A Father’s Day Story: How A 1960s Astronaut Inspired His Son To Make Quantum Computing History Five Decades Later

Tech Industry

As a technology analyst, I follow new research and developments for quantum computing, AI, and space. I usually write technical articles about those subjects, but this year I wanted to do something special for Father’s Day.

This is a father and son story about space, dangerous polar expeditions, famous astronauts, famous science fiction writers, AI and quantum computing. Its center is the father who made history, and by his example, inspired his son to do the same. But what’s most important about this piece of little-known history is the son’s love and admiration for his father.

The father

Philip Kenyon Chapman was an Australian adventurer who became an American citizen because he had a burning desire to be an astronaut. He served in the Royal Australian Air Force reserve from 1953 to 1955, where he learned to fly in an ancient 1930s fabric-covered de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane. It was during this time he discovered his love of flying.

Chapman was an academic at heart. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Sydney in 1956. He moved his family to the United States to attend MIT, where he was a staff physicist in the Experimental Astronomy Lab, and also earned a Master of Science in 1964 and a Sc.D. in Instrumentation from the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department in 1967.

The Experimental Astronomy Lab was also where Buzz Aldrin and other astronauts earned their doctorates. Chapman applied to NASA’s Apollo program where, out of 923 applications, only 69 candidates met NASA’s stringent qualifications. Those 69 remaining candidates were subjected to extensive examinations, physicals, and flight tests.

Dr. Chapman and ten other final candidates were chosen to be NASA Astronaut Group 6. As a member of the elite group, Chapman underwent a year of strenuous training. The program included US Navy underwater training, jungle and desert survival courses, and learning how to fly T-38 supersonic training jets.

After completing his training, NASA planned for Chapman to fly in a future Skylab mission. The Group 6 astronauts reported for its first duty in September 1967 and supported all seven missions that landed on the moon. Chapman was selected to be the mission scientist for Apollo 14 in 1971 during which he designed experiments and trained fellow astronauts.

Apollo 14 was the eighth crewed mission in the Apollo program and the third scheduled for a moon landing. Apollo 14 famously encountered malfunctions en route to the moon. However, Commander Alan Shepard, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell solved the problem in time for a safe lunar landing on February 5, 1971.

After the successful completion of Apollo 17, the last lunar landing, NASA’s budget was cut, and all space flights for Group 6 had been postponed or canceled.

Cancellation of all future lunar missions and the Earth-orbit Shuttle program meant there would be no flights for many years, so Dr. Chapman resigned from the NASA astronaut program.

Working at the bottom of the world

After leaving NASA, Dr. Chapman briefly worked on laser propulsion and the concept of solar-powered satellites at the Avco Everett Research Laboratory in Massachusetts.

In the late 1970s, he was elected president of the L5 Society (today, the National Space Society) and served on the Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy which contributed to President Reagan’s’ policy on the Strategic Defense Initiative

Explorations

Before and after NASA, Chapman led several notable expeditions to Antarctica. His first adventure took him to an obscure Australian location in Antarctica called Mawson Station as a radio physicist for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE). From there, he traveled to Taylor Glacier and established a 2-man base camp to take stereoscopic photos of the southern aurora. He spent 15 months living in a 6 foot by 10 foot wooden shipping container because his hut and some supplies blew away during an Antarctic blizzard.

While working at Taylor Glacier, Chapman became the first person to climb what would later be named Chapman Ridge. In 1989, Dr. Chapman led another expedition to Enderby Land, Antarctica on a mission to gather scientific information about mineral resources.

In the mid-80s, Dr. Chapman became the chief scientist for Rotary Rocket. This company was ahead of its time by being among the first civilian-led, privately funded, commercial space company, building a manned, reusable launch vehicle. He also served as the chief scientist for t/Space (Transformational Space Corporation). He participated in NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Crew Development programs for delivering cargo and crew to the International Space Station.

Dr. Chapman created an amazing legacy before his death in April 2021. He explored the world, had Antarctic mountains named after him, discovered and named Akioqtuq Lake in the Canadian arctic, designed and invented spacecraft that included the Solar Power Satellite and worked with Nobel Laureate Rainer Weiss to build a gravitational wave antenna, published novels, and raised a family. Dr. Chapman led an exciting and full life, but sadly he never fulfilled his biggest desire to explore space and to see humanity establish an off-Earth home.

The son

Peter Chapman has been the CEO of IonQ, a quantum computing company since May 2019. Before IonQ, Chapman was the director of engineering for Amazon Prime.

Growing up, Chapman had a rich and exciting childhood. He was surrounded by famous astronauts and exposed to his father’s achievements and world-travelling adventures. That life gave him an appreciation for the importance of science plus an awareness of its consequences.

But, unlike his father, Peter Chapman wasn’t motivated by academic achievement.

He was driven by his own personal curiosity and a need to understand and focus on the things that interested him. Those are valuable traits that have served him well in business. He developed software and built and managed high-tech companies without formalized advanced degrees or specialized training. Chapman took over the reins of IonQ quantum computing and quickly organized and developed a multi-generational roadmap to ensure an orderly development of the company’s capabilities. He made history by making IonQ the first quantum computing company to be traded on the NYSE.

