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Reaching for the stars; Perham grad launches a career in rockets

NASA photo At top is SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which Huwe helped design parts for, grappled by the International Space Station's Canadarm2 on Oct. 10, 2012.1 / 4
Ethan Huwe Submitted photo2 / 4
NASA photo The Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket are prepared for a test run to check vertical operations.3 / 4
SpaceX photo The Dragon spacecraft is mated to the Falcon 9 rocket on Sept. 30, 2012 in preparation for the SpaceX launch to the International Space Station on Oct. 7.4 / 4

Ethan Huwe has launched a career that's out of this world.

The 2006 Perham High School graduate went on to attend MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and now works for SpaceX, a California company that is paving the way for privatized space exploration.

The company made history in May when, as a part of a contract with NASA, it sent the first commercial spacecraft to attach to the International Space Station, drop off supplies, and return safely to Earth.

That spacecraft was called Dragon, and Huwe helped design parts for it. He also helped design and create components for the Falcon 9 rockets that launched Dragon into space.

Huwe is a Propulsion Design Engineer at Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX.

But hey, it's not rocket science, right?

Well, actually, it is.

So how does one get into this line of work?

For Huwe, the path was laid in high school. After coming home one day claiming to be "bored" by school, his father, Larry, told him, "Son, if you're bored in school, it's your own fault. When it comes to education, the sky's the limit, there's no end to it."

He encouraged Ethan to get involved in any extracurricular activities he found interesting - and that's when the boy discovered the Perham High School Science Research team.

Often partnering with his friend Ian Johnson to work on science projects, Ethan discovered a talent for building and inventing things. Together, Ethan and Ian built a battery charger that easily worked with many different types of batteries, and they built an electricity-generating solar cell.

The two won local competitions with these projects, going on to nationals and rubbing shoulders with some notable people who shared similar interests in science and engineering.

"That paved the way for him," said Ethan's father. "It opened up the world."

Outside of school and the Science Research team, Ethan started to experiment on his own - sometimes to the chagrin of his parents. His mom, Nancy, said he once made his own potato gun, for example, and another time he exploded a milk jug full of hydrogen, giving her and Larry quite a scare.

"That was one of the biggest explosions I've ever heard," recalled Larry.

But Ethan's come a long way from making things explode in the backyard.

He graduated from MIT in 2010 with a degree in mechanical engineering, and today, his work with SpaceX distinguishes him as a young leader in the field. His involvement with the history-making Dragon spacecraft helped eliminate thermal issues with the thrusters. And, most recently, he was tasked with re-designing the gas generator that will be used in the engines of some of SpaceX's newest rockets.

"This project is particularly interesting due to the fact that the gas generator is a small component that could be considered the heart of the engine," Ethan wrote in an email to the Focus. "It burns fuel and oxidizer, generating the energy needed to power the turbo-pump and, therefore, the entire engine."

Looking ahead, Ethan said 2013 will be an important year for SpaceX.

"We have an upcoming launch to the International Space Station on March 1, and after that we will be rolling out a new iteration of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle for a couple more launches to be held by the end of the year," he said.

He added that the company has been laying the ground work for a much larger vehicle, and is testing reusability of its vehicles. In December, SpaceX landed its first launch contracts for the U.S. military.

As Ethan's career continues to lift off, his attitude remains grounded. The values instilled in him as a youth by his family and friends remain an important part of the adult he is today - as do the skills they nurtured.

Growing up on the family dairy farm in Butler Township had a major impact on Ethan's interests and ultimate career choice. He said operating and helping to repair and improve farm machinery helped guide him toward the field of mechanical engineering.

"I always knew that I wanted to go into engineering and to work on challenging projects," said Ethan, "but I also was lucky enough to receive a lot of encouragement along the way. Teachers, coaches, as well as my family and friends, all supported and encouraged my dreams."

Larry said the family owed "a lot of thanks" to Ethan's friend Ian Johnson and his parents, Chuck and Darla, as well as to Perham teachers, for their support and encouragement of Ethan as he was growing up.

Ethan and his sisters, Lindsey and Audrey, were all inspired by the teachers in Perham, said Larry: "They helped them be all they can be."

Ethan currently lives in Redondo Beach, Calif.

When not working, he can often be found mountain biking and climbing in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. He still makes it home a couple of times a year, and Larry said it's always interesting to get caught up on what he's been doing.

"We learn a lot every time he comes home," Larry said.

Two years ago, Larry and Nancy took a trip out to California to visit their son and tour SpaceX.

"We're pretty proud of Ethan and his accomplishments," said Larry. "We have a lot to be thankful for."

Editor's note: This is the first in an ongoing occasional series of stories on Perham High School graduates who now live out of the area and are involved in unique and interesting things.