Not many people can claim to be an actual rocket scientist, but Larry Carlson is one of those select few.

Carlson graduated from Grand Rapids High School in 1953. He went from a poor Minnesota boy to a prominent engineer and rocket scientist for NASA, Rocketdyne, the National Bureau of Standards, and Argonne National Labs. 

This fall, I received an email regarding the publication of his new book, “Moiety of a Gingerbread Man: A Rocket Scientist’s Memoir.” The book follows Carlson’s story from childhood onward.

I followed up with the publisher and contacted Mr. Carlson to gather more information about his memoir in early October 2021. We talked together for six hours over the course of two days. In our conversation, he was able to recall every moment of his 40-year career in great detail. 

He even remembered my grandfather, Wesley, who owned and operated a floor covering business in Grand Rapids. Carlson said he briefly worked for my grandfather and he had nothing but kind words to say about him. I was happy to hear that because I never had the opportunity to meet my grandfather. He died many years before I was born. 

Carlson’s life story was fascinating. Although he had a humble upbringing, he possessed an astonishing intellect. Carlson’s good friend, Jack Breiby, also had a similar upbringing, but was a bit older. Carlson remarked that Breiby had the second-highest IQ ever measured in Grand Rapids. 

The two of them studied engineering at the University of Minnesota together. Breiby graduated in June of 1959 and Carlson graduated later that year in August. 

The two of them went on to have parallel careers. Breiby travelled West to California. Carlson followed later and the two of them shared an apartment in Hollywood. Albert P. Salisbury wrote a book about Lewis and Clark’s expedition titled “Two Captains West,” which was published in 1950. Carlson thought a book about Breiby and himself could be titled “Two Poor Boys West.” 

Breiby had secured a job with Lockheed Martin in Burbank, Calif. Carlson found employment with Rocketdyne, a rocket engine design and production company headquartered in southern California.

Breiby’s career took him from Lockheed Martin to Boeing and NASA. Much of his work was shrouded in secret. Although their careers eventually brought them to different parts of the country, they remained good friends through the years. 

Carlson accomplished a great deal during his professional career as well. His memoir follows his footsteps from Minnesota to California to Illinois and back to the West Coast. He learned the ins-and-outs of computer programming, developed a complex chemical LASER weapons system, invented a barrierless air filtration system, and much more. His career was not without tragedy, however, as he survived a laboratory accident that killed a colleague.

In our conversation, Carlson often asked me if I knew how things like transcendental equations worked or if I was familiar with fluid dynamics. I had to be honest with him: Nearly everything he said went over my head, but I was captivated by his adventures and accomplishments.

He even told a story about a failed business negotiation in the Soviet Union. Carlson was part of a delegation that traveled to the Soviet Union and when negotiations went south, he worried he would not be allowed to leave the country.

“Getting on that airplane and having it take off was the greatest feeling of my life,” Carlson said. “Everyone there was under the gun. It was a horrible way of living.”

Carlson also shared details of his childhood and personal life. From his earliest memories hammering nails at his home with his father to a childhood dive suit mishap when the Mississippi dam went out. Carlson does his best to acknowledge those who supported him along the way.

As I was reading his book, I was sad to learn that Larry Carlson passed away in late October 2021. He was living in Texas with his wife, Deann. I had hoped to share this article with him, but I didn’t expect time to be so short. 

Carlson’s memoir covers much of the twentieth century’s scientific brilliance and disaster seen through the eyes of one of Grand Rapids’ own. It’s a history not known by many and is worth checking out. 

Moiety of a Gingerbread Man was released this fall on Amazon, Apple Books, Nook, and other platforms as a paperback and ebook.


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