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Meet: Ken Schrock

expert's photo

Kitchen Sink Engineer
Marshall Space Flight Center

My Journals

In case it seems like I'm droning on, use these links to hop to something that seems interesting.

 Kitchen Sink      Satellite Navigation Guy     Turning Orange      Junior Birdman
 Academic Incentive     Surf's Up      Home of Flight Test      NASA at Last
 Not Johnson?    Yoda    Real airplane


Kitchen Sink?
No, I don't really work on kitchen sinks.  It's just that I've had lots of different types of jobs as an engineer.  You know the expression, everything but the kitchen sink.  I've worked as a Technical Writer (Flight Manuals), Flight Test Engineer, Instrumentation Engineer, Telemetry Engineer, Data Communications Engineer, and now Radio Frequency Engineer.

Satellite Navigation Guy
I work at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center which is NASA's Lead Center for Space Transportation Development.  In other words, we're the rocket scientists designing what will be seen 20 years from now.  Some of the different projects that we'rel working with are the X-33, Bantam-X, and maglev lifter.  You can read about these at the  Space Transportation Program office.


My main job is working with Global Positioning System (GPS) as a navigation means to help launch vehicles and spacecraft know where they are located.  There's no demand for a 500,000 pound rocket going 2000 miles per hour that doesn't know where it is.

Turning Orange?

Apollo 11 launch photoApollo 11 launching

I remember watching the Apollo launches on TV when I was growing up.  Like most children enamored with the program, I wanted to be an astronaut working for NASA. Yes, I did think drinking lots of Tang would help me chances of being selected.

Some of the things I enjoyed playing with while I was in grade school were legos and erector sets.  I almost always built some kind of vehicle, rather than buildings.  I've also made model airplanes as far back as I can remember.  Usually I made fighter aircraft, not because of what they could shoot, but because they are always the most maneuverable of their generation.  I never really did get in to radio control airplanes or rockets, but I plan to with my kids.

To infinity and beyond
(?, You can do that in a book)

I remember starting to read Science Fiction back in the Second Grade, maybe before.  I read The Martian Chronicles,  I Robot, The Chronicles of Narnia, Journey to the Center of the Earth, the 2001, Rama, and Dune series, and John Carter of Mars to name a few.

Group sports were never my thing, but I did play Evil Knieval with my bicycle jumping ramps and curbs.  In Junior High I got my first motorcycle, a Honda Trail 70 which I rode for hours on end in the back yard or in the alley.  I made my own track and would ride it over and over, continuously trying to get through each section faster, or with more finesse.

During high school I wanted to learn how to make things out of metal. I took almost all of the metal shop (industrial arts) classes, which I enjoyed, but was never highly skilled at. There was a computer class, but there was only one computer, and to get in to the class you had to be in your fourth year of math and in physics.

Junior Birdman
Going to the local Air Force base for the air show was something I always enjoyed.  I did spend some time in the Hutchinson, Kansas Aviation Explorer's post.  We got to go to Vance AFB in Oklahoma and see the T-37 and T-38 aircraft used for primary and advanced flight training.

One of my high school teachers had been a W.W.II Naval Aviator.  He taught what was a basically a private pilot's ground school as an elective.  It was one of the few A's I got in high school.

The summer between my Junior and Senior year in High School while on vacation touring the US Air Force Academy, I realized the requirements for being either a fighter pilot or an astronaut required a lot more math and science than I had taken in high school.

I graduated from high school with little planning beyond taking some courses at the local college, working at a grocery store, (street) racing motorcycles and cars, and being a general delinquent.

Academic Incentive Program
I told my Hutchinson Community College advisor I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, then he showed me the math and chemistry classes I would have to take just to get where most college freshman engineering majors began their classes. Again, I did not exert myself and did not do well. I became despondent enough over my challenges that I laid out of classes a semester. I began working for a convenience store, since I could get full-time hours. After several scary incidents at this store in the questionable side of town, I finally realized going to college would help me get a better job.  That summer I got serious about my studies and took nine hours of classes.

An inspiration for my studies was lots of visits to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.   After getting my Associate's degree I went to Wichita State University majoring in Aeronautical Engineering.

