Toad to Toad is a series of interviews conducted by alumni about alumni who represent a vast cross section of the alumni community and who demonstrate synergy with the Thacher values through their profession, pursuits, hobbies, or life adventures.
In the latest installment of Toad to Toad, I was fortunate to take a ride on a rocket ship with Ian Whittinghill CdeP 2003. This Toad to Toad was particularly fun not only because of the great discussion, but also Ian and I were classmates at Thacher and University of Southern California. The ride-on-a-rocket-ship reference is not literal, but Ian is a literal rocket scientist.
From his early days of model rockets to launching rockets from Upper Field at Thacher to founding the University of Southern California Rocket Propulsion Lab (with fellow classmate Lou Myers CdeP 2003) while earning a B.S. and M.S. in Aerospace Engineering, to his current role as Chief Designer and Program Manager at Whittinghill Aerospace - Ian is no stranger to testing the limits of our atmosphere.
This Toad to Toad conversation covers the usual topics we love hearing about including why Ian attended Thacher, his favorite Thacher memories, and also when he launched his first rocket (spoiler alert, he was four years old!), how he developed an interest and career in the field of aerospace, and much more. I hope you find the highlights from our conversation below entertaining, and if learning more about Ian’s work is of interest, please reach out.
Richard Smith CdeP 2003
Richard Smith: Ok. To start with, when did you launch your first rocket?
Ian Whittinghill: That is a great question. I remember it. I was four years old. It was a teeny little rocket my dad brought home from the hobby store - this tiny kit that you put together. The rocket was four or five inches tall. I spent a long time making it perfect, sanding it, painting it and getting it ready to fly. I was learning how to work with my hands, and Dad did a great job letting me make mistakes and helping me fix them. I remember going to the park at Johnson Space Center in Houston to launch the thing on the lawn next to an actual Saturn V rocket identical to the ones that took astronauts to the moon. It flew beautifully. Then in about ¾ of a second that thing disappeared from sight forever. My mom wanted to kill my dad for losing sight of it and potentially discouraging me, but from that moment I was hooked. I realized, “Okay, let’s do better next time. We’ll get one that’s easier to track.” It was that first moment of success or, I guess, partial success. Something that flew and launched beautifully but needed to be refined. Ever since then we’ve been improving and refining that same little 4-inch rocket into something that, in the next very few years, will become an industrial power house in a new market. So, it’s been a lifelong passion that’s just been an absolute pleasure.
Richard Smith: Shifting toward your career, tell us about your current company.
Ian Whittinghill: The name of our company is Whittinghill Aerospace. Midway through my college career, my father decided to create this business. Early on, Whittinghill Aerospace was contracted to be the Chief Technology Officer for the nascent Virgin Galactic, and it was wonderful. It started out with such a strong association. After college, I did a brief stint at SpaceX and had a nice experience there, but I came to realize that if I was going to work that hard, I would rather it be for the family business or something that I could direct and chart more than I had a chance to do with Elon Musk. So, I joined up with Dad in 2009, and from that moment to now the goal for the company is launch services. What that ultimately means is getting stuff into space.
It is a surprisingly difficult problem getting from the ground to 200 miles up into an orbit. That is, by far, the most difficult thing. Then once you’re in space, you start with an entirely new set of disciplines; you use it as a resource for data and research and all the great millions of uses that we now know. Dad and I have always thought that critical step (launch) could be served better so that is our passion. The company has been focused on the goal of providing American innovators and the world the ability to access space at a much lower cost with much better service, faster access, and more responsive access. We’ve grown organically through contract work with the government and commercial space companies, supporting their needs specifically: research, development, design, prototype, testing, and authorization. These are all deliberate areas of focus. We took our future vision of launch service provider and broke it into distinct disciplines of design, manufacturing, quality control, regulatory relationship, and sales and marketing, then took our first steps in all of those areas.
Richard Smith: To drill in a bit, if you had to state the goal of Whittinghill Aerospace, what is it?
Ian Whittinghill: The goal at Whittinghill Aerospace is to be FedEx or UPS for space. It’s exciting, especially in these last few years where we’ve seen a Cambrian Explosion of innovative ideas on what to do in space. Those ideas range from interesting research to massive industrial deployments of small satellites. Those projects are going to dominate the economics of space and are on the verge of taking off now - resupplying space stations, putting up satellites, sending stuff on its way to Mars. That’s exactly what we want to do.
Richard Smith: With so much opportunity and exciting things going on, what is something that has you particularly excited?
Ian Whittinghill: Very specifically, there are two categories: what the rocket is doing and what the satellite is doing. Agencies like the FAA and NASA are going to incredible lengths to encourage, fund and enable private companies to build rockets and launch payloads into space. Just a few days ago, NASA announced an amazing plan for returning infrastructure to the moon and putting astronauts a little bit further beyond Earth. What’s really cool about that is they want do it in partnership with commercial companies. That is a huge leap forward. It takes a great deal of trust in these private companies to match the quality standards and share NASA’s passion.
