The Short Game Guru's X-Ray Explorer

"Half of golf is fun; the other half is putting"


One of the interesting quirks of being on the SpaceX Finance team is that because I'm not an engineer, obviously no one expects me to have a in-depth technical understanding of all the components we build. Yet at the same time I've found such knowledge is absolutely indispensable, even in my supporting role, so I end up spending a lot of my time on the side reading up on SpaceX hardware, which I don't mind at all since I enjoy playing the role of armchair expert! Of course self-teaching is really hard, learning is way easier when you have smart friends who are able to explain everything, and to that end I'm super lucky: my roommate is a former Merlin integration engineer, and another friend of ours in our building has done tons of design work on Starship and Raptor, so the two of them have gotten me up to speed on SpaceX propulsion systems! It pays to have friends in high places, hopefully they haven't gotten sick of my incessant questions yet.

Fortunately this past weekend I was able to partially return the favor by teaching them how to play golf! I've played for a really long time, ever since I was four, so it was a lot of fun taking them to the driving range and being the teacher instead of the student for once. Yet even after more than 20 years, I'm still discovering new things about the game, and a few months ago I learned a really cool fact - it turns out Dave Pelz, one of the most well-known golf instructors and the putting coach for many famous PGA tour pros, studied physics in college and spent the first 14 years of his career at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center studying planetary atmospheres!

Phil Mickelson is unquestionably Pelz's most famous pupil, and if you follow golf at all, you know Phil's short game is second to none

Dave Pelz majored in physics at Indiana University, and while he was an extremely accomplished golfer himself, attending on a four-year scholarship, he didn't quite make the cut for the PGA Tour (he and Jack Nicklaus were contemporaries, and he lost to Nicklaus on 22 occasions! Though that's not so bad when you consider that Nicklaus is arguably the GOAT). So after graduating in 1960, he joined NASA Goddard and began studying the atmospheres of Earth, Venus, and Mars. Back then, planetary science was still in its infancy; the first ever interplanetary probe, Mariner 2, wouldn't reach Venus until two years later, so Pelz was joining at an incredibly exciting time! During his tenure, he rose to the position of senior scientist and was in charge of multiple satellite payloads, primarily for the Explorers Program. In his own words:

"Doing space research was the dream. At the time, the Soviet Union had just put up Sputnik, and NASA was new, exciting, and doing things that had never been done before... I got to work with brilliant people - the best minds in the world"

Pelz (fifth from the right) with the Goddard team

The Explorers Program is the US's oldest satellite program - recall that right after the Soviet's launched Sputnik, the US responded by launching a satellite of our own in 1958... called Explorer 1. In the decades since then, Explorers has sent over 90 missions to space related to geophysics, heliophysics, and astrophysics on a wide variety of launch vehicles, and in collaboration with multiple institutions and countries. It was surprisingly tough to research exactly which missions Pelz contributed the most to, but given that he was at NASA from 1961 to 1975, I figured I could just time fence the Explorer missions that launched in that 14 year period. The one that caught my eye the most was one focused on x-ray astronomy called Uhuru, launched in 1970 

Explorers missions are categorized into three classes: Medium, Small, and University-level missions

Uhuru stood out to me for three reasons: 1) it was the first satellite entirely dedicated to x-ray astrophysics, 2) it launched on a rocket I'd never heard of before, and 3) it launched from a spaceport I'd never heard of before! First, because extraterrestrial x-rays are blocked by Earth's atmosphere, it was not until the mid-20th century that we confirmed their existence using instruments lofted on V2 rockets. While various other sounding rockets and high-altitude balloons studying cosmic x-rays preceded Uhuru, launching a dedicated orbital satellite allowed astronomers to build a comprehensive map of all x-ray sources in the sky. During its three year mission, it made many astonishing discoveries, such as the first x-ray binaries (binary stars with significant x-ray emissions) and detailed observation of Cygnus X-1, the first ever confirmed black hole! 

Second, Uhuru launched on a Scout rocket, the first launch vehicle to reach orbit using only solid propellant. Solid fuel tends to have lower performance than liquid, and even with its four-stage design it could still only lift payloads of a few hundred kilograms, but the hardware was more-or-less off the shelf from existing ICBM designs and therefore easy to design

And finally, Uhuru launched from the San Marco platform of the Broglio Space Center, a spaceport owned by Italy off the coast of Kenya. Now I don't know about you, but I had no clue there were orbital launch facilities of any kind in Africa, so it was really neat to learn about this facility and how the US launched a few satellites from there in partnership with the Italians. The name Uhuru was chosen in recognition of the Kenyans, the word means freedom in Swahili. Unfortunately the site has been inactive since 1988, but just seeing a rocket stacked on an ocean platform is a cool precursor to what Starship could look like, launching from the sea one day

The Scout rocket, the Uhuru satellite, and the Broglio Space Center

And as for Pelz, well things turned out quite nicely for him since he left NASA Goddard in 1975. He was ranked one of the top 25 most influential golf instructors of the century, holds numerous golf patents, and coached many of his students to major championship victories. But he certainly remembers the good times he had at NASA - in 2006, he reunited with nine scientists from his former team, and after reminiscing with them he said, 

"I am probably one of the few people who has ever left a job they loved as much as I loved working at Goddard... I've had an incredible life. I feel like I'm living the dream, and it has continued even after I left NASA"

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