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SA’s own ‘rocket scientist’ reaches for the stars

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When Daniel Frohlich studied aeronautical engineering at Wits (the University of the Witwatersrand), he needed to do an internship as part of his second year. Deciding to do it in California where his friend lived, he walked into a tiny start-up that had just 15 employees. Young, naïve, and with nothing to lose, he asked for an internship. That company was SpaceX, which designs, makes, and has launched the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft. Frohlich was its first intern.

The King David Schools alumnus’ journey has followed a similar trajectory to the now famous company and its founder, Elon Musk. “I always dreamed of going to space,” Frohlich told the SA Jewish Report from his home in Las Vegas. “I’ve lived my wildest dreams working at SpaceX and then working on more down-to-earth things at the Boring Company. After a seven-year ‘sabbatical’ I’m going back to SpaceX to work as a build engineer on Starship. This is the vehicle which will take humans back to the moon and on to Mars one day.”

He has even spent time with the eccentric and controversial Musk. “He’s intense and focused. His singular goal is getting to Mars. Anything that doesn’t get him closer towards that goal, he doesn’t have time for. He’s obviously super smart, so it’s a bit intimidating talking to him, but we’ve had some times where he let loose, and he’s actually full of jokes and really funny. Physically, he’s a big guy, so he has a real presence.”

So how did Frohlich get to this point? In 2003, he moved to the United States to finish his BS Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC), after which he pursued an MS Astronautical Engineering, focusing on rocket propulsion and orbital mechanics. He graduated from USC in 2007. The master of ceremonies was none other than Neil Armstrong.

After graduating, he worked at SpaceX for almost eight years, starting as a structures manufacturing engineer working on the Dragon spacecraft. His first project was to get the primary structure of the vehicle built, but he had a hand in almost every other structural component that went into the vehicle. He then became the manager of the Dragon Structures Manufacturing Engineering team, which was responsible for all of the parts of the spacecraft. He then worked on redesigning the capsule to be waterproof so that it could be fully reusable.

In 2018, he joined Musk’s other venture, the Boring Company, which creates transportation, utility, and freight tunnels to solve traffic problems and enable rapid point-to-point transportation. As production engineer, he helped get the first one mile (1.6km)-long tunnel built in Los Angeles, led the effort to construct the extraction shaft to pull the machine out of the ground, and then had an elevator installed in it for lowering cars into the tunnel. In 2019, he moved with the company to Las Vegas.

At the Boring Company, “We finished the underground tunnel system, and then I worked on the operations side of things required to run it efficiently. The Vegas Loop is running and is expanding. A tunnel connecting to Resorts World [the newest hotel on the strip] was just completed last month,” he says.

Not every kid gets to say their dad is a rocket scientist, and it’s clear that Frohlich enjoys sharing his exciting work with his young children. His son’s middle name is Apollo, and on 28 May, he tweeted a photograph of himself and his kids at Starbase, Texas, with starships in the background.

Alongside, he tweeted lyrics from the late Johnny Clegg’s song Cruel Crazy Beautiful World: “When I feel your small body close to mine, I feel weak and strong at the same time, so few years to give you wings to fly, show you the stars to guide your ship by.”

His advice to anyone wanting to follow a similar path is “just go for it. Don’t waste any time, just start taking shots. Reach out to anyone you know, and even people you don’t, and tell them what you’re trying to do. Make connections. Be prepared to work very hard. Get involved in as many hands-on projects as you possibly can. Build things! Creating things (physically like bridges or radio-control cars) or digitally (like software programmes) is how you turn theory into something real. Don’t just be academic (book smart). Whenever I interviewed people for a job at SpaceX or the Boring Company, it wasn’t all about your GPA (how many distinctions you got). I was more interested in what else you did in your spare time, what projects you got involved in, and what things you’ve made of which you’re proud.”

Asked if his upbringing in the South African Jewish community had an impact on him, he says, “It sure did. My family and community gave me the confidence to leave home and give my dreams a shot. I have good memories of my time at King David Victory Park. I learned some very valuable lessons which I still remember to this day, such as from Meneer Ludtke, when he said ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know’.

“More importantly, I remember being taught always to ‘manage expectations’. I think this is one of the most important lessons I carry to this day. These days, when I find myself at the bottom of a large shaft which will one day be an awesome underground station, looking at the different layers of sand and stone and marvelling at how much water there is underground in this desert, I think of geography class with Mrs Wilsher (I hope she’d be proud!).

“The Jewish community in South Africa is super special,” he says. “The Jewish community in Vegas is also very close and special. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”

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