Hopson is the manager of the Space Shuttle Main Engine Project
at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.|
Space Flight Center,
day brings a new challenge for 40-year NASA veteran
-- George Hopson doesn’t consider himself a rocket scientist.
He claims to be “just a mechanical engineer who likes to analyze
how things work.” And he’s been doing just that for 40
years at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville,
decades of contributions to America’s space program were recognized
recently when Hopson, manager of the Space Shuttle Main Engine Project
at the Marshall Center, accepted NASA’s Distinguished Service
Medal -- the highest honor NASA confers.
Distinguished Service Medal is awarded to those who, by distinguished
service, ability or courage, have made a personal contribution to
the NASA mission.
contributions to America’s space program include work on the
country’s first space station, Skylab; the world’s first
reusable spaceship, the Space Shuttle; and the International Space
At 75, Hopson
could easily leave NASA behind to be a “gentleman farmer” on his
nearby farm. Instead, five days a week he heads for his sixth-floor
Marshall Center office to deal with a $300 million project and to
oversee more than 100 civil service and 1,800 contractor employees
— spread from Alabama to Florida, Mississippi and California.
Hopson is responsible
for the design, manufacture and operation of the Space Shuttle Main
Engine, the most advanced liquid-fueled rocket engine ever built.
His responsibilities include maintaining an inventory of flight-ready
engines, as well as design, development, production and implementation
of upgrades to the Shuttle’s engines to increase safety and
reliability of the Shuttle system.
day brings something different, a new challenge,” Hopson says.
in his office chair on a typical Monday morning, Hopson displays
an enthusiasm for his work that some people half his age might have
a hard time matching. His conference table is stacked with papers
and notebooks. His whiteboard is covered in an assortment of scribbles
that are actually drawings of engine parts and how they work. Surveying
the disarray, Hopson admits he likes the analytical part of his
But he wasn’t
always sure he wanted to be an engineer. As World War II waned,
Hopson -- like most teen-age boys -- wanted to fight the Germans.
He never dreamed he’d someday work side-by-side with German
rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun.
In 1945, during
his last semester at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala., Hopson
joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He was completing his last days at
boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., when World War II ended.
With the war
over, Hopson headed to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to
study engineering and participate in its Army ROTC program. In 1950,
he completed his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering
and received his commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his service
in a combat engineering battalion during the Korean War. After the
war, Hopson returned to the University of Alabama to complete his
master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
In 1954, Hopson
began his career as a propulsion engineer for General Dynamics Corporation
in Fort Worth. “When I began working for General Dynamics,
they gave me a choice: propulsion or structures. I chose propulsion
because I didn’t want to work at a drafting board all day,”
So he began
to learn everything he could about heat transfer and thermal dynamics.
In 1962, Hopson
joined NASA’s Marshall team as chief of the Fluid and Thermal
Systems Branch in the Propulsion Division, part of the Center’s
former Astronautics Laboratory. He later served as chief of the
Engineering Analysis Division of the Structures and Propulsion Laboratory.
On May 14,
1973, Hopson faced one of his biggest challenges: Sixty-three seconds
after liftoff of Skylab, its meteoroid shield -- designed to shade
Skylab’s workshop -- was ripped off, taking one of the craft’s
two solar panels with it. A piece of the shield also wrapped around
the second panel, preventing it from deploying. The loss -- and
a maneuver to provide as much electricity as possible -- caused
temperatures in Skylab’s workshop to reach 126 degrees Fahrenheit.
other NASA engineers spent an intensive 10-day period trying to
figure how to cool Skylab’s workshop with the equipment already
at one point former NASA Flight Director Gene Krantz said, ‘Good
news, boys, you can change underwear. Jack, you give yours to George;
George…,’” Hopson recalls.
In 1979, Hopson
was named director of Marshall’s Systems Dynamics Laboratory.
In 1981, he was chosen to head the Center’s Systems Analysis
and Integration Laboratory, where he served for seven years.
In 1988, Hopson
was appointed associate director for Space Transportation Systems.
One year later, he became manager of the Space Station Projects
Office at Marshall. In 1994, Hopson was selected as deputy director
for Space Systems in the Science and Engineering Directorate at
Marshall. In this position, he supervised the Chief Engineering
Offices of both manned and unmanned space systems.
He was named
manager of the Space Shuttle Main Engine Project in 1997.
He has been
recognized with the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal and NASA’s
Exceptional Service Medal.
Center is carrying out its vision of being the world leader in space
transportation systems. With its rich history spanning more than
four decades, Marshall remains one of NASA's largest field centers,
occupying over 1,800 acres and employing more than 2,700 civil servants.
More than 23,000 contractor personnel are engaged in work for the
Center, which has an annual budget of more than $2.3 billion.
and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight