My Dad, Fort Knox, and Your Future

Susan Donnelly's father in 1971 with the crew that flew iridium from Ft. Knox to Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In the early 1970s, my father headed a team in the Metals and Ceramics Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

During this time, NASA presented his team with a request - come up with a material that could be used as protective cladding for plutonium oxide needed to fuel the Voyageur and Pioneer spacecrafts that were going to be built to explore the solar system. 

And then, even though this was primarily a research facility, manufacture all the material NASA needed - with no defects.

It looked impossible. 

The solution would have to protect the plutonium oxide fuel from a launch pad explosion that exposed it to burning solid rocket fuel, a rocket launch failure that sank the spacecraft under the ocean for an extended time, and a high altitude rocket failure that dropped the spacecraft to earth and shattered it. So whatever the material was had to be compatible with the 238Pu fuel and graphite, withstand impact, have a high melting point, and resist seawater corrosion.

Oh - and this was before hard drives were invented, when we still used slide rules, and when 8-track tape technology was state-of-the-art used to run the spacecraft. They couldn’t Google the solution.

Nothing met all the criteria. It had never been done before and they didn’t even know what material to start with.

So they decided to invent it.

As my father says, “We had the whole periodic table.”

They didn’t know exactly how the solution would unfold but they had faith that it would, and proceeded anyway. After a lot of hypothesizing at the molecular level and testing, they discovered they could use iridium with some added “salt and pepper,” as Dad phrases it.

But where to get enough iridium to make all the cladding NASA needed? As far as they knew, this hadn’t been done either. It was more expensive than platinum or gold, and not exactly available in large quantities at the local jewelry store.

They didn’t know how this would unfold either but they proceeded again and found they could get the amount they needed from - of all places - Fort Knox.

So they sent a request through the Department of Energy to Fort Knox, and the required amount of iridium arrived a few days later by helicopter, with the crew shown the photo above (that’s my Dad on the right, with the coolest sideburns!).

The spaceships they made possible - Voyageur 1 and 2, and Pioneer 10 and 11, are still going today, 46 years later. In fact, Voyager 1 is the farthest human-built object from Earth and passed the boundary of interstellar space in 2012, while Voyager 2 is in the outer reaches of the solar system. And thanks to the fuel and the cladding developed by my father and his division, they still have the power to communicate back to Earth.

What does this story have to do with ultrarunning?

It's about what you’re using for fuel - the past or the future.  

So many runners tell me, “I'm too slow for that,” or “I always DNF,” because they use their past as the predictor of their future instead of imaging a whole new future.

Living from the past is safe, predictable, doesn’t require you to get out of your comfort zone or imagine much, but that’s not what you’re made for. 

You’re made to grow and explore, just like those spacecraft.

If Dad and his division had let the past dictate what they expected the future to be, they would have told NASA, “Can’t be done,” and closed the door.

Instead, they saw the future as a blank slate full of the periodic table's worth of possibility, and what they created by living into the future they wanted, where there was a solution, has written more history than they expected. And the journey gets more amazing as those spacecraft head further into the unknown.

Like my Dad and his team, you may not know exactly how things will unfold but if you’re willing to write the future you want on your own blank slate, and live into it, the journey will be amazing.

Invent it!

Signature favorite.png