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Friday, Jun 2, 2023

Aerospace Pioneer Pushes Innovation at CSUN Center

Ernie Schaeffer made a name for himself designing and building complex parts, sensitive motors and intricate actuators for rockets, shuttles and satellites for nearly every space flight since the first days of NASA. His Chatsworth company, Schaeffer Magnetics, played a role in Apollo, Viking, Explorer, Voyager 2, Mariner and the Hubble Space Telescope, on which his 57 actuators lifted the garage-door device that allowed the first real view of the universe from space. Now, Schaeffer is lending his name to a different project: The Ernie Schaeffer Center on Innovation and Entrepreneurship at California State University Northridge. Schaeffer last spring gave the school $2 million to create the program, which was officially designated as part of the school’s College of Engineering and Computer Sciences with a special Feb. 22 ceremony on campus. “We’ve done well and we wanted to give back,” Schaeffer told a crowd of about 50 family and friends and CSUN students, facility and staff in the Grand Salon of the Sol Center. “We just wanted to give back.” The program is envisioned as a forum in which Schaeffer’s ingenuity and talent will be harnessed and infused into a new generation of students and alumni. Early plans call for a series of seminars and panel discussions with business leaders and inventors, and eventually courses specifically designed for enterprising students. It will also offer resources and materials and work to link different majors, mirroring how inventive business people typically work together, said Nhut Tan Ho, an assistant mechanical engineering professor who will lead the center. “Innovation and entrepreneurship is very interdisciplinary by its very nature,” he said. “Through this activity we hope to teach our students here to take an inventive idea and make it into a product.” Schaeffer, 82, said that type of interaction was one of the reasons he gave CSUN the money. Many of his best workers took classes at the school and Schaeffer has been a frequent participant in various CSUN programs over the years. Giving back Funding a new program on entrepreneurship was the best way for him to contribute to his field and give back to a wide group of prospective business leaders, he said. “The thing that really impresses me is that diversity of students,” he said. CSUN President Dr. Jolene Koester praised Schaeffer for his contribution. “Ernie’s work with space exploration will parallel his donation to California State University Northridge,” she said. “Imagination and creation will be encouraged and flourish.” Schaeffer’s endowment is the largest donation to the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the fourth highest ever to the university. The largest came from music executive Mike Curb, who this summer gave $10 million to support the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication, The Imagine the Arts Campaign, and the Music Industries program. Straight to the moon The naming of the program takes Schaeffer’s career full circle. A Bronx native and airplane buff as a youth, his first job out of school was designing military planes for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, a precursor to NASA. He served in the Navy during World War II, fixed TVs in New York City and eventually moved to California, working his way from one electronics job to the next. Schaeffer ultimately landed in 1959 at the aircraft valve maker Whittaker Corp. creating gyroscope motors. That led him to a side project he convinced the company to take over designing motors for a secret space project. But in 1966 Whittaker dropped the subcontracting work, which forced Schaeffer to start his own business out of his garage. Hardly discouraged, he slowly built up his fledgling company and by 1969 a switch he designed was aboard Apollo 11. Eventually, Schaeffer Magnetics outgrew the modest garage and moved into a 40,000-square-foot plant in Chatsworth, which housed a staff of 180. When he sold the company in 1997, its client list included the likes of Lockheed, General Electric and Hughes. Schaeffer told the crowd the experience showed that it takes hard work, modesty and almost superhuman diligence to become a successful entrepreneur. “If you want to succeed in entrepreneurship, you have to be willing to start at the bottom, in a garage. That’s how entrepreneurship is,” he said. “And now here I am.” He hopes his program will pass the lesson on to CSUN’s students. “I’d like to give people the chance to get out there and make a difference. That’s what important.” Students will be lucky to learn from such a versed source, said Dr. S.K. Ramesh, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences. “This is a man who sets very high standards for himself,” he said, “and now he’s set a standard for us.”

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