(May 4, 2020) AIAA Member Spotlight on James R. French
James R. French
AIAA Fellow(60+ year member of AIAA !)
President, JRF Aerospace Consulting LLC
James R French graduated from MIT in 1958 with a degree of BSME Specializing in Propulsion. While at MIT, Mr French became the Founding President of the MIT Chapter of The American Rocket Society, an AIAA predecessor. In the ensuing years he has pursued additional education both in technical subjects and management.
Upon graduation, he accepted a job with Rocketdyne Div. of North American Aviation and during a 5 year employment, worked on developmental testing of H-1 engines and combustion devices hardware for F-1 and J-2 engines used in Saturn 5. He was also involved in various experimental programs. Moving on to TRW Systems, Mr. French was Lead Development Test Engineer on the Lunar Module Descent Engine and was responsible for bringing on-line the High Altitude Test Stand use for all-up LMDE testing at TRW’s Capistrano Test Site. He also was involved in experimental testing of exotic propellants.
After leaving TRW as propulsion work ran down, Mr. French joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he worked on testing and launch vehicle integration for Mariners 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9; Viking 1 & 2 and Voyager 1 & 2. Mr. French was Advanced Planetary studies Manager for JPL for several years as well as Chief Engineer for the SP-100 Space Nuclear Power System. He was Chief Engineer of a RTG powered Mars Rover study for a vehicle essentially identical to Curiosity.
Leaving JPL after 19 years, Mr. French was VP Engineering and Chief Engineer for American Rocket Company developing hybrid rocket launch vehicles.
Since leaving AMROC in 1987, Mr. French has been consultant to a variety of aerospace companies, SDIO, NASA, and USAF. As a consultant to SDIO he functioned as the government’s chief engineer on the DC-X project. He has participated in various startup companies in the private space flight arena and currently consults extensively to Blue Origin, a company in which he has been involved since its beginnings. He has worked with Project Icarus investigating interstellar missions. His current efforts draw primarily upon his extensive experience in rocket propulsion development and operational aspects of launch vehicles.
Mr. French is co-author with Dr. Michael Griffin of the best-selling text Space Vehicle Design, published by AIAA. For over 20 years he taught a 4 day short course, mostly through AIAA, on the same topic. The second edition of the book has received the Summerfield Book Award for 2008. Mr French is also the author of Firing a Rocket, a reminiscence of testing rocket engines for the Apollo missions.
Mr. French is a Fellow of both AIAA and the British Interplanetary Society and a 60+ year member of AIAA. He has held several Technical Committee and other posts in AIAA. In 2018, Mr. French was named Engineer of the Year by the Orange County Section of AIAA.
Here is the inspiration for his going into the aerospace career: (Excerpt from Firing a Rocket written by James French, published by Amazon. Used with permission of the author,)
Long before I ever went to college, I knew that there was only one career for me. I wanted to work on rockets and go into space. That began when, at about 12 years old, I read Robert Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo. Before that I had read “Flash Gordon”, “Buck Rogers” and other comics but never took it seriously. Once I read that book, a whole new universe opened to me and I knew what I wanted to do. I devoured every science fiction writing I could find with particular emphasis on the “hard” science fiction of Heinlein and Arthur Clarke. I also got into the non-fiction side with Willy Ley’s Rockets and its two sequels Rockets and Missiles and Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel. Then came Ley and Bonestell’s The Conquest of Space and Clarke’s The Exploration of Space and Interplanetary Flight. I was hooked for life and I have never once regretted the choice.
Since no one in my family had any college education or any real interest outside home and farm, I was all alone. They all thought I was crazy and referred to me as “Einstein” or “The Absent-Minded Professor”. (Absent-mindedness was definitely valid and has only gotten worse with age.) I really had no idea how to follow my dream except that I knew I needed to go to college. I had no idea where to go but fortunately I could find help. Our neighbor, family doctor, and good friend, Dr. Walter Watkins, had been born and raised in Amarillo just as I was. However, he had joined the Army and ended up getting his MD from Johns Hopkins. He moved back home and rapidly became the top surgeon in the area. He understood where I was coming from and provided me with much sound advice and encouragement. Two of my High School teachers, Miss Wilson for mathematics and my physics teacher whose name now escapes me also helped. This latter lady and I were often at odds but she helped me whenever she could in spite of that. I owe them all a huge debt for helping an eager but ignorant kid.