The Rocket Scientist at the Lost and Found

By Barbara A. Schmitz

Bob Burns has worked since the beginning of the space race and has lots of stories to tell about everything from satellites to spaceships. But at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh it’s the people that he remembers most.

Burns, 89, said aviation has been part of his life since he was 5 and took his first airplane ride on a Ford Tri-Motor. His father built P-47 Thunderbolts in Evansville, Indiana, during World War II, and the skies were always filled with Thunderbolts.

After high school, he joined the Air Force, and after that he took a job with the Martin Co. working in its flight program on the Vanguard rocket, part of the first satellite program.

“That job opened up a lot of doors for me,” he said. They worked nonstop, trying to beat the Russians in the race to deploy a satellite. “We slept on the floor at night, or we didn’t sleep at all and ran tests,” he recalled. “I got to know the hardware, the plumbing, how everything worked.”

Bob Burns, far left, and other employees prepare to conduct tests on the Vanguard’s first stage booster rocket in 1956.

Next, he moved to NASA, working on testing engines for deep space use, and later he transferred to aircraft operations and the Apollo program. He even worked on NASA’s “Vomit Comet” that introduces astronauts to the feeling of zero-gravity spaceflight.

He even got to fly on the notorious airplane.

“I didn’t have a problem with it,” he said. “There was always a joke about what to eat before you go on one of those flights. Bananas were pretty good since they taste about the same coming up as they do going down.”

When he retired in 1995, he was working on the space shuttles.

Burns said he always wanted to come to Oshkosh, but he was never able to take the time off work or was working overseas the week of AirVenture. So, once he retired, he didn’t waste much time getting involved.

Living in Mauckport, Indiana, Burns makes the trek here and volunteers with the Lost and Found. When he’s not volunteering, he’s doing aviation photography, a love of his for decades. His photos have been published in several magazines, including Warbird Digest, Skyways, and the Smithsonian’s Air & Space.

“My favorite is air-to-air photography,” he said.

Bob Burns has had an interesting life working on the space race programs, but it’s the people at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh that he will remember most, including those he works with at the Lost and Found booth.

Because of his age, Burns suspects that the 2022 convention will be his last. His favorite memories won’t be about the airplanes, however. It will be about the people he’s met.

“I’ve met some of the most interesting people you will ever find, especially if you like aviation,” he said. “I had a chance to meet, sit, and talk about Bob Hoover, who is one of my favorite guys, as well as Bud Anderson, Chuck Yeager, and people will that.”

Hoover was an American test pilot and aerobatics legend, Anderson is the highest-scoring living American fighter ace, and Yeager was the fighter and test pilot who was first broke the speed of sound.

But it’s also the other volunteers at Lost and Found he’ll remember. “I hadn’t been here in three years, and the first day I came in, I got hugged more than I could remember in a long time. I was glad to see them, too.”

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