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Rocket Boys Still Pushing the Envelope

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They came together in the 1940s and ‘50s, drawn to possibilities brought to light by a crisp, new dawn. Most were young, some right out of college. They were ambitious, unusual in their brilliance and, in some cases, their eccentricities.

Many of these “rocket boys,” the Space Age’s first generation of engineers and scientists, are gone, perhaps to the heavens they once explored. But for a small group of Jet Propulsion Laboratory retirees, work continues. Using skills developed in the space program, members of the Volunteer Professionals for Medical Advancement are working with local hospitals to further medical technology.

Among their accomplishments: design of an automated oxygen enrichment system for premature babies; solving a blood clot problem related to stents by using an electropolishing process developed in the aerospace industry; design of an isolation chamber used to test asthma/allergy sensitivity; development of a computer database that will provide important information on treatment of childhood illnesses to pediatricians around the world.

It is not coincidental that old men should choose to focus on medical technology, says founder Herman Bank, 84. “As one gets older,” he says, “medical treatment becomes a more important part of your life.”

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Board member Mickey Alper, like many of his colleagues, worked on the nation’s first satellite sent into orbit. Now 70, he fights cancer. He participates in the group as treatment allows, helping decide which projects are feasible and which are likely to require the resources of private business. Albert Hibbs, 76, who once dreamed of going to the moon, is arthritic and has suffered a series of strokes. His role with the group is spokesman.

Both men remain driven by a spirit of exploration. In retirement, Hibbs has ridden on the backs of elephants to study the sloth bear and has traveled to Borneo to study effects of lost habitat on the orangutan. He currently is in Antarctica. The volunteer work allows them continued involvement in important work, they say, sustaining a sense of vitality to lives increasingly affected by disarming characteristics of aging.

Apart from serving as VPMA board member, Robert Nathan, 73, devotes much of his time to research on aging. There may come a point, perhaps in his lifetime, when people will live considerably longer, he says. For Nathan, even immortality is conceivable.

If it sounds like science fiction, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Board member Lon Isenberg, 75, teaches classes through the Continuing Learning Experience program at Cal State Fullerton. One of his topics: “Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s scientific fact.”

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Following World War II, aeronautics attracted many top engineers in pursuit of traditional challenges. The “rocket boys,” however, had visions built not only of engineering principles but also of science fiction and a deeply held fascination with the phenomena of UFOs, other life forms--the spectrum of possibilities in the beyond.

“The brightest minds in the country, to the extent that they had engineering capabilities . . . went into aeronautics,” says American University professor Howard McCurdy, who has written four books on NASA, of which JPL is a part. The research and development facility in Pasadena is managed by Caltech.

“The really weird people went into rocketry. . . . That was Buck Rogers stuff. The only people during the 1930s and ‘40s who were advocating space exploration were science fiction writers. Nobody was even thinking about space travel. It just wasn’t real.”

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That changed in October 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik. Three months later, America’s space program began with the successful launch of Explorer I, the nation’s first satellite to orbit the Earth.

Bank was supervisor of structural design on the project. He also was project engineer for the nation’s first two-stage rocket, the first to be launched from Cape Canaveral. He later worked as a supervisor on the Ranger and Surveyor lunar projects.

As a young man, he rode the rails and hitchhiked throughout the country in pursuit of discovery. He had no intention of staying put when he signed on at JPL in 1947; but he ended up staying for 37 years. In the mid-1940s, about 300 people worked there; today about 5,000 employees and on-site contractors work at the JPL campus north of the Rose Bowl.

Like many of his colleagues, Bank was attracted to the challenges involved in space work. What he didn’t realize was that his greatest challenge would come with retirement.

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When Bank stepped down in the early ‘80s, he was suddenly faced with a question: What would he do with the rest of his life?

“I can’t go to a senior center and listen to lectures about flowers and stuff like that,” he says. “I’m not built that way. . . . I was always a workaholic, and to cut your work off abruptly is very difficult. Some people can’t make it. Some people end up ill from it.”

He immediately went to work forming an association for JPL retirees. Then 10 years ago, he founded VPMA.

“In terms of accomplishment, I’m more satisfied with what I’m doing in retirement than I was with space,” says Bank, who lives in Altadena. “We save babies’ lives. . . . My career was exciting, and it’s great that it contributed to the progress of the world, but when you’re looking at a little baby that needs oxygen, and you put in a little system that keeps him alive, that’s hard to beat in terms of satisfaction.”

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The volunteer group meets monthly in the basement of the Caltech alumni building. It has about 15 active members, all of whom entered retirement from an era of unique endeavor.

The space program demanded that they extend themselves beyond old boundaries, approaching their work with the assumption that for every problem, there was a solution that needed only to be found. It was a period in which discovery and technology advanced so rapidly that there seemed no limits.

In retirement, they faced new boundaries, and this time there were limits, spelled out in the obituaries of the company newsletter. Their perspectives have shifted as they consider what awaits them beyond this new horizon.

