Age: 59 in April
Hometown: A dairy farm in central Wisconsin. Moved to Green Bank in 1998
Family: Wife of 36 years, Nancy, and three children, Emily, Mark and Ben
Job Title: Senior Mechanical Engineer and Division Head of the Mechanical Division at the Green Bank Observatory and assistant chief of the Bartow-Frank-Durbin Volunteer Fire Department
Hobbies: Hunting, fishing and puttering around with machines
Philosophy of life: You’ve just got to keep doing the right thing. Do what’s right for the people around you and your community.
For a mechanical engineer, there are countless jobs and machinery you can create and fix. Dennis Egan, of Green Bank, has created a plethora of tools, machinery and equipment, which has been used all around the country.
From dredges for boats to tools for a nuclear clean-up, Egan has made it all.
“I started out in the marine industry,” he said. “I was doing scuba diving and working on boats, and installing equipment on boats. We would put equipment on research boats. We were converting a lot of sailboats because they were quiet in the water; work boats because they’re cheap to buy, and somebody would want us to put an instrument package on it.”
Egan said he would be away from home for three months at a time while he worked on the boats to ensure the equipment was in good working order. At times, the work might have seemed dangerous, but to a 30-something Egan, it was nothing.
“When you’re thirty, you’re immortal,” he said. “Nothing was possibly going to happen to me. Sometimes, I would have to go dive in some equipment that we put under and ride on a tow package. It was kind of exciting. It was a lot of cool stuff.”
When he and Nancy began having children, Egan realized it was too hard to be away from home as much as he was with the marine industry work, so he moved on to other projects.
One project he worked on was creating clean-up tools for the Three Mile Island partial nuclear reactor meltdown which occurred March 28, 1979, in Londonderry Township, Pennsylvania.
“They originally tried to use hydraulic tools on a robotic arm, but hydraulics leaked and hydrocarbons are food for bacteria and bugs, so they started growing bugs in the leaked stuff,” Egan said. “So, they hired us to make some hydraulic tools that ran on borated water, which is slightly worse than water. The boron in the water poisons the nuclear reaction, so it absorbs the neutrons.
“They wanted borated water,” he continued. “It couldn’t have air, so we had to design a suite of tools that would last a hundred hours at a time. This was a chipping gun that runs on water. This is one of the first things I ever did. It worked. They were a little afraid of it. It chipped too much, did the job too well.”
After years of working underwater and on land, Egan had only the sky to conquer, which he did, sort of, when he moved to Green Bank in 1998. While he doesn’t create anything that goes into outer space, Egan does design machinery used on the telescopes at the GBO.
“My main job is to design and build improvements in mechanical machinery for the site,” he said. “That’s the primary kind of thing I do here, but I also do some failure analysis, troubleshooting, that kind of thing.”
Egan has designed elements used on the Green Bank Telescope and, with the help of the crew in the onsite machine shop, has kept the telescopes in tip-top shape.
“The ring that has the receivers in it on the GBT – the thing that turns and has a bunch of different receivers in it – when that was originally built, to change it you had to raise the feed arm to vertical and rotate it and then you could go back to observing,” Egan said. “That thing was wearing out so I designed and we built, in-house here, a new one that could turn anywhere it wanted to, so it was like four times the torque in exactly the same package. We just slid the old one out and slid the more powerful one in.”
Among his duties, Egan is in charge of the machine shop, but he is the first to say that he is not a machinist. He is there to design what the machinists make and help them resolve any issues that may arise.
“I’m not a machinist,” he said. “I know what they do and if you give me enough scrap, I can cut it, but you’ve got to let people do the work that they’re trained to do. The guys down there, I don’t need to be in their hair to tell them how to do their job. They’re good at what they do. Sometimes we collaborate on how to hold something or how to measure something, but that’s more because I’m an outsider with a fresh outlook, not because I know more about their job than they do.”
Egan’s work at the observatory has led to some notoriety in the astronomy world. He has traveled to China several times to offer assistance on the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope – FAST.
“I’ve been involved with the big telescope in China,” he said. “They call it the FAST. It’s a little bigger than Aercibo. The way this is built, all the panels are on cables and then they’re going to pull a shape on the telescope, so essentially, they’re going to have a parabola that’s going to be able to walk around.”
Egan was asked to help design a plan for lowering maintenance costs, but he ended up doing much more for the FAST.
“The backup structure was supposed to be steel,” he said. “If you can imagine a truss structure that’s five hundred meters across and steel, you’re going to be maintaining it a lot. I did some rough calculations on it and cost estimates, but I told them, if you change this to aluminum, you will save all that money and the cost of aluminum isn’t that much greater. Also because you’re away from the coast, the aluminum, even bare, won’t corrode.
“The next day, they had experts from a couple of universities come in and they were talking about changing the whole thing to aluminum,” he continued. “I thought, ‘wow, that was quick.’ That’s what they did. They switched it from steel to aluminum, I think, largely because I talked them into it.”
Along with his job at the observatory, Egan is also assistant fire chief of the Bartow-Frank-Durbin Volunteer Fire Department.
“They needed people and I had the skills being damage control trained on ships and being able to think in a situation like that,” he said. “I thought ‘well I can do this, so since they are hurting for people, I probably should.’”
Egan became a fireman more because he felt it was his civic duty, not because it was a dream he had from childhood. He rose through the ranks and went through the rigorous training to become an officer in order to provide a service for the community.
“For chief officer, you have to take a certain class that takes about six months to do, maybe a little longer,” he said. “That’s after being trained as a fireman. This is just to be a fire officer. I did it partly because I could. Part of my job is to write and part of the school was to do a lot of writing, a lot of communicating.”
Egan said he is happy to serve his community because he has a sense of home that he didn’t have when he lived in large cities.
“This place is the way it was when I grew up in Wisconsin,” he said. “I know people here. I walk through the community and I can talk to people. I can go into Trent’s and say, ‘oh, geez, I forgot my wallet.’ Of course, they know I’ll be back in an hour with it. I lived in San Diego, lived in Long Beach, lived in Houston. I’ve lived in a lot of larger cities and you don’t know who’s around you. You don’t know anybody. If you go to the store and you see somebody [you know], that’s a rarity. Here, it’s a common thing.”
Raising kids in a small community was a big draw for Egan.
“It was nice to raise kids here,” he said. “It’s part of why I came here, too. People are so afraid of letting kids loose in the city, but here, you can let them loose. They can do their own exploring. One of the things I like was that the kids could do all the activities. If you’re in San Diego, if you want to be in band, that’s all you’re in. If you want to play soccer, that’s all you’re in. Here, how often do you see a kid in his football uniform out playing the trumpet in the band? It’s more often than not.”
For Egan, Green Bank is the best of both worlds – a place to work and a place to enjoy life.
“The thing I like about here is being able to have good work and live in a place that’s nice to live in,” he said. “I could do good work in San Diego, Houston, Norfolk, a lot of different places, but I couldn’t live in a place like this.”
Small towns can sometimes have their downsides, but the good usually outweighs the bad.
“I always joke that the best thing and the worst thing about living in a small place – everybody knows you and everybody knows you,” Egan said. “For one thing, it inspires you to be a better person because people do know you and people do know what you’re about and what you’re like.”