While St. Mary’s students don’t have to be a rocket scientist in order to successfully graduate, they can go on to become a successful rocket scientist.
That’s the path that alumnus Brian Kirkpatrick (‘03) has taken.
Well, sort of.
“If the term ‘rocket scientist’ applies to me then it doesn’t mean much anymore,” says Kirkpatrick. “There are probably only a few people alive today who still deserve that title and I’m not one of them.”
“I won’t refer to you as a rocket scientist then,” I say, which will turn out to be sort of a white lie.
We’re chatting via Zoom not just because we’re living in physically-distantanced COVID times but because Kirkpatrick lives some 700 miles to the south in Tustin, California with his wife and three children: two daughters ages 6 and 10 and a 21-month old son.
Kirkpatrick received a B.S. Engineering from Harvey Mudd in 2007 and a M.S. Aerospace Engineering from Cal Poly in 2010.
He’s a humble guy, but those two specific degrees from those prestigious universities alone make him a rocket scientist in my book.
Kirkpatrick’s interest in rockets goes all the way back to his childhood.
“Every kid goes through a ‘I want to be a police officer, I want to be a firefighter’ phase,” he says. “I always wanted to do something that had to do with space—astronaut if possible, but really anything related to space.”
He began building and launching model rockets while in Boy Scouts, where he eventually earned the highest achievement of Eagle Scout.
But his interest in building rockets really took off at St. Mary’s when he and classmate Michael Fiddler discovered a common interest and began building model rockets together.
“I was always a pretty introverted nerd, but when I started at St. Mary’s I found other people who were nerdy like me and was able to form a group of friends,” Kirkpatrick says.
Kirkpatrick and Fiddler built model rockets with class C, D, and E engines. Low-power model rocket motors are classified A-E with E being the most powerful while F and G motors are considered mid-power and H and above are high-powered.
“Of course you couldn’t just order kits off of Amazon at the time. We had to get them from hobby shops, which were limited,” Kirkpatrick recalls. “So we got the kits we could and put them together.”
After graduating from St. Mary’s, Kirkpatrick graduated to building and launching higher powered rockets at Harvey Mudd where he was the founding president of the Mudd Amateur Rocketry Club (MARC). Today, MARC is going strong with 40 members who regularly build rockets in the “Mudd Makerspace” and hold monthly rocket launch events.
Kirkpatrick was inspired to start MARC after a trip to the High Desert to watch the Rocketry Organization of California launch amateur high-powered rockets.
“These guys, some of whom worked at JPL [the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and were doing this for fun in their spare time, were unloading 12-foot high rockets that they built in their garages from vacuum-sealed fiberglass,” Kirkpatrick recalls. “To launch them, they had to put them up on rails hundreds of feet away from the crowd that was watching then call the FAA to request flight clearance for a rocket that was going to go above 10,000 feet.”
These homemade rockets had high-powered class N and above hybrid motors that used liquid nitrous oxide as the oxidizer in the fuel, Kirkpatrick explains.
“After watching that, I thought, ‘This—this is what I want to do!’ And that’s when I decided we had to start a rocket club and do the real thing.”
Building and launching rockets was fun, but being an engineering student at Harvey Mudd was stressful.
“I struggled for four years trying to drink from that fire hydrant. I can’t imagine how I would have been able to handle that if I hadn’t gone to St. Mary’s,” says Kirkpatrick. “I don’t think I’d have been able to get through that if St. Mary’s hadn’t prepared me.”
When I ask what his favorite courses were at St. Mary’s, he doesn’t even hesitate to think about it before responding.
“The easy answer is any class taught by Mr. St. Onge,” he says. “He’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. He was a big influence on me.”
One of those favorite courses taught by Peter St. Onge was Computer Programming and the other, Game Programming, was a brand new course St. Onge had created.
“There were only 3 or 4 students in that class,” recalls Kirkpatrick. “We were all members of the LANsters so we were trying to code our own games.”
The LANsters were a group of student gamers.
“We called ourselves the ‘LANsters’ because we would hold LAN parties and play computer games all night about once a month,” explains Kirkpatrick.
LAN stands for “Local Area Network” and it was the only way to play multiplayer computer games like Counter-Strike back before high-speed Internet connectivity became ubiquitous.
That Game Programming course along with Computer Programming would be pivotal to Kirkpatrick’s future career in aerospace engineering.
He would not go on to become an astronaut nor a “rocket scientist” by his own stringent definition.
Kirkpatrick is an aerospace systems engineer. Currently, he is a Senior Systems Engineer at ExoAnalytic Solutions, which, among other things, operates the world’s largest global telescope network providing “unmatched availability, persistence, quality, and timeliness of data for defense, intelligence, and commercial satellite operators,” according to the company’s website.
Or, as Kirpatrick simply puts it on his resume, “We help a plethora of customers figure out what the hell is going on with their space stuff.”
“Systems engineering is interesting because it tries to abstract every other field of engineering in a way that you can simply handle, model, and manipulate arbitrary systems based on the properties of the models you have for them,” Kirkpatrick explains. “My particular job is mostly modeling and simulation, which is basically trying to predict what will happen with space systems in code.”
Systems engineers like Kirkpatrick may not be classified as “rocket scientists” but we count on their brilliance and ingenuity every day to help ensure that complex systems work the way they’re supposed to work so that multi-billion dollar missions like NASA’s recent Perseverance mission to Mars don’t fail.
I ask him if he thinks there will be a human mission to Mars in our lifetime.
“Yes,” he immediately says, then pauses before elaborating.
“Okay, so let’s stare into the crystal ball here. Permanent lunar orbit or lunar surface colony maybe by 2030 with the right amount of investment,” he says. “First return mission to Mars will happen around the same time or a couple years later. But that’s a samples return mission, which, if you can’t even return samples, good luck returning any humans!”
“First manned mission to Mars? Probably 25 to 35 years from now depending on whether you want to do a one-way or a two-way trip.”
Whether or not Kirkpatrick’s predictions come to fruition will depend on a lot of unpredictable variables. But as we slide out of the chaos of 2020, there’s one variable I’m certain of: education will increasingly be crucial to our success or failure—not just in our efforts to explore our solar system and beyond, but to make the most of what we have right here on starship Earth.
Today at St. Mary’s, we tell our students: “You set the path. We’ll help you get there.” It’s a fairly new slogan, but it has sprouted from the much older roots of the school’s tradition and mission.
Many things have changed at St. Mary’s since Kirkpatrick graduated nearly 20 years ago now. We have new buildings, including a STEM center with a makerspace and robotics lab that I’m certain Kirkpatrick would have loved. We have campus-wide high-speed wireless Internet connectivity with teachers and students connected to a wealth of online knowledge, courses, and other educational resources. We have a robust international program with students attending St. Mary’s from around the globe. We have a plethora of new course offerings and options for students to choose from with our innovative “St. Mary’s 2.0 Module System” that we launched several years ago.
These are all great developments. And while they have changed the face of education at St. Mary’s, they have not changed its heart: that connection between student and teacher in a tightly knit learning community that can have a profound effect in helping a student find his or her path, whether that be working to make the world a better place right here on Earth or launching rockets into space to explore the heavens.
Scott Dewing is the Director of Technology at St. Mary’s School. He also teaches computer science and other technology-related courses.