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Engineers Put Hearts, Souls Into Rockets

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

When McDonnell Douglas’ space business slumped in the mid-1970s, rocket engineer Casey Patelski found himself without a launch to look forward to for the first time in two decades.

He also found himself without a job.

Patelski was one of thousands of McDonnell Douglas employees in Huntington Beach who were laid off when the company’s Apollo and Skylab programs drew to a close.

Patelski quickly found a job with Fluor Corp. building oil refineries in Saudi Arabia and gas pipelines in Thailand.

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Though he found that work interesting, Patelski says he jumped at the chance to return to the rocket business in 1987 when McDonnell Douglas asked him back to work on its Delta rocket program. The program had been newly revived because the government’s space shuttle was barred from launches of commercial satellites in the wake of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Patelski was joined by dozens of other former McDonnell Douglas engineers who had been laid off in the 1970s. “We all had space in our blood,” Patelski, 60, said in a recent interview. “So, when there was an opportunity to come back, I came back.”

Patelski was part of a small group of about 20 scientists and engineers who worked on the original Delta rocket program in 1960. McDonnell Douglas had received a National Aeronautics and Space Administration contract to develop the first satellite launch vehicle. The satellite was to launch an experimental, 150-pound inflatable balloon called the Echo to study how radio signals could be sent and received by bouncing them off an object in space.

“It was very challenging work because there was no one who had any experience launching satellites,” Patelski said. “We were all in our 20s and 30s. We were so young, and we just felt it was a real technical challenge to design the thing and get a satellite into orbit.

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“To get a satellite to stay in a stationary orbit, you must first get it over the Equator. The objective is to get the correct speed, velocity and engine cutoff all at the proper time,” Patelski said.

‘A Piece of the Action’

The first launch failed when the Echo balloon did not properly inflate. The second launch was a success.

The Delta rocket technology that Patelski and the others worked on had its origins in the German V-2 program of World War II and was brought to the United States by a group of German scientists after the war. The technology was used for the Thor ballistic missile in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Over the years, the Delta has been scheduled to be phased out several times. In mid-1984, the Delta production line was shut down for 2 1/2 years. It was reopened in January, 1987, after McDonnell Douglas was awarded a large Air Force contract.

Patelski, a Costa Mesa resident who through the years has watched more than 25 Delta launches, is glad to see the Delta back in business because “it gives you a feeling that the space program is back on its feet.”

“The esprit de corps is different with a rocket,” Patelski said. “You each have a piece of the action. That’s your little valve or your little transistor in there. Each person feels that part of the rocket is his or hers.”


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