In the mid-1960s, Neil Davis was trying to develop a rocket range for research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Serendipity, of a sort, clinched the effort.
A U.S. plane carrying nuclear bombs crashed in Greenland in early 1968, prompting Denmark to evict several American military experiments. The military went looking for another northern location for some of its rocket-based research. Davis, then assistant director of the Geophysical Institute, offered up Fairbanks.
Trouble was, he didn't yet have a rocket range. The institute nevertheless got the contract and finished a makeshift facility in time for the military's first launch in 1969. Poker Flat Research Range has operated ever since; its 338th major launch came in 2017. Much of the work today involves studies of the aurora borealis.
Davis came to Fairbanks as a young boy in the 1940s. His parents, after struggling through the Great Depression, had gotten work on military projects in Alaska. They homesteaded in North Pole and later operated a sawmill.
Davis didn't do well in high school and dropped out to work as a mechanic for Wien Airlines. Intrigued by science, though, he returned to studies that culminated in a doctoral degree in geophysics from the University of Alaska. He spent a few years at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland before returning to UAF with the experience he needed when the Army came looking for a northern rocket range.
Davis and his wife, Rosemarie, built homes and raised a family in Fairbanks. He retired from the university in 1981 and dedicated himself to writing. He completed a dozen books on topics from the autobiographical to the scientific. He died in December 2016.
"A slayer of trees and power lines, Neil was also a builder extraordinaire, using whatever might be at hand or found in a dumpster. He built sheds, cabins, boats, a steam engine and a rocket range," his family wrote in his obituary. "Neil's life was a fascinating mixture of pioneering spirit, cutting-edge technology and science."
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