As the venerable Atlas V begins its 22nd year of service, one of today’s young engineers at United Launch Alliance (ULA) who witnessed the rocket’s inaugural launch as a toddler now works on the program as a mechanical structures specialist.
Colby Deel, a third-generation engineer in the launch industry, was just three years old when he saw the first Atlas V thunder away from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral on Aug. 21, 2002. Now a professional at ULA’s design center headquarters in Denver, Deel has worked on the past dozen or so missions that have launched national security, scientific and commercial payloads.
“During the Mars 2020 launch, I had the opportunity to walk out to the pad and take photos in front of the vehicle with my dad. It was surreal to look up at the rocket, a day or so before launch, and see a vehicle he has spent most of his life working on and now I have the opportunity to work on, too. After wanting to be a ‘rocket scientist’ as a child, it really was a full circle moment for me,” Deel said.
His father is Christopher Deel, ULA’s vice president of Engineering. He began his career in 1994 as a flight dynamics engineer on Atlas and today is responsible for all aspects of engineering at the company.
The younger Deel started his aerospace career as an intern at ULA in the summer of 2020, working with the propulsion ground support engineering (PGSE) group at Cape Canaveral. He started working full time at ULA in June 2021 after graduating college that May.
“As an employee, I began working in payload accommodations as a payload fairing design engineer, and after about a year I transitioned to become a payload fairing certified responsible engineer-delegate (CRE-D) for both Atlas and Vulcan. Most recently I joined the structures tiger team and have been supporting Atlas and Vulcan activities at the Cape and Vandenberg,” he explained.
For the upcoming SILENTBARKER/NROL-107 mission launching Aug. 29 on Atlas V, Deel’s primary responsibility is ensuring the rocket’s mechanical structures system is ready for a successful launch. That has included detailed “walkdowns” or inspections of flight hardware in the processing facilities to spot any possible issues so that they can be resolved before launch.
“Whether it is working on my car or on a rocket, I enjoy solving problems,” Deel said. “Rockets present some of the most challenging, high stakes problems that exist, and as a result have the most rewarding result when we can come to a solution. I also believe in ULA's mission. I believe in the mission behind SILENTBARKER and I enjoy getting to support launches from conception through to mission success.”
Born in Littleton and raised in the Highlands Ranch area of Colorado, Deel attended college at the Colorado School of Mines and majored in mechanical engineering. Outside of work, he enjoys working on and off-roading his Jeep Wrangler, playing ice hockey and skiing.
How does he explain his job when talking to someone outside the space industry? “I tell people that I am a mechanical engineer for an aerospace company. If they haven’t heard of ULA, I like to ask if they have heard of the Mars rovers, which they usually have, and then I say we were the ones who got them to Mars!”