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News > Alumni News > "Dare Mighty Things": Career Success At NASA JPL

"Dare Mighty Things": Career Success At NASA JPL

Old Stopfordian Dr Anthony Freeman ((BSc (Hons) (PhD) (F. IEEE)) (OS 1976) reflects on life after SGS
20 Mar 2024
Alumni News

Upon his retirement following a stellar career at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Dr Anthony Freeman (OS 1975) kindly agreed to share the story of his remarkable journey beyond the school gates:

“I was a scholarship student at Stockport Grammar from 1969 to 1975, leaving to complete my A Levels at Tameside College of Further Education in 1976, where I met my future wife and life partner, Phyllis. I grew up in Dukinfield, which isn’t that far away from Stockport, but back then I often had to jump on and off the back of three moving buses to get to school. I’m sure I had a very different experience than one of my SGS classmates, who was dropped off inside the school gates in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce!

I received a well-rounded education at SGS, which helped me achieve 11 GCSE ‘O’ levels across a broad range of subjects, and I won a few prizes. I’m definitely grateful for that. When it came to teaching staff, my personal experiences were typically mixed. I remember Mr Wilcox who nurtured my love of Mathematics, was a great lacrosse coach, and an all-round good human being. Herr Hermann, from Austria, had us watch the Apollo Moon landings in class on a black and white TV which stuck with me in my future career. An English teacher, whose name I can’t recall, read Just William to us in class after our exams, which I did for my own children later on.

A week-long school trip to the Brecon Beacons awoke an interest in wild spaces, and gave me the confidence I could handle myself in them. An exchange visit to Germany, led by Mr Hermann, fostered a lasting love of all things German, except perhaps the exchange student I was paired with. On the other hand, our Physics teacher at the time, was not particularly encouraging nor motivating and whoever coached us in cricket engendered in me a lifelong indifference to the sport! I am pleased to see that SGS has re-embraced the beautiful game of football, which I have always had a love for.

Beyond school, I went on to study Mathematics at the University of Manchester Institute of Technology (UMIST), graduating with a BSc (Hons) in 1979 (thank you, Mr Wilcox), and defended my PhD thesis in Astrophysics at age 23 in 1982 (take that, Physics teacher). Switching fields, my first “real” job was as a Research Scientist/Engineer in radar at the Marconi Research Center in Chelmsford, Essex, which has some claim to be where radar was invented. The last of the “Chain Home” radar towers used in WWII stands there as a memorial to that history.

At one of the first scientific conferences Marconi sent me to in the Summer of 1985, my future boss at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was in the audience. He asked me afterwards to come and work with him—an offer I immediately jumped at, though the wheels of NASA’s bureaucracy turned a little slower. So, in our late 20’s Phyllis and I moved to Pasadena, California in the Spring of 1987 and here we are 37 years on and I have just retired from JPL.

It’s been a wonderfully rewarding career, that gave me many opportunities first as a Radar Scientist/Engineer, then as a Manager and a Formulator/Innovator. I guess I’m considered one of the world’s leading experts in Synthetic Aperture Radar and I have at least a couple of mathematical models that bear my name. SweepSAR, a radar technique I co-invented, I named after our much-loved family Goldendoodle, Sweep. I’ve been involved in helping many NASA/JPL space missions get off the ground, which had the benefit of bringing in more than $4.5B worth of funding to the laboratory.

I’ve published more than 300 articles in journals, conference proceedings and book chapters. I was made a Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), received two NASA awards for Excellence, one from the first President Bush and one from President Obama, and many NASA Group Achievement awards.  

My job let me travel the world: most of the continental US, Hawaii, the wilds of Alaska, Canada, the jungles of Central America, the Amazon rain forest of Brazil, Japan, Korea, Cambodia (on a search for temples), Australia, the Middle East, most of Western Europe, and finally England, where I forged ties with the rising UK Space Agency.

I was always conscious that JPL was the equivalent of Florence to a Renaissance artist, or Athens to a philosopher in ancient times. It’s where the world’s best in their field gathered to do great things. And it did not disappoint. It afforded me the opportunity to excel myself but also to mentor and encourage others to realize their ambitions. The lab’s motto is “Dare Mighty Things” and my hope is that my friends and former colleagues will follow my example, and dream big, so I can watch admiringly in retirement and say “I was a part of that, but look at what they dared to do after I left!”

Phyllis and I became US citizens in 2000, on the grounds that there should be “no taxation without representation.” We have two children, Elizabeth and Ben, who live in the Pasadena area. We are retiring to Cambria, where we have our vacation home, on the very scenic Central Coast of California, and I plan to run up and down the mythic Pacific Coast Highway in my beautiful, British Racing Green, 1965 MGB Roadster."

Those interested to learn more about Dr Freeman can find him on LinkedIn.

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