With a Little Help
Autobiography of Rick Wagner


I am writing this autobiography for documentation, not as entertainment. As I read it over, I realize that if it weren't about me I would probably find it quite dull. There are some inherently interesting parts, I think, and if you find any interest in this, so much the better. My object here is to stay as close to the truth as possible. However, due to my being human, this work is neither complete nor perfectly correct. I hope it comes close to the objective truth. Naturally, being about me, this work omits many unflattering details. I also attempt to be discreet with regard to the appearances of other people in here. If you are mentioned here, thank you for the good things you have done. If you believe I have written something that shows you in an unfair light, tell me and I will see if I may correct it.

Grandfather, Aunt Beverly, Uncle Ed, Grandmother, Evelyn, and Jack (my mother and father) in June, 1944, at the Reeves's house
in the country about eight miles south of Salinas on old Monterey Highway (California 68) at the corner of Corral de Tierra Road.

I have titled this memoir With a Little Help because I understand the importance of all the help I have received from myriad others throughout my life. I am grateful for all those times people have done those little extra things they didn't have to do, as well as for some grand and gracious acts of kindness. I have attempted to acknowledge some of them in the text of the chapters.

I am writing this in a text editor (MS Notepad) that does not have a spell checker, so if you find any errors, please bring them to my attention. I have divided this work into chapters in chronological order. Here follows a brief summary:


I was born August 11, 1949 in Carmel, California, and named Richard Jeffery Wagner. My father was a physician and surgeon practicing in Salinas, California. I grew up in Salinas and graduated from Salinas High School in 1967.

When I was nine years old I developed an interest in science and read extensively about chemistry, physics, physiology, archaeology, biology, and astronomy. I learned to make and fly model airplanes. When I was a teenager I built and raced slot cars (electric model cars). At the age of 14 I read a magazine article on bonsai and dug up one of the junipers in the front yard, pruned it, put it in a flower pot on the sill of my bedroom window, and watched it die over the next month. Not to be deterred, I repeated the process. I had a part time job in high school working at the local hobby and toy store (Toys Galore on Main Street in Salinas). After graduation I went for a year to Hartnell College in Salinas and worked at the 7-11 convenience store on San Miguel Avenue.

In 1968 I moved to San Jose to live with my girlfriend, Camilla Candace Herrera, who was pregnant at the time with our son Timothy Steven. I got a job at a 76 Union service station in Santa Clara, taking a bus to work from downtown San Jose. In 1969 Camilla and I were married in a civil ceremony and, after I had my draft physical in Oakland, I went to the Air Force recruiter in San Jose and took the battery of aptitude tests. I was subsequently drafted into the Army. I went to the Air Force recruiter and, because I had received near perfect scores on the aptitude tests, he telephoned the induction center in Oakland and told them that I was "already in the Air Force." I then signed enlistment papers for the delayed enlistment program and started basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, on August 13, 1969.

Basic training lasted six weeks and featured an obstacle course with a smoke tunnel, battlefield crawling with simulated explosions, and lots of running and climbing. We learned to march and had weekly parades with 100-man (10 by 10) formations. We also learned to shoot the 22-caliber center fire bottleneck cartridge M16 rifle (I missed a marksmanship ribbon by just two shots out of 70).

I trained as a Communications Electronics Technician in the Air Force, spending nine months in technical school at Keesler Air Force Base (AFB) in Biloxi, Mississippi (Air Training Command (ATC)). Thereafter I was stationed at: Bellows Air Force Station (AFS), Waimanalo, Hawaii (Air Force Communications Service (AFCS)); Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (2nd Mobile Combat Communications Group); McClellan Air Force Base, Sacramento, California (AFCS); Wheeler Air Force Base, Wahiawa, Hawaii (AFCS).

I was in the Radio Relay Equipment tech school at Keesler AFB after basic training. The first three months at Keesler AFB were spent cleaning up after hurricane Camile, which had hit the area just two weeks before I got there. Once in tech school, I tested into the "little red schoolhouse" program, which was self-paced. I completed the 10-month course of study in six months.

