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Interview: Robert A. Childs

1999 George T. Hanyo Award Recipient

My name is Bob Childs. I'm at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I'm here today at the Seattle meeting of the American Vacuum Society. The year is 1999. I'm here to talk about some of the things that have happened to me in my 30 years at MIT and my work with the American Vacuum Society.

I started back in 1969 after my years of service in the Air Force, coming to MIT, looking for a job, thinking that I might go ahead and get a degree at MIT as well. Somebody suggested, "Why don't you get a job at MIT, and then you could go to night school?" I didn't know, and neither did the person telling me this, that it didn't have a night school.

Nonetheless, I started working at the Draper Laboratories - at that time it was known as the Instrumentation Laboratories at MIT - on the guidance systems that were being developed for Poseidon missiles and the Apollo program. After working there for about a year, there was an opportunity to move over to the Center for Space Research for MIT. I began working on a package that was going to be on Apollo 17 as an experiment to study the surface of the moon. This was an interferometer package that was going to measure density differences down about 300 meters into the surface of the moon and give us an idea what the moon was actually made of, dispel the theory about cheese and all that.

The experiment had an interesting background. It was determined that the moon had a very high dielectric constant that meant that we had to find a place on Earth that could be a place to test this equipment. We ended up finding that a glacier was the proper place to go. We ended up traveling around the world, in Switzerland, Canada, and finally Alaska, to do some field studies on some of the prototypes that we developed. This was quite an exciting time because it allowed me to learn not only some interesting electronics and Earth and planetary science things, but it gave me a chance to develop some skills in mountain climbing and ice crevasse rescue and things like this, because these are all necessary skills for us to be able to exist in these field adventures.

From there, we developed a package and it went on and had a successful flight on Apollo 17. They mapped the surface of the moon and discovered there wasn't any water in the area that they were at. This was sort of a down side, because they were hoping to find water in all of these studies. But the instrument proved to have some benefit here on Earth. They developed it into a package that can actually be used to find minerals in remote areas by deploying a transmitter into the jungle, so to speak, and then traversing back and forth with an airplane. So it had another benefit, as a lot of NASA-type projects do.

That was exciting, but as all things, the Apollo program came to an end and I was looking for other type of employment. A professor who I'd worked with said he had a new project at the Bitter National Magnet Laboratory at MIT that was just getting started. It was a Tokamak fusion project. The Bitter National Magnet Lab was very fortunate in having some of the brightest magnet design people in the world. This allowed us to build the very first Tokamak at MIT that was moderately successful in the first phase. But in the second phase, where we really did a lot of work on the vacuum system to make it more efficient and better quality, ended up becoming a very significant step in the progress towards break even operation of a Tokamak. Suddenly, MIT was thrown into the forefront of some of this research. This allowed us to then go on and develop the next stage, called Alcator C. Alcator C was the first Tokamak to actually produce densities at the level determined by Lawson's criteria for fusion. This made us world record news and all of this sort of thing.

From that, we've kept on going. We now have Alcator C-MOD. The success of that machine has meant that we are one of the only two operational Tokamaks in the United States at this point in time, and we have a very bright future for this machine.
My career in vacuum got its start on this program at the National Magnet Lab because I was an electronic technician at the time. I was assigned to help develop a control system for the cryogenics system. You see, Alcator uses the concept of a very cold machine to allow us to have very high magnetic fields. This means the whole machine needs to be bathed in liquid nitrogen. The control of that was necessarily quite sophisticated.

The person who was in charge of that also had a little side job. He was sort of directing the operation of the vacuum system. Like a lot of experiments, the vacuum was a secondary issue on this particular machine. It meant that what was being done was pretty much a throw-together type operation. This person needed some help with that. He needed a technician to maintain the equipment, and I had no idea what this stuff was. Over the course of about six to eight months, I was trained on what the different types of pumps were that were being used and how to maintain them and how to operate them. This was my beginning.

That was probably around 1974 when all that occurred. Over the next couple of years we had a change in leadership on the program. The new person that came in, Dr. Ron Parker, was very adamant that we had to clean up the vacuum system, because he could see that was really having a major effect on the quality of the plasmas that were being produced. So a whole new attitude about vacuum was coming into importance, shall we say. That's when I and another technician started getting proper training in vacuum technology. We were sent away to courses in leak detection and basic understanding of vacuum systems and so forth by the American Vacuum Society and some of the vendors that we dealt with.

This lead to a better understanding on my part, and I started seeing a connection between something that I'd learned in high school physics. My background in high school physics was very heavily influenced by molecular physics, the part that I really enjoyed. I started to see this relationship between what was going on in the vacuum world and what I'd learned before. This allowed me to move ahead and assume more and more responsibility towards better understanding what was going on.

After a while, the program grew and so did our department. I became supervisor of the vacuum shop for the Alcator program and eventually became a full staff engineer for the project. For the last 20 years, that's been my responsibility - maintaining the vacuum systems for the Alcator program. The job also, because of my growing experience, has meant that I've been asked to consult on other projects around MIT, in the Center itself, and so forth.

One of the interesting things about all of this work is the fact that I became the interface between the different vacuum manufacturers that came to sell on our doorstep. I think one of the most important contacts that I ever had was back in 1977. A brand new company that had been started in Boulder, CO. Norman Peacock and Bill Stewart from the HPS Corporation came for a visit. They had been told about some of the work we'd been doing at MIT. They were selling a brand new vacuum gate valve that was quite unique in its concept. Lo and behold, I was having terrible problems with a particular style of gate valve at the time. So it was sort of an opportunity that was perfect timing. They came in with a gate valve that had answers to my problem. We bought some, and from that point on we've kept up with the relationship all these years.

But Norman saw something else going on with what was going on in my career and asked me if I'd like to work with the American Vacuum Society. He suggested that I run for one of the directorships on the Vacuum Technology Division Board. I was very impressed that he was even asking me to do this. I'd looked at my educational background and thought, "Gosh, I'm going up against a lot of really heavy duty people here." He said, "Don't worry about it. Just do your best." So I ran and I got elected. I served on the Board, and that was my beginning of my relationship with the AVS in the workings of what's going on here. I will always be indebted to Norman for asking me to get involved, because it has been one of the key reasons I've had any success at all - because of his urging that I take the position. From there, I moved on through chairmanship of the Board for Vacuum Technology, and I've been working as the chairman of the Recommended Practices Committee after Bob Ellison stepped down. This has allowed me to get involved with some of the international standards. So I've gotten involved with some of the work that we do internationally. Then along came this opportunity; I was asked to represent the U.S. as the delegate for the Vacuum Science Division of IUVSTA. That has opened up a whole new world. I served as the delegate to the Vacuum Science Division the last three years of the triennium, and then this last term around became the Chairman of the Division, not only representing the U.S. but actually getting a chance to run the Division internationally. This has opened up all kinds of other new worlds for me, and really has meant a lot.

Again, I go back to Norman. He was the one that urged me to do all these things, and yet there are many others that need to be thanked. As a result of all this, at this meeting, I'm being presented with the George T. Hanyo Award, and I'm really, really humbled by this whole experience. It's really been a tremendous opportunity for me throughout all these events. But to think that there's still a chance for somebody with basically a high school and a couple courses here and there in college to advance this far in their career - it's still possible. I credit the American Vacuum Society for allowing a lot of that to happen.
Again, I am humbled by the opportunity to do this interview. This is quite an honor. I understand that I'm being put into a collection of videos with some very notable people in the industry and the science. So I thank the American Vacuum Society.

Note: The official name of the Vacuum Technology Division Board is the Vacuum Technology Division Executive Committee