Seymour native plays role in historic SpaceX mission

As a kid, Dave Schulz found himself fascinated by anything and everything to do with the subject of space.

Not unlike many boys of a young age, planets, stars, rockets and the idea of space travel filled his mind.

Getting older, his interest didn’t wane but grew and matured, influencing his taste in entertainment.

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“I was obsessed with cool, space-based sci-fi movies and video games growing up, like ‘Deep Impact,’ ‘Armageddon’ and Halo,” he said.

While attending Seymour High School, he decided it wasn’t out of his reach to pursue a career in a field that would get him closer to space.

“Why not work hard to make the future as cool as those movies?” he asked himself.

Schulz, now 29, had an affinity for math and science and pushed himself to learn as much as he could, putting himself at the top of his class.

Graduating from SHS in 2009, he went on to study aerospace engineering at Purdue University. He earned a bachelor of science degree in 2013 and later a master’s degree in aerodynamics.

While in college, he was able to do more than just learn from textbooks. He gained hands-on experience in building engines for space craft at Purdue’s Zucrow Laboratories.

“Purdue offers the best education in the country in the field of rocket propulsion,” he said. “There are opportunities for engineering students to literally build and test rocket and jet engines.”

His hard work landed him a job supporting multiple engine development projects at the lab as a graduate research student.

It was through these projects he worked with the propulsion teams of various companies, including the one he spent the most time with, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known to the world as SpaceX.

Founded in 2002 in California by Elon Musk, the company designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. Its goal is to reduce space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars.

“When I was nearing graduation, the manager of the team developing the Raptor engine for SpaceX’s Mars rocket asked me to apply for a position on his team in Hawthorne, California,” Schulz said.

He flew out to interview with the propulsion team, but little did he know one of the managers in the launch group had sat in on the interview and was determined to get him to Florida to help build up the company’s launch pads there.

Curious about the opportunity, Schulz and his then fiancee were flown to Cape Canaveral to check it out.

“I was awestruck,” he said.

It was his first time to see LC-39A, the pad that launched Neil Armstrong to the moon and many other space shuttle missions.

SpaceX had just acquired the launch pad a few months earlier and had a mission to upgrade it in order to launch astronauts on the Falcon 9.

Schulz soon forgot about propulsion and California.

“The people were awesome, the beaches were great and rockets were launching all the time,” he said. “I was hooked.”

He declined the offer to work on the propulsion team in California and accepted the offer to build launch pads in Florida.

Schulz describes his first six months on the job in one word: Crazy.

A month before he started, SpaceX experienced its first loss of a Falcon 9 rocket that was carrying cargo to the International Space Station.

“I thought I would show up to a group of engineers waiting around for an extensive investigation to complete,” he said. “But what I found was a group of launch engineers with a mission to completely revamp our launch pads.”

As part of the launch team, it was his responsibility to help develop and install new methods to chill propellants on a new rocket, the F9 Full Thrust, to pack more propellant onto the rocket. This technology was critical to give the rocket the additional performance to be able to land reliably, he said.

A group of about five full-time launch pad engineers, including Schulz, and a group of interns worked around the clock for six months to make the system work.

And ultimately, it did.

“On Dec. 21, 2015, we landed a rocket at night, on land, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, pretty much the most ridiculous thing imaginable,” he said. “And it worked flawlessly. That was my first launch, and I still consider it my favorite.”

He is now a senior launch engineer with SpaceX.

“The launch group that I am a part of is responsible for design, fabrication, activation and operation of our multiple launch facilities as well as our rocket landing facilities and marine vessels,” he said.

SpaceX made history again May 30 when it launched its SpaceX Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

Since the retirement of the NASA space shuttle in 2011, the United States has paid Russia to fly astronauts to space, Schulz said.

To end the Russian reliance for American access to the International Space Station, NASA made a strategic decision to contract with SpaceX and Boeing to develop new spaceships.

“This recent launch that made national news was the first time America has launched astronauts from our home turf since the shuttle retirement, and we did it using the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to propel the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft,” he said.

During the launch, Schulz was 15 miles away from the launch pad at his home with his family watching the live stream on YouTube, like many other people across the country.

The biggest difference was he could also look up and see it.

“We got to see the rocket shoot off the pad and punch through the clouds like a bullet,” he said.

Although he was not in the control room during the time of the historic launch, Schulz was responsible for building the launch pad liquid oxygen propellant and massive water deluge systems.

He also spent time designing and fabricating the crew access arm and launch tower water systems to keep the astronauts safe if they had to abandon the rocket in an emergency.

It was emotional for Schulz and his family to see all of his hard work pay off.

“We were all kind of teary-eyed, overwhelmed with a novel sense of pride for our country and remembering what we can accomplish when we continue to innovate and push the envelope,” he said.

But working for SpaceX, Schulz already has his eye and mind to the future of space travel for Americans.

The next major milestone for the company is the development and launch of the Starship rocket in Boca Chica, Texas. This rocket will be two times more powerful than the Apollo-Saturn V moon rocket, Schulz said.

Its purpose? To take people to the moon and Mars while being fully reusable and economical.

“The goal is to make life multi-planetary,” Schulz said. “It’s not some starry-eyed goal. It is the mission of our company. Launching astronauts to the International Space Station was a huge next step in this goal, but we have a lot more work to do.”

Schulz said he feels extremely lucky and honored to be a part of a new chapter in U.S. space exploration.

“The 2020s are going to be awesome for America in space,” he said. “It’s time to get excited.”