Philip Eberspeaker can easily remember the first model rocket he ever received, when he was a third-grader. It had a parachute on it, and he’d throw it up in the air for its various missions.
As time passed, the launches became more sophisticated as he built launch pads in fields near his home in Sanford, N.C., and more complex rockets.
Given that Eberspeaker had to know a lot as he built more and more models, it’s ironic that his love affair with rockets grew out of what he couldn’t yet grasp.
“It was the allure of the unknown of space,” he says. “I was going out to look at the moon at night. I thought it would be cool to build a rocket to get there. I wonder what it would take to get there.”
That’s a question Eberspeaker, who graduated from NC State with an aerospace engineering degree in 1986, has pondered for the last 30 years at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. There, he is the chief of NASA’s Sounding Rockets Program, which provides the rockets for research missions in space.
“We’re working on forty to fifty different projects at a time,” he says. “My program enables the scientists to make their scientific measurements. I provide the rocket and telemetry. We do all the safety analysis.”
The research for which Eberspeaker provides rockets ranges from astronomical missions, like the formation of galaxies, to NASA’s technology efforts, like how a rocket could decelerate more effectively on a Mars landing. And it’s research that originates from various locales across the globe. Eberspeaker, 51, says he’s worked everywhere from Alaska to Australia and Norway. “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure,” he says.
Eberspeaker’s outfit is made up of a team of 10 people and 14 rockets that range in costs from $60,000 to $100,000. And each has a cool name you can hear when he breaks down which ones he might use for different distances in space. “If one has to go 1,400 kilometers above the space center, I might send up the Black Brant XII,” he explains. “If I want to go 50 to 100 kilometers, I’ll use the Terrier Improved Orion.”
Despite wondering all of his life how he could get to outer space and dedicating the last three decades to figuring that out, Eberspeaker has never been above the clouds. But that’s something he’s comfortable letting robots do while he stays grounded.
“I had those aspirations when I was building my own rocket,” he says. “But I can live with the fact I haven’t been to space. It’s cool enough to play near it.”