Richard L. Holt
Graduation Year: 1956
Current position: Retired
Please describe your life journey since you graduated from Wheaton College.
My degree in Physics was a tremendous help to me in so many areas that it is hard to choose the one place where the long hours of study at Wheaton proved to be the most helped by my education as a Physicist. I worked in many areas of electronics, computers, all kinds of guided missile systems, development of technical plans for complex systems, and even working with dolphins in the water, determining such things as how they could detect objects in the water from great distances. We developed communications systems used between ships and submarines for Navy application using the dolphin clicks and whistles incorporated into computer generated messages.
I had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of the nation’s manned space flight program from its very inception, responsible for all the support systems on the ground located all over the world. I had responsibility for all the radars, telemetry systems, command and communications systems. I managed the huge Mission Control Center in Houston, responsible for its operation and maintenance and upgrades of everything from its huge computer systems to room layouts and display systems. Read my web site. You can then choose the type of thing you would like to do, and as a Physicist, you can do it.
But I didn’t step into the NASA job without a lot of prior experience and preparation. Going into the Army may seem like a drag for many today, but the Army gave me a tremendous technical education that I hadn’t gotten in college. I learned all about every piece of communications gear the military used. I learned about systems that I had never even heard about before coming into the Army. I learned about guided missile systems, from the radars and command and control systems to the missile handling systems and the volatile fuel requirements of missiles. The Army did all that for me for nothing – no cost to me.
Then I went to work for the Navy as a civilian physicist and got into jobs that you might not normally thing are assigned to someone with a physics degree. But I was flexible and when asked to do something, I didn’t question why, or whether or not I could do it, I just did it! I did well and got very high rewards for my efforts. There is a joke in the Dolphin portion of my web site that a friend sent me. While I am feeding a fish to a dolphin, the animal says to me in essence, your folks must be proud of you after your 12 years of education to be feeding me my fish for my meal. What did my being a dolphin feeder have to do with physics? Little, but it was part of the job I had to be responsible for determining how the dolphin’s systems worked. I didn’t question it. I just did it.
I learned to ask questions. If I didn’t understand something, I asked someone that did. And I pursued the question until I felt comfortable with it. If an electronic piece of equipment that I had not used, I learned all about it. I learned that while a student at Wheaton. At NASA I was in over my head lots of times. But I never stopped learning. Then I went to JPL where there were really a lot of big brains. Well, I fit right in, I found out! I was a physics major from Wheaton College, and the reputation of Wheaton was known. I had some terrific jobs at JPL upgrading its Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF) that is still in use in controlling out space flights. I was in charge of upgrading the entire deep space network communications system that is still in use.
All my jobs were fun, and I enjoyed solving puzzles.
In what way has your Wheaton education in physics or engineering prepared you for your current (or past) job?
Physics taught me not to fear the unknown. I learned how to study. I was willing to tackle any technical subject. If I didn’t know enough about it to start, I was willing to learn. I would always take a physics major over anyone else in the days I was hiring thousands to work for my organizations. Those that major in physics are different. You can assign them any job and they will dig into it and accomplish it. Many others won’t.
In the early days of manned space flight, we didn’t know much about putting a man into space. We didn’t have orbital mechanics developed to the point where we could readily figure out if we could rendezvous in space. We didn’t know what would happen to a man if we put him outside a spacecraft in outer space and if he could survive. But on the team of people that started that program which now is routine, we had a whole lot of physicists. Aeronautical engineers had their place. But the bulk of our crew in Houston were physicists. Why? Because they thought in broad terms and weren’t afraid to challenge the unknown.
I had a boss once at TRW Space Systems Division in California that would only hire physicists. He was one himself. But he knew that if he gave a job to someone that had been through physics training in college, that person could accomplish the task assigned to him.
Please describe the relationship of your Christian faith with your scientific training or career path.
Science and Christianity go hand-in-hand. I have never had any problems in relating God to the physics of this world and in the universe. I have a friend, Dr. Hugh Ross, an Astrophysicist, that spends his entire life relating all the reasons we, as Christians and scientists, can vouch for the truth in the Bible and find the answers for this belief in the Scriptures, no matter what the subject. Right now one of Hugh’s best sellers addresses creation as a science.
I have never had any problems in standing up for my beliefs, and in fact, I have a statement in my resume/web site that addresses that issue, entitled My Faith in which I state very clearly how I feel and in Whom I believe. I have never had to hide that fact, although I don’t believe in shoving it into someone’s face unless they are interested. Live the life in which you put your trust. People will ask you why you are different. Then you can relate your belief in God and in Christ’s saving grace. I have faulted Wheaton College in the past for being “holier-than-thou” in attitude. Don’t do that! It won’t take your fellow workers long to realize that you are different. Do your job well. Be thorough. Don’t complain. And when asked, be ready to give an answer as to why you are different. Make your Purpose in life to please God and it will come through.
Do you have any words for young students considering a physics or engineering major?
When I was wondering if I should major in physics, the chair of the department in those days settled my fears that the subjects of physics were over my head. I had no intention in getting into the world of theoretical physics. It was not in keeping with my personality. And yet, I had this tremendous need to learn about the physics of the universe. I loved the growing field of electronics, and even though computers had not yet been invented, I created a very simple computer in the basement of Blanchard that answered some very basic questions when asked. We had no TV. We had no computers.
Dr. Martin convinced me that there was a need for what he described as applied physicists. Those who can take the laws of physics and use them for many purposes. You didn’t need to be a “way-out” type, only practical in your use of the many laws. That’s what I did. I became what I now call a “Systems Engineer”, building sometimes complex pieces and then fitting those pieces together to accomplish some meaningful task. We invented the computer of today. We designed display systems to use in space flight that no one else had. We had no TV, so we came up with other means of getting information from the computer to the user through unique display systems.
Over the many years of my career I have had the opportunity to hire thousands of young people to work in my organizations. I always looked for bright young minds especially those that majored in physics. Why? Because they were able to think very broadly when sometimes those in engineering disciplines were narrow in their thinking. By your very nature and the many subjects you take, a physics student can take a broad subject, if required, learn about it and be able to accomplish the task assigned him or her. Physicists do not fear digging into the unknown.
I encourage you to stick to physics. You can always branch out into other special interest areas as you go into your career. What you think may be what you want today may change. Be flexible. Be responsive to the needs of those you work for. Study hard. There is no substitute for hours in the facts of physics. Good luck!