Rocketing toward first flight: Gary Lantz of Rocketplane Limited, Inc

Gary Lantz is the Lead Systems Engineer and Aerodynamic Engineer for Rocketplane Limited, Incorporated. Rocketplane plans to field a fighter-sized, four seat suborbital spaceplane by mid-2007. This is a fascinating interview with an engineer that’s right in the thick of building a spacecraft for the emerging space tourism industry. Read the interview and then be sure to check out the Forums Q&A thread, where Gary has kindly agreed to take your questions.

OotC: What’s it like working for a bona fide spaceship manufacturing company?

Lantz: It’s interesting and challenging to say the least. The people I work with are some of the most brilliant engineers. I’m excited to think that some 40 years from now, I can sit down and tell stories to my grandkids about “being there when it all happened.”

OotC: Is the space field a new interest for you, or something you’ve always had a passion for?

I believe the major turning point in my decision was the Challenger accident … I wanted to be an engineer to help build a safer vehicle.

Lantz: I have been interested in space for as long as I have lived. Some of my earliest memories are of being at my grandfather’s farm talking about going to the moon. I remember the day I found out I needed glasses. I was devastated, not because of the glasses, but by the fact that it would make it difficult to get into the space program.

OotC: How did you come to choose a career in engineering?

Lantz: I’ve always loved taking things apart to see how they worked. My parents used to get upset because they would walk into my room and see that I had the VCR or something taken apart! But fortunately I usually got things put back together.

During school, I was very good with math and science, and I had a passion for aviation and space. My schoolteacher suggested that I go into aerospace engineering.

However, I believe the major turning point in my decision was the Challenger accident. I never missed a shuttle launch and the Teacher in Space program touched me closely because it was a civilian going to space. I was only 10 years old at the time, but I was convinced that I wanted to be an engineer to help build a safer vehicle.

OotC: If you were approached by a high school student interested in an aerospace career in space vehicle design, what advice would you give?

Lantz: First and foremost, do not be afraid to voice an opinion, make decisions, or take risks. If you have a boss that won’t listen, then you need to raise the issue, or find another job. If you don’t, you will not be happy and eventually will be canned into a position that would be difficult to get out of.

Everyone at Rocketplane works together as a team, and we all wear many hats and work late hours because we love what we’re doing.

One of the biggest tragedies in the aerospace industry is the tendency to push the young people into a hole and make them turn a crank with the assumption that some day, they’re going to jump up and be fully competent. Currently, experience is defined by the number of years a person sits at a desk. I’m the type of person that truly believes that experience comes from pushing up the shirtsleeves and getting involved.

OotC: Do you think work at Rocketplane is “just a job” for most of your colleagues, or is space a real passion around the company?

Lantz: Definitely not! Everyone I’ve talked to left comfortable positions at big businesses and government institutions because they had a passion to do something new, to get on the ground floor of an emerging industry, and they wanted to go to space. Everyone at Rocketplane works together as a team, and we all wear many hats and work late hours because we love what we’re doing. We do not have anyone that stands by the time clock at the end of the day.

OotC: Tell us a bit about what you do. What are your areas of responsibility? What is a typical workday like?

Lantz: Wow, that’s a pretty open ended question! Well, I was hired by Rocketplane as an aerospace engineer specializing in performance analysis, back in July of ’04. I worked with a small group of great people to start laying down the foundation for conceptual design. At that time, we were in the infant stages of not only the conceptual design, but also creating the company! As a result, I was exposed to a lot of different disciplines including engineering design, analysis, IT, marketing, human resources, benefits, facilities, etc.

Since then, we’ve hired a lot of very brilliant people so my roles are ever changing. My current roll is still performance analysis and trajectory modelling. I have a very broad interest and skill set suitable for Systems Engineering, however, so I’ve taken an apprentice style position in Systems Engineering in addition to my roll in aerodynamics. I also support several other non-engineering disciplines such as marketing and information technology.

