UNH researcher works with satellites for over 40 years
Published: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 16:02
The floor around his lab table is outlined with yellow warning tape. The large white room is full of high-end science equipment, either shipped from NASA or to be shipped to NASA. People with tweezers place dot-sized microchips and hair-thin gold filament onto half-finished circuit boards that will someday be sent into the depths of outer space.
Amidst all this, Jon Googins wears a screaming green Hawaiian shirt with yellow flowers, tucked into his jeans.
Googins has spent the last 40 years of his life working at the UNH Space Science Center in Morse Hall, building computers and measuring instruments and mechanical devices for spacecraft. The 66-year-old still receives work from private and government contractors to build devices for spacecraft.
However, Googins said he never originally planned on working on satellites and spacecraft, though his interests in electronics and mechanics started at an early age.
“Back in elementary school, it was interesting to watch my father splitting insulation and so on. My father’s brother had a degree in mechanical engineering. It seemed interesting to make things work by wiring them up,” he said.
After deciding in high school he would rather pursue a career as an electrician rather than become a pastry chef, Googins went to study at the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord. Due to financial reasons, he transferred to UNH two years later, where he decided to switch majors from electrical engineering to general physical science.
“Math skills have always been a problem, even in college. I came here to do electrical engineering, lasted a semester and a half,” he said. “Came down to second semester of math in differential equations and I could not comprehend what I was supposed to do. It was like opening up a Greek newspaper and being asked to read what’s inside. My grades were suffering, the Vietnam War was escalating, and the draft board would be on me if I wasn’t in college somewhere.”
While he was at UNH, Googins worked as a radio station host for WUNH, the university’s broadcasting club. It was in 1967 that one of his friends from the station, Bob Debold, talked to him about getting a job for the summer.
“We had Huddleston as a dining hall and (Debold) invited me to sit with him at the table, asked me what I was doing for the summer. I was just planning to go home to work, and he suggested that, if I would like, he could approach his supervisor for work in the physics department,” Googins said.
The physics department had been looking for someone with some experience building things. Googins, who had previously assembled a CVS radio from a kit as a “cheaper alternative to buying one,” met their qualifications.
“I don’t know who made the decision, but I was hired for the summer. Looking back, that was a very fortuitous meeting we had there in Huddleston,” he said.
For his first assignment for the physics department, Googins worked on building magnetometer coils, a type of device used to measure solar ejections, solar flares and the magnetic lines that go around the Earth.
“It’s a crude way to measure these things from Earth,” he said. “They had installations in Canada, here in Durham in somebody’s back pasture, and a station down in South America. Three stations in a line, measuring disturbances caused by solar flares.”
A few years later, in the summer of ’77, Googins went to Alice Springs, Australia to help with a balloon launch. The balloon was a project of a UNH professor who wanted to study sources of gamma radiation in space. Googins worked testing instruments for the project and filling and launching the balloon as it carried its measuring equipment into the atmosphere. Several other launches were also being performed that day by other experimenters, with everyone sharing one building on the airfield. According to Googins, the building had one massive flaw.
“We were there during their summer; it was 104 degrees outside. They had only one working air-conditioner, trying to cool that entire huge room,” he said.
Googins said that he also found the swarms of flies that would come and attack the airfield a memorable experience as well.
The balloon they had been working on flew 25 miles into the atmosphere, staying aloft for 39 hours before the jet streams started blowing it away and the balloon had to be sent back down with the equipment.
“Once I started working over the summer building stuff, with the camaraderie of the people, I thought ‘what the hell, I’ll stay here for the rest of my life,’” he said.