Rod Burton receives 2023 AIAA WYLD Propulsion Award

11/9/2022

Dave Hinton, The News-Gazette

Rod Burton points to the nozzle of an electric rocket thruster at his home.
Rod Burton points to the nozzle of an electric rocket thruster at his home.

Rod Burton was 10 years old when he began dabbling with rockets.

Growing up in Geneva (that’s Illinois, not Switzerland), he had a Gilbert chemistry set and made gunpowder in his basement and put it in rockets that he fired in the field.

“I found a formula in a book,” he said. “I used to buy some of the ingredients down at the Walgreen drug store.”

He said a mishap with the gunpowder “created a huge flame” that blackened the basement ceiling and filled the house with smoke. Burton recently visited the house and said the blackened ceiling is still there.

That was in a different era. These days, Burton, a retired professor in the University of Illinois Department of Aerospace Engineering, is 82 and still working with CU Aerospace, a Champaign-based company he helped to found with five other UIUC faculty.

Burton works out of his home in Northbrook. He recently conferred with officials at NASA concerning the company’s potential involvement with a manned trip to Mars.

We “would be involved with the thrusters or the rocket engine,” Burton said. “My PhD is from Princeton, and Princeton happens to be the leader in this type of engine. It would take years to do enough research to build one of these units.”

Burton said the engine would be 10 to 20 times more powerful than any electric rocket has flown before.

Burton is considered a leader in his field. He was recently selected to receive the 2023 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Wyld Propulsion Award. Presented for outstanding achievement in the development or application of rocket propulsion systems, the award is sponsored by the Electric Propulsion, Hybrid Rockets, Liquid Propulsion and Nuclear and Future Flight Propulsion Technical committees.

The award is for “distinguished enhancement of science and innovation in the field of electric space propulsion, education of scientist engineers and entrepreneurial leadership in aerospace engineering.”

Burton will be recognized during the 2023 AIAA SciTech Forum on Jan. 23-27 in National Harbor, Md.

This photo shows the firing in a vacuum tank, to simulate outer space conditions, of an advanced CU Aerospace electric thruster for small satellites. The propellant is Teflon plastic.
This photo shows the firing in a vacuum tank, to simulate outer space conditions, of an advanced CU Aerospace electric thruster for small satellites. The propellant is Teflon plastic.

His main work in electric propulsion began in 1962 when he was a graduate student at Princeton. Electric propulsion means electric power, not chemical power, is used to power the rocket engine.

Electric systems use less propellant. When a rocket takes off, it’s 85 percent propellant. Electric uses about a third of that amount, Burton said.

“CU Aerospace is a leader in that field for small satellites,” Burton said. “Right now we’re building a new propulsion system. We design the systems, build them and test them in our laboratory and send them out as products.”

Burton said the orbits over earth are getting crowded, and rules are being changed in an attempt to get dead spacecraft out of orbit by crashing them in the atmosphere.

“There’s getting to be a debris problem,” he said. “The problem is collision. Satellites travel about 5 miles per second,” and if they collide the resulting debris field is large — even if they only weigh about 10 pounds each.

Collisions occur because their orbits criss-cross. Some go around the equator, others north to south over the poles.

CU Aerospace builds an add-on system that would bring a satellite down and it would burn up in the atmosphere when it is no longer functioning.

“We’re always working on new systems,” Burton said. “Smaller is often better in this field. The smaller a satellite is, the cheaper it is to put it into orbit.”

It was in the ‘50s when a young Rod Burton began dabbling with rockets. He was a lot like Homer Hickam from the movie “October Sky.” No, Burton didn’t face pressure from his father to work in a coal mine, but like Hickam, he was fascinated by rocketry and saw a bright future in the science.

Burton remains enthusiastic about the work.

“It’s the greatest field ever,” he said.

Despite his love for the work, he has no desire to blast off into the final frontier.

“I’d be scared up in space,” he said. “I’m not a roller-coaster person.”