, a small community near Picayune, with his wife Sherry and their children, Amanda, Andrew and Ashley. He rarely stops to contemplate the historic significance of his work or how far he's traveled since his Meridian childhood. Busy with his church's youth music ministry, Knights of Columbus, Cub Scouts and his kids' baseball teams, he says he finds it hard to step back and see the big picture.
"Sometimes I get caught up in the routine of just getting the work done," Benton said. "Everyone at Stennis is working so hard to meet these space exploration goals. But when it's all said and done, it'll be really satisfying to look back and say that I had a part in getting Americans back on the moon."
- end -