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Dean Davis

Senior Principal Aerospace Engineer/Scientist
The Boeing Company
Washington D.C., USA

Are you really a rocket scientist?

Yes, I really am a rocket scientist.  But, I do many other things as well.  A rocket scientist is a scientist or engineer who works on rockets, missiles, launch vehicles, or upper stages.  I am an aerospace engineer who designs launch vehicles and upper stages as a systems and propulsion engineer.  I am responsible for the overall initial design and development of launch vehicles and upper stages.  I am also involved in the development of launch operations and test planning for space launches.  I have been involved in the development and launch operations of many Atlas, Titan and Ariane Launch Vehicles, as well as 52 Space Shuttle missions.  A rocket is a cylinder, filled with fuel and oxidizer, which produces a massive, directed, propulsive force by the controlled release of hot gas out a nozzle (engine).  Oxidizer is the air the rocket carries to keep the fuel burning in space where there is no air.  A missile is a rocket with an explosive payload used for war.  A launch vehicle is a rocket used to place manned or unmanned spacecraft into outer space.  An upper stage is a rocket on top of a rocket used to place spacecraft in higher orbits or trajectories.

When did you first become interested in rocketry?

I first became interested in rocketry when I was in elementary school in the late 1950s, during the Mercury Program.  I made and launched water-and-air-powered rockets, as well as Estes solid-rockets as a kid.  No, I never blew up anything, since I always had adult supervision in rockets from Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) where safety was always highly valued.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

My favorite subjects in elementary and middle school were science, math and social studies.  I enjoyed science because it let me use my imagination.  Because of my organizational, logical and analytical abilities, I excelled at math.  I had great teachers in history and geography who taught me the meaning of historical events and how geography influenced them, not just a jumble of dates and places.

In middle school, I also loved Vocal Music, Journalism and Drama/Speech.  Each of these subjects allowed me to express myself in song, in writing and by verbal presentations.

What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects in school?

Because I have asthma, Physical Education was my most difficult subject.  I was always the last kid chosen for a team.  I survived, but didn't have much fun.

What favorite memories do you have from childhood?

My favorite memories from childhood were boy scouting, riding my bicycle, reading superhero comic books, and playing spy and war games with my brother and friends in the neighborhood.

Did you ever want to be something else?

I wanted to be a test pilot and an astronaut.  However, since I never physically qualified to do that, my second choice is what I am currently doing.  In seventh grade, I took a class in vocations and narrowed my career choice to aerospace engineer, which is what I've wanted to be ever since.  If I could live my life over again, I would be working in this same career.

What subjects prepared you most for your career?

The subjects that most prepared me for this career were: English, Journalism, Speech, Math (Statistics, Algebra, Geometry, Calculus), Science (Computer Science, Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, Biology), History and Geography.  Contrary to popular belief, to succeed as a scientist or engineer, you have to know how to communicate well, both orally and in written form, so having a mastery of English, Journalism and Speech is key to my career.  Engineering and scientific principals are based on mathematics, so math is vital to my career as is Science.  However, since engineering is applied science, it is very important to understand world history, geography and geopolitics to better employ these designs.

Do you have to be "brainy" to be a rocket scientist?  What characteristics make a good rocket scientist?

Yes, you need to be "brainy" to be a rocket scientist.  Characteristics of a good rocket scientist include: Creativity, Imagination, Curiosity, Resourcefulness, Tenacity, Adaptability, Flexibility, and Patience.

What is a typical day like for you, as a rocket scientist?  What is the best part of your job?  Are there any disadvantages to a job like yours?

A typical day for me involves computer analysis for 50% of the day, attending and speaking at meetings for 25% of the day, writing reports for 15% of the day, working or testing in the lab or factory 5% of the day, and answering questions for 5% of the day.  The best parts of my job are the interrelationships with my talented coworkers and exciting and challenging projects that are vital to the United States and the World.  The main disadvantage of my job is career instability.  I am drawn to the most exciting and cutting-edge technology jobs, but these jobs come and go as the political winds change, so, I have had to be flexible and adaptable to follow the jobs as they come and go.  Thus in the past 26 years, I have worked for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Hughes, Raytheon, TRW, Aerospatiale, NASA, and ESA all over the country and the world.

How long before a project is launched do you finish your part of the job?  Do you get to participate in the excitement of the publicized events like a landing or encounter?  What is that like for you?

I typically work on the front end of a project and normally work on at least a half-dozen projects at the same time.  I finish my part of a project within six-months-to-two years, at which time, I hand it off to detailed design engineers to finish.  Yes, I do get to participate in landing and encounters if I'm not busy working on some other key projects at the time.  When I attend one of these events, it's a wonderful affirmation that all the hard work that I put into a project has paid off.  You see, over 50% of the systems I design are canceled due to lack of funds, so, I am very happy to get these systems off the ground.

In what missions have your participated and what has been the most exciting or neve-wracking event of your career to date?

The most exciting missions that I have participated in have been the Space Shuttle space launches and my most nerve-wracking event was the Challenger disaster.

What does your family think of your job?  Would you encourage children to go into a career like yours?

My family is proud of what I do.  I would encourage children to go into a career like mine.  Despite the fact that we live in a highly technical society, fewer young people are going into the fields of science and engineering, which is going to create a technical vacuum, if it doesn't stop.  My daughter wants to be a scientist, engineer, astronaut, teacher and/or dancer.

Do you have any hobbies or collections?

I am a video and still photographer and I collect hats, rocks, minerals, shells, coins, stamps, first day covers, and air/space/science fiction memorabilia (pins, medallions, stamps, first day covers, patches, models, belt buckles, caps, T-shirts, mugs, etc., which I also sell).

If you could hitch a ride on one of your rockets and go anywhere in the Universe, where would you go?

I would go to Saturn's moon, Titan, which is about the size of the Earth.  I think the view of Saturn and its rings would be awesome.

What advice do you have for children who want to become rocket scientists themselves someday?

Stay in school!!!  Take as many math and science courses as you can.  Learn to communicate well, so take English, speech and journalism if you can.  Music and art can help develop your creative talents and social studies will help you understand the "BIG PICTURE" of how your technical contributions can help to positively influence the world.

Do you have a favorite inspirational quote that you would like to share with students around the world?

"The meek will inherit the world, but the rest of us are going to the stars."

- 4 April 2003


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Last Updated:
4 April 2003

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