News Release

Space Shuttle Memories

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Engineering alum Douglas Spore (in white) poses with a Delta IV rocket and members of the U.S. military.  Photo: Courtesy of Douglas Spore

San Diego, CA, Aug. 1, 2011 -- Douglas Spore was just 24 when he landed his dream job: working on the new space shuttle NASA was building. The year was 1973.

“It was everything I wanted to do,” Spore recalled in a phone interview from his home in Denver.

As a child, Spore had watched most manned space mission launches. Working on the space program had always been his goal. He had just graduated from UC San Diego’s school of engineering, which had yet to be named, with a bachelor’s in applied mechanics and engineering sciences. The end of the space shuttle program last month brought back many memories from that time.

“People forget what a quantum leap the shuttle program was,” Spore said.

He recalled standing in a hangar at Rockwell International in Downey, Calif., where he worked, and looking at mock-ups of the shuttle and of an Apollo capsule. The new vehicle dwarfed the capsule that landed on the moon. In fact, five Apollo capsules could fit into the shuttle’s cargo bay alone, Spore said.

The shuttle’s design was all the more impressive because it was engineered with tools that would be considered primitive today, he said. “We didn’t have fancy computers,” Spore recalled. “I went to school with a $40 slide rule. That’s all I had.”

At the Downey plant, Spore tested the shuttle’s thermal tiles and leading edge to see how they would withstand the rigors of space and re-entry into the atmosphere. He drew heat gradients by hand and took readings with an old-fashioned thermal strip chart.

Spore said he experienced one of the worst days of his life when scientists found that a punctured leading edge caused the shuttle Columbia to break apart over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. He said he couldn’t imagine that foam falling off the external tank could strike the leading edge and puncture it.

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Spore poses with an old control panel dating back to the Mercury missions, which ran from 1959 to 1962.  Mercury was the first manned flight program in the U.S.
Photo: Courtesy of Douglas Spore

Spore’s dream job came to an end when NASA faced budget cuts in 1974. Rockwell International, which would later become a division of Boeing, went through a round of layoffs and Spore lost his job. A difficult year followed. He went on unemployment and took a job as a part-time science teacher for an elementary school in Costa Mesa, Calif., to pay the bills. He sent out 300 resumes and landed just two interviews.

His experience at the time is coming in handy these days. Spore is now giving career advice to his two grown sons who graduated from the Art Institute in Denver, Andrew and Richard. He also has a son from a previous marriage, John-Paul. He tells his children what he would tell today’s graduates who face a tough job market: be persistent, network, use your alumni association—and follow your dreams.  

Spore finally landed a job with Aerojet, an aerospace company, in 1975. He started out as an engineer in charge of thermal and vacuum testing. His division was later acquired by Northrop Grumman. He worked his way up to manager of mission and payload engineers in 1999. Finally, last year, he became senior mission engineer for the company’s space-based infrared surveillance system.

Almost 40 years after his graduation from UCSD, Spore said he still has fond memories of the campus. His UCSD diploma hangs on the wall of his office in his Denver home, where he lives with his wife of 29 years, Cozzette.

He was the president of the campus’ soaring club, which brought together glider enthusiasts. They used to fly off the cliffs of Torrey Pines and held a big glider meet every year.  During one of his flights, Spore landed on Black’s Beach. He and his friends had to disassemble his glider and carry it up the beach’s steep access road. He treated them all to ice cream afterwards. But during his four years on campus, the watermelon drop was his favorite event.

“It was just fun and off-handed,” he said.

Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering