Jonathan Anderson assists NASA’s solid rocket booster program.
For Jonathan Anderson, there’s no thrill quite like viewing a NASA space shuttle launch in person at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“It was amazing,” the BKD senior managing consultant says of the few seconds after the shuttle blasts skyward with a thunderous roar. “Your clothes actually vibrate and you can feel it in your chest.”
Jonathan witnessed not just one, but three shuttle launches during his seven years as a quality engineer assisting NASA’s solid rocket booster program. Now employed with BKD Technologies in Denver, Jonathan’s first job out of college in 2005 was with ATK, a Utah-based subcontractor that obtains parts for the shuttle.
A chemical engineering major, Jonathan learned much of his work for NASA on the job since little quality engineering is taught in school, he says. “My school prepared me for how to say the chemical names, and that’s about it.”
That was an exciting time to work with NASA because it was the start of the Constellation Program—with new rockets named Ares—that aimed to return astronauts to the moon and eventually reach Mars.
“It was new and different,” Jonathan says. “We were going to be able to design the future of the space program from the ground up.”
Inspecting boosters is a time-consuming process
Jonathan specialized in purchasing and visited vendor sites to conduct process audits, which involved checking that booster materials met NASA and ATK standards. “The goal is to get someone safely into space and safely back home with no incidents and no catastrophes," he explains.
According to NASA, a shuttle’s solid rocket boosters operate alongside the main engines for two minutes after a launch to help the shuttle escape Earth’s gravity. The boosters then separate from the shuttle and descend on parachutes into the ocean, where ships recover them. Jonathan says ATK would repaint and rewire boosters for future use.
The entire process of acquiring a booster—from when NASA requests a booster to when it arrives—can take four years, he says. “It takes a long time with each step needing quality inspection.”
Jonathan wasn’t alone in his responsibilities; he was part of a 25-person team for ATK, which employed thousands. Although Jonathan didn’t make boosters, he did a lot of physical inspection with suppliers. “We would be down on the floor,” he says. “We made sure the bolts were in the right place.”
ATK also conducted test firings of rocket boosters in Utah, igniting the equipment horizontally on a mountainside. “We did one of those every six months,” Jonathan says.
NASA personnel display intelligence and expertise
Jonathan frequently traveled to Cape Canaveral to work with NASA professionals, usually meeting in conference rooms to discuss any issues or changes before a launch. While Kennedy’s sheer size—approximately 34 miles long and six miles wide—and tight security were memorable, the personnel made the strongest impression.
“The thing I found incredible about NASA is how many smart people there are,” Jonathan says. “They are extremely knowledgeable in their expertise and they all had a yearning to learn, and not just in their specific fields.”
NASA says its staff achieves excellence by gaining new skills and nurturing strong leadership.
“Excellence is one of NASA’s four core values and this value is often demonstrated through technical expertise, which our employees gain through a continuous pursuit of knowledge and development,” says Josephine “Jo” Pereira, NASA Pathways policy lead and deputy of Kennedy HR integration.
Another disciplined culture is found at BKD
Jonathan’s work with NASA ended in 2012 after the U.S. government defunded the Constellation Program. “There was really no future for the U.S. space program at that time.”
He then worked for a composite manufacturing company where he was on a team that implemented Microsoft Dynamics AX software. He enjoyed the implementation so much that he jumped at the chance to make it a full-time job with BKD Technologies five years ago.
At BKD, where his manufacturing background helps him assist clients, Jonathan witnessed a disciplined operation that reminded him of NASA. “Surprisingly, the culture has a very similar structure,” he says. “BKD and NASA are similar in the ways they follow policies and procedures.”
BKD now benefits from the expertise Jonathan used to provide for NASA. Partner Chad Back, BKD Technologies leader, says Jonathan provided great assistance when Technologies sought functional specialists to take leadership roles.
“Jonathan is an incredibly smart engineer with deep manufacturing skills,” Chad says. “He has led multiple, complex projects during his time with the team and every client has lauded his performance.”
Jonathan continues to follow the latest news about space exploration. He still has friends in the space industry—some now working in the private sector for companies such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation—and their efforts give him hope for the future.
“It would be amazing to get someone to Mars in my lifetime.”
Booster Facts from NASA
- Boosters each weigh 1.6 million pounds and provide more than 75 percent of launch thrust.
- At 149 feet high and 12 feet wide, a booster is half the length of a football field.
- Each solid rocket motor contains more than 1 million pounds of propellant.
- The heat produced in the first two minutes of flight could heat 87,000 houses for one full day.