NASA’s seven-month rover mission to Mars, the Perseverance, launched last week, included fuel systems designed by Glenn Romanoski, a 64-year-old metallurgical engineer from Moundsville, WV.
The Mars rover, equipped with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers, aims to return samples of rock and dirt to Earth, so they can be analyzed for possible signs of life.
From his current perch at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Romanoski fabricated components for the mission’s plutonium-based fuel systems.
So yes, this is a local angle story about a rocket scientist who happened to have grown up in the town we made a PBS movie about.
But Romanoski’s story also points to a deeper truth about small towns before industrial decline. They had terrific education systems, and minted young men and women who, unlike many people in alienated hamlets today, felt they were part of the larger American society, with all its dreams and struggles.
In the 1960s, schools in Moundsville would “bring in a TV to watch the Apollo missions,” Romanoski told me when we caught up by phone this week. Even in a small towns, people felt they were a part of something larger. “Everybody had a great sense of optimism, and the future belonged to us as much as anybody in the country,” he said.
Working on a Mars mission carries a similar sense of grandeur. “It’s going to take over six months to get there,” he said. “It’s always exciting. I’m a small part of something big, and the complexity of these missions is humbling and mind-boggling.”
It’s a rare thing that unites the country, he noted. “It’s great every America has some of their tax dollars on board and they’re part of it,” he said. “I wish we could do other big projects to completion.”
In the Moundsville Romanoski grew up in, friends and family worked their whole lives in jobs with good union salaries at places like the Marx toy plant or the Fostoria glass factory. He loved it. “Sometimes I think it’s a blessing to be from a small town because you feel a connection and you can sense of the scale and scope of things around you,” he told me.
As a kid, Romanoski was taken to see steel mills and coal mines, and inspired to study engineering and metallurgy at the University of Cincinnati and MIT. Along the way, he was inspired to think about wider uses of materials, and wound up at Oak Ridge.
The engineer likes to return every fall to hunt for squirrels and deer. “There’s no more beautiful place than West Virginia in the fall,” he said. “But every year, you’d see a more desperate situation.”
As factories closed, most of his classmates from John Marshall high school left town, he said. It’s difficult to see what will become of Moundsville and its economy. “They’ll be pumping gas out of the ground for decades to come but when I was growing up in the 60s I had a sense that my relatives there seemed to be more of a permanence to people’s employment,” he said. “I had a couple uncles who worked at Fostoria glass. They always did and that’s what they did until they retired.”
As the story of Moundsville and its 2,000-year-old mound show, there is nothing permanent. Romanoski seemed to think my comparison of him leaving Moundsville (and its two-thousand-year-old mound, symbol of the deep past) and humans leaving the Earth (symbol of the future!) was maybe a bit lofty– but he embraced idea of dreaming of a better life somewhere else.
Near him in Tennessee, “Latin American immigrants have been moving in, and there are homes selling for $30,000 that might not be attractive to everybody, but for some people, that’s an exciting new life,” he said. “Of course, you need the jobs.”
John W. Miller