Leonard L. Mitchum
In the Days of "Outer" Space, A Career Lifts Off
Inducted in 2003
Give Leonard L. Mitchum an unblazed trail, a domain wide open to innovation, and he steps out: dreamer, systematic explorer, and exemplary engineer. In his five-decade career, he often stood before such a prospect — the post-war years were good to science. Mr. Mitchum earned a mechanical engineering degree at Auburn University in 1951. He also took a job at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL) that year, testing flares, pyrotechnic devices, and VT fuses. Where test equipment was lacking, he invented it. Classic design-and-validation practice, yet that assignment taught him nothing for his next post, where every experiment was a new one.
In 1952, at Oak Ridge National Laboratories, he went to work for the Atomic Energy Commission on a nuclear propulsion system for aircraft. Cold War gripped the planet; nuclear was new (its only large-scale use carried out by Enola Gay), and it was hot, so to speak. But excess weight and insufficient power scuttled the airplane even before environmental objections emerged; most of the weight was in protective shielding for crew members.
The Korean War intruding, Mr. Mitchum entered the Army and trained soldiers in missile propulsion. In 1953, he transferred to Redstone Arsenal. Recently discharged, he returned to Oak Ridge in 1955; again an AEC engineer, he investigated uranium metal production. New opportunities arose at the Marshall Space Flight Center. There, Mr. Mitchum again looked upon a field untracked by intellectual forebears. He became deeply involved in the Explorer satellites, the nation’s first Earth-orbiting satellite. During eight flights, Mr. Mitchum’s innovations touched most aspects of Explorer. Space was so new to engineers that huge quantities of hard-nosed engineering were necessary. Today even NASA rookies know microwave frequencies make the best communications bands; but they know only because Explorer satellites carried antennas testing many frequencies.
Politics refocused Marshall’s program on moon landings. But by now, Mr. Mitchum knew satellites were his love. He embraced risk, and in 1961 helped start Space Craft Inc., best known as SCI Systems but now formally Sanmina-SCI Corporation.
Mr. Mitchum was founding manager of SCI’s mechanical design team and directed all metal casting, plastics molding, and machine fabrication. For two decades, he gained management skills to rival his engineering abilities, while SCI kept logging firsts in satellite dynamics. In time, SCI’s focus widened to include computers and contract electronics. Today, telecommunications are also part of SCI, the world’s largest contract electronics firm, with annual sales at $8 billion. In 1992, record-setting SCI entered our Engineering Hall of Fame. Mr. Mitchum’s performance was also previously honored, with the National Management Association’s Silver Knight award in 1987 and Gold Knight of Management award in 1994.
In 1996, Mr. Mitchum retired, having served as vice president/manager of Plant #4, which he built and readied for 350 employees. Alabama citizens and businesses have benefited from the many engineering advances that constitute Mr. Mitchum’s legacy.
A Talladega native, Leonard Mitchum was a registered engineer for thirty years. Pride in his profession registers keenly with him, as does appreciation that the grand scientific mission of space exploration coincided with his maturation as a professional engineer. His gratitude to Auburn is communicated in the large endowment he provided for the Mitchum Presidential Scholarships. Several of these full scholarships in engineering are awarded yearly. Mr. Mitchum also generously endowed Huntsville’s medical community, helping to improve health care in that area.
Mr. Mitchum and his wife, Ila, live in Huntsville near their daughter and grandchildren. Mr. Mitchum has acquired 220 acres of woodland, pasture, orchard, and garden that he tends faithfully. Mr. and Mrs. Mitchum are steadfast stewards of their church, Weatherly Heights Baptist.