My story with manned spaceflight starts with my parents and older brother. Both of my parents were in college in the 1960s, the heyday of the US manned space program. In the span of time between the last few bits of Dad’s sophomore year in high school to his last year in graduate school, we went from Al to Neil and Buzz. The manned missions on the moon span another set of milestones: Neil and Buzz landed about six weeks after my parents got married, and Apollo 17 was on the way to the moon when my brother was born.
Then it comes to me. I was born between almost equidistant between the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and STS-1. I remember launches as a kid, but only one really sticks out from the rest. January 28, 1986 was a tough day for NASA and the nation, really. We lost seven astronauts that day, the first time that we had lost a crew off of the ground. I was seven and in Mrs. Leach’s first grade class. I lived in an Air Force town, and though the Shuttle program was well on its way — this was flight #25 in not quite five years — the presence of Christa McAuliffe guaranteed that the teachers in our school1 would be interested.
But we missed watching the launch live. Again, this was 1986, so there was no Twitter to alert us to the tragedy, no cell phones with urgent texts, or anything else of that sort. There was just a TV broadcast that was eerily silent. Warning bells were going off in my head, even at age 7: someone is always talking over the launch, so why are we not hearing the NASA guys here? About the time that I was close to forming these as cogent thoughts:
We were watching the first replay. Mrs. Leach screamed, because she had met McAuliffe during the selections for the Teacher in Space Project. ((Or so someone once told me.)) One of the other teachers had to calm her down. I don’t remember if my classmates were upset, but I sure was. Somewhere after the fog of the rest of that day, two thoughts emerged: the fact that people were willing to risk their lives to explore space makes that important and I want to be a part of that, especially if that means that I can make sure that never happens again.
Sometime in second grade or so, my parents got me this amazing picture book of photos taken by various NASA probes, most of them being from the two Voyager probes. ((I have tried off and on to find this book at my house, because it’s one of those things that I would keep. I sure wish that I could link to it on Amazon, because the discovery found in it made me really thirst for space exploration.)) The sense of wonder that this book (and others) brought to me was enticing: all of these worlds were out there for man to explore.
When it came time to return to space, I was two days shy of 10. We were back! was the song in my heart. I remember that my childhood best friend and I clipped every last thing that we could find from the newspapers — Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, and national — about the flight. We geeked the fuck out about it. That mission went off just fine, with minor hurdles with a flash evaporator and a radio antenna.
I don’t think that it was ever really clear to me in primary school that, if I wanted to work in manned spaceflight, I needed to have stellar grades, especially in math and science. I was that self-driven kid who cried over Bs on single assignments. I was interested in everything,2 and my grades reflected that. School was a game for me, and the rewards were A grades. I wanted them, and I got them. School came easily to me, and I won’t apologize for that.
My father retired from the Air Force in 1990, and in 1991, our family moved to Mississippi, with my brother off to college and me into 7th grade. Years later, I would reflect that I was essentially ready for the academic rigors of high school in Mississippi when I arrived, but I assuredly wouldn’t have been socially ready for them. I tried to throw myself into the subjects that I hadn’t already tackled in Ohio — at one point, I did know all of the county seats of Mississippi and could place all 82 counties on a map. ((Those skills have atrophied.)) Nothing available to me was going to push me toward the goal of manned spaceflight, and the early 90s were not Internet-friendly in Mississippi due to its relative poverty and population sparsity.
I whiled away my time reading Tom Clancy novels and looking toward the future. I wanted to attend The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, which my father had heard about before we even left Ohio through his professional society. It was the carrot at the end of the stick, and I would get there. I took as many academic classes as I could in my first high school. I was through the math curriculum in two years, knowing that MSMS had a calculus curriculum waiting for me if I could do all the prep work to get to its starting point.
If I hadn’t been accepted to MSMS, I would’ve just jammed my last two years of high school into one and finished a year early. If I had, I would not have been ready for college, not in the way I was after two years in Columbus. MSMS is a public, taxpayer-supported, statewide, residential math and science magnet high school for juniors and seniors. For most of us who went there, it was essentially starting college two years early, but with far more boundaries on what we could and couldn’t do.3 Whether you were from a great school district in one of the bigger cities in Mississippi for from a dirt poor, rural district, MSMS was the route to top colleges and universities. Deborah Fallows did the school’s mission justice with a piece for The Atlantic.
At that point, MSMS was about getting into a good engineering school for aerospace engineering. I still wasn’t totally firm on what aerospace engineers did, but I wanted to be one4 anyway. The plan was pretty simple: go to a school where I could co-op and work in manned spaceflight so I could have a leg up come graduation.
That plan totally worked. It worked better than I could have imagined.
In August 1997, I enrolled at The University of Alabama in Huntsville, the unloved half-sister of the UofA system. I studied aerospace engineering, finishing my degree program in seven full-time semesters (and one half-time summer semester) thanks to all of the advanced placement courses and articulation agreements that MSMS afforded me. Those 7-1/2 semesters were spread over five years because I dove deeply into the co-op world.5
In August 1999, I stepped on campus at Teledyne Brown Engineering and started an engineering path. I worked for a friendly aerospace engineer from Indiana named Scott. Scott taught me a lot about being a good engineer, and I like to think that I was one because of his influence: sweating the details, working it out, questioning things, asking for second opinions when you’ve been staring at the problem for too long.
