Center of the Universe
Written by Heather Spangler
Photos by John Richard
Within just a few years, Don Gurnett went from building model rockets in high school to working on a spacecraft launched by real rockets.
The world renowned University of Iowa professor of physics and astronomy has been involved in 33 spacecraft projects over the past 50 years and it all started on a 160-acre corn and soybean farm in Fairfax.
Gurnett, now 68, was the only child born to Velma and Alfred Gurnett. He remembers doing chores on the family farm, driving a tractor by age 12, but also learning opportunities his parents provided for him.
“My father was always repairing things,” Gurnett said. “Every winter he would take a tractor engine apart and he had me ‘help’ him. I got to be very interested in repairing and making things.”
His mother would take him on weekly visits to the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
“I believe I read every technical book the library had,” Gurnett said. “You do that for a number of years and you learn a lot of stuff.”
Gurnett’s father took him to a hobby shop in Cedar Rapids, where the 8-year-old sparked a life-long interest in model airplanes. In fact, after several visits to the store, the shop owner suggested Gurnett join the local model airplane club. The club met and flew their models at the Cedar Rapids airport, where Gurnett’s parents had earlier brought him to watch planes take off and land.
A German scientist, Alexander Lippisch, who was known as the inventor of the delta wing and designer of the only successful rocket-powered fighter plane ever flown, occasionally visited the model airplane club. He and several other adult members worked at the aeronautical research center run by Collins Radio at the airport.
“So by 10 years old, I had connections to adults working on airplanes,” Gurnett said. “That had a really big influence.”
Based on their mentorship, he started designing his own model airplanes, building them on the kitchen table and using the farm as “one huge model airplane flying field” where he could test them. He took his models to national contests everywhere from California to Texas. And he often won.
He was the senior national champion in 1957. He set several national records, one with an ornithopter, a model with flapping wings.
Throughout high school he also worked at the hobby shop and wrote for model airplane magazines.
“So by the time I graduated from high school, I already had several publications. I have not had the courage to put that on my resume, but I’ve been tempted,” he said with a laugh.
He had also begun to experiment with radio control electronics for his models.
After graduating from St. Patrick’s Catholic High School in Fairfax in 1957, Gurnett came to UI to study electrical engineering.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik I changed the path of Gurnett’s life. He was fascinated by the spacecraft and the U.S.’s attempts to launch its own satellite.
“This was during the Cold War and we had a Soviet object flying overhead. It embarrassed the U.S. tremendously,” he said, recalling watching the satellite pass through the night sky in Iowa City.
The U.S.’s first attempt to match the Soviets, Vanguard, failed on Dec. 6, 1957. But on Feb. 1, 1958, the next effort, Explorer I, led by UI physics professor James Van Allen, worked. The first U.S. spacecraft was in orbit and making discoveries.
“Van Allen was immediately famous,” Gurnett said.
College freshman Gurnett had to get involved.
“I just couldn’t contain myself,” he said. “So I went over to the physics building and Van Allen’s office and asked if I could work on his space project.”
By late 1958, Gurnett was on Van Allen’s team, which he describes as the “center of the universe” in terms of space science.
Soon he was designing electronics for spacecraft data systems and within a short time took the lead as the project engineer on the first of the Injun series of spacecrafts, which were the first satellites ever built entirely at a university.
“Things just evolved really rapidly,” he said. “It was a pretty heady thing to go to Cape Canaveral and work on real rockets when just a couple years before I was building homemade model rockets.”
In 1962, still working on his undergraduate degree and maintaining good grades despite 80-hour work weeks on Van Allen’s team, Gurnett met another scientist who would have a great impact on his life. Roger Gallet was a French researcher who visited UI and played a recording of whistlers — low frequency radio waves caused by lightening.
On a whim, Gurnett designed a very low frequency radio receiver to record whistlers in space. He tested it on his family farm, where interference from power lines was at a minimum, and then approached Van Allen about putting his receiver on the Injun III satellite and sending it into space. Van Allen said yes.
“Now you’d have to write volumes of proposals, but this just happened on Van Allen’s approval,” Gurnett said.
The receiver, launched on Dec. 12, 1962, worked.
“We heard all of these musical tones coming out of this reader,” Gurnett said. “It was very unusual.”
The summer of 1964 was busy for Gurnett. He moved to Stanford to attend graduate school on the advice of Van Allen. And he married Marie Schmitz, a nursing student he’d met on a blind date about six months prior. The couple would go on to have two daughters, Suzanne and Chris.
After finishing his dissertation on proton whistlers in 1965, Gurnett accepted Van Allen’s invitation to return to UI as an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy.
For many years, Gurnett and another of Van Allen’s students, Louis Frank, led the experimental space physics effort at Iowa alongside their mentor. Gurnett still leads a large plasma wave research group and has taught many courses, from beginning astronomy for non-majors to advanced plasma physics.
He said he enjoys teaching and giving back to young scientists just as many scientists inspired and supported him on his path.
Andrew Kopf, who recently finished his master’s degree and will pursue a Ph.D. under Gurnett, said he wanted to work with Gurnett because he knew his reputation.
“He is the premier professor now in that field,” Kopf said. “I looked forward to learning from all that knowledge.”
After his first meeting with Gurnett, which stretched longer than an hour of discussing potential research projects and listening to recordings of space sounds, Kopf was awed by Gurnett’s passion.
“I was impressed by how much he loves what he does,” Kopf said.
Kopf said Gurnett is a “stickler” who encourages his team to work fast and accurately. But outside of work, Gurnett reveals other passions that have stuck with him since childhood.
He still belongs to a model airplane club. He also loves to fly full-scale airplanes and is part of a group that does formation fly-bys, often for veterans’ events and dedications.
Bob Sentman, a leader of the fly-by group, said Gurnett shows the same enthusiasm for flying as he does for his research.
“He’s very good,” Sentman said. “I think he’s got a lot of passion.”
Throughout his career, Gurnett’s instruments have flown to seven planets. His instrument on Helios II flew closer to the sun than any other. Another, on Voyager I, flew farther from the sun than any other.
He even has collaborated with the Kronos Quartet to create a musical performance called “Sun Rings,” which the creators describe as evolving from the “eerie whistles, sirens and booms collected from hundreds of miles away” by Gurnett’s receiver.
Now a grandfather of six and one of three current UI professors elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Gurnett said his path in life was all a matter of luck and recognizing opportunities.
“I think every person has to do that — take advantage of circumstances,” he said. “There was just that thing in my brain that said I couldn’t stand not being involved.”
To hear Gurnett’s favorite sounds of space, visit www-pw.physics.uiowa.edu/space-audio/sounds/