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Odd Jobs: Aerojet engineer continues reaching for the heavens

By: Laura Newell, Features Editor
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While most of us have our minds, and jobs, down on Earth, others are looking higher up into space.

Charles Hirst, 38, of El Dorado Hills, is a rocket engineer at Aerojet in Rancho Cordova, on the border of Folsom.

Hirst has been at Aerojet for 12 years and in the aerospace industry for 16.

So how does someone get into the field of rocket science? Hirst simply said – the excitement of it all is what drove him.

“Coming out of college I wanted to design and build things that went fast – and it doesn’t get much faster than a rocket,” he said.

He said the biggest misconception people have when they hear he works with rockets, is nobody really understands what it is he does.

“I am an engineering specialist or rocket engineer,” he explained. “I build the structures, casings and the attached structures to meet the rocket’s needs. The rocket scientists are the chemists.”

He said Aerojet still builds both types of rockets, liquid and solid.

“You need to have a lot of math and science background for any engineering job, and aerospace has always been at the leading edge of technology development,” he said. “It certainly takes a certain aptitude for math and science to become a rocket engineer.”

He said beyond the math, there is still an exciting aspect to his job.

“There is definitely a cool factor to building rockets – we are not in it to make money, we are doing this because there is an excitement in being a part of sending something or someone to space,” Hirst said. “In my particular job I get to design, and then go out and be a direct support to our customer to assist with integration with my product onto the full launch vehicle. I work with Atlas V launch vehicle – which launches satellites and interplanetary probes for NASA.”

Still, he said the labor and long, hard work of trial and error is a major factor to his job, as it is with any engineering position. But, when the rocket works, the excitement is fast and fun.

“Any product you see out there, whether it be a rocket or a refrigerator, needs to go through a design aspect and a manufacturing aspect,” he explained. “As engineers, we also need to ensure that we can build and produce our design to meet the objectives for performance. Cost is also a big factor to building our designs. We need to be sure that we build something that allows for the manufacturer to make money in return, or there is no reason to build it. We also have to make sure the rocket is safe to use by the customer. So there are quite a few aspects that we have to think about when designing and building rockets.”

To all the young and growing engineers, Hirst said to just work hard, follow your dreams and anything is possible, even going to space.

“There are certain challenges – but I believe in the mission. I enjoy the idea that we are still reaching for the heavens. As long as people still want to fund us, I’m still interested,” he said. “To the young engineers, I would say we still don’t know all that’s out there yet. So we need to keep pushing to find out what is out there. And the only way to find that answer is to keep sending probes and people out to space.”

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Editor’s note: In this series, we’ll take a look at careers outside the norm. If you have ideas for Odd Jobs, submit them to donc@goldcountrymedia.com.