Interviewing Tory Bruno

About a month ago, I had the privilege of listening to a lecture by Tory Bruno, the CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA).  After his lecture I met him briefly and got an email address for a written interview. That night I stayed up late coming up with questions for him, and here are the answers he gave.  

Q: As a homeschooler my education has been non-conventional. Reading about your early life, I learned that you were raised on a ranch in Amador, California (and by the way, the photos of that area look gorgeous.) My grandparents have a farm in southern Illinois, and we love to visit them. It seem as though there is just more freedom to have adventures and to explore in the country. How did growing up on a ranch impact your education?

Mr. Bruno: Growing up on a remote ranch meant that my education required work.  My high school (Amador County High School) was 20 miles away. This required early mornings, late afternoons and evenings on a bus.  It also sometimes required hiking out on foot through snow, as our road was often unplowed in the winter time. The quality of education was good, but basic, and without a robust STEM content.  So, I read a lot about science on my own and was even known to conduct experiments out in the barn.

When I began college, I first attended a Community College 70 miles away in Stockton, California called San Joaquin Community College. This meant leaving the Ranch at 4am and not returning until 7 pm each day.  But the education quality was excellent and I could really dig into to math and science, preparing myself to move away to Cal Poly to finish my BSME.

Q: With Yosemite, The Eldorado Forest, and Lake Tahoe in your backyard, were you able to explore these areas?

Mr. Bruno: Absolutely.  Growing up there was a kid’s paradise.  Not only was the Ranch itself amazing, but all of these scenic wonders were easily accessible.

Q: If my math is correct, you would have been about 8 years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  Did you watch the landing? And what were your feelings at the time?

Mr. Bruno: Oh yes, I sat glued to our television in absolute awe.

Young Tory Bruno

Q: All of the Back to Space Student Ambassadors are fascinated with the fact that you built a rocket with 80 year old dynamite.  Could you tell us more about this story?

Mr. Bruno: Sure.  I was 9 or 10 and still very inspired by the moon landing.  It was in the summertime, a hot dry August, and I had just a little too much free time on my hands.  The ranch had been built around 1900, so there were all kinds of interesting things for a young boy to find and get into trouble with.  One afternoon, I was poking around in the back of the barn, when I found a dusty old wooden crate. I pulled it out, dropped it on the floor and pried the lid off with crowbar.  Much to my delight, I discovered that it was full box of 80 year old dynamite. I still distinctly remember being curious as to why the sticks were all wet in the middle of the summer.  I was too inexperienced then to know that after a couple of years, let alone 80, the nitroglycerin sweats out onto the surface of the sticks, making them highly unstable. I took out my pocket knife, cut open the sticks and pulled out the paper and powder.  I found a pile of old wrought iron pipe and stuffed the propellant into a number of these, making crude rockets, which I could light with some equally old fuse. I had the time of my life for about a week. Then I got caught. But, I am proud of two things: Some of my rockets actually rose into the sky before detonating, and I lived to tell the story.

Q: Do you have photos of the rocket or the rocket launch?

Mr. Bruno: God no!  This was on the DL. I knew I would really catch it, if I were discovered by any adults and… I was right.

Q: Would you be willing to reenact this with the twenty-five Student Space Ambassadors?

Mr. Bruno: No.  I’m pretty sure that the ATF would frown upon this particular activity today.   ?

Q: We would love to hear about any other adventures that you had as a kid. (Especially ones involving dynamite.)

Mr. Bruno: There it not enough space here to recount all of the trouble I got into.

Q: One of our Student Ambassadors has recently battled leukemia, and you battled Cerebral Palsy.  Being diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at an early age must have impacted your life. How did your battle with this disease make you stronger?

Mr. Bruno: I made a decision that I did not want CP to control my life.  This meant exercise, really physical therapy, every single day of my life, right through today.  My condition was more severe when I was young, which also meant that physical therapy could be painful.  The gift that CP gave me was discipline, determination, and just plain stubbornness.


Q: All of the Back to Space Ambassadors are in middle and high school, so we are especially interested in your high school years.  Your graduating class at Amador Community High School was about 70 students, and currently the graduating class size is about 185 students.  It is a small high school, and high school level classes must have been limited. The 25 Ambassadors come from many states across America and have different high school experiences.  Some of us come from small rural schools, some from private schools, some from large urban high schools with many opportunities, and three of us are homeschooled. Did your high school education set the course for your future, or did you have Mark Twain’s view that “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”?

Mr. Bruno: Probably a little of Mark Twain.  I loved science and had to do a lot of self-enrichment on my own.  I was also fortunate in that my Grandmother, who raised me, had been a school teacher and greatly valued and encouraged education. (By the way, Twain’s short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, was set in our neighboring county where an annual frog jump is still held.  And, yes, I did compete).

Apollo Lunar Ranging Experiment. Source:

Q: You started college at the 2 year college San Joaquin Delta College, and then transferred to California Polytechnic State University.  You also attended San Jose State, Santa Clara University, Harvard University, The Wye River Institute, and the Defense Acquisition University. Wow!  That is an impressive list and an incredible number of study hours!

You also worked at the Lick Observatory.  The Student Ambassadors have a trip planned to the Three Rivers Foundation in Texas to spend a weekend observing the stars, so we are envious of your opportunity.  The Lick Observatory was used to give an accurate lunar distance by using lasers that reflected off retroreflectors placed on the lunar surface by the Apollo 11 crew. (Retroreflectors reflect light with a minimal amount of scattering.)Were the refractors still observable/being used when you were an astronomer’s assistant at the Lick Observatory?  Did you have any memorable sightings while at the Lick Observatory?

Mr. Bruno:  My astronomer and I primary used the Coude telescope. Our work was focused on collecting spectra from distant galaxies so that we could measure their rotation.  So, a little technical, but fun none the less.

Q: Not just anyone takes classes at the Defense Acquisition University.  I’m not sure you can tell us but. . . Have you ever been on a submarine for a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM)?

Mr. Bruno: Yes, many times.  A very cool experience. I started as a designer on the D5 Trident II SLBM, was later Chief Engineer, and finally in charge of the entire Program for Lockheed Martin.  I have been underwater for days, have placed my hand on a submarine tube while a 70 ton D5 missile rushed by, 6 inches away, and have even slept on a torpedo.

Meeting Tory Bruno was such an amazing experience. I loved learning about his past and what motivated him as a child. Everything that he had to overcome to get where he is today is such an inspiration, and I hope to accomplish something as great as he has.

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