His father could turn big ideas into big achievements while making them look easy. With his father as an example, Peter Chapman has developed confidence in his own abilities, allowing him to break down barriers to make the seemingly impossible happen. And, like his father, Peter Chapman seems to have succeeded in almost everything he wanted to do.

The father – a son’s perspective

Paul Smith-Goodson:

Your father started flying at a relatively young age. Was that common in Australia?

Peter Chapman:

At that time, Australia required one year of military service. From the time he was young, my dad knew he wanted to be an astronaut. And flying would probably be helpful for an astronaut. I find it amazing that in one generation to go from learning to fly in a fabric-covered plane to going to the moon in a rocket.

Smith-Goodson:

Out of curiosity, did your father have any heroes?

Chapman:

Ernest Shackleton. In fact, I think he should have been born in Shackleton’s generation. He was born a hundred years later than he should have been. He would’ve been happy being stranded on Shackleton’s ship.

Smith-Goodson:

From what I read about his experiences at Mawson station in Antarctica, he would have been a perfect addition to Shackleton’s crew.

Chapman:

My dad and another scientist applied for the Mawson Station assignment together. He thought it would be a great experience to help become an astronaut. He figured being isolated with a couple of other guys for an entire winter in an extreme environment like that would look great on his resume. However, his application for Mawson was declined. But fate was with him. On the day the ship was departing Sydney for the Antarctic, the guy who got the assignment my dad wanted, broke his ankle. The Australian government needed a quick replacement. They called my dad and gave him four hours to board the ship if he wanted to go.

My dad was working for an electronics firm at the time. He immediately told his boss, “I quit. Effective now.” He was eventually recognized for his work at Mawson Station. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the Imperial Antarctic Metal for outstanding service in scientific research for the Australian Antarctic expedition.

Smith-Goodson:

Your father had a Doctor of Science degree in a very technical field. An Sc.D is considered to be a notch above a Ph.D. He also had numerous inventions credited to him. Did he push you very hard academically and to make good grades?

Chapman:

Interestingly enough, I wasn’t a good student in high school. I remember one time when I was called to the principal’s office with my best friend. The principal questioned us because we had made some of the highest scores in school on a standardized achievement test. He was puzzled by the scores because we were both bad students.

The principal called a conference with my parents to discuss the test results with them. After the meeting, my dad called Marvin Minski at MIT and arranged for me to work at the MIT AI lab. He felt school wasn’t challenging enough for me. My high school gave me credit for the work I did at MIT. As a result of that work, I got my first job offer to work on the world’s first computerized trading system. I made almost as much money as my dad, so I never returned to school for a degree.

Smith-Goodson:

What kind of things did you and your father do together when you were growing up?

Chapman:

When I was in the seventh grade, our house had a few thousand acres behind it. My dad and I used to go camping and hunt with my friends. We went for a week at a time. The only gear we took was a fishing pole, a knife, and some matches.

Smith-Goodson:

It sounds like he was training you to be an explorer. Did you ever do any real exploring with him?

Chapman:

Yes. When I was 15, my dad brought home some huge photographs of the arctic. I know now they were satellite photos. Ordinary people didn’t have access to satellite photos back then. He pointed out some mountains and terrain. He told me about a mountain in Antarctica named Chapman Ridge. He said he wanted to take me to the Arctic Circle so we could go mountaineering together and name some mountains.

The flight distance from Boston to the Arctic Circle is about 1700 miles.

However, it took us an entire year to plan the trip. I remember shopping with my dad for ice-climbing equipment at Eastern Mountain Sports in Boston. We bought crampons and other ice climbing equipment because the mountain he wanted us to climb required hiking up a glacier.

For transportation, we borrowed a twin-engine plane and a small float plane from Sheila Scott. Sheila was a very generous friend of my dad. She had broken over 100 aviation records and was the first person to fly over the North Pole in a small aircraft.

Seven of us flew out of Boston during the summer to Baffin Island, then on to an Inuit village called Pangnirtung in the Arctic Circle. We left Sheila’s twin-engine at the Inuit village, then flew the float plane to a lake where we began mountaineering.

A year before the trip, we shipped 55-gallon barrels of fuel and other supplies to the village because the ship only went there once a year and we needed fuel for the return trip.

We arrived at the village in the middle of the night, but since there was 20 hours of daily sunlight, it was still daylight, so we slept in the shade of the airplane wing. The following day, we collected our supplies that had been pre-shipped to a Presbyterian priest. The priest told us we were lucky to be alive because we had slept near the dump where polar bears foraged. That trip lasted several weeks, and we spent most our time climbing and camping.

Smith-Goodson:

Was the Arctic trip with your dad a significant point in your life and relationship with him?

