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Inspiring People

Inspiring Engineer—Dr. Kenneth Atkins


Leticia Montanez playing ice hockey

    Ken Atkins receives a NASA award for his work on the Stardust mission.

In thinking about things like life's history and what inspired that life, I go back to the high plains of the Texas Panhandle and a town named Amarillo. That's Indian country, outlaws holed up at Old Tascosa, the famed XIT Ranch … a heritage of the Wild West. They called the area "The Golden Spread" when I was growing up, giving a nod to the culture, I think, of wheat farms, cattle ranches, and oil ("black gold" to the hardy souls who lived there). Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), my family had none of those bounties. We were "city folk" in little Amarillo sitting on the famous Route 66 between St. Louie and Los Angeles in the middle of a flat plain where the wind blows free. Just before I was born, the area was emerging from the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. I saw tough, independent survivors who valued character, honesty and sharing. These folks were so impressed with the nastiness of dust storms that they named the town's high school mascot the Golden Sandstorm. Growing up I personally got an inkling of their experience as we still had spring dust storms, and when I was 12, a tornado ripped through our neighborhood killing 9 within a mile radius of our house. It spared our house with mom and me under the bed and dad just at our side on the floor, sheltering us with his body.

Where I wanted to go… turned out to be… up! As a kid, I watched military airplanes fly over and private planes glide into their final approaches, heading for our local airport, Trade Winds. In my elementary school days, I rode my bike out there and tried to bum a ride, but had no luck. Finally as a senior at Amarillo High School (AHS), I took a different tactic. I was fortunate to have a summer job driving an ice-cream truck (that's a story in itself) and earning money for college. So, being in control of those nickels and dimes, I became a man of action. I drove my Clown Ice Cream truck to the airport, got an instructor, and bought lessons. So, my first flight suit was white! It was quite an evening when after I soloed the Piper J3-Cub I told my parents! Suffice it to say, after the shock wore off, I did achieve support for pursuit of a career in aviation. I headed off to St. Louis University's Parks Air College to study Aeronautical Engineering, join the Air Force ROTC and become a pilot in the Air Force. I was successful and spent 9 years first flying aerial refueling planes in the Strategic Air Command, then being selected for their Minuteman Education Program where I became an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) combat crew member in a context that provided concurrent graduate school classes, leading me to a Masters in Aerospace Engineering. Those studies and our national priority shift after Sputnik transferred my allegiance from airplanes to spaceflight. My MS degree program had a course in non-chemical space propulsion that turned my interest to ion rockets. I left the military to earn a PhD from Illinois University, and pursue a career at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I was very intrigued by the idea of sending robotic spacecraft to explore places like Mars, Saturn, and comets….powered by ion rockets!

Looking back at my experience brings me to a few thoughts about life I'd like to share what inspired me as I "followed my star" through aviation to wonderful adventures at JPL. The whole sequence culminated in my being project manager of the "Wildly" successful (pun intended) Stardust Mission (from inception through launch and first phase of flight). First, when you are young, idealistic, and likely naïve you make the choices that in fact are major factors in shaping your "forever." I recall thinking at the so-called mid-life point, "It's amazing that life gave an 18 year old kid the right to choose what I am now!" As a youth is when you are that wise or unwise person who decides what that person will be years later. In 2005, I was honored by my high school's induction to their "Sandie Hall of Fame." In my acceptance remarks, I shared with the student body several themes to consider in making their choices. I reprise them in hopes they may be of value for you or for someone you care about who's facing those early, crucial decisions.

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