McDonnell Douglas

McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company (MDAC) hired me as an electrical engineer in 1977. It was completely serendipitous that they assigned me to work on power systems. I went with them because they were in the Midwest (my other options were in California, which seemed too crazy and crowded) and they were clearly in the space business. They built satellite power modules for NASA Goddard and were working on a new type of battery using nickel hydrogen technology. They were also bidding on the Galileo Jupiter probe and were developing an auto-activated silver zinc battery for that long mission.

By 1981 the Reagan administration was threatening to cancel the Jupiter mission. NASA had just accomplished an exciting Pioneer mission to the outer planets and now this was to be the first orbiter at the King of Planets. The mission was delayed and restructured multiple times. Although MDAC did not win the contract for the probe, the battle to save Galileo motivated me to get involved in promoting space to the public. It had been too many years between planetary missions and there was no way we could let Congress stop the exploration of the solar system.

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McDonnell Douglas concept for the Galileo Jupiter Probe, 1977

Meanwhile, I led studies on nickel hydrogen battery technology for satellites, built a prototype battery, dissected failed cells, and in between supported the Modular Power Subsystem program. An especially fun program was a laser hardening research program. The US was concerned about directed energy threats to satellites so we developed special reflective coatings and tested them by shooting up satellite components with a high power laser.

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Nickel Hydrogen battery cells, circa 1979

MDAC kept trying to get into the satellite business. St. Louis had Mercury, Gemini and Skylab (the Airlock module) as their space heritage and they put in a serious bid for the Space Shuttle program. But MDAC had never built a complete satellite and we could never break into that business. We had the technology but our costs were always too high and we could never overcome the experience of companies like TRW, Lockheed (Sunnyvale), or Ball.