Martin Brzeczek BSGE 1970

Emily Scott

Throughout his industry-spanning career, Martin Brzeczek was never bored.

He helped send an instrument to Mars, developed breakthrough technologies, and much more. His career colored by the thrill of research and development and the thread of systems engineering skills gained from his general engineering degree at the University of Illinois. 

Brzeczek came to Illinois in 1965, switching into the general engineering program from civil engineering when he grew interested in the business and project management side of engineering.

One of his professors, Dr. Ron Placek, introduced him to the industrial side of engineering, which gave Brzeczek a new outlook on the intersection of engineering and business. 

“He was the first professor that said there’s a world out there you’re going to have to deal with — and I’d really never thought about that aspect of engineering,” he says.

After graduating, Brzeczek took a job in Colorado with Martin Marietta, a manufacturing company specializing in launch vehicles, spacecraft and research and development. The company merged with Lockheed Corporation in 1995 to become Lockheed Martin.

His first job was as an associate engineer. One of his first research contracts was developing a zero-gravity whole body shower. It was tested on a KC-135, an aircraft flown by the U.S. Air Force that simulated zero gravity for short periods of time.

Brzeczek’s role was focused on developing the technology to separate liquid and gas in zero gravity, then collect water and recycle it. The concept proved feasible, and he realized how much he enjoyed research and development projects.

His next project dealt with wastewater treatment and developing a new technology that could improve efficiency by generating micron-sized bubbles. This technology was tested at several wastewater treatment plants across the country. He worked in this area for four years before delving into a new area: solar energy.

He worked on a molten salt electrical experiment, which involved developing a receiver that could transfer solar energy into molten salt in order to generate steam to drive a small turbine.

An aerial view of the Molten Salt Experiment.
An aerial view of the Molten Salt Experiment.

“This was the first time anything like that was done,” Brzeczek says. “We were pushing the envelope of technology. The fun part about it was that you couldn’t make a mistake because it had never been done before.”

To him, it was “classic research and development.” That technology is still being used in a number of power plants today.

His next move was to search for a job in the aerospace industry within Martin Marietta, which allowed him to work on the Space Station.

He became the system integration lead for the Phase B program in which he was responsible for the common rack design within the modules in the station where the astronauts lived and worked. 

“That’s where I got to understand all the various subsystems associated with a spacecraft, and that was key for a systems engineer.” Brzeczek says. “You really had to understand all of the subsystems before you could become a proficient systems engineer.”

The contract was eventually lost to Boeing, so his next project was working on the Magellan Venus Radar Mapper, the first interplanetary mission that was launched from the Space Shuttle.

He was then asked to take over a systems and test engineering position, working on the Gamma Ray Spectrometer. This instrument flew on the Mars Observer spacecraft, a satellite launched in 1992 carrying instruments intended to study the geology and geophysics of Mars.

Artist's concept of the Mars Observer spacecraft. The gamma ray spectrometer is on the extended seven-meter boom.
Artist's concept of the Mars Observer spacecraft. The gamma ray spectrometer is on the extended seven-meter boom.

“That was the first time a germanium crystal was being flown on a spacecraft to map the elemental composition of Mars using gamma rays,” Brzeczek says.

The new technologies worked well during the interplanetary cruise phase, but NASA lost contact with the Mars Observer in 1993.

“It was a systems engineering design problem occurring during the orbit insertion maneuver, and we ended up figuring it out,” he says. “We reverse engineered it, and developed the theory of what happened. It was really a sad thing — those are the kinds of things that are taught in a ‘lessons learned’ curriculum.”

But Brzeczek continued working with spacecraft, which eventually led him to work on the Mars Polar Orbiter and Lander. After the Phase A study of that program was completed, he decided to leave the program. He eventually started working in military spacecraft and dedicated the rest of his career to this field.

Looking back, Brzeczek says the R&D aspect of his work was what brought him the biggest rewards of his career.

“When you get that first picture back from Mars, that’s great,” he says. “That reward is excellent.”

He says his career also allowed him to work with “the best of the best.”

“You were working with NASA and NASA headquarters,” he says. “I even worked with people who worked with Wernher von Braun.”

After Brzeczek retired, he developed an introductory systems engineering course that has been used by several companies.

It’s just one way that he has given testimony to his belief in the versatility of general engineering and the variety of career paths it can lead to, as it has for him.

“The fact that you have the basic engineering background in all of the engineering disciplines really helps,” he says. “I really felt that gave me a leg up on a lot of the other guys who were pigeonholed.”

His advice to engineers starting a career would be to get involved early in projects, grants, and internships to gain experience to pursue their passions.

“Get exposed to as many avenues and fields of systems engineering as you possibly can,” he says. “And you’ve got to be excited; you can’t get bored. That’s the thing, I had all these opportunities, and I was never bored.”

Today, Brzeczek enjoys the outdoor activities of living in Colorado, like backpacking and fly fishing, in addition to traveling the world with his wife.

“It’s like a vacation, living out here,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

When he looks back on a career that gave him the opportunity to delve into a number of disciplines, Brzeczek sees general engineering as what helped him get there.

“You see what kind of career path I had: working in wastewater treatment, solar energy, as a project engineer, on spacecraft,” he says. “You think about that, and I’ve been blessed with many opportunities.”

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