Sandia LabNews

Explosives legend Paul Cooper hangs up his teaching hat

Paul Cooper
AN ENERGETIC CAREER — Paul Cooper built a global reputation as an explosives engineer and passed his knowledge to hun- dreds of Sandians in courses he taught for more than 30 years. “It was fun,” Paul says. “And I’m proud of what I accomplished.” (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Paul Cooper first stood in front of a Sandia class in 1977. His topic was explosives safety and his goal was to make it pop, but not literally. He wanted to grab the students’ attention and hold it.

Paul was a natural. He taught with expertise, humor, and a dash of irreverence. “If I wasn’t an engineer, I would have been a comedian or actor,” Paul says. “I feel like a performer in front of the group.”

He held the stage for 35 years, teaching nearly 1,000 Sandians everything they needed to know about blowing things up. His classes filled fast and his reputation grew, both as a teacher and an internationally recognized explosives engineer.

“Paul is an acknowledged expert in the explosives community with over three decades of extraordinary accomplishment. He also has taught explosives courses to hundreds of Sandians during that time,” says David Keese, director of Integrated Military Systems Center 5400. “We owe a great debt of gratitude to individuals like Paul Cooper who not only excel in their chosen professional field but also put forward the time and effort to pass along their skills and knowledge to others who will follow in their footsteps.”

Paul taught his final class offered by the Corporate Learning and Professional Development (CL&PD) organization on May 24. Students stuck around and friends stopped by for a slice of pizza and to witness the end of an era at Sandia. “We are very sad to see him go,” says Belinda Holley, manager of Technical and Compliance Training Dept. 3521. “He has had a sustained commitment not only to teaching but shaping the explosives training program and supporting education at Sandia. He is a rarity when it comes to that level of dedication and passion.”

Paul’s explosives safety course spawned four more classes, all focused on technology: Chemistry and Thermochemistry of Explosives; Shock and Detonation; Initiation Theories and Design of Initiators; and Scaling, Engineering Design, and Applications of Explosives.

“We felt people would be much safer if they understood the materials and processes they were working with,” he says. “We went deeper into the engineering.”

Paul says the classes took on a life of their own because of the scarcity of formal explosives training in the US. Paul himself learned explosives from “what I read, what I did, who I talked to, and from experience.”

Colleague Jerry Stofleth (5434) says the only thing Paul enjoys more than teaching is engineering. “His passion in life is for knowledge, not just explosives, but every discipline of engineering, and not just

engineering, but for nature and humanity as well,” Jerry says.

Paul’s professional career is the stuff of legend. He built a global reputation, searching for nuclear weapons in Iraq and investigating disasters ranging from the explosion of a gun turret on the USS Iowa in 1989 to the crash of TWA Flight 800 over New York in 1996.

Paul describes his Sandia career with typical humility. “Along the way, wonderful things happened,” he says. “I was just in the right place at the right time.”

Come to Albuquerque

Paul is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a 1958 chemical engineering graduate of the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, where he studied under rocket-engine expert Paul Torda. He followed his mentor to Chicago for a job when Torda was named director of research at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Armor Research Foundation.

 “When I got there I looked at all the different places I could work,” Paul says. “There was an explosives department. I was like a little kid. Here was a place where they pay you to go out and blow stuff up. That’s how I officially got into the explosives business.”

A colleague was recruited to Sandia in 1964 and sent Paul a message: Come to Albuquerque. I have a place for you. “The minute I stepped off the plane I didn’t care what the offer was, I’d take it,” Paul says.

He worked in explosive components until 1977 when he was recruited by the Underground Nuclear Testing arming and firing group, where he stayed until he retired in January 1997. His work focused on the design of explosive systems. “It’s not all bombs,” he says. “There are lots of things we do with explosives.”

In 1979, Paul joined the national Nuclear Emergency Search Team, NEST, an atomic bomb squad of sorts. “If the FBI or somebody got a lead there was a clandestine or homemade atom bomb somewhere, NEST had to locate and disarm it,” Paul says. “It was very exciting.”

Paul was a NEST member until the mid-1990s when its work transitioned to the military.

