Coming down to Earth

Founder retires from Space Dynamics Lab
By Jeremiah Stettler
The Herald Journal
October 27, 2001

It was early October in 1957.

Russian scientists, engaged in a Cold War game of one-upmanship with the United States, launched the world's

Dr. Kay Baker heard the news at the University of Utah. American scientists had been working on a similar project, but the Russians had beat them to it.

The event would be the impetus for revolutionizing the space industry, Baker said.

Within a year, he would witness the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. He would later see sharp increases in defense spending for space research and a new wave of nuclear testing in the Pacific.

"The stimulation came largely from the Russian monster," he said. "We were afraid of them on a defense basis, and we were afraid of them taking over the world on a prestige basis."

For 16 years, Baker worked with the University of Utah studying disturbances in the atmosphere, such as those caused by nuclear detonations, and in developing technology for detecting missile launches from the Soviet Union.

Then, in 1970, he and eight other researchers moved to Utah State University to create what would become the Space Dynamics Lab.

University of Utah President James Fletcher, who has since served as director of NASA, urged Baker to stay. But the decision had already been made.

Over the next three decades, the Logan-based Space Dynamic Lab would become one of the most prestigious space research institutions in the United States. Because of the lab, USU would fly more payloads into space than any other university.

The lab's projects have evolved from small rockets - built over a several-year period for $50,000 to $100,000 - to multi-million dollar projects extending over a decade.

"It was a lot more fun with the small rockets, particularly with students," he said. "You could get them involved as a junior and take them all the way through the process. Now, you get a student involved on a project and he won't see it flown until he's off on a job somewhere."

Baker remembers when 10 to 15 rockets were being fired in a year's time from places like Greenland, Peru and Alaska.

That is not the case anymore, he said. The launches have slowed as the sizes of the projects have increased.

Baker estimates that he has launched more than 300 rockets during his career.

One of the major developments of his career has been the change in relations toward Russia. When Baker began his career, space research in the military sector was based on defending the United States against Soviet attack.

Now, the United States and Russia are working on a joint project to safeguard the two states against attack from rogue nations.

His frustration with the space industry lies in the increased amount of red tape.

"It used to be that you could do your job, and just use good sense," Baker said. "But now you have to document it and have meetings about it. A lot of fun has been taken out of the job, in my opinion."

After 30 years at the Space Dynamics Lab, Baker called it quits in July - retiring from both his research assignments and from his teaching duties as a professor.

Reflecting on his career, Baker said teaching took precedent over his space research.
"The professor in me was foremost," he said. "My main focus was launching students on their own careers."

Baker will continue substitute teaching and assisting students on projects.