A Stellar Array: An Interview with Dr. David Rogstad

Dr. David (Dave) H. Rogstad serves as executive vice president of Reasons To Believe with the goal of developing effective teamwork. An accomplished scientist, Dave earned his Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He conducted research there on galaxies for over ten years, interrupted by a two-year stint in Holland doing related research in radio astronomy. From Caltech, Dave went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to supervise teams working on such projects as the Galileo mission and on Hypercube concurrent computation. Before retiring from JPL, he published over twenty scientific papers on various aspects of aperture synthesis and interferometric techniques, as well as reports on experiments in radio astronomy and related fields. Currently a consultant for JPL, Dave is cowriting a book on an antenna array technique developed by his team for the Galileo program. In this FACTS for FAITH interview, Dave speaks of his background, his involvement with Hugh Ross, and his zeal for living a successful Christian life.

FfF: How did you become interested in science, Dave?

Dave: My dad wasn’t an educated man. He was a cabinetmaker—a woodworker. But, his interest in science and reading, and his example of being self-educated influenced me.

I understand you attended Caltech for graduate studies. After graduate school, what was your next professional step?

Although I was a graduate student in physics, when it came to actually doing research, I went into radio astronomy (astronomy that researches radio waves received from outside of Earth’s atmosphere). At that time, astronomers didn’t do radio astronomy—the physicists and engineers did. I’d been interested in astronomy as a kid, so this fit. I earned my Ph.D. doing research on neutral hydrogen gas in external galaxies. This gas is found throughout the universe, especially within galaxies. It radiates at a unique frequency called the 21 centimeter hydrogen line and can be used as a probe to discover how things move within a galaxy. Using this hydrogen line, I was able to determine how galaxies rotate and what their masses were.

How long did you work with the hydrogen line observations in galaxies?

I spent five years as a graduate student and then stayed on at Caltech doing further research in this field. When an opportunity turned up for me to work in Holland continuing this research in radio astronomy, my family moved there. For two years, we lived near the Westerbork radio observatory where I helped set up a new instrument.

Is that the reason you went . . . to help set up this instrument?

Yes. I was asked to help build an array of telescopes to do interferometry-type measurements, because of my experience with interferometry at Caltech.


That’s a special radio astronomy technique. An interferometry technique is where two or more antennas work together to give information that you wouldn’t get if you only used one.

You mentioned living in Holland for two years. What brought you back?

Being in Holland was fun and educational, but we returned to the United States partly because it was important to me to be able to share my faith and participate in Christian ministry. In a foreign country, this can be difficult unless you’re there as a missionary. That, plus the value we placed on the influence of our extended family in the lives of our children helped make our decision. Also, I was given the opportunity to further my work at Caltech as a senior research fellow.

What was that opportunity?

I made observations of external galaxies using the hydrogen line as a probe—as a means to measure different characteristics of the galaxies. We had improved observing techniques so we could actually make maps in this hydrogen line and compare them with what can be seen through optical telescopes. These enabled me to make different discoveries and write papers on the subject.

What prompted your move from the Caltech campus to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)?

In 1974, JPL organized a project using a radio astronomy technique to do spacecraft navigation. The technique is called VLBI, which stands for Very Long Baseline Interferometry. Radio astronomers use this technique to measure the position of radio quasars and to get details about these very distant radio objects that radiate in the radio region. Then these quasars are used as a framework for measuring the position of spacecraft. Because of my background in radio astronomy, I was considered an expert in that field. So when I decided to leave Caltech and look for other jobs, a friend of mine encouraged me to put in an application at JPL.

How did your personal relationships help determine the direction you chose?

I began thinking about how to evaluate different opportunities from a Christian perspective. What were the most important things in my life? Having a nice job was, of course, important, but further up the scale in terms of priority was my relationship with God. I asked myself, “Is where I’m going or what I’m going to do giving me a greater opportunity to grow in my relationship with God and to serve Him?”

Next was my wife, Diane. “Will where I’m going and what I’m doing enhance my relationship with her and help me fulfill my responsibilities in our relationship?” The third priority was my four children. “Will this improve my opportunity as a father to influence their lives and help them grow into responsible young men and women?” The next priority was ministry opportunities.

