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Omaha Magazine

Hometown Rocket Scientist

Sep 26, 2019 10:17AM ● By Scott Stewart

"I saw the images of NASA spacewalks with astronauts and was just totally inspired,” Scott Macklin says. “As a very young kid, I just wanted to float around in space—what could be cooler than that?”

Macklin never lost that childhood fascination.

He committed himself to learning as much as he could about the science of space exploration, and now the 30-year-old Fremont native is the senior director of propulsion at Virgin Orbit, a spin-off of British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceflight company.

Macklin says it’s an exciting time to work in the space industry, particularly with the recent 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Today's space industry was built on those early NASA missions, as well as the shuttle program and the International Space Station.

“It’s impossible not to see the legacy of Apollo,” Macklin says. “We have built on a lot of the fundamentals that were required to send people to the moon.”

Macklin says he feels pride in working for a private company. Spaceflight was once the providence of only a handful of nations, and Macklin believes the commercialization of spaceflight will drive progress toward future milestones—just like the space race pushed human achievement to previously unobtainable heights.

Competing companies develop alternative solutions to problems, which brings down the cost of spaceflight and advances the entire industry, including scientific and noncommercial projects.

“It naturally drives some competition, which I believe is healthy because it naturally drives innovation,” Macklin says.

Virgin Orbit’s focus is delivering small satellites into orbit through LauncherOne, its two-stage orbital launch vehicle. Macklin says the rocket is launched from an airplane at high altitude instead of a terrestrial launchpad, allowing a far wider array of possible orbits.

“We can fly around weather patterns, and we can go to a precise, pinpoint launch point,” Macklin says. “It’s one big step toward this concept of making spaceflight more mundane and routine. It’s not this heroic feat to get you to the exact orbit that you want.”

Macklin started his career at Virgin about seven years ago as a propulsion engineer. He was promoted to propulsion boost stage manager after about four years, and he led the first-stage propulsion system team for LauncherOne. Then he switched gears and was chief engineer for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne Evolution team, working to design technical roadmaps for future orbital vehicles.

However, Macklin says his true passion in the industry is propulsion, so he became senior director of propulsion in July 2018. He’s responsible for work on the rocket engines themselves, “a whole lot of plumbing” that support the different stages of the launch and the components that make everything function as intended. Those teams work in tandem toward the final goal of an integrated orbital vehicle that’s capable of spaceflight.

“You can think of these as different swim lanes in a pool,” Macklin says of the different teams working on developing the rocket. “We’re in these really last few key development campaigns before we go into our first launch attempt.”

Virgin Orbit Rocket

Macklin says he’s looking forward to that first launch attempt, which is anticipated later this year, although he cautioned that there are many unknown factors that could pose complications.

“At the end of the day, that’s what makes this so fun,” Macklin says.

Solving problems is what Macklin does best, and it is how he got where he is today. But when he was a child growing up in Fremont, Macklin didn’t know where his determination to follow his passion would take him.

Macklin was in second grade when he felt turmoil over the realization that he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he grew up. He had two primary interests: space expeditions to Mars and the deep-sea exploration of the Titanic.

One day, though, the answer dawned on him at school.

“I said to myself, ‘Well, people have already explored the Titanic. No one has been to Mars, so that’s what I want to go do.’ It was such a simple statement at that time—we have been here, we have not been there, so let’s go there—but the funny thing is that such a simple statement has really guided me ever since,” Macklin says.

He found he loved math and science classes, even as the subjects became more technical and complex. He earned good grades, and when he applied to college, he sought out physics and astronomy programs. The idea of becoming an engineer never crossed his mind.

Nor did attending school close to home.

“As much as I love Nebraska—that will always be my home, that’s where I grew up—it was important to me, even at that time, that I spend some portion of my time living somewhere else,” Macklin says. “For me, college was a great opportunity to go do that.”

Macklin was admitted to the University of Southern California to study physics. A few months later, he received a pamphlet from USC about engineering. As he read the course sequence for astronomical engineering, he became excited and decided to study how to build spacecraft. He reached out to USC and switched academic programs.

He became involved with a student organization with an audacious goal: to design and fly the first student-built rocket into space. He completed several internships, including a semester abroad where he worked on a satellite project in Japan.

His senior year at USC, he was accepted into an internship at SpaceX, the private space transportation company founded by Elon Musk. He was a member of SpaceX’s propulsion unit, and he fell in love with the specialization. He went on to finish his master’s degree in aerospace engineering at USC while working full-time as an engineer at Virgin.

“I’ve never actually lost that passion for spaceflight and what it could mean for expanding our knowledge and exploration, and that fire has never really faded since,” Macklin says.

Looking back, Macklin says his career trajectory feels almost inevitable, but it began with an affinity for space exploration that slowly got refined over time to engineering and then to propulsion systems engineering. He says he followed what excited him the most.

Fate also played a role. Had he not received that pamphlet from USC, or that internship at SpaceX, or the support and encouragement from family, friends, and educators, he might not have found himself in the same place.

