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Reaching for the stars with rocket science

Wide skies and dreams of rocket-building...Dr Jan (Henk) Roodt's photo of the Free State savannah in South Africa, where he grew up
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Startling savannah landscape and starry nights, and a father who encouraged his sons to query, inspired a South African youngster to become a rocket scientist.

Dr Jan Roodt now lives in Dunedin, mentoring postgraduate Otago Polytechnic students in addressing societal problems such as criminal justice or water purity. 

In New Zealand, the tall Afrikaner is known by his middle name of Henk. Dressed in black, he hunches over coffee at a long polytech table and enthusiastically shares some of his story.

Henk was born in the diamond-mining centre of Kimberley in South Africa and grew up in Windhoek, Namibia, and Bloemfontein, South Africa. At Windhoek, western mountains merged into desert and the countryside made a big impression.

The interior is savannah, or grassy plains, and bushveld of scrub and short trees. There young Henk could get close to rocks, sand and soil. Thunderstorms with towering clouds left the savannah with a distinctive smell.

“If you grow up with that, that goes into your genetic material, I think.”

South Africa’s Karoo region, typical of the veld Dr Jan (Henk) Roodt grew up in. Photo: Jan (Henk) Roodt

Back in South Africa, Bloemfontein had a similar feel. While summers were warm and dry, winter temperatures dropped to minus-10 deg C.

Windhoek and Bloemfontein had super clear night skies and the youngster was fascinated by the stars, moon and beautiful red-ball sun setting over the desert.

Because Henk’s father was from a large family, he tried to give his two sons the gift of time. They always lived on the edge of town and grew up playing in the veld.

His dad taught him about nature, such as by pointing to ants dragging sticks into their nests to absorb moisture.

Watching the ants, his father would predict rain in three days. An intrigued Henk would ask how he knew and his dad would respond that it was more relevant to inquire how the ants knew.

The inquisitive lad was always encouraged to find answers.

That built my questioning brain,” Henk says.

 

His father was self-taught and extremely interested in science and maths.

Henk’s upbringing combined a fascination with the stars, questions about life and the universe, and a strong Christian faith, which he says didn’t conflict with later scientific training.

“Science makes it easier for me to believe.” 

 Childhood determination

Henk grew up in the early 1960s when satellites were being developed. The forthright boy wanted to visit the stars and moon and thought it “bull sh**” that he couldn’t, so he became determined to build rockets to change this.

At school, he was interested in geography, maths, science and history, and continued asking questions and finding answers. However, classroom and curriculum constraints irritated him.

Reading also contributed to his childhood and subsequent success. His father put all the family savings into buying books for his son or getting him to a library.

“Their money went into our education,” he says of his parents.

Henk is an Afrikaner and he says this ethnic group strives to be the best in the world in whatever field. This was another motivator.

By the time he went to the University of the Free State, his dream to build rockets had dissipated because South Africa was “knee-deep” in apartheid and isolated from the rest of the world.

After studying computer science, maths, applied maths and physics and graduating with honours, Henk started work at the world-class Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The round-about journey to this job involved another lesson which he’s applied many times and now passes on to his polytech students.

Dad said, ‘don’t fight the outcome, find a way around it’. That’s advice that I’ve stuck to in life.”

 

Henk says sometimes there is compelling evidence you should do something else, but it is vital to listen to your inner voice.

 A career at CSIR  

From 1986 until 2010, Henk worked at the CSIR, beginning in defence-related technology and moving into rocket science.

 He started working on counter measures to protect aircraft and used Artificial Intelligence and thermodynamics to discover patterns to address a problem which outside experts were struggling to solve.

Dr Jan (Henk) Roodt stands in front of Anasaunoa Teofilo’s Pride in Him artwork at the Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin

Throughout a long process, he kept asking questions. His design of rockets, rocket engines and fuel formulations eventually solved the problem and gave South Africa a strong defence advantage.

His work sped up the rocket design process so much that five or six designs could be turned out, and the engines built and field-tested, within three months. This was five times quicker than the previous process.

The technology he developed for aircraft self-protection was traded with another country. His methodology was so sensitive that his 1998 Stellenbosch University doctoral thesis was embargoed until 2018.

Henk says he’s probably more an engineer than a scientist.

“I work on real world stuff, I’m only fascinated by real world stuff.”

Through science and his CSIR career, he became a pattern-matcher and notes that whether he’s doing science or leading teams, this is possible because of an ability to notice and link patterns.

In 2010, Henk’s wife was “head-hunted” to work in nuclear medicine at Dunedin Hospital and the couple and their son moved to the southern New Zealand city.

The energetic Afrikaner says he now works within, across and outside the academic disciplines, and tries to include cultural knowledge, as he helps students address societal dilemmas.

“Societal problems are not rocket engines, we can’t treat them in the same way,” he says.

Still, as with rocket science, he remains inspired and inspiring.

“I think the stuff I’m doing now is why I’m actually on this planet.”

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