Rocket Man

By Jasmine Michaelson
The Herald Journal
June 9, 2004

Charles Swenson (his students call him Chuck) apologizes for the messy desk in his office Monday morning.

"I had a eureka moment," is his explanation. "I came up with this new approach last Thursday/Friday-ish and all weekend my little head's just been spinning around."

His eureka moment occurred while he was trying to figure out a new way to combine the latest state of the art equipment into an impedance probe that would measure the electrical properties of the ionosphere, a thin, upper region of the atmosphere composed of electrons that have been stripped from atoms by the sun's x- and UV rays.

Whoa. What?

"A probe is like a capacitor," he explains after a thoughtful sigh and a pause. "It has one capacitance in air and a different capacitance in water. In space there are electrons and ions that change it."


"I don't know how to explain it any better than that," he says apologetically.

Suffice it to say Swenson's work is hard. And he's worked hard to be able to do it.

A Utah State University electrical engineering professor and principle investigator for the USU Space Dynamics Lab, he also heads up the Utah Space Research Institute.

"Well, we're trying to form it," he said. "Whether it's official or not could be debated."

This means that in between reading students' theses and brainstorming ideas for the next NASA-commissioned instrument (he worked on four payloads last year alone), he's trying to put together a curriculum for a university-level space program, which NASA and the government are begging for.

"There was a time when they would just grab talented engineers and train them," he said. "But dollars are shrinking, and they're saying, 'We don't want to train everybody ourselves. We want them already trained.' They need somebody who's ready to hit the road and go."

It's a need that's becoming especially urgent now that the folks trained in the Apollo era are retiring, and the suits are realizing that the young bloods aren't exactly racing into the industry.

Swenson thinks he knows why.

"The problem is, society and technology are growing in leaps and bounds and we want the next generation to carry on where we left off, and that's a tough road," he said. "You have to work hard to do it."

He feels there is so much for an aspiring engineer to learn that a four-year degree almost doesn't cut it anymore.

"And the reality is, people are generally lazy," he said. "The rising generation wants life easy. They want to make lots of money in a job where they don't have to work hard. In some sense there's a shrinking pool. Who would want to do something hard?"

And, as a firm believer that electrical engineers are hatched and not created, he doesn't have a simple answer to the problem.

"So how do we get them excited? I don't know," he said. "But it has to happen before the university."

That's what happened to him. Swenson knew he wanted to be a scientist as a boy attending Hillcrest Elementary School in Logan. By junior high, he knew he wanted to be an electrical engineer, which is why he got so frustrated when a math teacher told his class that they wouldn't need math in the real world.

"That made me furious because I knew I was going to use it," he said.

As a 14-year-old Boy Scout in the '70s he sent out for his first Estes Rocket kit, a cardboard and balsa wood mini of the sounding rockets he and his students now launch more than 1,000 kilometers into the sky every couple of years.

He hung on to the kit. It sits on a bookshelf in his office in its original box with a picture of a smiling frog and the words "FROGS (Fun Rocketry or Great Science) Enclosed" printed on the front.

"It's probably an antique by now," he said.

The sounding rockets he shoots off now, which are actually missiles left over from "the war that never happened" in the 1950s (and could also be considered antiques), carry instruments created by the students. They just go up and come back down, making their trips short and their data concise.

"They're a relatively inexpensive way to make measurements," Swenson said.

And the preparation, launch and data analysis can all happen within three years, which make it "tailor-made to have students involved."

"It can be a 20-, 25-, 30-year project to build a satellite going to Saturn," Swenson said. "That's a scientist's entire career."

But Swenson has had a hand in the larger projects as well, creating and building instruments used on a variety of missions, including one headed for the International Space Station.

His first experience with this was in 1985 under Kay Baker as a graduate student at Utah State University assembling the Plasma Frequency Probe, which was an instrument that would determine why things coalesce around stars.

"That's where I learned which end of the soldering iron was hot," Swenson laughed.

But a few burns weren't all he got out of the gig.

"It was a lot of work," he said, "but it was a lot of fun to see that instrument working."

Swenson would eventually write his Ph.D. thesis at Cornell on the results. After receiving his doctorate in 1991 he got offers from well-known universities, but decided in the end to return to his hometown and USU.

"There are more prestigious universities," he said, "but if you want to really be in the thick of the stuff, USU is the best. The Space Dynamics Lab is an amazing place."

But Swenson has his concerns about the space industry, and they go beyond recruiting new, smart engineers.

He's worried that the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which are administered by the State Department to restrict the export of some technologies and software, especially in the space industry, will ultimately limit the U.S.

"The people in Washington think they can hold back knowledge and keep our edge," Swenson said, "but the only way to stay ahead is to innovate, to work."

He also hopes someday to see less emphasis on putting people in space and more emphasis on putting technology out there.

"The amount of money we spend on safety to put people in space is tremendous," he said. "And I'm not sure we can truly meet these standards. It's an illusion. And we spend a lot of money doing it."

He finds it frustrating that for the genera l public, the symbol of the space effort is a person in space, which actually accomplishes so little compared to the faceless instruments on satellites that predict weather in space and benefit programs like farming and national security.

"That's what's really important, but people have no idea," he said. "It's not as glamorous as a human in space, but plain-jane boring work needs to be done."

Well, boring to some people, but not Swenson.

"I certainly like the ideas," he said, "and the wide-open possibilities."

Possibilities that expand with each launch of an instrument he's poured his energy into. His Floating Potential Measurement Unit (FPNU) should be heading up to the International Space Station in about 10 months. It was originally scheduled to launch immediately after the catastrophic Columbia mission last year that resulted in lengthy delays for all shuttle missions.

The cross-shaped instrument will monitor static charging on the space station so that a safer environment can be provided for astronauts when they are outside it.

As he explains how the FPNU works, Swenson points to a line graph on his computer screen that his team devised to explains the kind of results they expect to get from the instrument's readings.

"See these wiggles here? Wiggles are good. Since wiggles are there we know something's happening."

Ah, plain English. Now was that so hard?

Copyright © 2004 The Herald Journal. Logan, Utah