JPL was the best choice in terms of those priorities. I didn’t want to come to the end of my life and say, “I’ve written numerous papers and been to countless conferences, but my kids are out on the streets taking drugs—or rejecting faith in Christ.” Realizing that a poor choice could produce that kind of result, I pursued the job with JPL and have had no regrets whatsoever. I started there in 1974 and stayed until retiring last year to come to work at RTB. Diane and I have been married for about thirty-six years. The oldest three of our children are married and, to my joy, all four of them actively express their faith in Jesus Christ.

How would you describe your experience at JPL?

It was great. I enjoyed the projects I worked on and the people I worked with. The thing I liked most was that I could do what I liked to do as a scientist and as an engineer.

In about 1980, I became supervisor of a group at JPL and had many opportunities to share my faith. One of the key things I learned was that there’s more fulfillment, more joy, in making someone else successful than in making myself successful. How could I make these people that I’m responsible to lead successful in what they do?

Another principle I learned is from the Old Testament. Abraham lived in the land of Canaan as a stranger, but God blessed him. His neighbors didn’t want him to move away because they saw that God was with him and they reaped the benefits. That whole idea intrigued me. I prayed this would be true of me —that even though the people in my group at JPL might not be Christians or take an interest in anything I shared, that they would know they were being blessed because of God’s presence in my life. And I saw God answer that prayer over the years.

Can you cite a specific incident at JPL in which you saw God work?

One particular project entailed my team helping to “save the Galileo mission.” Galileo was the spacecraft that went to Jupiter. The antenna was shaped like an umbrella, but it wouldn’t open up and thus couldn’t be used. NASA could hardly talk to the spacecraft. The communication rate was only about 10 bits per second as opposed to the 137,000 bits per second they could receive with the big antenna. So my team tried to help solve that problem.

I told the team that I was praying God would make them creative and able to work efficiently because we were on a very tight schedule. The spacecraft was going to arrive at Jupiter in two years and we had a lot of work to do. A spacecraft doesn’t wait for you. When it’s there, it’s there—and if you’re not ready, well, too bad. The project was really very challenging.

Did your team complete the task in time?

Yes. The spacecraft arrived at Jupiter in 1995. The mission has been successful since then, in part due to my team’s contribution. I continue to go back to JPL once a week as a consultant and am coauthoring a book on the antenna-arraying technique that we developed.

What brought you to Reasons To Believe?

I’d served on the board since the ministry’s beginning in 1986. Hugh had asked me at various times whether I’d be willing to leave JPL and work for Reasons To Believe. He wanted me to do the same kind of apologetics work he does. I did a little, but didn’t feel that was my strength. Yet, as I observed the organization, I saw the need for someone who could be a scientist as well as a team leader. I never thought of myself as an administrator, but always had this idea that maybe sometime I’d leave science and get involved in ministry.

The group at JPL would have liked me to stay there. We typically ate lunch together. One day I wasn’t there and heard afterward that one team member said, “The real reason that Dave’s leaving here is not that he doesn’t like the job, or that he’s taking a better job and going to get paid more.” She went on, “This is a faith thing. It’s the fulfillment of a faith-type goal. So, this is what we need to do. We need to go and say, ‘Dave, I’ve been thinking about some of these things you’ve been sharing about your Christian faith over these years. And I really feel that you need to stay here longer in order to answer some of our questions.’” I went to her afterwards and said, “Nice try!” But, I was glad that their understanding of what I was doing was correct.

How did your Christian faith become so strong?

I grew up in a Christian home—a very serious Christian home. My dad was strong in his convictions and study of the Word. So was my mom. I grew up observing my sibling’s reactions to our parents and their emphasis on Christian ideas and the study of God’s Word.

I was a “good boy,” in the sense that I didn’t rebel against any of my family’s values. But on the other hand, I didn’t have a personal faith. I attended the Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles with my parents. The pastor was J. Vernon McGee, a tremendous Bible teacher. But as I reflect back, while there was a lot of teaching of God’s Word, it didn’t get my attention much. I attended Sunday school and even won a trip to junior high school camp by memorizing Scripture, but the experience didn’t have a deep impact on me.

As an undergraduate student at Caltech, I remember sitting in Sunday school class and noticing that many of the students I’d grown up with were interested in studying God’s Word. They had a knowledge that I didn’t have. I was jealous. I kind of figured I was smarter than they were, and yet I didn’t know as much about the Word. They marked in their Bibles and interacted with the teacher. So for graduation I asked my parents for a study Bible, thinking maybe I would do a little study and get smarter.

Did your parents give you the Bible?

