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Meet: Dwight Holmes

Deep Space Network
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California


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My Journey

The one great thing about the space business is that hardly anybody arrives without having made a conscious decision that this is something he or she really wanted to do. I know that is how I ended up in this business. From talking to numerous colleagues, our stories and adventures along the way are strikingly similar.

My adventure started at the beginning of the publicized space race. The space business had been going on for sometime, but without much public awareness. I was in my last year of elementary school when Sputnik was launched. Everyone became aware of the space race and I was immediately turned on to the possibilities of space travel. Upon entry into junior high school the following year, a few of my close friends got together and we formed a rocket club. We convinced one of our teachers to sponsor us and thought we were on our way to launch our own satellite. As you might expect, one of the major obstacles to our dream was the reality of rockets as dangerous devices. It seems rockets were categorized as explosives and not something that students should be allowed to handle.

There was an entrepreneur in the mid-west working on safe hobby rockets. He had invented a paper-based rocket engine with an explosive charge at the end. The charge would pop out a parachute at the peak of the rocket's trajectory. We desperately wanted to buy some of these engines to make our rockets. We wrote to him to find out how we could acquire a couple of his rocket engines. His business was just getting started and most states still had laws against certain explosives of any kind, including his rocket engines. Our entrepreneur was doing his best to satisfy local ordinances and convince officials on the safety of his product. He was very encouraging, but could not help us. My friends and I lived in New Jersey at the time, which was very strict when it came to rockets (translate to "fireworks") of any kind. Our rocket club had to be satisfied with making designs we could never test. There were, of course, a few illegal unsanctioned experiments along the way, which we managed to survive. But our shining moment was getting a model of one of our designs for a rocket stabilization system accepted at a regional science fair.

By the way, that man in the mid-west was Mr. Estes, of Estes Industries. You can now buy those model rockets all over the country.

The rocket club turned out be educationally beneficial in ways we could only understand later in our careers. We didn't know it, but we were learning to work as a team, set goals, understand project management, and conduct research. We built models of combustion chambers, learned why a solid rocket motor has a central core shape to increase the burning surface, and studied the elements of tracking.

I'm not sure if all of my friends went on to technical careers, but I do know that we all gained. When I went back to my 20th high school reunion and talked about my job, everyone was excited that I was doing exactly what they all envisioned I would do.

So how did I end up at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)? I even knew something about JPL when I was in high school. I say that, because even knowing about JPL back then was unusual, secret rocket science and all that, but more so on the east coast. However, JPL had gotten connected with a program on television, much like today's Discovery channel. There was a series of presentations on the programs JPL was doing. JPL had received the go ahead from NASA to explore solar system and beyond as part of the NASA program. I was fascinated and hooked. I imagined myself working at JPL one day.

School Years

I continued to set my sites on the space business. I took courses in all of the sciences and math. During my high school years I presented projects at the local and regional science fairs. In my senior year I won first prize in physics at my local fair and third prize at the regional as well a second prize at a national fair run by the Junior Engineering and Technical Society in New York City. The project was a demonstration of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance.

I entered Rutgers University in 1964 majoring in electrical engineering. Those years in college were somewhat in turmoil. We had a small problem in southeast Asia which took much of our attention away from space. I graduated in 1968 and entered the US Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant. On to my first assignment, which had nothing to due with the space business, I watched with envy as the first Moon landing unfolded in July 1969. I made the decision then and there that I would do what ever it took to participate in the adventure. I started taking courses in graduate school. After my military tour was over, I concentrated on going to school and enrolled in a program that emphasized space physics at Johns Hopkins University. By this time I had a family and going to school was not easy. Working full-time, studying, and raising a family are not very compatible. I persevered, and through one of my instructors, who happened to be a science investigator on the Voyager project, I was encouraged to write JPL about job possibilities. JPL, my old friend from my high school days, just happened to be managing the project for NASA.

As miracles sometimes happen, I was in the right place at the right time. I was fresh with a masters degree in space physics with a background in communications systems. The Air Force had provided me with wonderful education in digital communications. (It's the "in thing" today with cell phone technology, but only the military and NASA knew much about it back in the early 70s) JPL was looking for Voyager team members. The Voyager Radio Science team needed support staff to conduct the experiments, develop plans, verify the instrumentation and validate the data. The requirements for such a position just happened to be someone with a background in telecommunications and physics. The radio science experiments use the spacecraft communications signal to Earth as a probe into the atmospheres of the planets. The spacecraft is guided on a path that will cause the communications link between the Earth and a planet, such as Jupiter, to be cut off by the planet. The spacecraft, in going behind the planet as viewed from Earth, is said to be occulted. Obviously, the signal fades, much the way a commercial FM station might fade as you travel over a mountain pass to the other side. The fading, or how it fades, has information about the environment that was in the signals path. In the case of a planet, the first thing in the way is the atmosphere. The technique has been used on almost all missions to the planets to probe the atmosphere. It uses the telecommunications instrument as means of collecting scientific data. I was ready for this job.

I participated in the radio science experiments at Jupiter and Saturn, probing atmosphere and rings. I conducted experiments when the spacecraft was occulted by the sun. At the Parkes radiotelescope in New South Wales, Australia, I was the Voyager science advisor supporting the atmosphere and ring radio science experiments at Uranus. I was appointed chief of the Voyager Radio Science Support Team and chief of the Galileo Radio Science Support Team.

My Job

During my career a JPL I have had numerous challenging assignments, including a tour on the Space Station program and assignments to NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. In my most recent assignment, I worry about the capacity of the ground network of tracking stations to support the current and future collection of missions in space. We are continually challenged to find ways to collect more and more science data and information on what it takes to live and work in space. We are challenged to support an ever-increasing armada of deep space missions and prepare for the eventuality of humanity permanently living on the surface of another planetary body.

On a Personal Note

What kind of person gets involved in the space quest adventure? As you might assume from the biographical sketches from other Mars team members, we have many other interests. I am no exception. I have been involved in amateur radio since I was 15. My call is WA3NPK. I enjoy music, having played string instruments and percussion in high school and college. I am currently a percussionist with the Claremont Symphony. For athletics, I used to play volleyball and adult soccer, but the knees gave out. I now concentrate on my golf game. Finally, just so I donít have to much free time left, I work with my wife in her volunteer organization. She is chairman of a major charity fund-raiser, and I get to do all the fun stuff.


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