Richard “Hawk” Altstatt: (Radiation) Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind

Richard L. “Hawk” Altstatt received an MS in Nuclear Engineering, specializing in Plasma Physics (fire) and Material Science (burning stuff), from North Carolina State University and an MS in Engineering Science and Mechanics, specializing in Thermal Mechanics (fire again) and Instrumentation (sticking stuff in fire), from University of Tennessee Space Institute.

He can be found throughout the weekend at the Science Track in Hilton 202.

Daily Dragon (DD): What interested in you engineering, and radiation, in particular?

Richard “Hawk” Altstatt (RA): Engineering is learning how things work and solving problems. Basically I was born an engineer. My dad was an engineer, his dad worked as a engineering manager in an oil refinery. As a farm boy, the engineering world seemed pretty sexy. I got into radiation by mistake. I did Fire for Grad school, 7 years of fire. I just happened to do my plasma engineering degree in the nuclear engineering department at NCSU.

NASA needed someone who understood: Spacecraft, Plasma Physics, Radiation. Well, my degrees covered all that pretty solidly. Eleven years at NASA and I’m a space environment expert. That was pretty radiation heavy work experience. Lots of space weather and Van Allen Belts, transporting protons, electrons, and Galactic Cosmic Radiation through spacecraft hulls and astronauts.

DD: What is your favorite part about what you do?

RA: My boss sat me down the other week and said, “I’ve been tasked to do this thing for BIG WIG.” I knew what that meant. I’m going to look at a BIG IMPORTANT program, figure out where it isn’t up to snuff, and fix it. Oh, I’ve got a WHOLE month to learn everything. I die of hysterical laughter there, but this is what I do.

Give me a problem, impossible is fine, tell me to fix it, give me a deadline. PAY ME MONEY. I get to read stuff about nuclear survivability, play numbers on the computer, make sense of a HUGE MESS of a problem. Distill it down to a 3-hour presentation, and teach my boss what I learned. I literally turned it in Monday morning and got on a flight to Seattle. I suppose I should drop the mike and walk away here…

DD: You contract with many groups and companies, from civilian companies to NASA to the military. Are any of them better/more interesting to work with, and if so, what makes them more interesting?

RA: Civilian programs don’t waste the money that gov programs do. Goveys push money in a circle till it is gone. They’d do good work, but they hire contractors that know how to produce “billable assets” without actually producing assets. Paperwork, paperwork about paperwork, paperwork discussing how to make better paperwork. Horrible. Mind numbing. You can get real work done there, but if you look too successful, they’ll make you go to more meetings. I always try to hide on the margins, work for someone who has the money to spend, but wants a product at the end of the day. STAY OUT OF MEETINGS.

DD: You’ve been a regular attendee at Dragon Con for many years. What keeps bringing you back?

RA: The Boob Fairies. That’s pretty much it…  No. Ok. I come here to talk geek with a couple hundred of my good friends. I love being a big geek, talking science or sci fi, or martial arts, or whatever. People who are interested in my inner geek.

DD: What is the biggest difference for you between being an attendee and a guest at Dragon Con?

RA: VANITY. I like being on stage and putting on a show. PURE VANITY. I love it. If it is a good show and people had a good time, I really feel like I did something useful with my time. I fed their love for the science. That matters.

DD: Do you have any pet peeves regarding radiation, such as pop culture perceptions of it?

RA: Radiation is scary evil *Woo noise* like ghosts who sneak up and kill you. If you have a reactor nearby, then scary sudden death. They show pictures of Fukushima and say “the reactor caused this…” SERIOUSLY? Did you forget the f*ing 9 scale earthquake and 50-foot f*ing tidal wave? They had something to do with this. Radiation doesn’t break houses, ruin cars, rip up streets. Heck, the detectors around Fukushima are showing bare background. The leak hasn’t made a significant effect on the surrounding town. I’m happy that they are being careful, but radiation hasn’t been causing any injuries. Radiation is just what it is. It is a light in a spectrum you can’t see. It is a dust of a specific color you happen to be blind to. Carry a Geiger counter and you aren’t blind anymore. You look around, there is a bit there and a bit there. Don’t eat it. Not scary, just dust. If it were lead dust it would be more harmful. Radiation is all around us, part of our daily life. Like anything else we can’t see, we make it into a scary villain. You can’t see it, it must be evil. It isn’t. 

DD: What do you enjoy doing to unwind?

RA: Wow, I have two. One, I sit down with a good beer, scotch, or cigar, hang out with geeks like myself, and have a good time talking politics, science, science fiction, hot chicks. (Lucky I married one, so I have a good reference model.) Two, I get in a good fight. I do martial arts and sword fighting. If I can get my blood up in a big fight, well, it really calms me down. Nothing seems important after a serious fight. Really calms me down.

DD: What advice do you have for people interested in doing what you do? 

RA: First, you have the school time. It really is a million homework problems, but those are necessary. I tell people, at one point in Aerospace Engineering, I just started “seeing” turbulent boundary layers and was thinking in Reynolds and Prandtl numbers. The homework, the constant problem solving, teaches you to see how to break real world problems apart and fix them.

Second, you never know what you are doing that will get you The Job. When you interview, find out what they want and write a story making it the clear next step on your career path. I was working as a delivery driver and a did a bit of maintenance on a “Breadman” chemical database. When I interviewed at NASA, I mentioned that I worked on a database. Turns out, they needed someone who knew how to run a database. Out of seven candidates, all of them with plasma, radiation, nuke background, they picked me.

Look, if you’re interested in something. Say flowers. You learn the dirt. If you have an interest in science, get out there and find out where the flowers are growing. Get to those companies and get to work. Dig.

DD: Do you have a favorite charity or cause you’d like to mention? 

RA: My favorites right now are Engineers without Borders. They are building water and waste disposal facilities across Africa.


Author of the article

After a lifetime of science fiction and fantasy influences, the last twenty of which have been spent in IT, Geoff Termorshuizen is applying for his Ph.D. in Strategic Security after finishing a B.A in Political Science and M.Sc.'s in Cyber Security and MIS. He currently works as a technical consultant for ACI Worldwide, supporting security and financial payment systems. You can find him at Con either at the the DailyDragon room, or via the EFF track where he has presented panels on digital forensics, privacy, cyberwar, surveillance and technology related politics.