An explosives dream team

The USS Iowa gun turret exploded on April 19, 1989, in the Atlantic Ocean, killing 47 crewmen. A Navy investigation concluded a suicidal crew member who died in the blast deliberately caused it. Members of Congress were critical of the investigation, and Sandia was asked to review the findings.

The Labs put together a dream team of about two dozen engineers headed by Dick Schwoebel and including Paul. It found evidence that propellants were pushed into the 16-inch gun barrel too fast and too far, hitting the base of the 2,700-pound projectile instead of stopping a foot away as required.

“Karl Schuler, looking at scratch marks on the mechanical equipment, established that the powder bags had been rammed right up to the base of the bullet and so hard that they compressed three inches,” Paul says. “I showed that propellant pellets, when hit, can crack and throw burning pieces, and set off an explosion.”

The Sandia report was delivered in dramatic testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Paul was among those testifying. The Navy reopened the investigation after Sandia concluded the explosion was likely caused by an accidental overram of powder bags into the gun’s breech. The Navy said the cause of the explosion could not be determined and closed the investigation, but withdrew accusations against the dead crew member. Both reports remain in the record.

In October 1991, following Operation Desert Storm, Paul was named to a United Nations/IAEA inspection team sent to Iraq to look for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. “In early October the Iraqis denied having a nuclear program,” Paul says. “When we left at the end of October, they declared officially they had a nuclear program. It was a pivotal team and a critical turning point. It was a fantastic time to be there.”

A year and a half later, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, burned down at the end of a 51-day siege involving the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and sect leader David Koresh. Seventy-five people died in the fire, including Koresh. Paul was named to a presidential commission that investigated ATF and FBI participation in the incident after surviving Branch Davidians alleged the FBI started the fire.

“We determined that the Davidians were making explosive devices and set the fire in bales of hay,” Paul says. “The ATF and FBI acted legally and within normal procedures.”

Paul also was called upon by the state of Oklahoma to look at technical evidence in the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

“It was two years after the actual bombing in Oklahoma City, so I went through tons of files and studied photos of broken windows, overturned cars, and the crater. Those are passive pressure gauges that give insight into the explosives,” Paul says. “I was able to closely match the amount of explosive material McVeigh and Nichols had bought in Kansas and Texas with the damage. That calculation had not previously been done, and was used in the state trial.”

Paul helped investigate the July 1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island, N.Y., that killed all 230 people on board. The complex, four-year inquiry concluded that the probable cause of the accident was an explosion of flammable fuel and air vapors in a fuel tank, most likely due to a short circuit.

“When I got there, the plane’s pieces were being reassembled and I could walk through the fuel tank,” Paul says. “I looked around and could see where it started and where it detonated.” His calculations became part of the final report.

Bringing education to life

Paul did other accident and criminal investigative work for outside agencies, particularly the FBI. He says his field experience improved his explosives classes at Sandia. And teaching made him a better engineer. “The more I talked the more I learned,” he says. “What I learned in setting up and doing those classes I applied to my work, which got better and better.”

Rus Payne (54341), who took all Paul’s courses, says Paul’s experiences and stories brought the material to life. “He didn’t just lecture on how an application works. He told how it worked and gave an example from real life,” Rus says. “He tells great stories. And he loves to talk to people. He has a way of bringing the curriculum to the level of every individual in the class. He can speak to any PhD at that level and also to the lay person in an enlightening way.”

Paul’s class notes turned into a book, Explosives Engineering, begun in 1982 and published in 1996. To this day it is the definitive text on explosives, used in university and industrial engineering programs worldwide.

Paul says his approach to teaching is to make it fun. He brought history to the classes, gathering tidbits about the people behind the equations. “When I talk about Hooke’s Law, the basis of mechanical engineering, I mention that Robert Hooke’s blood enemy was Isaac Newton. There was a war between those two!” Paul says. “I love the history.”

Paul continued to teach the explosives courses for the CL&PD organization after retiring in 1997. Why stop now? “It’s 30 plus years, and I’m tired,” he laughs. “My feet hurt. My back hurts.”

He says there are three successors who will continue to teach the classes, which gives him peace of mind.

Paul’s retirement plan is unstructured: drives in his 1950 MG and 1970 Fiat 500, home maintenance, time with his family, and consulting for Sandia.

He might even pop his head into an explosives class now and then.

“After all this time, I’m not sure I can stay away forever.”