Chapman:

Yes, the entire trip was an incredible experience. It jarred me out of my comfort zone in a big way. As an example of how that experience opened up my thinking, the following summer, when I was 16, I took a bicycle trip with a friend. We cycled round trip from Boston to Prince Edward Island. It was a total of 1200 miles and took us about three weeks. My recollection is that we rode about 100 miles a day. I don’t think the average parent would allow their kids to do that today. Even back then, it was a pretty extreme thing for a kid to do. But my parents simply looked at it as a character-building exercise. My dad had taken a similar journey at 16, where he hitch-hiked up the coast in Australia by himself for 3 months. He took the train from Sydney to Australia’s only skiing spot. My grandparents had been fine with that.

Smith-Goodson:

Your dad knew a lot of famous and influential people. What was it like being around all that star power?

Chapman:

I was probably a first- and second-year student in high school around that time. Those influences were both good and bad. I was exposed to many ideas and things average kids never got to see or do. Sitting around listening to a discussion between my dad and Arthur C. Clarke was common. Clarke visited our home many times to discuss ideas for the 2001 movie and numerous other topics of the day.

Things like that were an everyday occurrence at our house. It helped in the sense that I got used to thinking about big concepts. My dad also worked with Peter Glazer. Together they invented satellite solar power. They came up with the idea of putting solar panels in space then microwaving power back to earth using long-wavelength microwaves. Both were really big thinkers and that certainly had an impact on me.

However, at the same time, being exposed to so many unusual things made me restless. My parents both were strong advocates for advanced degrees. After exploring the Arctic Circle with my dad, sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher drone on about something wasn’t very exciting. In that sense, I don’t think it was beneficial for my education.

Smith-Goodson:

What about in other ways? You have a very strong business CV. Did any of these experiences help you in business?

Chapman:

Yes, for sure. When I was 16, President Ford was scheduled to come to Concord, Massachusetts, for a 1776-1976 Bicentennial event. According to the news, two million people were supposed to show up. We only lived about two blocks from where the president would be speaking. The roads were going to be closed, so I thought about selling lemonade to people walking by our house.

But I came up with a better idea. I found a place in Boston that imported cheap tricorn patriot hats. I somehow managed to get an appointment with the president of the company. I didn’t have any money, so I asked him to loan me hats to sell. I think I asked for 10,000. He agreed to let me have them on consignment.

My parents weren’t involved in the scheme, but with the help of my friends, we hawked the hats to the crowd and sold out in two hours. We made tens of thousands of dollars. I realized that I could have sold ten times as many hats that day. That was the first significant experience without my parents. It was a profitable adventure of my own making.

Smith-Goodson:

That was a big risk for a 16-year-old kid. Your father was obviously a risk-taker based on all the fantastic and dangerous things he did. Did you ever think about risk in those terms?

Chapman:

Yes, my dad was a risk-taker, but he was all about intelligent risk-taking. He was not in any way, shape or form a reckless man. He was very calculating. Pilots have an expression: “When you’re in the air, hold it together. You can fall apart when the plane is on the ground.”

My dad was someone you would want on your side during an emergency. He was very calm and collected. That’s something I learned from him. It’s a compliment that people have said that about me over the years.

Smith-Goodson:

Bringing us back to the present, how did your dad feel about you accepting the job as CEO of IonQ? Quantum is a new area to be conquered, so in a way, you are an explorer, a technological explorer.

Chapman:

He was very excited about quantum and very supportive of me taking the position. I think my dad wanted me to be an explorer. He would not have been supportive of me taking a job that involved doing mundane things just for money. He wouldn’t have thought much of me had I done that.

I wanted to be an explorer like my father, I feel I inherited that, but it wasn’t mountain ranges or outer space that attracted me. I wanted to explore unknowns relating to the discovery of new things that could be done with software and artificial intelligence, and now with quantum mechanics.

My dad did not have a financial bent. He recognized that finance was my skill and that part of me didn’t come from him. He was a big thinker. His sponsorship of the gravitational wave project at NASA is a good example. He didn’t do the actual work on it, but it was his concept that resulted from thinking big. It took 30 years, but he was proven correct.

Smith-Goodson:

I think that is a good place to close our conversation. Your father was an amazing man. Peter, thank you very much for your time. It has been a very interesting conversation. And a very special one for Father’s Day.

Wrapping it up

Thanks to Peter Chapman for sharing so much personal information about his childhood and his relationship with his father. It’s really a great Father’s Day story. Like all good stories, it has an appropriate ending.

Peter Chapman arranged a very special final and fitting tribute for his father. Philip Chapman will get his interplanetary adventure after all. His ashes are scheduled for two future space flights.

The first flight will send Dr. Chapman’s ashes into a low Earth orbit (LEO) about 100 miles up before returning to earth. Those ashes will then be returned to his widow.

The second rocket carrying his ashes will be launched into space aboard the Vulcan Centaur’s maiden voyage. After lifting a moon rover into lunar orbit, the Centaur’s upper-stage will continue on a trajectory away from the Earth-Moon system and into deep space. After very lengthy inter-planetary orbits, the Centaur and its payload, including Dr. Chapman’s ashes, will become the first extra-terrestrial columbarium to forever orbit the sun.

Follow Paul Smith-Goodson on Twitter for current information on quantum, AI, and Space

Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.

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