Needless to say, a typical workday is busy, but it’s great! A couple of us have a joke that we work half days: you know, 12 out of 24 hrs! But the excitement is so high that it’s hard to call it quits and go home sometimes.

Most of my time is spent on analyzing various what-if scenarios and integrating disciplines for our XP vehicle, as well as developing top level trade studies in order to allow management to make quick decisions. I always set aside some time, however, to develop tools and processes. Being a start-up, we have an opportunity to avoid some of the problems associated with big aerospace companies, such as the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality.

There are a lot of exciting processes being developed that will significantly reduce the design cycle. The one in particular that I have my eye on is Bi-Lateral Integrated System Synthesis, which is being jointly developed by NASA and Phoenix Integration. I spend a lot of my “free” time investigating such things.

One of the more exciting things is high speed wind tunnel testing. This last summer we spent three weeks at NASA MSFC testing our vehicle in their high-speed wind tunnel at speeds up to Mach 4 and angles of attack up to 45 deg.

OotC: What was your background before coming to Rocketplane? Have you worked for any other start-ups, or did you come from big aerospace?

Lantz: My professional background was working in aerodynamics at Cessna Aircraft Company in Wichita, KS. I was responsible for performance analysis and tool development.

OotC: How did you end up working for Rocketplane? What attracted you to the company?

It’s nice being able to tap into the expertise of the NASA employees and see the enthusiasm in their responses.

Lantz: Honestly, the first thing that caught my attention was “a space company in Oklahoma.” I’m originally from Oklahoma. But with my interest in space, I found it difficult to find a job in-state. After college, I ended up out of state and not in a space related company, so I wasn’t 100% happy with my career direction. When the opportunity came up to do what I loved and to be closer to family, I decided to at least go for an interview.

It was during the interview that I recognized the leadership skills and enthusiasm being fostered by David Urie. I was very excited about working in the company that he envisioned, because it represented everything I believe in.

OotC: When you tell people that you design and build rocket powered suborbital spaceplanes for a living, what sort of reactions do you get? Is the ‘giggle factor’ still alive and well out there, or has it largely gone away?

Lantz: Funny question… I’ve always been successful at what I do, so my family has always supported me and looked to me for answers if they don’t understand what it is that I’m doing. In other words, there’s never been any giggle factors with friends and family.

However, my co-workers at my last job were dumbfounded when I told them I was leaving to go build a suborbital spaceplane. Rumor has it that my co-workers had a pool going for how long I would last. At the time, the longest bet was only 3-4 months! It wasn’t long before I started getting resumes and people were asking me if Rocketplane was hiring!

Right now, I would say that the biggest giggle factor is in the big companies, with engineers and their management who have been essentially brainwashed into thinking that only big governments or businesses can accomplish anything. It doesn’t help that a lot of the enthusiasts publicly fight amongst each other, name calling and rubbishing each other’s ideas.

One interesting group of people that are very excited, are those that work for NASA. I had my own preconceived notions about NASA that were obviously founded on misinformation. NASA has unfairly received a lot of negative publicity and attacks lately, so I was surprised at their enthusiasm to support an company. Our leaders have worked very hard to develop a close positive relationship with NASA, and the results have been great. It’s nice being able to tap into the expertise of the NASA employees and see the enthusiasm in their responses. We’ve worked with them on such things as trajectory training, wind tunnel testing, space act agreements, rocket testing – the list is tremendous! In addition, we’ve had several agencies come by our offices to find out who we are; all of them left very impressed and eager to work with us!

I spend a lot of time talking to people and I’m finding that with the success of the X-Prize last year, there is a major shift in the public opinion. The best reactions I get are from kids. I spend a lot of time with kids through school and Boy Scouts and when they find out what I do, I can just feel the excitement. I think every generation needs some excitement, and like Apollo was to my parents, and the shuttle to me, I feel I’m in a position to give my kids something to dream about.

Over the page – more commercial space support at NASA, and designing and building a suborbital rocketplane.

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