After a brief career teaching at University College London in the U.K., Dr. Robert Youngquist returned to the U.S. and went to work as a contractor at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in 1988. He established KSC’s Optical Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed ground support equipment for the space shuttle program. In 1999 he accepted a full-time position with NASA and established KSC’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which he still leads today. In 2009 Dr. Youngquist received KSC’s inaugural Engineer/Scientist of the Year Award for his scientific innovations, leadership, and mentoring of students who are pursuing advanced degrees.
NASA Tech Briefs: After earning two bachelor’s degrees in math and physics, and a masters degree and PhD in applied physics, you initially pursued a career as a college professor. What prompted you to leave academia and eventually accept a position with NASA in 1999?
Dr. Robert Youngquist: Well, I was teaching at University College London as the equivalent of an entry level professor, and I took that as roughly a two-year position. When that position was completed, I came back to the U.S. and decided I wanted a change. I wanted to be a little closer to where I’d grown up, which was in central Florida. I joined the Kennedy Space Center as a contractor in 1988 and was able to start an optical instrumentation lab. We developed several pieces of optics-based equipment for the shuttle program that supported a variety of ground processing operations. It was work that I found very rewarding, and it’s very nice when you invent or develop something that’s eventually used on the shuttle.
NTB: You currently head up the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center. How long has the Applied Physics Laboratory been in operation and what types of projects does it typically get involved with?
Dr. Youngquist: I started the KSC Applied Physics Lab shortly after I joined NASA in 1999. I sort of consider it a continuation of the work I did in the Optical Instrumentation Lab, the one that I ran as a contractor. A primary mission of both of those labs has been to help resolve shuttle ground processing problems, but we run projects for a number of other programs, and even for several other NASA centers.
NTB: Much of the Applied Physics Lab’s workload over the past two decades has been in support of the space shuttle program. With the shuttle being phased out, what new direction do you envision the lab’s mission taking in the future?
Dr. Youngquist: Well, we’ve known for several years that the shuttle program was going to be ending soon, so we took an active role in diversifying into new areas. In addition to working closely with the Constellation Program to form a support role, similar to the role we had with the shuttle program, there’s an active program here at the Kennedy Space Center developing exploration projects and a portion of our lab has been working to support those exploration activities. We’ve also pushed heavily into non-destructive evaluation and have several ongoing projects in that area. So, through diversification and supporting a number of other activities, it appears that next year, even with the shuttle program going away, that we’ll have plenty of work, plenty of new projects coming in.
NTB: You’ve been awarded 18 patents over the years, most of them covering fiber optics inventions. How did you develop so much expertise in that area?
Dr. Youngquist: Roughly half of my patents are in the fiber optics area, and they mostly cover work that I did in getting my PhD at Stanford University, as well as work I did at University College London. I was fortunate enough to break into the fiber optics world very early on when there were a lot of, we’ll call them “low-hanging concepts.” They were easily picked. Consequently I was able to obtain several patents in that field.
But the other half of my patents were generated here at the Kennedy Space Center and that’s been a little more difficult because here you only get a patent if there’s commercial interest. You have to not only demonstrate that an idea is good – good enough to solve a KSC problem – you also have to wait and see if it solves a commercial problem. So my KSC patents actually spanned the last 20 years and many fields, and each one of them stands out in my head as a significant accomplishment.
NTB: Looking back over your 20-year career at NASA, what would you say were some of the more interesting projects you’ve worked on?
Dr. Youngquist: I’ve worked on so many things, but several come to mind. I’ve always had a soft spot for ultrasonic leak detection, and that work led to a lot of deliverable hardware, a couple of patents, and significant commercialization. There’s actually an ultrasonic leak detector available on the market right now that we developed, and a lot of interesting physics. For example, we constructed an ultrasonic air-coupled imaging system that actually let’s you see leaks into the air.
Another area that’s kind of a highlight is water removal – early on it was water removal from the shuttle tiles. That led to moisture monitoring equipment, not only for the tiles but for orbiter blankets, and that led to moisture studies of carbon composites for the expendable rocket program. Now we’re working on moisture absorption for ARES V, and we’ve just published a paper on moisture migration.
This theme of developing initial technologies and then leveraging that into other projects to develop a line of business has also occurred in several other areas. For example, in capacitive sensing we’ve developed a number of technologies and solved a number of problems. Hydrogen fire detection, positioning and alignment of flight hardware, and novel non-destructive evaluation techniques are other examples of this.
NTB: One of your recent success stories was your team’s redesign of a unique tool called the Surface Light Optimizer Tool, or SLOT for short. What is the SLOT, how does it work, and what changes did your team implement to make it better?
Dr. Youngquist: Well, we developed the original Surface Light Optimizer Tool back in the mid-1990s as a way to make defects in the orbiter windows stand out. The shuttle window inspectors noticed that if they launched light into a window from the edge, the defects would light up. They would stand out as little stars, because light coming in at such a shallow angle can’t get out. It’s totally, internally trapped inside the fused silica window, and it can only come out at the edges or at a defect. So they came to us and said, “Is there a way to launch light into the window from the surface, because we can’t get to the edges when the windows are mounted in the orbiter?” So we developed a small plastic prism with a suction cup so it can be stuck to the window. You put a little bit of water in there as a coupling agent and you can couple light into the windows, and it allows the defects to stand out like little stars. Over the subsequent years we went in and continued to develop and refine that technology to make it easier to use, to couple more light into the windows, and to allow it to stick to the windows longer.
NTB: You’re also an accomplished author, having had 38 tech briefs published in NASA Tech Briefs to date. Tell us about that aspect of your career and what motivates you to be so prolific.
Dr. Youngquist: I think having so many NASA tech briefs is really a reflection on the complexity of the shuttle program. Most of those tech briefs reflect solutions to shuttle ground processing problems that were brought to our lab over a 20-year period, and they include such diverse topics as developing a mid-infrared camera to image hydrogen fires; developing crane control algorithms; developing simulated hydrogen fire sources; and even constructing cryogenic liquid sensors. There were a few others not affiliated with the shuttle program. We have some NASA tech briefs, as well as technical journal publications on pumping liquid oxygen with magnetic fields, electrostatic radiation shielding, and a variety of sensors.
NTB: You’ve done a lot of work over the years with students and engineers who are working to obtain higher degrees. Do you think we should be doing more in this country to encourage young people to pursue careers in math and science, and if so, what would you recommend?
Dr. Youngquist: I think the United States is going to find it difficult to maintain itself as a world leader in technology development without substantial emphasis on engineering and science education. Personally, I think we need to change societal perceptions rather than some aspect of the educational system in the K-12 range. But I’m really a little ignorant of that. I think my primary impact has been through college students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I’ve worked closely with many of those, helping them to gain insight into how their education will become applicable after graduation and in providing research areas and guidance for their graduate work.
NTB: In 2009 you won the Kennedy Space Center’s first ever Engineer/Scientist of the Year Award. Considering all of the great engineers and scientists who have worked there over the years, can you describe for our readers what winning that award meant to you?
Dr. Youngquist: I was incredibly touched by the outpouring of congratulations that occurred, both when I received the award and during the months afterward. Being selected for this award was an honor and I greatly appreciate it, but the emotional celebration that followed helped me realize what an impact I’ve had on the technical community here at the Kennedy Space Center over the last 20 years.
To download this interview as a podcast, click here .