Chuck Lahmeyer, inventor of two space patents, shares experiences of his astonishing career.
The launching of Russia’s Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite, sparked not only a space race between the United States and Russia, but it also captured the interest of then 14-year-old Charles “Chuck” Lahmeyer. Always interested in math and science, Lahmeyer says of the historic launch, “It was frightening but revolutionary.”
As his space interest continued to evolve throughout his teen years, Lahmeyer naturally gravitated to study electrical engineering at Missouri School of Minds in Rolla. Upon graduation in 1966, he headed west for employment with Douglas Aircraft. There, he worked with ground support electronics to build the third stage of the Saturn V rocket, which took a man to the moon in 1969.
Although his time at Douglas Aircraft was short, he worked smaller electronic jobs before being drafted and sent to Germany for a year and a half as a programmer. “It [programming] certainly beat crawling around a trench in Vietnam,” Lahmeyer says. After military service, Lahmeyer eventually ended up at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where his efficacious career spans 30 years. Lahmeyer’s work at JPL produced two patents in his name, both for the same project. The Reed-Solomon Decoder, built for the Voyager space probe, went to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. This device removes data errors transmitted from deep space. The other patent, a nanosequencer digital logical controller, is part of the decoder as well.
“This assignment was labor intensive,” Lahmeyer says. “More than 600 integrated circuits were used, but it served to increase the number of images we were able to receive from distant planets.”
Lahmeyer, the sole engineer on the project, and his team of technicians and builders worked tirelessly to get the decoder working by the time Voyager reached Uranus. Otherwise, they would have had to slow down the rate of data received to decrease noise interference. “Each chip had to be hand wired,” Lahmeyer says. “Thankfully, we got it working on time.”
Additionally, Lahmeyer designed a circuit as part of an encoder that went on the Galileo spacecraft and probe.“It allowed Galileo to fulfill its mission,” he says. This experience allowed him to achieve a dream of having one of his designs sent into deep space. Knowing his design is in space, working how it was designed to work and aiding in exploration, fills Lahmeyer with pride and also a sense of wonder.
The Voyager spacecraft was originally built to last five years and travel 10 astronomical units (AU), but it has now been exploring space for 38 years and has far surpassed the AUs it was meant to travel, so much so that is has been termed an interstellar mission. For Lahmeyer, the thought is remarkable. “Voyager was launched in 1977, and it’s still flying, still talking to us,” he says.
“Space-rated electronics is elaborate,” he says. “The components and materials have to withstand extraordinary conditions when used in the space program, and JPL takes pride in using the best materials possible. That is why their space crafts continue to perform well beyond expectations.”
After 43 years of living in the West and performing work he loved, Lahmeyer retired from JPL in 2005 and along with wife, Lois, returned to mid-Missouri. Nostalgia and a sense of community brought him back to his hometown.
“I could go for months in California and never accidentally run into someone I knew,” he says. “Here you’re always running into someone you know, and that’s a good feeling.”
Although he may no longer be involved in NASA’s space program, Lahmeyer remains active. Whether it’s a year stint teaching chemistry and physics at Westminster College, a program at Lincoln University called Learning in Retirement or mentoring students through A.B.L.E. and the public school system or as part of the Cole County Historical Society, he continues to learn, enjoy, teach and travel.
“Lois and I like to take an annual significant trip,” Lahmeyer says. This year, they are planning a Mississippi River trip inspired by the book Between the Saints, Louis and Paul: A Towboat Travelogue on the Mississippi River by Kathy Flippo. The trip will begin at the river’s headwaters in Itasca State Park in Minnesota and wind its way south following the river. The Lahmeyers plan to stop at places that spark their interest along the way. Last year they visited Canada, and three years ago they drove to Alaska and visited Prudhoe Bay, where Lahmeyer swam in the Arctic Ocean.
“It wasn’t a long swim,” he says with a laugh.
Whether volunteering, traveling or reminiscing over an extraordinary career with space exploration, Lahmeyer will never stop expanding horizons.