A Q & A with Fulbright College Alumnus Melvin “Ralph” Carruth
In this conversation, Carruth talks about the pursuit of his dream of working for NASA, the excitement he still feels in his career, the family-like atmosphere he experienced in the physics department and encourages students to never sell themselves short.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your career, what you studied in college, and how the two relate to one another?
I came to the University of Arkansas to pursue a Master of Science degree in Physics, which is really necessary to pursue a career in that field. I had always followed the space program, but I knew nobody associated with it and by the time I was getting my degree I knew the prospects of working for NASA were essentially zero. But I sent some resumes anyway.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California was looking for someone to work on ion propulsion, while my thesis was extracting and quantifying ions from a laser produced plasma. They pulled my resume out of the stack. I went for an interview and had a job offer the same day. I could not believe it!
It was a growing time for me at JPL and exciting too. I was recognized for some of the work I did in characterizing plasma beams. At the time I was there, Voyager spacecraft was performing flybys of Jupiter and Saturn. I didn’t work on that but got to see it daily. Very exciting!
After about 2.5 years I was requested by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama to come work there. It was closer to home and more like home, so we made the move.
I’m in my 41st year and am now a senior executive at NASA.
I pinch myself nearly every day that I get to work on the things I do. I’ve developed new knowledge and technologies in the laboratory and seen it go into spacecraft design and experiments. I’ve walked around the Space Shuttle, inspected flight hardware returned from orbit, climbed up into launch towers and platforms, worked on things like the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, Space Shuttle, Shuttle/Mir with Russia, International Space Station, and experiments on these latter.
I’ve worked with colleagues not only all over this country, but in Russia, Italy and the Netherlands, traveling to their facilities to work with them.
Currently, I’m involved in the Space Launch System supporting numerous tests with my organization responsible for the cryogenic-structural tests of the entire rocket, which will be complete this year.
Q: What was one of your favorite memories of your time at the college and why?
Mostly of the friends and people. The professors were close to the students in the physics department and the students were close as well. We were all working and studying and supporting each other.
I did have a newborn son my second year and my wife was in classes across the street, so I kept a playpen in my lab and kept him when she was in class.
Find your passion and chase it! Don’t sell yourself short. I never thought I’d work at NASA but look what happened.
I was a little intimidated when I started, some others in the group were from MIT and Princeton. I soon learned they were just people and we worked well together. JPL was only concerned with whether I worked hard and could get the job done.
Q: What do you like to do during your time outside of work?
I have so many hobbies I never have time for them. I love to travel and explore other places. Camping, hunting and fishing are things I’d like to do more of.
When I was at the University of Arkansas, I took advantage of what north Arkansas had to offer including canoeing down the Buffalo.
Q: What’s up next on the horizon for you?
After 41 years I do think about retiring and focusing on some of those hobbies, travel and doing other things I don’t now have time for.
My career is still interesting and fulfilling so we’ll see how that works out.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add or let readers know?
I still have family in Arkansas. Even though they grew up in Alabama, two of my sons moved back to Arkansas.
One is an athletic trainer and manages support through Conway Regional Medical Center for local schools and universities. Another is a naval aviator who now flies reserves and works in business from Little Rock.
The son who was in the playpen while I was at Fayetteville is an assistant research professor at Mississippi State University. My daughter is a registered nurse in the ICU here in Huntsville, Alabama; she is the only one who stayed.