Roger McNamara (MAeroEngr’86, PhD’95) has built a career advancing the forefront of aerospace technology and is serving in a leading role on the next-generation Orion crewed space capsule.
As a master’s and PhD alumnus of the University of Colorado Boulder, he has put his skills to use on an array of orbital space missions and is now being recognized by the College of Engineering and Applied Science as a 2020 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award – Industry winner.
“It's an unexpected and great honor. It really caught me off guard,” McNamara said.
Growing up the son of an Air Force officer, McNamara spend his childhood moving from place to place, with his family frequently finding themselves in on-base housing, where he was drawn to the many planes and helicopters and the science and engineering that made them work.
“I was always taking things apart, whether they needed to be or not. Most of the time when I put them back together, they still worked,” he said.
As a child of the 1960s, he was awed by the moon landing, and after high school, attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Following graduation, he earned a job at Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin, which brought him to Colorado. He has spent his entire career with the aerospace giant.
"There's no lack of job diversity at Lockheed Martin. Any time I've gotten to the point where I felt like I had done all I could, something new and totally different would open-up and keep me excited," he said.
For the last several years, that's been Orion, where he is the lead on the launch abort system (LAS).
"Time has flown by. Orion is the system will return us to the moon and eventually send a crew to Mars. It's very exciting," McNamara said.
In addition to his work on Orion, McNamara has served as a mass properties and trajectory analyst for a NASA Space Shuttle Mission Integration Support Contract and has also worked on launch vehicles including Titan II, Commercial Titan, Titan IV and the Athena Launch Vehicle as well as two Ground Missile Defense programs.
Although he now holds three degrees in aerospace, he did not originally set out to earn his master's and PhD. Rather, an opportunity to take a few extra classes through a CU Boulder/Lockheed Martin pilot program gradually turned into something more.
"We took classes on campus and then Professor Bob Culp would come down to Martin Marietta to teach there once or twice a week. Eventually, I was only one to two classes away from getting my master’s," he said.
Working under Culp, McNamara would go on to receive his PhD, focusing his research in an area of increasing importance: orbital debris, which is causing growing concerns for other satellites and other space vehicles.
"I'd like to say the world spacecraft community is doing well in this area, but really we aren't. We have policies, but they don't say you have to deorbit old satellites. The amount of trackable debris has gone up by two and a half times since I received my PhD," he said.
McNamara is particularly concerned about the growth of multi-satellite constellations, which weren't anticipated when countries were crafting the current international debris accords. He feels active deorbiting systems should be required for all future satellites to quickly remove debris from orbit.
As a two-time alumnus of CU Boulder, McNamara has stayed engaged with the university, giving lectures to classes, meeting with faculty on research and student support. He's also given professional assistance to the campus AIAA chapter.
For the next generation of aerospace students, McNamara has two key pieces of advice: learn as much as you can and be sure to pursue internships.
"Stretch yourself into every area you can work in. Take that additional class in software development," he said. “Apply for internships with companies you're interested in. It will be invaluable later on in your career. I’ve personally recommended extending job offers to every intern I've worked with over the years.”