A pioneer in aerospace

by | Apr 12, 2019 | Alumni Profiles, Spring 2019 | 0 comments

Don Neuschwander ’51 entered aerospace at an exciting time. In 1958, the Russians and Americans had just launched the first-ever satellites into space, and the aerospace industry was in its infancy. With a career spanning nearly four decades, Neuschwander worked at the forefront of space innovation, designing rocket launch technology, and was on the ground for more than 50 launches.

Neuschwander, who has a professional degree in mining engineering, found his way into aerospace when the diatomaceous earth mine he worked at in Lompoc, California, downsized and left him looking for work. The aerospace company Lockheed, newly contracted with the U.S. Air Force to design and manufacture Agena satellites, was looking for engineers of any kind. Neuschwander was soon hired and became the first salaried employee in Lompoc. His first task, he recalled, was to bring a hammer and nails from home to hang the Lockheed sign on a building assigned to the company at Vandenberg Air Force Base in April 1958.

Because the field was so new, virtually no one had experience launching rockets. The challenge, Neuschwander said, was to teach people from various backgrounds, then build up crews with a few launches behind them—meaning that for the first few launches, nobody really knew what they were doing. “We were building things that had never been done before,” Neuschwander said.

And it was his extensive background from Mines that enabled him to succeed. Lockheed needed experts in mechanics, physics, pneumatics, metallurgy and chemistry, Neuschwander said, and many engineers didn’t have that kind of comprehensive knowledge. Except those from Mines. One of the first things Neuschwander did in his new role was hire more Mines graduates. When his boss asked why he had hired geologists for rocket science, he explained, “They came from Colorado School of Mines—they can do anything.” 

After that, it was trial and error, successes and failures—and occasional fireworks. “It was a fun job. When things worked, it was great. When they didn’t, it was like ‘run for your life,’” Neuschwander said. 

He recalled running off a launchpad after one of the engineers initiated the launch too soon. Another time, he said, his entire family was present at a launch when an Atlas booster with 14,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and more than 5,000 gallons of RP1 jet fuel, and more than 11,000 pounds of inhibited red fuming nitric acid and 6,000 pounds of unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine in the Agena was destroyed when the Atlas engines shut down at 30 inches after launch. “Boy, those were the biggest fireworks I’ve ever seen,” Neuschwander said.

It wasn’t all error, though. Neuschwander worked on many successful projects, including the Agena vehicles, which launched reconnaissance flights. Neuschwander recalled that early recon satellites would eject one or more recovery capsules of film, which, remarkably, would have to be retrieved by pilots in midair. He was also involved in the Ranger and Lunar Orbiter programs, which obtained pictures of the Moon in preparation for the first landing vehicles, as well as a other launches from Cape Canaveral that were all exciting projects.

All in all, building a career alongside the beginnings of aerospace industry was full of excitement and innovation. Most of all, Neuschwander is proud of “the fact that we were breaking scientific barriers and doing things that no one had ever done before.”