April 3, 2003

David Doody has been flying spacecraft since he was 5.

Well, sort of flying them.

He and his childhood friends built big mock-ups of Flash Gordon-style spacecraft, flew them outdoors and sometimes lit their "rocket engines" on fire. As a safer alternative, his dad built a plywood play rocket in the backyard of the family's Teaneck, N.J., home. The 16-foot-high, silver-painted structure could fit half a dozen kids inside. It immediately became the young Doody's favorite toy.

"My friends and I could fly around the solar system in this real cool spaceship," he says. "I've been a space nut ever since."

Nowadays, Doody is still flying spacecraft.

Literally.

He leads the flight operations controllers for Cassini, a NASA spacecraft on its way to arrive at Saturn in July 2004. Doody's team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is in charge of the data exchanges with the spacecraft through the Deep Space Network, a sort of communication hub between Earth and Cassini.

Passion for Space Exploration

Two things besides toy rockets fueled Doody's fascination with space.

"Our next-door neighbor was a rocket fuel scientist," Doody says. "My father would talk to him about space and rockets and I thought rockets were the coolest things."

Then, when Doody was 7, he was treated to his first peek through a telescope.

"The sight of Jupiter and the sight of Saturn for me were compelling," he says. "These are awesome places. And they are in our own backyard, the solar system. "

Spreading the Word

Thankful for the circumstances that made him fall in love with space exploration, Doody finds many ways to return the favor.

When a planet is in a good viewing position, he often borrows a 200-millimeter (8-inch) diameter telescope from JPL's Astronomy Club and sets it up on the crowded streets of Old Town Pasadena. The line of people waiting to peek through the telescope soon stretches halfway down the block.

"Many of them have never seen through a telescope before. Many are kids," he says. "I hope that I can share with others what was very exciting for me when I was 7 years old."

The planet Saturn with its fascinating rings is probably the biggest hit, he adds.

"It looks like a jewel. It's really beautiful, and people are astounded," he says. "People see why it's so fascinating and understand right away why you want to send a spacecraft to study it close-up."

The author of many articles published in professional journals and in magazines, Doody showcased his talent as an educator in a widely used work, Basics of Space Flight, of which he is the lead author. This detailed overview of the physics behind space exploration and the basics of spacecraft design was originally written to train JPL flight controllers. It became available to the public in 1993 on the then sparsely-populated World Wide Web. The work won numerous awards and today it's used in physics and astronomy classrooms. Amateurs wanting to deepen their understanding of robotic space exploration can complete the course at their own pace.

His latest teaching project is a Gravity Assist Mechanical Simulator. Resembling a stripped down pinball machine, the device illustrates how gravity assist works. Gravity assist is a technique used by spacecraft to save fuel and increase speed by exploiting a planet's orbital momentum. Diagrams and instructions to build the simulator are downloadable from the Web, as well as detailed information and prices of needed parts -- all available at hardware stores. For less than $70, teachers can build from scratch a three-foot wide machine.

Reminiscent of his childhood toys, Doody also provides budding astro-explorers with downloadable spacecraft scale models.

"I think the Web has such potential, I tried to do something different," he says. "Instead of just looking at pictures and reading words and just looking at movies and listening to sounds, I've put up some spacecraft scale models that can be downloaded and actually put together in three-dimensions.

"If you build the Cassini model, for example, you'll know all about the spacecraft and its parts, not just words and pictures. You'll have to put the camera exactly here -- and you know exactly where it is, and how the spacecraft has to turn to use the camera."

From Pilot to Navigator

After a stint in the Air Force, Doody, a commercial pilot, worked as an instructor for Japan Airlines. He then worked as a systems engineer on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, while living aboard a 46-foot sailboat with his partner Donald Whiting. They moved ashore to the Los Angeles area so that Doody could combine his passion for computers and teaching in a job with the Deep Space Network, NASA's antenna system that allows communications with spacecraft.

As an engineer at JPL since 1985, Doody worked on the Voyager mission to outer planets and the Magellan mission to Venus before joining the Cassini mission.

He also volunteers his time on PlanetTrek, a Planetary Society project to build a scale model of the solar system. With 10 sculptures at scale distances in Pasadena, the project will include artwork and information about each planet. Pluto will be considerably smaller than a green pea and placed just outside JPL -- five miles from the five-foot diameter Sun.

Sharing his love for space exploration is a must, Doody says, given how lucky he has been.

"To be able now to work on projects that are flying to the planets has been really a dream."

Senior Engineer David Doody
Senior Engineer David Doody
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newspaper from 1953 featuring a young Doody and his plywood 'rocket'
newspaper from 1953 featuring a young Doody and his plywood 'rocket'
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