When class valedictorian, John Letcher ’59, passed away on May 7, 2018, after a long battle with Parkinson’s, his obituary was circulated among many of his classmates and triggered an outpouring of memories through a thread of email exchanges.
Affectionately nicknamed the “gentle giant,” Letcher was a boarding student from Lexington, Va., whose lanky build and towering height cause him to stand out in yearbook photos. He is also easy to spot in archival photos posted on the Student Society for Science website, where he is pictured in his Baylor military uniform visiting Washington, D.C., with finalists in the 18th annual nationwide Westinghouse talent search in 1959, and in a photo from the same trip, standing tall as the grand prize winner of a $7,500 college scholarship for his design of a linear particle accelerator.
As recorded in the vintage 1959 video below, Letcher used the prize to attend the California Institute of Technology, where he received a B.S. in physics in 1962, an M.S. in aeronautics in 1964, and a Ph.D. in aerodynamics in 1966.
He would later become the founder and president of AeroHydro, Inc., a software engineering company in Southwest Harbor, Maine, specializing in computer-aided design for marine applications. Four of his inventions are listed on the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). He was also prominent in the international sailing community, serving as the senior scientist on the 1987 America’s Cup Stars & Stripes design team and earning a life membership in the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. But when his classmates turned to their keyboards, it was tales of J.E. Bradley’s advanced physics class and the newly-formed Rocket Club that had them typing.
The launch pad was the end zone nearest the river. A later attempt with more fuel and a vertical launch went nearly out of sight and came down in Luke Worsham’s yard. I was asked to get it out, as ‘I knew him best.’ The plan was to extract it by stealth on the next night while the football team had an away game. I guess Letcher did that alone.
Although he was not a member of the Rocket Club, Tim Willis ’59 wrote that he was a student in Bradley’s advanced physics course and interacted with the club’s members. “The club began our junior year. The first rockets featured aluminum conduit, bent over at the top to seal that end, and with cast iron plugs at the base for the nozzle. The nozzle was a center drilled hole in the plug. As I recall, the plug and the fins were held in place with automotive stainless hose clamps. The first attempt was up on Rike Field. It went up and came down at an angle. Not much range. The launch pad was the end zone nearest the river. A later attempt with more fuel and a vertical launch went nearly out of sight and came down in Luke Worsham’s yard. I was asked to get it out, as ‘I knew him best.’ Maybe so, but others knew exactly where it had come down and had seen the little fins sticking out of the ground. The plan was to extract it by stealth on the next night while the football team had an away game. I guess Letcher did that alone,” wrote Willis.
Willis also recalled a request “to hold something down” for an early rocket assembly on a test board in the advanced physics class. “Unaware it was turned on, I reached through the primary winding with my left hand, upon which rested my senior ring. That ring headed toward red hot in under a second, raising steam and a pretty bad burn,” he wrote.
The group would continue their work, perfecting the process and eventually developing a better solid fuel that would include a physical mixture of zinc powder as fuel, sulphur as an oxidant, and finely powdered steel wool as a catalyst and reagent, explained Willis. “It performed magnificently. Cook (Hodgdon) was, among other things, the cameraman, with his trusty Argus C-3. Snapping when someone hollered, ‘now!’ he never snapped the ignition, but always caught a 400-yard column of smoke. The acceleration was close to 100G’s. In a few single digit seconds, even the smoke was out of sight, miles up.”
Because the aluminum tubes would partially burn on the inside, Willis said second attempts with the same tube could “prove exciting.” Eventually, the shell of the rocket was made of titanium tubing, cut to specs, and donated by Sam Parry, Sr. of Combustion Engineering. The nozzles were custom-cast ceramics, courtesy of Hodgdon’s father, who was a chemist for a division of American Cyanamid.
As more rockets were launched and were successfully soaring higher into the sky, the club members naturally wanted to recover them. “Hodgdon was in charge of electronics and mechanics, so he embedded a transistor transmitter in plastic to accommodate the G-forces,” recalled Willis. “There was a mercury switch in the circuit so that, when the exhausted rocket tipped over at the apogee, the switch fired both the transmitter and a parachute mechanism. At least one version of the parachute assembly featured the remote shutter mechanism from a 35mm camera. All cheap, clever stuff.”
“No one doubted that John Letcher, our class math and science wiz, would enter the local science fair, part of the national contest,” wrote Willis. “Most of us in Bradley’s advanced physics class thought his entry would be a more advanced rocket. After all, the rocket club had achieved miles-high results, and an elegant three-stage design was planned.” Letcher reported to his classmates that he planned to build a linear particle accelerator instead.
“I especially remember John and the rockets that he built,” added Charlie Harris ’59. “When we moved into our [present] house, I found a jar of our rocket fuel that I had hung onto. It made it through three moves before I rediscovered it. He was indeed a true giant, a gentle one at that, in the years that I knew him at Baylor.”
Modern Day Rocket Boys
Four Baylor students were invited to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in June 2017 for a project presentation to NASA engineers that would have surely made the late John Letcher ’59 proud. Seniors Atherton Mook, Erik Fong, Nick Perlaky, and Hays Mook (pictured left to right with math and computer science instructor Vince Betro) were rewarded with the trip after taking the nation’s top prize in the 2017 NASA Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge (OPSPARC) the spring of their sophomore year.
According to Betro, the challenge focused on the technology and spin-offs related to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Using an engineering design process similar to what is used by NASA engineers, the students were required to display their research on a microshutter array for fiber optic communications and develop ideas for taking the product to market by using a combination of text, images, and videos to create a Glogster Multimedia Poster. The students were also required to build a museum to document their process and design in ActiveWorlds, a virtual reality building environment, along with CAD models of the JWST and their fiber optic instrument. Following another round of judging by a panel of scientists and educators, the students learned that they were named one of five finalist teams, and were required to present a live, virtual demonstration to NASA/ JWST engineers for final judging.