“I don’t dwell on it,” says Bank. “I know I’m going to have a limited life. It doesn’t frighten me, not yet. I’ve seen a few people die. I think I’ll do the same.”

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He Knew Important Work Would Be Done

Even in remission, the cancer seemed coiled, and there was always fear that it might strike again. After four years, it did, forcing Mickey Alper of Pasadena back into treatment last winter. If the disease takes him down this time, he says, he will accept it, knowing that he has lived well.

Two years ago, Bank asked Alper if he would serve on the volunteer group’s board of directors. Alper suspected that under Bank’s direction, important work would be done, just as it was done at the lab.

“I think Herman’s idea is wonderful,” says Alper. “There is a lot of retired engineering talent that can be brought to bear on issues that private companies wouldn’t initially get involved in. I think it’s a good model that can be used by any group of retired professionals.”

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Hibbs, who worked at JPL for 37 years, can no longer use his right hand, but he has taught himself to write with his left well enough to sign his name and do crossword puzzles. There is a degree of frustration and anger in growing old, he says, particularly for a man who, in his youth, felt he could solve any problem, overcome any challenge. “I was sort of a vain young man, as many young men are, and I understood that physics was the toughest subject there was in those days. Now it’s genetics, but in those days it was physics.”

There was another reason for his decision to study physics and work at JPL. It had to do with the feeling that washed over him from the time he was a child each time he looked up at the moon. A student of Buck Rogers, he dreamed of traveling through space.

In 1967, Hibbs was chosen by judges from the National Academy of Sciences to be tested for the Apollo program. After a week of psychological and physical tests, he was made a candidate for Apollo 25, but the program was discontinued. And then Hibbs grew old.

“I had already participated in the Ranger and Surveyor programs, the machines that went to the moon,” Hibbs says. “So even though I didn’t make it to the moon, my machines did. It was not quite as good--but it was pretty good.”

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Hibbs was system analyst on the landmark Explorer I project. A lot was riding on the project. Following the launch, Hibbs entered the back room of a Cape Canaveral Quonset hut filled with anxious Army brass. He announced that the mission was, indeed, a success, that Explorer I was in orbit, where it would remain for years. The country’s space program had begun.

Following the announcement, Hibbs left the room, looked up at the sky and wept.

All Paths Lead to the Same Place

Lon Isenberg has a theory about life that says there are forks in the road, which he calls “nodes.” Sometimes when we encounter these nodes, we control which path we choose to take, and other times circumstances decide for us. Eventually, however, all paths lead to the same place.

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Isenberg graduated in chemistry from UCLA and was offered an opportunity to attend medical school in Ottawa, but with his wife expecting their first child, he opted for a paycheck and found work in aerospace, eventually earning a doctorate of science from Princeton.

The importance of VPMA in his life is that it brought him to another node, allowing him to work in the medical field. Eventually, he says, you arrive where you belong.

Robert Nathan of Pasadena has entered a new frontier. A physical chemist trained in crystallography, he has, in retirement, shifted his attention from the far reaches of space to the inner space of man. He studies aging in pursuit of lengthening human life.

There was a time when the public could not fathom the possibility of sending men to the moon. In this new frontier, it is equally difficult to envision human immortality. “Over the past couple years, things have really been exploding,” Nathan says. “Aging research has pretty much been standing still the last 30 years. Then all the sudden in the last four to five years, the knowledge has exploded and made aging research a legitimate function.”

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His career at JPL began in 1959, when he was made a group supervisor in charge of data analysis. In the early 1960s, when he saw the first images coming back from space, his reaction was void of romantic notions of historical achievement.

“Gee these are crappy,” he thought. “How can I fix them up?”

In 1969, he received a $3-million grant from the National Institutes of Health to transfer digital imaging technology to biomedical applications. That JPL project lasted five years; when it was over he was made a senior scientist at the lab.

It was work he loved--and hated to leave. “I have a great deal of anger and resentment that we are forced to take on a hat called retirement,” he says. “I discovered later that it was a misguided attitude.”

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In retirement, he says, the co-founder of the Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group has never been busier or more enthused about his work.

“It’s a shame that we spend our whole existence just surviving, and it’s only in our so-called golden years, when no one’s expecting anything from us, that we’re ready to make major contributions.”

In his current work, Nathan has found critics, some of whom have no interest in extending life.

“Some people say, ‘Live longer? How depressing.’ They don’t want it. They want finite existence. They find life to be a drudgery. I find it exciting. I don’t have enough time to do all the things I want to do. I’m still falling behind. The longer I live, the longer my list of things to do becomes. I need more time. Yes, I want to live as long as possible.”

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Looking back, perhaps these rocket boys weren’t the weird ones after all. Maybe the weird ones were those who never saw so much possibility in life--never wanted more of it. Never looked up and wept at the beauty of the universe.


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