Engineer's Past Triumphs Pave Way to Future
Herb Rice joined NASA the year astronauts first left Earth for the moon. As one of the longest tenured employees at the Kennedy Space Center, he is now part of the team that is preparing to send humans even farther into space.
Starting work with NASA in 1968, Rice contributed to the Apollo, space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) programs. Today, he is helping prepare for future programs such as the Ground Systems Development and Operations, Space Launch System, and Orion.
The past 44 years has seen many changes in America's space agency, but Rice believes the biggest difference is the advances in computers.
"Apollo had amazingly few computer systems and no micro-processors," he said. "The Saturn V avionics were huge. We didn't even think about the weight of avionics when planning for the shuttle."
Rice believes NASA is headed in the right direction for the future.
"Transitioning to commercial companies the job of getting crews to the space station and low Earth orbit is a good idea," he said. "NASA's job has always been exploration – going beyond. I believe that's what we should be doing."
Growing up in Louisa, Ky., a small town on the state line with West Virginia, Rice was one of many young Americans who were inspired by the fledgling space race that began in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik.
"I was fascinated with rockets and wanted to build and launch my own," said Rice. "Some of my models launched successfully, but I also had a few blow up."
Rice's story is reminiscent of Homer Hickam's in his book, "Rocket Boys." The narrative relates growing up in a West Virginia coal mining town, and Hickam's pursuit of amateur rocketry while dreaming of working in America's space program.
After Hickam's memoir was made into the movie "October Sky," some of Rice's friends and relatives told him both the book and motion picture mirrored his own experience. Like Hickam, Rice would end up with a career with NASA.
At Kentucky's Morehead State University, Rice earned degrees in math and physics and went on to earn a master's in nuclear physics at the University of Kentucky. Shortly afterward he heard NASA was looking for engineers and quickly applied.
"I was offered a job at Kennedy during the summer of 1967," he said. "I started the next year."
Rice began at a pivotal period for the then 10-year-old space agency. NASA was still recovering from the loss of three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire while preparing for the first flights to the moon.
"I started in the Design Engineering Directorate," he said. "We were restructuring the environmental control system to use nitrogen along with oxygen in the crew cabin of the Apollo spacecraft."
By the end of 1968, Apollo 7 and Apollo 8 had both flown successfully.
During Rice's second year with the space agency, President John F. Kennedy's goal to land on the moon was achieved July 20, 1969.
"It was like one non-stop party all up and down Brevard County after Apollo 11 landed," Rice said. "That whole period was fun. We all knew we were a part of something historic."
As Apollo neared completion and with the space shuttle on the horizon, Rice began work as a section chief on an automated, computer-controlled system for the firing rooms.
During 1983, Rice transferred to the NASA shuttle payload organization at Kennedy. He explained that one aspect of the work was integrating payloads from various countries.
"We had payloads and experiments from France, Italy and Japan, as well as other countries," he said. "We had to ensure all of the equipment was compatible. That was interesting, working with representatives of agencies from different nations."
That international collaboration served Rice well. In the early 1990s, his career focus moved to the space station.
"I spent the next seven to eight years as the Information Technology consultant for the ISS Payload Directorate."
Rice is now working in the Ground Systems Development and Operations program helping develop the Space Launch System, an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle that will provide a new capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.
"I'm coordinating radio frequency agreements between Kennedy, Johnson Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center," he said. "This is to ensure the flight vehicles can communicate with ground control rooms while at the pad and during flight."
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center