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MU alumnus Gerrard keeps eyes toward the sky

Gerrard

MU mechanical engineering alumnus Doug Gerrard’s job at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and rocketry hobby keep him looking skyward.

In his day job as a data acquisition group leader for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), Doug Gerrard is responsible for the smooth operation of receiving data from radio telescope antennae all over the world.

A 1990 mechanical engineering graduate from the MU College of Engineering, Gerrard’s hobbies also are wild blue yonder endeavors. He began making and launching rockets in 1972 at the height of the Apollo launches when he was in elementary school.

“I just got caught up in it,” Gerrard said. “It’s been a passion my whole life; some would say an obsession.”

Gerrard more recently has been caught up in photography, also with a rocketry focus. He started out placing cameras on board rockets to record launches and trajectories firsthand, advancing to more sophisticated videography of lift-off and flight, capturing images not visible to the naked eye.

The Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA) hosted their ninth annual Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC) near Green River, Utah, in June 2014. Gerrard was there to capture the event on “film,” and MU’s American Association of Aeronautics and Astronautics was there as an IREC competitor with their rocket, Truman 4.5.

“I went out this year to take photos and was pleased to see Missouri out there,” said Gerrard, who has started a company, Rocketry Photography, to “pay for his habit.” Although capturing images of split second launches has its challenges, he said his engineering background — he also did graduate work in electrical engineering — has allowed him to come up with some great solutions.

“The thing that makes my photography unique is that it is automated. It uses signal detection for liftoff and the cameras track automatically on acceleration of the rocket. It’s not foolproof but it does a pretty good job,” he said.

It takes him a full day to set up his equipment to shoot a launch, some of it only inches from the rocket, protected by aluminum housing. “The fins of the rocket split the camera,” Gerrard said.

This year, he began offering his footage for a fee to participating teams, giving a fantastic discount to his alma mater. Video of Truman 4.5’s launch can be viewed on the College of Engineering’s YouTube channel.

Gerrard’s MU engineering education was interrupted after only a year when he joined the U.S. Air Force. He returned to MU in 1988 to complete his degree.

He also has continued to be on the firing end of rockets, though said he only does so a couple of times each year.

“I usually concentrate on bigger challenging projects,” he said, adding that he built a project he called “Odyssey,” and plans to do a demonstration launch of the 200 lbs. rocket to a height of 20,000 feet.

Gerrard isn’t the only one in his family with ties to MU. His sister, Marilyn is a 1980 alumna of the MU College of Arts and Science and still lives and works in Mid-Missouri. His brother-in-law, Anthony Hartman, a 1979 MU mechanical engineering graduate who died in 2009, is responsible for Gerrrard’s interest in engineering, not to mention photography.

His daughter Michelle graduated from MU this year with a degree in biochemistry and has plans to attend medical school, and his niece Julia Hartman recently graduated from MU’s School of Law.

Gerrard is looking forward to next year’s IREC event, though with a little trepidation.

“I have a concerns about homemade motors [a new requirement for the competition] because you can’t calculate the thrust without a test flight,” he said, with a brief mention of explosions on the launch pad and falling debris. “A computer simulation just won’t work.”

Either way, it should make for some sensational footage.