NASA People

Center Snapshot: Ken Rubert
Ken Rubert, center snapshot. Image above: Ken Rubert holds a picture of his father, "Doc," who worked for decades at NASA Langley and advised his son to follow in his footsteps. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

In May, 2006, in his rapidly dwindling 50s, Ken Rubert finally took his father's advice.

"You know how when you're young, and the world is your oyster and you're going to be a hero?" Rubert said. "I wanted to strike out on my own. And he said 'son, you really ought to come to work at NASA. It's a great place.' "

And so Rubert did – more than 35 years later. He is lead engineer for the Maintenance and Reliability Engineering Group of Jacobs Technology, using skills learned in pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at New York University and in years of working in the public sector, where time is money.

"Run to failure," an assessment he uses often for allowing machinery to operate until it can operate no longer, should not be an option. Preventive maintenance is paramount in his world.

"In an industrial environment, machinery cannot stop," Rubert said, then uses a NASCAR analogy in which the race continues while a car is stopped in its pit stall.

"It must be frustrating for engineers and scientists to have a tunnel not running when you need it to run," he added. "Certainly it's frustrating to customer."

Growing up in Yorktown, he knew Langley through his father, who came to the Peninsula from Cornell in 1942, armed with a doctorate at a time when few had one.

"For many, many years, he was over at (Building) 1221, " Rubert said. "He was in a corner office on the right and he was chief of something. I don't know what. He worked on the HRE: Hypersonic Research Engine. The scramjet."

But a much-younger Kennedy Rubert III wasn't about to listen to Kennedy "Doc" Rubert Jr. when it was time to choose a career.

Instead, the son went to college at New York University, pondering a degree in English. He finished with dual degrees in English and mechanical engineering after being disillusioned in his freshman year, when he was required to read books he deemed unworthy.

"When I started out, I went to a high school where English was pursued aggressively," he said of attending Millbrook, just north of New York City. "Lot of guys from there would go into journalism and things like that. I wasn't sure."

New York University showed him the way. Or, more properly, what wasn't the way.

"New York University so butchered my English," Rubert said. "Oh, man, they had us read books that were poorly written. They were in vogue at that time, but they weren't good English. Why am I reading this junk? I had read classics in high school. Dickens, that sort of thing. Classics.

"Some of that stuff was so poorly written. The grammar was so atrocious. The teacher said that these are real people writing these books. I guess I had gone through high school reading books, not written by real people but skilled people. They knew how to write. They were held on a pedestal.

"I had to read stuff that I would have graded 'F' and thrown in the trash. It kind of turned my life upside down."

From the wreckage emerged a mechanical engineer, who spent much of his career working for companies that manufactured plastics in several different forms. It's a business that is struggling with overseas competition, Rubert found himself selling real estate when he came across an advertisement for a job at Langley.

His father's admonition returned to mind, and Rubert in effect came home.

"The opportunity kind of found me," he said. "I've always loved machinery, and certainly Langley has a lot of machinery."

Much of it isn't the sort of thing you would buy off a shelf.

"A lot of it was built years ago, which really impresses me with the capability of the early engineering people," Rubert said. "They created some of this from nothing. They weren't plug and chug guys."

Repairs often mean reverse engineering, something, Rubert said, "that comes naturally to me."

Each teardown tells a story. "I just like to see how people did it," Rubert said. "When you look, it's intuitively obvious. You look and think 'what a slick design.' "

Leaving Langley doesn't necessarily mean leaving work. A 20-acre spread in New Kent County, a 70-minute commute away, requires maintenance of its own, from grass cutting to repairing mowers, cars and anything else to cutting wood.

"You'd be amazed how much time it takes," he said.

It's time he might prefer to spend hiking with wife Brenda, or even watching deer from one of the most plentiful populations in Virginia.

"I see a dozen or so on the land all the time," Rubert said.

It's taken a while, but Rubert has come to understand that father, indeed knew best.