Some of that luck, though, was Macklin’s own making—along with the wit and perseverance needed to gain entry into such an intellectually demanding occupation.

Macklin says he remembers his first day of Astronautics 101 on his first day at USC. The professor started reviewing the fundamental mathematics to study orbital dynamics. He began feeling panicked, and he looked around at his classmates to make sure they were also lost.

“I realized very quickly that, apparently, it’s actually only me,” Macklin says. “For some reason, I didn’t have some of the building blocks that were assumed for this course. So here I am, in the deep end, and I don’t stand a chance in this field. I’m out of my league. That’s really how I felt coming out of that first lecture. It was such a blow at that time.”

Instead of changing majors, though, Macklin sought out the professor’s help. Then he studied harder than anyone else in the class.

“Even to this day, one of the most monumental and defining successes that I’m proud of was actually the midterm exam for the class,” Macklin says. “When the grades came back, I somehow had the top score in that classroom.”

Dan Cox, a retired high school literature teacher, had Macklin as a student. Cox says he always encourages his students to follow up after graduation if they need help. While at USC, Macklin contacted Cox a few times for assistance on writing projects.

“He takes advantage of the opportunities that life affords him,” Cox says. “I tease him all the time that, one of these days, I hope he’ll send me a message from Mars.”

Cox says bright students often struggle to decide what to do with themselves. They only know what they’ve encountered locally, and often they end up following in their parents’ footsteps. Cox says he’s used Macklin as an example of someone who charted his own course.

“I have always tried to help them look for opportunities that might not be obvious,” Cox says.

One piece of advice Macklin gives to those who wish to become a rocket scientist or pursue similarly ambitious goals is to first believe it is possible.

“It’s clearly not impossible, because I’ve done it,” Macklin says. “It’s one step at a time. The most important thing is maintaining that passion for something and working toward that.”

It’s also OK if your goal changes, he says, but recognize there always will be barriers.

“You’ll have days where you’re challenged or days where it feels like it’s not going right or days that you doubt yourself, and you question if you’re really cut out for this,” Macklin says. “But recognize that challenge is a normal part of the journey, too.”

Ultimately, adversity helps you grow stronger as you overcome those obstacles.

“I’m certainly not the perfect propulsion engineer, even today,” Macklin says. “I certainly wasn’t on day one...But I worked just to better myself a little bit day by day, and learn a little bit more day by day, and those challenges were worth it because it was working me closer to something that I was really excited about.”

Dave Sellon, a science teacher and track coach at Fremont Senior High School, says Macklin was a gifted student who applied his problem-solving skills as a track-and-field athlete. Sellon says Macklin never gives up.

“He’s interested in a challenge, in an academic setting or at track practice,” Sellon says. “I was always impressed by his sincere interest in sorting a complicated problem out and solving it.”

His junior year, Macklin had an injury in his jumping leg that nagged him as a pole vaulter. One day, Macklin decided to start jumping with the other leg, and he continued to jump this way. He set a school record his senior year.

“I always remember that about him as a problem-solver,” Sellon says.

Macklin now gets to share his story with others, as he works to contribute to a field he cares deeply about—and perhaps get closer to taking that spacewalk himself.

Will Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Orbit, says Macklin often takes time out of his busy day to interact with tour groups. As a manager, Pomerantz says Macklin will take whatever time is needed to address questions, even from the most junior engineer.

Most people expect to see someone decades older in a prestigious role such as his at a company of Virgin’s size and notoriety. Macklin is approachable, and he makes it easier for young people visiting Virgin to see themselves taking on a senior role.

“They’re all expecting someone in their 60s with gray hair and a pocket protector who carries around a slide rule,” Pomerantz says. “He’s someone who is very inspiring.”

Breaking into a technical field can be daunting, but it’s a matter of taking that first step. Learn something new, and keep doing that until you have a better idea of what you want in life. Then go find a way to make it happen.

“The burden isn’t on that student to have it all figured out,” Macklin says. “Ask the positive influencers on your life, whether that’s a parent or a sibling or a teacher. Ask them for that clue of where to look next, and don’t be afraid to ask about that. Don’t be afraid to express interest in a passion, even if it feels like something far-fetched or difficult to accomplish.”

Someday, you might even find yourself face-to-face with Richard Branson.

“It is pretty fun that I have had the opportunity to talk to him pretty frequently over several years,” Macklin says. “It’s actually weirder that it’s not unusual for him to come in.”

Success in a career, or in other aspects of life, is the result of the experiences you have along the way. Macklin says that first day of Astronautics 101 taught him the value of perseverance.

“I have actually tried to hold onto that feeling of being so overwhelmed by the class,” Macklin says. “It’s about challenging yourself to be better.”

Ultimately, Macklin’s advice boils down to this: Ask for help. Do the work. Follow your passion.

“You don’t have to have it figured out when you start,” Macklin says. “Take that next step toward something you’re passionate about.”

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This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Scott Macklin of Virgin Orbit

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