Surf's Up (First Engineering Job, with an office on the beach
I put out over 100 job applications and finally got an offer from the Navy to be an Electronics Warfare engineer at Point Mugu Pacific Missile Test Center in Southern California. The government classified me as an Electronics Engineer. I was there three weeks when I was offered to work flight test on cruise missiles and reconnaissance Unmanned (now Uninhabited or Robotic) Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Some of the things I learned there were aerodynamic performance, the design of remotely piloted and autonomous vehicles, and satellite navigation. I also learned procedures for testing that were safe and methodical.

While working at Point Mugu, I fulfilled a long time dream of taking flying lessons. Most of my time is in Cessna 150's that I flew out of Point Mugu, Camarillo, Oxnard, and my favorite, Santa Paula. I enjoy old and experimental airplanes which Santa Paula has in abundance.

To the Home of Flight Test
Since my wife and I decided that she would stay home with our son, we needed to move to some place that had more economical housing than the Southern California coast.  I found a job at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force base in the California desert. Here I worked as an Instrumentation Engineer on the F-15 Eagle fighter. Here I learned aircraft instrumentation, telemetry, and programming bizarre computers.  This is how the pressure, temperature, stress, vibration and on-board computer data gets from the airplane and into someone's hands (computer) to analyze.  Due to radio frequency bandwidth limitations, only some of the data is transmitted to the ground during the test (real time).  Everything else is recorded on to some type of on board recorder and transferred to a computer after.  The normal recorders when I worked there were 14- and 28-track reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorders.  I was told they cost around $100,000 each.  This is due to the fact that have to be able to work upside down, while vibrating at 50,000 feet (about 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), then land and soak in the 120 degree sun for 16 hours.

I also learned about the techniques to secure equipment and wires on-board a vehicle so they don't come lose and interfere with the safe operation of the plane.

NASA at last!
Thinking of a friend looking for a job, I brought in a job advertisement to work for NASA Dryden at Edwards AFB.  He showed no interest, but as I read the position description, I realized that I may qualify and I would finally get to work for NASA! I got the job as a telemetry engineer (called a Test Information Engineer TIE at Dryden) working on F-15's, UAVs (haven't we been there before?) and after some finagling, Dryden's SR-71 Blackbirds.  Here the work was the ground side of what I did on the F-15, receiving and processing flight test telemetry.  There's a lot of work to get a control room ready for 20 engineers to make safety of flight calls on a one of a kind aircraft.

Edwards AFB is about 60 miles from Death Valley and does get very hot outside. When I worked on the planes I was outdoors in the heat.  By working with the ground receiving equipment I worked with the computers that received the data.  The computers were sometimes finicky about the high heat, so they were in nice cool rooms.  I joked with people that was the reason to switch jobs, so I could be inside from the heat.

Not Johnson?
Next I worked as a data communications engineer for the CTAS project field site in North Texas.  People automatically associate NASA and Texas with Johnson Space Flight Center and the astronauts.  I learned to just smile and patiently tell people I worked for NASA Ames Research Center on a joint program with the FAA at Dallas/Fort Worth airport.  Being the busiest airport in the world (by number of aircraft landing and taking off), most people have had to wait there one time or another.  I often got a response along the lines of, "good, they need to do something."

Since the field site has only a few people at it, we all had to do many jobs. The nickname for my function was ODAA (rhymes with yoda of Star Wars) which stands for Other Duties As Assigned. This means the boss isn't sure what all it is you're going to have to do, but they need to have some flexibility to assign you things that pop up along the way. Most NASA civil servants have this ODAA description somewhere on the last page of their annual performance review task listings with something like telemetry data reduction and analysis as their first main task, where mine had nothing but the ODAA descriptor.

For more details on the CTAS project try going to the CTAS project home page. The basic premise is that it's an automation tool for air traffic management. Dallas/Fort Worth airport is now the busiest airport in the world based on the number of planes taking off and landing.  For this reason, NASA Ames has established a field site here for research and development of Air Traffic Management [ATM, not to be confused with Asynchronous Transfer Mode or Automated Teller Machines ;-) ] with several sites around the airport for different research data collection. All of these sites need to share data back and forth with each other and also with off-site locations. Part of my job was to get these connections made and maintained. As with most data connections, it's easy when things work as they should. The real thinking starts when things start looking "funny".

And now you know. . .the rest of the story ;-)


This biplane is a Stearman, the primary Army trainer for WWII.
My friends that are fans of vintage airplanes would say,
'Real airplanes have two wings and a round engine.'

Archived Chats with Ken Schrock


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