Mar 23, 2019

Alumnus reflects on hall of fame space career

Chris Rosander has gone where no other Fresno State alumnus has gone before: the International Space Hall of Fame.

Born and raised in Fresno, Rosander never dreamed that he’d be designing a cutting-edge spacecraft.

“As a kid I grew up as a full-blown space cadet,” Rosander said. “I remember as a little kid seeing them land on the moon. I was just enamored any time it was on the news about them doing a space walk or landing on the moon.”

His love for space was paired with a passion for building and design.

“I was kind of a mechanical kid. I loved building models as a kid, later go-karts, maybe bikes,” Rosander said. “Anything mechanical I really liked, but I was not a real studious kid. I was more of a project-oriented, hands-on kind of learner.”

In his early years at Hoover High School, being a hands-on learner didn’t transfer into good grades. In one last effort to try to get Rosander back on the right academic path, his father recommended that he transfer to a school better suited for his natural talents and learning style.

For his senior year, Rosander transferred to Edison High School to take vocational auto shop courses.

“After that year, my confidence in learning went from the bottom to as high as you can go,” he said.

As a result, the kid who once thought that he wasn’t smart enough to go to college made the grades and was accepted to Fresno State.

After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree in 1982, Rosander had no problem finding a job. Due to President Ronald Regan’s defense buildup, engineers were in high demand to meet government contracts.

Rosander took a job as a rocket scientist with the aerospace firm McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach, where he said he tackled the most exciting projects of his life.

It wasn’t until he was there, though, that he realized the quality of education he had received from Fresno State.

“They had hired 500 engineers from all over the country from places like Caltech, Stanford, Georgia Tech,” Rosander said. “During that first year, I had a kid from Georgia Tech ask me how to do a basic calculus problem. It was no problem, and I showed him how to do it. I had a kid from Harvard ask me how to do a thermodynamics problem, and I was able to show him how to do it.”

He moved up quickly and in a few years was promoted to the business side of the industry.

“There were thousands of engineers there,” he said. “There were a number of what they called business development marketing people that went and talked to the customers— NASA, Air Force, Navy—trying to get new contracts to develop space defense systems.

“They were starting to retire so they decided to take four young engineers and train them in business development and marketing, and they chose me. So I took that, and that was a big promotion,” Rosander said.

He went through six months of training before moving to Washington, D.C., to work for the company.

“I can remember being over at the White House at a reception for President Reagan and [General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail] Gorbachev during his first visit in the U.S. and his farewell,” Rosander said.  “I’m sitting there in the room with Gorbachev, Reagan and their wives and going, ‘Oh my gosh, five years ago I was at Fresno State.’”

In another six months, his company garnered a work package to develop NASA’s International Space Station.  Since Rosander did some of the preliminary design work as an engineer, he became a full-time lobbyist to try and get funding for the project.

The success was one of Rosander’s crowning achievements. Another project, however, would be the one that cemented his claim to a spot in the hall of fame.

“Those were two most exciting things I ever did: lobbying for the space station, and the last rocket project I worked on, which was the DC-X [Delta Chipper Experimental],” Rosander said.

It was one of the first attempts at a reusable space shuttle and arose from the need to develop a shuttle that could cut re-launch times in ways that a single-use rocket could not. It was also developed out of a need to cut costs.

At the time, rebuilding a space shuttle for re-launch could cost up to $500 million.

“Can you imagine if you’re flying to New York, and they manufacture an airplane when you get there, and then they build a new airplane to fly back. Your ticket would be expensive right?” Rosander explained.

His team acquired the funds to build a one-third scale functional model. For a relatively small amount, it was built and could fly again within 24 hours.

But when it came to getting the bid to build the two-thirds model, which would be the last step before building the full-size shuttle, another company—Lockheed Martin—outbid McDonnell Douglas and gained control of the program.

After spending $1 billion, the rocket never flew again, and the program was abandoned.

At first the program may seem like it failed, but Rosander said he sees its enduring impact on the aerospace industry.

“That program spurred the imagination of government and industry in a way that hadn’t been spurred in a long time,” Rosander said. “A whole bunch of people on that program went on to create a new commercial space race that’s still going on.

“It’s kind of like the Sputnik of commercial space.”

The International Space Hall of Fame at the New Mexico Museum of Space History seems to agree, as Rosander and his colleagues were inducted on Aug. 17. They joined the company of esteemed aerospace pioneers such as Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gargarin and John Glenn.

Rosander now works at the Raisin Administration Committee in Downtown Fresno, marketing California raisins overseas.

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