After tech school, my first duty station was the transmitter site at Bellows AFS in Waimanalo, Hawaii. I worked mostly swing and midnight shifts. There was some routine maintenance to be done on the equipment, and daily level and noise checks on the audio channels to Hickam AFB. I assisted in troubleshooting the transmitters if any equipment failed during the night. While at Bellows AFS, I was promoted to Staff Sergeant (E5), completed a correspondence course with the Cleveland Institute of Electronics, and passed the test for my Federal Communications Commission (FCC) transmitter license.

Next I was stationed at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma in the 2nd Mobile Combat Communications Group ("Second Mob") where I was put in command of a mobile tropospheric scatter communications site. We took our trucks and vans to a hilltop on base and set up our site in the winter mud. It was the worst equipment in the Mob: almost nothing worked. By summer everything was fully operational, and our site participated in "Operation Hammershot," the first mobile broadband communications system spanning the continental USA. While at Tinker AFB I reenlisted because of the poor civilian job prospects during the 1973 Nixon recession, and took night classes at Ocar Rose Junior College (algebra and trigonometry). My son Robert Ashley was born in Oklahoma in 1973.

After Oklahoma I was stationed at McClellan AFB in Sacramento, California, in an electronics system engineering and installation squadron where I was an E&I Team Chief. While assigned there I worked for two months of temporary duty (TDY) in Kansas City, Missouri, for Johnny Pepple, civilian head of an Air Force research and development lab. I also supervised the installation of a security system at the Tactical Air Command situation room at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. While at McClellan AFB I took night classes at American River College (English and philosophy).

My last assignment was to the Air Force receiver site at the Naval Communications Station near Wahiawa, Hawaii. There I cross-trained in satellite communications systems. I lived in base housing for over a year at Wheeler AFB. I was admitted to the Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree program at the University of Hawaii (UH) and attended classes in the daytime at the Manoa campus. Master Sergeant Hector Favella, my superior at, and commander of, the Wahiawa satellite ground station, accommodated me by allowing me to work swing and mid shifts so I could attend classes in the daytime. I couldn't have done it without him.

I let my Air Force enlistment expire and was honorably discharged on August 29, 1978. In August 1979 I was divorced from Camilla. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from UH in December 1979 and was recruited by John Otera of TRW, Inc., in the fall of 1979. On January 7, 1980, I started work at TRW's Space Park facility in Redondo Beach, California.

I married Andrea Shirley Johnson in 1981. Our daughter Malia Lenore was born in 1983, daughter Rebecca Noelani in 1985, and son Thomas Dalton was born in 1988. In 1992 I started the Master's program in computer science at the University of Southern California (USC) on a TRW fellowship, graduating in 1994. I was then admitted to the USC Ph.D. program in computer science with Prof. Ken Goldberg as my dissertation advisor and received my doctorate in October 1997 in the "robotics and AI" track. My dissertation described the first general 3D fixturing algorithm, among other things. I couldn't have done it without Ken's help and encouragement. I taught computer science full time at USC from fall of 1998 through the spring of 2000, when I decided to return to work full time at TRW.

Northrop Grumman Corporation purchased TRW in 2002. I worked on winning proposals for the James Webb Space Telescope and the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, a fission reactor powered science mission (never built). I wrote the winning proposal for an automated walking inspection and maintenance robot (AWIMR), invented the electrostatic sticky foot for space walking robots, and was project manager for integration and test on the Redwood program. I retired in 2010 and returned to live in Hawaii.

After this summary, if you're still interested in reading the memoir, the chapters are at the table of contents page linked below.

October 2016, Mokuleia, Oahu, Hawaii.

Note to other Rick Wagners about the use of our name: I am Richard J. Wagner, and I know there are lots of us Richard Wagners who go by "Rick." I use our name, "Rick Wagner," in the title of this autobiography because that's the name I go by. I established my personal home page under that name back in 1995, long before many people even knew the Internet (much less the Web) existed. So I consider I have a kind of Web presence precedence, and therefore am entitled to use my nickname in the title of my work. I know and/or hope you will understand.

Email comments to Richard dot J dot Wagner at gmail dot com.

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