Charles P. Blankenship
Class of 1960, BS; Class of 1962, MS
When Charles Blankenship graduated from Virginia Tech in 1960 with his bachelorʼs degree, he had played end for the football team under Coach Frank Moseley, been inducted into Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honorary society, and excelled as the Athletic Commander in the Corps of Cadets. Those were just a few of his college highlights.
Blankenship came to Virginia Tech as a star athlete from his high school in Bluefield, West Virginia. As a teenager, he raced from the football field to the basketball arena to running track, depending on the season. And he took his academics seriously, excelling in his high school chemistry and math classes.
When he arrived at Virginia Tech on a full football athletic scholarship, he discovered that being an athlete and an engineer “was tough. It was a lot of work. But being on a team helps you understand that it is the team that succeeds” and not just an individual, Blankenship says. “I also learned that you have to understand the tasks, not just assign them” which he later applied throughout his highly successful 35-year career with NASA.
At 18, he selected the career of metallurgical engineering after meeting the 1956 department head, John Eckel. “Dr. Eckel attracted me to the field of metallurgy because he made it sound like fun, and because he told me about all of the available opportunities,” Blankenship recalls. Again, he would surpass many of his contemporary colleagues, evidenced by Eckelʼs offer to Blankenship of a graduate fellowship after his senior year.
Following the receipt of his masterʼs in 1962, Blankenship completed his commitment to the Air Force for the next three years. The military “loaned” him to NASA during that time, and he started at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. While NASA was most prominently known at that time for its goal of getting a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s, Blankenship found himself working on even more futuristic projects. “I was investigating the next generation of launch materials to go to Mars. And I was looking at a tungsten material for nuclear rockets, almost 40 years ahead of its time,” the materials engineer says.
By 1968, he was leading an effort to develop an alternative thermal protection system for the Space Shuttle, a vehicle that would not be launched until 1981. While he and his team were investigating an all-metal heat shield, others at NASA were exploring the use of ceramic tiles. “The tiles turned out to be the best system for the weight requirements, but we ended up developing a new alloy with commercial applications and a new way of manufacturing it,” Blankenship recalls.
As the country moved into an energy crisis in the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Energy requested NASA to conduct a study to explore the feasibility of all-ceramic, gas turbine engines for cars. Blankenship was given the project, and although he and his team showed that ceramic engines would work, they remained cost prohibitive.
As his expertise gained prominence, Blankenship was named the head of NASAʼs Materials Applications Branch in 1974, and worked on nickel-based alloy materials for aircraft engines. This successful project allowed the application of some new materials into commercial use, the beginning of Blankenshipʼs much exhibited prowess in technology transfer.
In 1980, Blankenship moved to NASAʼs Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Within three years, he was named the Director for Structures, and led the centerʼs research and technology development programs for aerospace materials, structures, and acoustics. He managed four research divisions and a staff of 275 scientists and engineers. His responsibilities included planning and implementing joint government-industry-academic research and technology programs that led to significant advances in key aircraft and spacecraft systems. Among these were the demonstration of high performance composites in commercial aircraft structures, the first assembly of large structures in space, and industry validated methods for predicting and reducing aircraft noise.
During this time Blankenship served as a principal member of the National Structures Oversight Team preparing for the Space Shuttleʼs return to flight after the Challenger disaster. “This was about a three-year effort. After the failure of the O-ring, we looked at all concepts for sealing joints, including a redundant system. We examined and validated the structural integrity of the entire rocket-motor propulsion system,” Blankenship recalls.
In 1994, he moved to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to serve as its deputy director. He led the development of the super lightweight, external tank for the Space Shuttle. This development increased the shuttle payload by 8,000 pounds as required for the Space Station.
Later in 1994, he returned to Langley as its Director of Technology Applications. For two years, he led the Centerʼs technology commercialization program that included patenting, licensing, and marketing of new technologies to the non-aerospace sector. “We commercialized two instrumentation methods for non-destructive testing of materials and structures and licensed three new polymeric materials. They included adhesives for electronic cable systems, film for oxygen resistance (for space applications), high temperature foams, and an ultrasonic device for crack detection in metallic structures,” Blankenship explains.
“It was very tough to try and find the commercial applications,” Blankenship adds. “We were developing technology for spacecraft, and then we were trying to find potential commercial applications. It was like having a solution and then looking for a problem,” he adds. “And the companies would then have to take the risk for further development and applications. We were fortunate to have several successes to show that technology transfer worked. It was a lot of fun interacting with the non-space companies.”
In 1996, Blankenship became NASAʼs Director of Advanced Subsonic Technology Program Office with operations at three of the NASA centers – Lewis in Cleveland, Ohio; Ames at Moffett Field, California; and Langley in Hampton, Virginia. Now, he was leading the planning and implementation of a $1.5 billion government-industry program that accelerated development of high payoff technologies for applications in commercial transport aircraft. They included lightweight composite aircraft structures, aircraft engine noise reduction concepts, automated air traffic management, and advanced turbine engine components.
After his retirement in 1997, his proficiency in materials technology led him to some very successful consulting work with places like Savannah River Technology Center and Lockheed Martin, as well as the Directorship of the Technology Commercialization Center (TeCC) of Newport News, Virginia. The Center, composed of a group of industry leaders from the Newport News area, received a $6.8 million contract in 2001 from NASA to translate laboratory research into consumer products. The TeCC was one of six such facilities in the country, matching some 100 companies a year with NASA scientists.
Today, Blankenship says he is “taking it easy” and doing as much “fishing, hiking, and shooting of clay pigeons as possible.” He has a new goal of visiting as many national parks as he can, and his most recent conquests were Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. Closer to home, he stumbled upon three black bear cubs and their mother while hiking at the Peaks of Otter.
Blankenship and his wife, now deceased, have two sons, Charles “Chip” Blankenship, Jr., and Tim, both of whom are engineers. Chip is a Virginia Tech materials science and engineering graduate currently serving as the General Manager of General Electricʼs Aircraft Derivative Products Division in Houston, Texas. Tim is chief of engineering for Coastal Systems International of Coral Gables, Florida. “Maybe I had too much influence over them,” he smiles.
Class of: 1960, 1962
Year Inducted into Academy: 2007