Every year the Air Force launches multiple rockets into space, carrying sensitive and expensive communications, navigation, weather and intelligence satellites that are vital to our nation’s security.
Overseeing these launches is 35-year-old Jonathan Baker, an Air Force engineer who manages the people and processes that ensure the rockets carrying satellite systems are correctly built and assembled to survive launch day—the riskiest part of the satellite’s life—and make it to the correct orbit.
“Mission success is what they pay us for, and Jonathan has that focus on making sure the rockets work,” said Walter Lauderdale, deputy division chief in the Launch Systems Directorate. “The U.S. government doesn’t buy commercial insurance. People like Jonathan are your insurance.”
Baker deals with 80 to 100 technical issues during every launch, supervising and working with engineers who examine and test everything from the paperwork and the parts the factory creates to “hot firing” the engine on the launch pad.
In the four-plus years Baker has served as the deputy chief engineer for Delta IV—one of the Air Force’s two launch systems—he has upped the likelihood of mission success by creating cohesiveness among 80 public- and private-sector engineers. He also established an important training program to develop skilled Air Force rocket engineers and launch operators.
In addition, Baker used his technical knowledge to help reduce the cost of a contract for 40 new rockets from $14 billion to under $10 billion.
“Jonathan is the embodiment of an outstanding leader,” said Col. William Hodgkiss, commander of the Launch Systems Directorate. “He sets the standard, not just for his technical expertise, but also for the leadership of his team and the development of its members.”
Since 2010, 13 satellites worth more than $7 billion have been launched under Baker’s supervision and are providing capabilities such as wireless communications, national reconnaissance, infrared missile warning and precision timing and navigation.
These satellites had to be loaded onto rockets that were assembled a few months before takeoff. Preparation for a launch takes enormous attention to detail. “You can’t muscle through and expect everything to be all right,” Baker said. “You have to do all your homework.”
Before Baker arrived, dealings were not optimal between the Air Force and the corporate partners who build the Delta IV rockets. Baker was brought in to smooth these working relationships.
“He has built a world-class team out of what was relatively disorganized,” Hodgkiss said. “Individual entities were not working together, let alone efficiently and effectively. They all kind of stayed in their own camps. He fixed that.”
Baker also instituted a certification program that Air Force engineers take before performing duties on launch day. In a classroom setting, they get familiar with launch vehicles and ground systems, receive testing on specific subsystems they’re responsible for and spend three to four hours giving a certification briefing to Jonathan or the chief engineer, Lt. Col. Stacy Walser.
“You don’t get a second chance at launch,” said Walser. “Thousands of things have to go right. Once that engine lights, either all that hard work you did pays off or you missed something. He’s very passionate about not missing anything.”
Hodgkiss said Baker built a team that is “very well-grounded in engineering discipline.”
On launch day, Baker is in a room monitoring data, charts and videos, checking computer systems, battery and power systems and first- and second-stage engines. Just before launch, he polls the people in charge of each system, asking for a “go” or “no go.” When Baker is satisfied the rocket is ready, he reports his decision to the mission director.
With about four launches a year, “the tempo is extremely fast,” said Mark Brosmer, general manager at the Air Force’s consulting company, adding that Baker excels at keeping his team even-keeled.
“The amount of issues and their criticality puts a lot of pressure on people,” Brosmer said. “If we have a bad day, we lose a boatload of money. He handles that pressure and keeps it off the people who work for him.”
Baker puts it matter-of-factly. “My job is basically to make sure those satellites get where they’re supposed to go on the first attempt—the only attempt—because that’s all there is.”
He said he derives great satisfaction from working with active-duty Air Force personnel who want to serve their nation.
“I like being responsible for them, training them, making their lives better,” he said. “They’re sacrificing for a noble cause, and I get fired up every day to make a rocket launch successful.”