Meet: Dwight Holmes
Deep Space Network
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
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.
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
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.
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