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What does a rocket scientist really do?

John T. Betts of Boeing gives 2010 Spencer C. Schantz Distinguished Lecture

When describing something dreadfully simple or blatantly obvious, people often proclaim "it isn’t rocket science." Yet while we may all readily agree that rocket science is not a synonym for simple, it sheds no light on what a rocket scientist really does.

During the April 16 industrial and systems engineering department's 2010 Spencer C. Schantz Lecture, Dr. John T. Betts reflected on the many subjects encountered during a career in the aerospace industry. During his lecture he dispelled many myths about rocket science and its purveyors.

"I always wanted to be a rocket scientist growing up," says Dr. Betts. "Neil Armstrong was one of my classmates at Purdue. Once I found it was a little dangerous going into space, I moved toward the scientific part."

Dr. Betts joined The Boeing Company in 1987 and formally retired in 2009. During his time at Boeing, Dr. Betts had the opportunity to work on numerous projects including the Interim Upper Stage (IUS), which is the rocket inside the space shuttle and recently worked on the 787 Airplane.

"It's a passenger plane that is made of composite material, which is what kayaks are made out of," says Dr. Betts. "It's lighter and quieter for passengers in the plane. It's scheduled for its first delivery at the end of the year."

Dr. Betts gave a technical talk to the department students on Thursday, April 15 entitled, "Algorithmic Choices When Solving an Optimal Control Problem." His talk reviewed many of the choices needed to construct an effective method for solving an optimal control problem. "I hope I conveyed to the students that solving a hard problem, not all methods work. Some of them work, and some of them don't."

The research that Dr. Betts has done over the years on satellites and space ships can be applied to the health field and weather predictions. He hoped that during his talk, he shed some light on what rocket scientists really do.

"When people say to me 'it's not rocket science,' I try to give them an honest answer. Some people just don’t know what it means. I hopefully can convey a sense of what rocket science is all about."

This lecture series is endowed in the name of the late Spencer C. Schantz, who graduated from Lehigh in 1955 with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering. Following progressive responsibilities with several electrical manufacturing companies, in 1969 he founded U.S. Controls Corporation and became its first CEO and President. The Spencer C. Schantz Distinguished Lecture Series was established by his wife, Jerelyn, as a valuable educational experience for faculty, students and friends of Lehigh’s Industrial and Systems Engineering department.

Story by Amanda Fabrizio

Posted on Thursday, April 29, 2010

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