From the Potato to Star Trek and Beyond: Memoirs of a Rocket Scientist by Chester L. Richards: Living Life to the Fullest

Memoirs, like biographies, are useful to look back at one’s life or to discover someone else’s path. From the first pages of his memoir, former aerospace engineer Chester L. Richards shares an advice he tried to follow all his life: to “pursue a richness of experience.” (p. 7) Thus, in From the Potato to Star Trek and Beyond: Memoirs of a Rocket Scientist, the reader learns who he is and the variety of experiences he had, always told with a hint of humor.

Childhood Adventures

Richards was already a graduate student when Professor Bob Duncan gave him the advice of filling his life with all sorts of experiences. But already, he had lived some adventures in his young years.

Richards’ father had worked in the printing industry for the most part of his life. It was natural that young Richards was familiar with the trade: as a young boy and teen, he helped with tasks in the printing shop. There, he learned cleaning, the workings of linotype machines, and handling molten lead.

The Musical World

As a young child, the author also discovered the world of music. He shares that he started learning piano, then moved to clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and flute. Another passion was born, a passion he pursued by taking part in the music school’s orchestra and a swing band. He experienced multiple concerts and performances in band battles or jazz clubs; some he recounts in his memoir.

Though not all by choice, these experiences enriched his childhood. Richards continued to pursue new experiences, for example when he chose to enroll in Professor Wolfson’s infamously demanding and grade-wrecking course. He took the risk, because he chose to challenge himself and as he says himself: “Looking back on those four years at Berkeley I realize in that one semester course I got as much education as in all the rest put together.” (p. 229)

Challenges in the Aerospace Industry

In his aerospace career, Richards also experiences some interesting adventures. The author explains that he was working at the “Aerospace frontier of modern technology,” (p. 97) and that indeed, “There is high adventure in the kind of challenging projects that are commonplace on this frontier.” (p. 97)

One memorable project he recalls is a program of national significance: a contract to design a new nosetip for the US government’s nuclear tipped rockets. Not only were the consequences linked to national defense, but the technical challenge was also of great significance. Richards and his colleagues managed to meet the expectations by taking a risk: using a “radically unorthodox design for the nosetip.” (p. 119) It was such a risky venture that the author recalls that: “Most of the experts in the industry (including our competition) thought our design was nutty — surely the nosetip would shatter, or break off.” (p. 119) Yet their rocket worked perfectly. A thrilling chapter, with complex challenges and fishermen in the Pacific.

Down the River

Richards also enjoyed an exhilarating and often risky passion: river-rafting. In several chapters of the memoir, he takes us on his adventures down rivers and rapids.

There are two episodes the author shares as some of his most memorable experiences.

The first one was in the Grand Canyon, at the infamously treacherous Lava Falls. The current there is strong and wild, and their raft spun over on its back, sending all members of their group in the waters. Luckily, everyone managed to get out of the river, but high adrenalin sure left a mark.

The second one was Richards’ expedition to the Omo River, in Ethiopia. At that time, it was a partly unexplored river, presenting multiple dangers. Richards admits that one of his friends warned him, saying that “It’s far more dangerous than you can possibly imagine. I didn’t listen. He was right.” (p. 63) This expedition proved to be risky, as the author was bitten by a scarlet tick, and experienced rafting in unknown waters, and survival in wild conditions.

While reading this memoir, the reader gets swept away by Richards’ enriching and inspiring life story. From his career working on impossible scientific challenges to his passion of river-rafting and music, Richards shares his adventures, led by his desire for a richness of experience. As he says himself in the first pages: “And so, I made a decision I’ve never regretted — to fill my life with adventure.” (p. 7) This book From the Potato to Star Trek and Beyond: Memoirs of a Rocket Scientist stands as an ode to living life to the fullest.