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Dennis Bushnell
March 21, 2013


As Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center, nears his 50th year at the center he's feeling reflective -- about feeling reflective.

Bushnell came to NASA Langley in June of '63, drawn by the allure of the Apollo program and with an interest in high-speed gas dynamics.

Today, he spends a good part of his time thinking about air traffic control systems and low energy nuclear reactions. He's concerned about how humanity will survive the catastrophic effects of climate change, but has some ideas that might help -- big, revolutionary ideas too. For instance, he thinks it might be possible to irrigate the Sahara desert with seawater and grow edible, salt-tolerant land plants called halophytes.

Bushnell loves coming up with big ideas like that -- always has. But every so often, he takes a little time to ponder his own future.

"About every 10 years I would go sit down by the Chamberlin, look out over Hampton Roads and decide whether or not I needed to stay any longer," he said.

The answer, of course, was always yes, because, Bushnell says, "This is a magnificent place to work -- absolutely magnificent."

Bushnell's journey to the gates of NASA Langley actually may have started before he was even born. He's an innovator, which is something that seems to be encoded in his genes.

According to Bushnell, one of his early American ancestors, David Bushnell, invented the submarine. During the Revolutionary War, that submarine, the Turtle, was used in an attempt to break up the British blockade in New York harbor. Although the Turtle failed to sink its target, the HMS Eagle, the experiment wasn't a total loss. Inside the submarine was another new invention. David Bushnell had discovered that gunpowder would explode underwater.

"So he also invented torpedoes," said Bushnell, "and it was the torpedoes that scared the British much more than the submarine."

Another of Bushnell's ancestors, Cornelius Bushnell, not only built the USS Galena, an ironclad used by the Union Navy during the American Civil War, he also backed John Ericsson in the development of the USS Monitor, which famously fought the CSS Virginia in the waters of Hampton Roads in March of 1862 - the first battle between ironclads.

Bushnell himself grew up in a small town in southern Connecticut. Though he had an older sister and younger sisters, the age gap was significant enough that he considered himself "essentially an only child."

Bushnell actually credits much of his success as a thinker and innovator to the autonomy he had as a young man.

"I wandered everywhere," he said. "I grew up on a sea coast, and so I walked the beaches. It's that independence that was, I think, essential."

And it has served him well. In his long career at NASA Langley, Bushnell has worked on the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. He also ran technology for the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP), worked the delta wing X-15 and did research in viscous flow physics and drag reduction. And that was all before he became Chief Scientist in the mid '90s and took on "just about every technical area" at the center.

The walls of Bushnell's office are flush with awards and certificates. He's a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the Royal Aeronautical Society. He's published somewhere in the neighborhood of 260 reports, given hundreds of lectures, and by his estimation, at least six patents carry his name.

He's played the game, he says, but by his own rules.

Bushnell is concerned, though, that the American education system isn't fostering that same play-by-your-own-rules mentality in today's children. In a world where invention and innovation produce wealth, he says, American culture is more fixated on athletes and celebrities, and creativity is being snuffed out early on.

"Right now, China has more honor students than we have students," he said.

A voracious reader, Bushnell casually tosses around those kinds of facts. The shelves in his office are jam packed with titles like "The Singularity Is Near," "Warped Passages," "The Elegant Universe" and "The World in 2050."

One of his hobbies is to go to thrift stores and buy big bags of cheap books. Fiction, non-fiction: he reads whatever he can get his hands on.

"It's just more input," he said. "I'm an info junkie."

But he does have interests that give him respite from the constant flow of information.

True to his nautical heritage, Bushnell owns a sailboat and enjoys sailing from time to time. He also served as a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts.

"I had my troop like a bunch of Marine rangers," he said. "We didn't drive up to the campsite and set up the big stove and everything else. I had these guys packed so we would hit the trailhead and disappear into the national forest during spring break."

He even served as an EMT in Gloucester for a few years, during which he learned that it was possible to save just about anyone, unless they'd had a massive stroke or were suffering from internal bleeding.

That same community-service impulse that drove Bushnell to volunteer as a scoutmaster and EMT carries over to his work at NASA Langley, where he's able to help society on a larger scale.

And at 71, he's showing no signs of slowing down. A self-professed health nut, Bushnell says he does 150 pushups every morning, runs a couple of miles every night and lifts free weights on the weekend. He also takes "handfuls of supplements" and tries to stick to a low-fat, low-sodium, low-sugar diet.

He says he feels as good now as he ever has.

So if June rolls around and Bushnell finds himself at Fort Monroe, once more gazing out across the water and pondering his future at NASA Langley, there's a good chance he'll make the same decision he's made several times before.

"I flunked retirement," he said. "I have no interest in retiring -- not while I'm still vertical."

Joe Atkinson
NASA Langley Research Center

Dennis Bushnell
Dennis Bushnell, NASA Langley's Chief Scientist, credits much of his success as a thinker and innovator to the autonomy he had as a young man.
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NASA/Sean Smith
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
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