Friday, May 2, 2014

Tom Mahefkey

        Tom Mahefkey passed away a few days ago.      
     Tom was my boss when we both worked at Air Force Research Laboratories.   I hadn't seen Tom for a while, since he has been living in Georgia. But back in the day we worked on advanced nuclear power systems for the Air Force and for President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.  Tom was involved in thermal management, which is one of those technologies that nobody knows what it is good for.  What is it?  Well briefly you have to figure out how you are going to keep your spacecraft at the right temperature.  That is easy enough on earth, but in space you can not simply open a window or turn on an air conditioner.  So there are a number of high tech solutions to transfer heat to a radiator so it could be ultimately dissipated in space.  Another problem was the Air Force always wanting to fly too fast, and actually burning up due to friction.  In that case, you have to call Dr. Mahefkey and see if there is some way to keep things cool enough to survive.

     That is how we spent our youth, worrying about such things.   
    Tom loved the Air Force and was very good at bring good people into his group, in including Jerry Beam, Joe Gottschlich, Pon Ponnappon, Jill Johnson, Ram Ramalingam, B.H. Tsao, Brian Donovan, John Leland, and many others. Eventually we started working with Dick Verga and Len Caveny at the Strategic Defense Initiative Office.  Later that work took us to the Soviet Union as part of a government effort to convert some of the technology from military applications to space exploration.  Unfortunately, that was only partially successful, as too many of the oldsters frankly liked fighting the Cold War better than cooperation. Maybe the next generation will figure out that we are better off working together, but so far that concept is kind of on hold. 

Len Caveny, cut off on the left, Sergey Timashev, Tom Mahefkey, Bonnie Somerville, Alla Eden, Joyce Caveny and Elliot Kennel in Saint Petersburg.   We produced a translation of a book by Sergey on spacecraft nuclear power.  Thanks to Len for taking the pictures. 

We travelled by train with Sergey from St Petersburg to Moscow.  Here Sergey models a Space Shuttle tee shirt.   I remember getting very sick from eating pickled eel; however those who washed it down with vodka survived without incident.  Lesson learned:  vodka = antiseptic.

     One of the things we did was to start and support international conferences on energy conversion.  This led to us getting invited to Russia (or at that time the USSR) and achieving some minor notoriety.  One one occasion, we thought it would be nice to have a conference in Sukhumi Gruzhiya (Georgia).  Little did we know that there would be a rift between Russia and Georgia and so the conference was held in a makeshift dormitory normally used to train athletes.  It was kind of funny at the time, and we used to call ourselves the Survivors of Sukhumi.  Unfortunately, that beautiful country had a civil war, and the survival of the people there was a real issue and so it is not funny anymore.   Suffice it to say it is such a beautiful country, and we hope it will in time become peaceful and prosper again somehow.  

    Off-work, Tom was a regular guy, raising two great kids in Suzy and Tommy.  No question, Suzy and Tommy were his greatest joys in life. Tom was not the type to brag about his kids, but I knew he was very proud of them and would do anything for them.  
     Next to his kids and family, Tom was very close to the people he worked with.  He encouraged all of us to continue our education and to constantly strive to improve.  Tom taught classes at the University of Dayton, and was also close to the faculty at Wright State (the other local university near the Air Force Base).   
     Tom was also an ardent sportsman.  He played tennis with a passion.  Frankly, I was scared of him, as well as his cohorts Ram and Tsao.  Those guys were trained killers on the tennis court. Tom also coached baseball for his son Tommy's teams. Tom was from Pennsylvania, and grew up rooting for the Pirates and Steelers, although from living in Ohio so many years he started to like some of the Ohio teams as well, especially the Reds.   

   Tom also liked music and in particular liked Buddy Holly and some of those old time rockers. He also liked country western.  A few times we played songs together, like Peggy Sue, That'll be the Day, and stuff like that.  I wish we could have gotten together more recently, as my friends in West Virginia have gotten me trained up some, and I could probably keep up a little better now.

     Maybe the last thing we did together was to study thermionic energy one last time for the National Research Council.  It was a very complex issue, but in the end it did not go forward. Perhaps there were too many political forces pulling in different directions.  I think Tom felt discouraged, and maybe I let him down.  But in the end, I didn't feel that there was a cohesive consensus, at least in the US, to build nuclear reactors for spacecraft.   


I think this is from the National Research Council study on thermionic energy conversion.  From left to right (Unfortunately, I don't recognize the first two fellows on the left or the woman in front right), Doug Allen, Len Caveny,   George Hatsopolous, Elliot Kennel, Harry Finger,  Tom Hunt,  Dean Jacobsen, Tom Mahefkey, Judy Ambrus, Robert Pinkerton. 

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