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NASA Engineer Dave Affleck

02/22/2016 12:15PM ● By Gary VanDeWalker

Space Scout

March 2016

By Gary VanDeWalker 

Photo by Taryn Burkleo

The steep forest slopes and winding river of Dunsmuir were an alien landscape to the young Dave Affleck.  Moving here for a short time in 1957, while his father sought temporary work, Affleck fished and explored the new terrain.  Born in the Bay Area and growing up in Nevada, he embraced each new vista in his life with enthusiasm.  Affleck never stopped seeking new adventures, even casting his eyes toward Mars.

Scouting appealed to Affleck’s love of the outdoors.  He camped and traveled the back country of Nevada and earned his Eagle rank in 1959, which entitled him to take part in Nevada’s Scout Day.  One year he spent the day as Secretary of State, after which he received packets from all over the world, inviting him to scores of countries, adding to his longing for new frontiers to conquer.  

College brought him two degrees: One in industrial design and another in mechanical engineering. Affleck’s exploration turned to designing products for Spectra-Physics. After 15 years, the company sold and the engineer turned to consulting. However, his love of the outdoors continued and he became scoutmaster, when he started a new Boy Scout troop.

“I loved taking boys to the Grand Canyon and to unusual places,” Affleck says. He planned trips to Alaska, Death Valley and plunged into the waters of Mexico to scuba dive.  Besides numerous local trips, he was scoutmaster for three National Jamboree troops.

While consulting, one of his clients, NASA, offered him the opportunity to come aboard.  His first assignment was designing experiments for Spacelab.  “The project was to discover what would happen during zero-gravity space flight if children were born,” Affleck says. “My work would be executed aboard Spacelab as well as the Johnson Space Center for comparison.”  

With each project, Affleck would design the experiment, then train astronauts to carry out the work in space. “Space travel is rough and brings upon a great deal of fatigue. The experiment has to be simple enough for a third grader to accomplish it, fit into a limited area in a space vehicle, and the astronaut taught to finish it quick, without error,” Affleck says.

Each NASA project brought Affleck further into space, while in his free time he pushed young boys to see their potential in scouting.  “I like to stand on the south rim of the Grand Canyon,” Affleck says. “I point out the tree line across the gorge to the boys. We hike 22 miles in and out of the canyon. I bring them back to where we were on the south rim on the first
day and tell them, ‘If you can do that, there’s nothing else you can’t do.’”

As retirement loomed, Affleck’s gaze turned toward Mars. Every pound of fuel limits a space flight. If Mars were to be obtained, the problem of transporting fuel to and from the planet would need to be solved. Affleck’s team studied the Martian atmosphere.  Realizing the air contains the main components of rocket fuel, the engineers devised a machine which would take Martian air, mix it with a few vital ingredients and turn it into rocket fuel. “We simulated the Martian atmosphere, placed our invention in the chamber, and discovered the spacecraft only needed to carry the fuel to get
to Mars,” says Affleck. “After arriving it could make its own fuel to return.”

Affleck and his wife, Thera, began to seek a place to retire. Affleck never forgot the different landscape of Dunsmuir that he discovered in his youth. Over the years, he returned there with his family to vacation. Now, he sought to make the area his home. They moved to Mount Shasta in 2007, and for a while he returned to NASA, traveling south each week. 

His love of scouting continues as he works with Mount Shasta Troop 97, pushing boys to new places to learn their potential. NASA builds upon his work, pushing toward Mars. Affleck again stands on the south rim of the Grand Canyon with a group of boys. Affleck says, “Every time I do this, I think it’s my last. But I always know I have one more trip in me.”