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South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
The launch at Wallops Island on Sunday / April 25, 2013
In the local-boy-makes-good genre, Kurt Lambrecht has a tale to tell that’s literally stellar.

Lambrecht, a South Boston native now living in Manassas, celebrated the successful launch this week of a commercial rocket from Virginia’s Eastern Shore as a first-hand observer — not surprising, considering he’s part of the engineering team that designed the rocket’s telemetry systems.

He is a son of Art and Sally Lambrecht, brought to South Boston by his father’s job at Westinghouse, now ABB; his mother taught art in the public schools.

“A local boy who just wanted to be an engineer” growing up, Lambrecht pursued his ambitions first as an electrical engineering major at Virginia Tech, followed by graduate school at George Mason University to obtain his master’s degree. Today he works as a senior engineer for Orbital Sciences Corp., based in Dulles, which launched the cargo rocket Sunday from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island.

Orbital is one of two companies that have been tapped by NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station with the discontinuation of the space shuttle program. On Sunday, Oribtal’s Cygnus cargo ship successfully carried a practice payload into orbit, a key test of the company’s ability to deliver on a $1.9 billion contract to make eight deliveries to the space station.

Lambrecht is part of a systems engineering group at Orbital that manages the rocket’s telemetry processing — essentially, the tracking system for navigational data, temperature and voltage readings, and many other “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of data points,” he says, that ensure that a rocket won’t just crash and burn.

The team did its work well. The launch was declared a success 10 minutes after takeoff, once the payload vessel reached orbit and separated safely from the booster rocket. What was the mood as Lambrecht witnessed the rocket take flight? “Incredible nervousness,” he says.

It’s been a rewarding ride, however, with Oribtal’s foray into the cargo rocket business producing an early success. In his 14 years with the company, Lambrecht has done engineering on satellite systems, but this is his first rocketry work.

“All of this is really cool stuff, a really cool thing to do,” says Lambrecht, who says he’s “very excited” to be part of the project. “It’s a challenge, but Orbital is full of challenges,” he said.

Orbital and Space-X, a rival company, are under government contract to resupply the space station. While NASA has used commercial rockets for years, this is the first time it has turned to the private sector to reach deep into space to service the international station.

“The government is encouraging private industry to pick up the slack and develop capabilities that previously only NASA had,” explains Lambrecht. “The space shuttle as a technology was getting old … the shuttles were literally at the end of the lifetime. So the government chose to get private industry moving rather than go to the next generation of shuttle.”

With the telemetry team at Orbital, Lambrecht works with fellow engineers from “all the top engineering schools” — Stanford, MIT, University of Michigan, U.Va. and Virginia Tech. (He is one of four Lambrecht sons who headed to Blacksburg for college.) When not working, he and a fellow engineer at Orbital have been tinkering around with the design of a drone helicopter. Another geek sidelight: developing an autonomously-controlled, self-driving vehicle. Lambrecht calls his hobby “futzing.”

Happily married and the father of five, Lambrecht has gotten good news this year on another front: After being diagnosed last fall with throat cancer, his doctors have pronounced the diseases in remission. “Now we’re just watching,” he says.

Of his upbringing in South Boston, Lambrecht especially recalls his old Halifax County High School math teacher, John Johnston, now deceased, who was known for being one of the school’s most demanding instructors. “I think Mr. Johnston was kind and let me earn my B’s in trigonometry,” he says. Lambrecht adds: “One of my regrets is I never went back [to HCHS] and said hi when I got out of college 25 years ago.

“I never got back to South Boston to tell him, ‘Hey, thank you; look at where I am now.’”

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