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Rocket Boys Still Pushing the Envelope

A group of the first Space Age engineers and scientists, all JPL retirees, continues to go where no one has gone before--this time advancing medical technology.

January 24, 2001|DUANE NORIYUKI | 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."

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."

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.

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."

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