2008 Distinguished Alumnus
Ronald K. Baccus
Orion Crew Module Structures Manager, NASA-Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas
Although his job requires him to stargaze, Ronald K. Baccus has his feet planted firmly on the ground thanks to the educational experience he received at South Plains College.
“I can’t emphasize enough how instrumental the quality education and environment SPC provided me was in establishing the foundation for my subsequent education at Texas A&M and career at NASA,” said Baccus.
Baccus, a graduate of Levelland High School, attended SPC from 1988-90 and received an associate of science degree as a pre-engineering major. He transferred to Texas A&M University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree and a master of science degree, both in mechanical engineering.
Baccus credits Robert Pearce, department chairperson and math professor at SPC, as being one of the most influential people in his career. Pearce was able to explain complex concepts in a way that students could understand and relate to current projects, Baccus said.
“I used to wonder how the atmosphere of the smaller classes at SPC would impact my transfer to a four-year institution,” Baccus said. “I found that my education at SPC put me ahead of the game compared to my classmates who came out of those monster 400-student classes.”
Baccus career with NASA began in 1994 as a graduate co-op engineer. Since then he has worked as a structural engineer on two major projects–the space shuttle program and the X-38 prototype space station crew return vehicle program.
The loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003 dealt a significant blow to the space program. Baccus was a part of the accident investigation and return-to-flight operations that followed. A massive effort was underway to recover all the debris that was scattered across Texas. This was an essential task to gather the forensic evidence that was needed to help understand the cause of the accident and the sequence of events during the vehicle break-up, he said.
“This took on a particular personal aspect for me during the debris recovery period when a piece of heat shield tile was discovered in a field near Littlefield, just a few miles from where I used to live on the west side of Levelland,” Baccus said.
This critical piece of evidence, referred to as the “Littlefield tile” informally within NASA, was the most western piece of debris recovered and one of the earliest pieces to come off of Columbia, he said. This helped investigators determine the order of events during the break-up and area of initial failure.
During this time, Baccus led a team to determine the strength properties of the shuttle wing leading edge material known as reinforced carbon-carbon. This is the portion of the thermal protection system on the wing that experiences the highest re-entry temperatures. The team used test data to develop the impact damage thresholds for the wings. Their findings helped establish the rationale to return the remaining shuttles to flight status.
“Seeing the first shuttle lift-off after the loss of Columbia (Discovery flight in July 2005) was very rewarding for all of us as you can imagine,” Baccus said.
Currently, Baccus serves as the crew module structures manager for the Orion spacecraft under development by NASA to provide manned access to space after the shuttle program is retired in 2010. He is responsible for verifying that the structure is strong enough to withstand all of the loads and vibration experienced during the launch, ascent, on-orbit, atmospheric re-entry and landing. His team consists of engineers from Lockheed-Martin as well as NASA. The team performs independent structural design and analysis for the pressurized crew compartments, windows and heat shield/backshell structural components, as well as verifying dynamic loading events such as nominal water splashdown and contingency land landing.
Before the Orion prime contract was awarded to Lockheed-Martin in October 2006, Baccus led a NASA-internal structures design team to develop a crew module airframe design concept for use as a reference and evaluation tool to compare the two competing proposals as well as provide insight for prime contractor selection. By summer 2009, Baccus and his team will have a prototype built so that it can be tested before the final unmanned test flight. He anticipates that the first manned flight will be conducted in 2012.
Baccus has authored two technical papers on shuttle wing leading structural integrity and material properties, “Mechanical Property Characterization of Reinforced Carbon-Carbon for the Space Shuttle Return-to-Flight Effort” (JSC-63036, May 2006) and “Analysis of the Nonlinear Deformation Response of Shuttle Leading Edge Materials Including Coating Effects” (NASA/TM-2005-213842, co-authored with Dr. Robert Goldberg and Dr. Kelly Carney of NASA/Glen Research Center, August 2005). He became a licensed professional engineer for the State of Texas in 2004.
Baccus’ work has been recognized and honored. In 2000, he received the Manned Spaceflight Awareness Award. The STS-114 Return to Flight Award was presented to Baccus in 2005. He has received NASA Performance Awards nine times from 1997 to 2007. Baccus also was honored with the “Go the Extra Mile” Award in 1997 and 2001.
As a team member, Baccus is credited with the STS-113 Remote Manipulator System Damage Resolution Team Award in 2002 and the X-38 Team Award in 2002. He received the Shuttle Reinforcement Carbon-Carbon Damage Threshold Team Award in 2005, as well as the NASA Crew Exploration Vehicle Phase 1 Team Award in 2007.
“My grandfather, Monta Moore, is 92 and lives near Houston,” Baccus said. “He talked to me about getting a plan together for after high school. He was always telling me about how engineers designed things versus just drawing it up.
“I was intrigued by the idea of being an engineer,” he said. “I looked at the programs and saw they had a lot of math, calculus and physics. I took trigonometry at SPC and got started in the pre-engineering curriculum. I caught up quickly because the quality of instruction I received.
“I found that solving math problems for its own sake was not nearly as rewarding as using the tools you learn to figure out design challenges,” Baccus said. “I’m really having a blast.”
Baccus and his wife, Shelley, have two sons, Jack, 3, and Charlie, 1.