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Behind the ScenesMeet the People

IMAGE: George Hopson
George Hopson is the manager of the Space Shuttle Main Engine Project at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

George Hopson,
Marshall Space Flight Center,
Huntsville, Ala.

Every day brings a new challenge for 40-year NASA veteran

January 2003 -- 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, Ala.

Those four 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.

NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal is awarded to those who, by distinguished service, ability or courage, have made a personal contribution to the NASA mission.

Hopson’s 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 Station.

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.

“Every day brings something different, a new challenge,” Hopson says.

Leaning back 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 job best.

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,” Hopson says.

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.

Hopson and other NASA engineers spent an intensive 10-day period trying to figure how to cool Skylab’s workshop with the equipment already on hand.

“I remember 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.

The Marshall 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.

All text and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight Center.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 11/12/2003
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