From rockets to roll call
by Corrie-Beth Hendon
Sep 10, 2012 | 2927 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jim Sanford helped build guidance systems for the Air Force’s missle program before becoming a professor. Photo by: Corrie-Beth Hendon
Jim Sanford helped build guidance systems for the Air Force’s missle program before becoming a professor. Photo by: Corrie-Beth Hendon
Jim Sanford’s career began as any other college professor’s might.

Sanford graduated from college, went to graduate school and began teaching straightaway.

Sanford taught at Bevill State Community College for a short time before taking an entirely different journey into the world of guided missiles.

“It was all about being in the right place at the right time and being prepared with the right skills for the job when the time came,” Sanford said.

Sanford got his first job with a company called Axis Technologies, building the tiny and incredibly expensive guidance systems for the Air Force’s guidance missile program.

A young fundraiser soliciting newspaper subscriptions door-to-door convinced Sanford to buy a newspaper he presumed he would never read.

“I asked if I could just give him the money, but he said I had to buy the subscription,” Sanford said.

Months later, just as his subscription was about to expire, Sanford nonchalantly picked up the Sunday classifieds and spotted the job on the guidance missile program.

He later discovered that the company only ran the advertisement twice in the newspaper.

“I happened to be at home when the kid knocked on my door, the company happened to run the ad just before my subscription expired, and I happened to actually pick it up and read it on one of the two days the ad was run. The probability of all of that happening is out of this world,” Sanford said.

After being hired for the job, Sanford went to work as the only American on a team attempting to revamp a program that had been in place since the 1970s and was beginning to wear out.

Because the program had been out of commission for so long, resurrecting it was like starting from the ground up. Most of the people who had worked with the program in the 1970s had either died or moved on.

Their knowledge left with them and a new team of scientists had to try to reinvent their work.

“Any time you let the tribal knowledge leave the camp, you’re in a lot of trouble,” Sanford said.

Sanford and his team worked tirelessly to recreate the program with little, if any, margin for error.

“The guidance sets we made for the air force, the individual parts were over $12,000 and put together it was around $500,000. The Colonel used to tell us that he wasn’t going to spend $850,000 to rip one of our systems out of the nose of a missile,” he said.

By 2003, Sanford and his team had gotten the guidance missile system back in working order and were able to put the program back on sustainment, “which took us off of the project of trying to reinvent the wheel and start going into other areas where you get to make some other exotic replacement parts, we were no longer killing ourselves to just make the thing run, we were making extra parts that it would be nice to have,” Sanford said.

After a few more years, Sanford was able to branch out and began working on the James Webb Space Telescope, the predicted successor of the Hubble Space Telescope.

With this new endeavor, demands on Sanford’s time increased and world travel became a regular part of his job. Around the same time, his wife gave birth to their first child — a daughter.

“I had great opportunity to see things, and get a better perspective on home, and what home might should look like. After a while, though, you’re thinking ‘okay, I got married for a reason, I had a kid for a reason, and I don’t want to live on an airplane or in a Marriott.’ Some people live that way, but that’s not the way I live,” Sanford said.

His duties as a father and husband brought him to look for a job that would allow him to be where he really wanted to be: home.

He found it in Bevill State Community College, which was struggling to fill a big hole in their upper-level mathematics department at the time.

“I knew I could do this and I knew I wouldn’t be travelling all over the universe, and I could see that cute little girl. When all that’s said and done, here we are,” he said.

Sanford started teaching at Bevill during the fall semester of 2008 and, despite the vast differences in his two careers, he said that “the pressures of this job are much different than the pressures of making a perfect guidance system for a missile that would be used in actual combat, but there are definitely still pressures.”

The kind of pressure Sanford struggles with now is making sure his students are thoroughly prepared for the next step in their education. According to Sanford, Bevill State is primarily an academic transfer college, meaning most of its students will go on to pursue other degrees at four-year universities upon graduation.

Sanford wants to make sure his students are ready for whatever their future professors throw at them.

“I have to make a good product (i.e. the student) regardless of what I am given to work with. I can’t short change them or they’re short changed forever. I guess it’s a matter of personal pride, but I’m not going to send an unprepared product to a university,” he said.

Attention to detail, critical thinking and perseverance are all qualities that Sanford strives to instill in his students. Though achieving it takes a lot of hard work and creativity in the classroom, Sanford’s goal for his students is simple.

As he explained it, “I try to give these kids, who are going to go on to universities to be the engineers and doctors and scientists of tomorrow, enough perspective for them to understand that they have got to know their foundational material or they are not going to succeed.”