Outer space and aeronautics captured the imagination and educational focus of Bertrand descendant Mark Jenks from a young age. He began his career with aerospace company Boeing in 1983, spending time in both the Defense, Space & Security unit as well as Boeing Commercial Airplanes. He now serves as the vice president and general manager of the 737 commercial airliner while overseeing the company’s location in Renton, Washington.
“As a kid growing up during the Apollo program and the moon landings, like many other budding engineers of my generation, I always wanted to be an astronaut,” he said.
He began engineering school on a Naval ROTC scholarship with hopes of becoming a pilot; however, strict vision tests and requirements forced him to consider other options.
“I figured the next best thing would be to design rockets if I couldn’t fly them,” he said.
Jenks obtained a bachelor’s and master’s in aerospace engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As part of its Leaders for Global Operations program, he completed both a master’s in materials engineering and an MBA.
Throughout more than 35 years at Boeing, Jenks played an integral part in the production and design of International Space Station modules, jumbo jets and military helicopters.
A career of firsts
Boeing’s position and function as part of the government space program attracted Jenks. He looked forward to the opportunity to design machinery intended for use beyond earth’s orbit.
“It’s one of the nice things about a company like Boeing; you have a lot of opportunity to move around,” he said. “I always hoped I would get the chance, and eventually I did. … That was a dream come true.”
He moved to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1996 to work on the manufacturing, design and testing of U.S. pressurized elements of the International Space Station. He assisted in the development of the connecting module Unity, the first portion of the station designed and launched by America. He also acted as manager for the U.S.-Russian airlock system that allowed astronauts to exit the station for spacewalks.
He worked at Kennedy Space Center where NASA launched the astronauts and original equipment for the Apollo missions. They sent his hardware from the same place.
“I got the opportunity to be in mission control in Houston when it was first operated in orbit. That was certainly one of the highlights,” Jenks said. “I think for an aerospace engineer, first flights or first launches are always things you never forget.”
After moving into the commercial division of the company in 2001, he worked on the 787 Dreamliner series from concept to delivery, acting as vice president and general manager of the project from 2014 to 2017.
“We’ve built almost a thousand of them now, and for a little over 10 years they’ve been operating,” Jenks said. “It’s kind of nice to be able to go into an airport anywhere in the world and see something you were a part of.”
It was the first passenger plane with a structure composed mainly of carbon fiber composite materials. He watched the 787’s first flight in 2009.
“It’s really, really gratifying after all the work by all of the people — the huge team that contributes to making all of that come together for a new large, commercial airplane — and seeing that all leave the ground for the first time. It is really hard to describe,” he said.
The major enterprises of Jenks’s career utilize worldwide development and production, and the products serve a vast purpose.
“The space station is a very large, very global endeavor. I (also) worked with huge teams distributed around the world as we developed the airplane and then built it and certified it,” he said. “So, they’re very large, complex aerospace projects. One happens to be in orbit, the other down here.”
While the environments vary, he finds the work equally as important. People turn to commercial aircraft to travel the world, and Jenks thinks of his work as enriching the lives of millions.
“Commercial airplanes have such a big impact on the world, such a big positive impact on the world that it’s a neat place to work,” he said.
In July 2019, Jenks accepted his new position as the vice president of the 737 program. He welcomes the challenges of overseeing the maintenance and improvement of the most popular passenger aircraft in history.
“A 737 takes off or lands around the world almost every 30 seconds. It’s just incredible what these airplanes do,” Jenks said. “I’m looking forward to being able to help build them.”
On the ground
In his personal life, Jenks and his wife travel around the world. A few of the countries they have explored include Jordan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Highlights of their trips include taking an African safari and hiking through the jungles of Central America.
“It’s the opportunity to see and experience different cultures and people and different perspectives. Different parts of the world, I think, is one of the most exciting parts of my job and also the reason why I like to travel,” he said.
They also founded A Child’s Notebook, a nonprofit aimed at rebuilding and reestablishing primary schools in impoverished parts of Southeast Asia. The projects began in Laos after they took a trip with a Laotian friend and saw the need firsthand. His wife quickly returned to make contacts and find villages interested in assistance. Since then, the organization expanded, thanks to fundraising, and moved outside of Laos.
His wife retired from Boeing several years ago and wanted to give back. They realize the drastic difference their educations made in their lives and perceive their nonprofit as a way to spread those opportunities.
“Education is critical for people and societies to accomplish great things,” Jenks said. “I think the experience I had at MIT was really critical in terms of giving me the foundation to do what I’ve been able to do through my career.”
For more information on A Child’s Notebook, visit achildsnotebook.org. They are on Facebook at “A Childs Notebook” and Instagram @achildsnotebook.