The innovative side of the rocket right now is about mass production. One thing that inspires us is Henry Ford not having invented the automobile, he was just the guy who figured out how to mass produce them and unlock that technology to a huge new sector of the population. That is exactly what we are trying to do and what the small satellite and resulting small rocket allows us to do. We didn’t invent the rocket, but it’s our job as engineers to now redeploy those proven rocket technologies with much more efficient production and operation. That’s how we get the costs down and lower the barrier to entry for other developers out there who want to put up all these satellites. We are building the Model T of rocketry.
Richard Smith: You have a knack for making this industry sound very cool, and of course it is. Where can an individual like me get particularly excited?
Ian Whittinghill: Well, thank you. Rockets are cool. They’re awesome, they fly, they’re powerful and beautiful, but the cool factor alone is not enough to sustain this industry. The reason space is substantial is because it is high ground for awesome data services. We’re excited to see major efforts that put up large constellations that serve every person on the planet. Samsung and other companies have proposed constellations of thousands of new satellites orbiting earth to replace cell towers and provide data and voice services. It gives people in sub-Saharan Africa the same access to data and information as those in Manhattan. That’s very exciting! This space asset has the potential to democratize data. I think that’s going to have a substantial impact on humanity.
Richard Smith: Turning back to your career today, what did you work on while at Thacher related to the rocket and aeroscience industry that set you up for success later on?
Ian Whittinghill: Most of my work in aerospace at Thacher was with the support of Kurt Myer and the independent study program. A classmate, Brian Keane CdeP 2003 and I had the same interests in aviation and technology that was stirred by Kurt Meyer’s group work on programming and robotics. Thacher recognized that I wasn’t sitting in my dorm messing with model airplanes and toys, but that these were substantial tools for scientific understanding. Hats off to them for encouraging me to pursue those interests through independent study. Subsequent Thacher students have had similar interests, and, in fact, some have worked at Whittinghill Aerospace as interns. It is pleasant to recall getting out to the soccer fields, between lacrosse practice and formal dinner, to launch rockets and fly model airplanes. It was so much fun.
Richard Smith: From Thacher to University of Southern California, you carried your interest forward and founded the University of Southern California Rocket Propulsion Lab - tell us how you accomplished that.
Ian Whittinghill: That’s a great question. I think with any great success, there’s no small measure of luck that comes to bear. Just when I started USC, they were establishing a new Department of Astronautics. Along with one other student in the engineering school and Lou Meyers CdeP 2003, we wrote a proposal to the dean of the engineering school, C.L. Max Nikias. It was well-received and was endorsed by faculty members eager to grow the astronautics department. To this day, I have such gratitude to USC for placing faith in us and supporting us - a bunch of ambitious and precocious sophomores. They gave us around $100,000, a substantial amount of lab space (which is precious on a busy campus) and carte blanche to set our own directives and ambitious goals. We assembled students as we wanted and directed them as we wanted. To this day, the lab continues there with great, substantive success and continued growth.
Richard Smith: How did you first hear about Thacher, and what ultimately made you decide to attend?
Ian Whittinghill: That is a great question. Our parents wanted us to get the best possible education, and Thacher was certainly very high on the list of institutions in the country that could supply that. My parents, in no way, forced me to get out of the house or anything like that, but brought me up to see Thacher. They showed me the benefits of a smaller class size. The outdoor and horse programs were unique and offered incredible benefits as well. I’m the first generation to go to Thacher. Along with my sister, we rolled the dice, and it was a wonderful experience. We are very happy to have gone.
Richard Smith: What advice would you give to someone, particularly a Thacher student, a younger individual, interested in pursuing a similar path to yours?
Ian Whittinghill: I think the best advice is the one that I always look for in finding people to work with - that is the ability to fail in a positive and productive manner and to get your hands dirty. You look at any advanced technology on Earth today, and it’s usually the 4th or 5th generation that finally succeeds in deployment in the marketplace. Those major leaps of generational improvements are all brought about by people who tinker, people who can build in their garage or people that can, on their home computers, allow their own passions to carry them into refining and discovering new things and new ideas. Even in something as expensive as space sciences, there is always a small enough version of the problem you can pull aside. Or a small enough version of something big that you can tackle at any level, at the industrial level or at the personal/private level. You look at what I was doing at Thacher on the lacrosse field, it was building advanced model rockets, and that was perfect because it’s a lot of the same science. Half of them would crash and burn, break up and luckily not set the Ojai Valley on fire. It was that interest in getting out to the field and doing something that you did yourself and getting to succeed, fail. I was learning from things that didn’t work and making the next ones better. Being okay with projects not working is some of the best advice I can give. It is iterative efforts – failure, refinements, improvements, and eventually success – that allow great things to be invented.
Richard Smith: That’s perfect. Thanks for sharing your story Ian.