Satellite Stars Stay Down to Earth in the Palisades

The next time you talk on your cell phone, send a text, write an email, post to your Facebook page or tune in to any one of the more than 100 television channels you get courtesy of your satellite provider, say a quick thank-you to Palisadian Harold Rosen. A doctoral engineer from Caltech, Rosen designed the electronics, propulsion and power system for the first communications satellite—the same satellite now permeating our televisions and our cellphones.

Rosen, 87, is widely recognized as the “father of the geostationary satellite.” Among his many accolades, he’s been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and has won the NAE Draper Prize (considered the Nobel Prize of engineering), the National Medal of Technology and the Ericsson International Prize in Communications.

Rosen’s wife Deborah Castleman, also an electrical engineer, is a star in her own right, having served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control and Communications for the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration, among other prestigious appointments.

On a recent October afternoon, this writer got the chance to spend a few hours with the gracious couple, touring their Rustic Canyon home, listening to them reminisce about their fascinating careers, getting an intimate peek at the couple’s enduring affection for each other, and hearing about their quiet life in the Palisades.

As this writer waited with nervous excitement, Rosen cruised slowly into the sunny living room of his home , bright-eyed, having just set aside his reading. He’s lived here for almost 60 years, making his home at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac with his wife. The pair will celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary this spring. The product of a true marriage of minds, their home is like a living history museum; a tribute to two lifetimes of scientific contribution.

Their home is where the two married in the backyard, exchanging handwritten vows devoid of any patriarchal nonsense. It was a “Deborah, you may kiss the groom” ceremony.

It’s where today, after two exceedingly prominent careers in engineering, the two have found themselves surrounded by medals of achievement, framed photos with presidents like Reagan and Clinton and an entire library of technical books, some of which they have written themselves.

It’s also where Rosen, the man behind the science that brought us international phone calls, the World Wide Web and transoceanic television, turns off his telephone ringer so as not to have his day interrupted.

“I’m a real consumer of the product,” admitted Rosen, “but I don’t like to be tied to it. I don’t use [smartphones or email] as much as other generations because I prefer to deal with people face to face,” said Rosen. “I get so much more information listening to the voice. But then again, I remember when people didn’t like the telephone when it first came out either.”

Rosen remembers many technological firsts, dating back to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. His uncle took him the following year. He was fourteen years old when he saw television for the first time. The way he recounts details from the day, you’d think he had just been there.

“I remember Lucille Ball was showing how to make long distance telephone calls. She made a call to her agent in California and they timed it,” he said. “I remember the seconds ticking away. She was pretty animated.”

Rosen and Castleman bantered between themselves, excitedly listing off other memorable firsts.

First computer.

First calculator.

First email address.

The pair have ridden shotgun through decades of change in communication, travel, and California life. Looking ahead, Rosen and Castleman agree that there is no way to know how far technology can advance, but they are hopeful and excited, and knowing them, they’ll likely have a front-row seat when it happens.

“We’re what you would call technical optimists. We think the future will just continue to get better,” said Castleman.

Technical optimists. Hopeless romantics. Rosen and Castleman are intellectual soul mates with no plans to slow down.

Fit and still sharp as ever at 87, his red hair combed back flat, Rosen settled in the corner of a white couch. His eyes lit up as he listened to his wife tell the story of how they got together.

It was 1983, and Rosen was at the peak of his career with Hughes Aircraft. Castleman, fresh out of the Air Force, had only met the respected Dr. Rosen once before he cornered her in the office elevator asking for an invite to join her lunchtime jogging group.

“I knew that if he went jogging with us, people would start to talk,” Castleman said. “But I knew I wanted to get to know him as a mentor. I was fascinated and wanted to be around him.” A level-headed feminist, Castleman didn’t give him an answer right away. She made him wait 10 days before riding the same elevator up to the office of the esteemed Dr. Rosen, as she knew him.

“He started to talk to me about jogging, and I stopped him.I said, ‘I don’t think it would be a good idea for us to go jogging together.’ I could see his face kind of fall. Then I said, ‘I know you’re interested in me so rather than jog how about we go to dinner?’ I kid you not, he jumped up out of his seat and practically shouted, ‘Oh yes, you want to go to dinner!’ It was so cute and I liked that about him; that he didn’t try to be too cool.”

Rosen laughed. He’s a man of fewer words, but it is clear the sheer fondness he feels for his wife has only grown since their first date at Jack’s by the Beach.

“It was November 9, 1983. That was 29 and a half years ago. I know I got lucky with her.”

Luck or fate, it seems a lengthy series of events that brought Castleman and Rosen together. At 16, and in the height of the feminist era, Castleman’s budding interest in technology was spurred by the realization that she wanted to be self-sufficient, useful enough to change her own oil in case of an emergency..

“I was always interested in technology, but I didn’t even think to be an engineer until I became a feminist,” she said. “What if I woke up and everything had been destroyed, and I was a lawyer? I’d be useless. But if I knew how things worked, that would be different.”

And so began her passionate pursuit of a career in engineering, a field that at the time offered few job prospects for anyone, let alone women. Inspired by new-age feminism, Castleman was determined to beat the odds.

“I remember it was August of 1970, the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote, and they had Gloria Steinem on the cover of Time Magazine,” said Castleman. “She was like my idol. I wanted to be like her, never get married, go off and have this big adventure. And I did get married but not until I was 30, because of course for Harold I had to make an exception.”

It seems their whole lives have been thrilling. Officially, the pair is retired but they’ve hardly regressed. For Rosen and Castleman, retirement means early morning hikes in Temescal Canyon and twice-daily workouts at Spectrum Athletic Club on Sunset. Rosen is a champion of the beachside rings in Santa Monica. It’s a workout-a-day that keeps the doctors away. For such advocates of technological advancements, they prefer a much more natural approach to their health. And it’s working.

They maintain a love for the life they built together, thanks in large part to their first love—science.

“I love the timelessness of science,” Castleman said. “The things I have learned in engineering apply anywhere in the universe.”

Seeing the two together, Rosen and Castleman appear timeless themselves. They’re as alive and as well as they’ve ever been, they say, and it’s clear they are still moving full-speed ahead.