I got the Bible and didn’t read it. I just kind of set it aside. But the following year, as I started graduate studies, my motivation changed. I was curious and figured I should find out what it meant to be a Christian. I started with the more readable parts in the New Testament—the Gospel of John—and it began to get my attention. Living at Caltech at the time, I went home on weekends and asked my dad questions. And my dad, who normally had a lot to say . . . didn’t. He just answered my questions. If he had said more, I might not have continued in the same way.

My dad gave me a booklet to read called the Judgment Seat of Christ. It was a little study on the passage in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, which talks about people standing before the Lord and giving account for their lives. The Lord used it to bring awareness of past failures in my life. I came face-to-face with my need for a Savior and the need to give my life to Jesus Christ as my Lord. I spent a lot of time reading every night, and began attending a church closer to Caltech. I also joined the college group there.

One of the most important things I needed to do was clear my conscience from the failure of having cheated while a student at Caltech. I had violated the honor system in the class of an English professor who was a pretty strong atheist. This professor would read things that questioned faith and he told about his aunt who on her deathbed didn’t sit around reading the Bible. Instead she read Shakespeare and other great works of literature in her last days on Earth. So after much struggle, I decided that if I wanted God’s blessing in my life, I had to be willing to humble myself and go talk to him.

Early one morning I knocked on the professor’s door and told him how I’d violated the honor system in his class, but since becoming a Christian, this thing bothered me and I was coming back to confess. Well, he was very gracious, commended my willingness to take the steps that I did, and said, “There’s nothing we can do about it now.” I must admit I was very grateful.

During that next several years, I grew as a scientist and Christian. Then, an interesting fellow showed up on the scene. Hugh Ross had completed his degree at the University of Toronto in Canada and had gotten a post doc research position at Caltech in radio astronomy.

Dave stands in front of his 1965 Volkswagen. Green acrylic enamel supplied the finishing touch to this “Bug.” Dave fully restored four others—giving a labor of love to each of his children—but this one’s his.

What do you remember about meeting Hugh Ross?

I remember thinking he was kind of odd, but then of course as a scientist I was used to people being sort of odd. Hugh was very intense and highly focused on certain kinds of research. He came into my office one day because he needed information about the instrument we used, and I remember thinking as he left the office, “Well, it takes all kinds to make a world!”

Maybe a month later, I happened to go into his office and noticed on his desk a copy of a popular Christian book. I had no idea that he had any interest in Christianity so I asked him if he had read the book. He said, yeah he’d read it and thought it pretty accurate. I was kind of amazed that not only did he have an interest in Christian things, but he read books and was knowledgeable enough to check their accuracy. And I thought, “Wow, that’s impressive.” Even after being a Christian for a number of years, I didn’t feel prepared to make that kind of statement. So I asked Hugh if he was a Christian. He said “yes,” and I was delighted.

Why motivated you to change careers and come to RTB?

What excited me about the Christian life was not so much the apologetics as what it means to live as a Christian. I was tremendously challenged to understand the application of the Gospel. How do I have the presence of God in my life day-by-day so that I can live a successful life? How do I walk in the joy and victory it promises? I wanted to overcome the problems we all have with anger, bitterness, and forgiveness. I wanted clear purpose. I love being motivated to study the Word and apply it to life circumstances and relationships.

Of course, the scientific evidences and proofs that we have for our faith intrigue me. But I think the real challenge that I personally feel in sharing that scientific material is how to communicate it in a way that is understood by the interested noneducated person. Some of these people may have been too poor to afford college. Some may have gone to jail or escaped from drugs—so they don’t have an education. Many of them are very bright and if they’d had the opportunity could have been highly educated professional people. They’re interested in things related to science, but I need to be able to communicate in a way that’s understandable.

In a way, it’s similar to what motivates me to take the things that are in God’s Word and make them very practical and understandable by everyone, not just intellectuals. The same challenge is to take science and my understanding of scientific issues in the Bible and make them practical and understandable.

What does the future hold?

Well, I’m excited about the opportunity at Reasons To Believe to help build a team. The main thing I want to do is help Hugh so that he doesn’t have to worry about the details of running an organization. That’s not his strength. I hope he feels he has someone trustworthy who doesn’t have an agenda to develop his own career. I’m here to serve. Helping Hugh Ross and Reasons To Believe be successful in their mission is what I’m excited about and what I view myself doing until I can’t do it anymore.