I worked on a lot of fun things early on in my career. The big one was Space-DRUMS®, a reactor that provided a metal-forming environment on the ISS. If you visit that link and scroll down to the fourth page, you’ll see the behemoth in all its glory. I mostly worked with the argon gas system and the chamber’s interaction with the US Lab‘s vacuum system.6 Scott threw me in the deep end of the pool on it, but that was just fine with me. You can pull up PopSci’s gallery of what DRUMS looks like if you’re interested.
Along the way, Scott left the company, and in that period of time, I got to work directly for my boss, Ed. I picked up a little of Scott’s work,7 but at that time Ed was working on building unpressurized flight support equipment (FSE) to fly pre-positioned on-orbit replacement units (ORU). Now let me de-mystify that with some images from a 92-page NASA briefing8 and eight years of FSE work.
- Unpressurized: sitting outside the confines of the ISS, exposed to the environment of space.
- Flight Support Equipment: hardware that helps other hardware do its work. All of those blockish things are various ORUs (more on that in a sec). They have to be brought up to orbit by a rocketship, which means a sound structural connection must be provided. When stored “outside” in space, they have to be protected from the sun’s rays, hence all the white you see in NASA TV footage of spacecraft. They also have to be protected with active heating lest the hardware freeze on the shadowed side of the earth. Lastly, the payloads that use the FRAM system have access to command and data handling via Ethernet.
- Pre-positioned. You need the hardware to be there when you need it, even if the crew has a tiny problem with their spacesuit when they’re working on it. (Warning, that link has an auto-play ad before the video.)
- On-orbit replacement units (ORUs). Stuff breaks, but when you’re a couple hundred miles above your home, it’s a little hard to pull over and fix things. ORUs can be lots of things: batteries that are charged from the solar arrays and discharge their energy when the ISS is on the dark side of the Earth; the battery charge/discharge unit, which does that electrical switching; the control moment gyroscopes, which help provide attitude control to the station in the same way that you tilting your bike turns it; the ammonia pump circulators that keep the station cool; and many more.
Every time one of these components breaks — and they’re all pretty big, usually in the 3’x4’x3.5′ range — it has to be fixed by bringing in a spare. The below video from NASA has an overview of ELC 1’s ORUs after a time-lapse video of its installation on station (04:12).
This work was a lot of fun. All of the FSE in that video save for the grappler was built by a manufacturing team at TBE led by Ed. My role at the time of this work would’ve been best described as a project controls engineer. I would later go on to be an assistant project manager and later a project manager. About a month ago, I found my old employee evaluations. I guess that I was pretty good. I even won an award from NASA during my time as PM.
Unfortunately, with the end of the Shuttle program, those of us in the unpressurized FSE world — and it was mostly the group I worked in at TBE, but there were other suppliers — saw our work go away. NASA flew our hardware in Space Shuttles, and without a launch vehicle, we were at a standstill. There wasn’t a lot of work out there to be had, and since I had been easing my way out of engineering and into project management, I decided to make the leap and try something new. I had some personal things going on as well, and making a change seemed like a good idea.
It wasn’t. I jumped, and you’re supposed to jump if you have a good place to land, but where I landed wasn’t good, and it certainly wasn’t good for me. It ended very badly, and the next thing I knew, I was unemployed a week and a half before I turned 32.
It’s been a long slog from there. As soon as the Republicans swept to power in the 2010 mid-term elections, I knew that government contracting would be a hairy, sweaty mess. It was: hiring freezes, a barely-averted government shutdown, a debt ceiling crisis, sequestration, another debt ceiling crisis, and a government shutdown. Add to that NASA’s indecision about what it wants to be post-Shuttle and post-ISS-Complete, and it was awful.
So I went back to school: a year as an undergraduate, and two years of graduate school since. If I’d gone straight to graduate school — I didn’t think that I’d get in after bailing on a previous attempt — I’d be done by now. So I was underemployed, which mostly meant that I was out of work entirely. Let me tell you: that is one of the most demoralizing things you can be; I can’t really put it more strongly than that. My MITRE internship was a lot of fun last summer, but it mainly served to remind me that I Could Still Do This. I needed that badly.
In the last week of May, I found a job that looked interesting: Geocent SSE. I knew someone at Geocent — the VP I worked for at TBE was a VP there. I sent him a message asking for help. I mean, at this point, the goalie is pulled. I get contacted by a recruiter. We talk. She says that she’ll throw me in the pot later.
Two hours later, she says that Scott wants to talk with me on the next Tuesday. That’s where he had landed one job later. We met, found that we still have chemistry, and he filled me in on the job, which sounded amazing. The next day, the recruiter called me to make me a verbal offer, which I happily accepted. It took a month for it to become a written offer, but I accepted that one last Tuesday and have been running ever since. I started today.
When Apollo-Soyuz was in orbit, President Ford had a bunch of questions for the astronauts and cosmonauts. He asked Deke Slayton if he had any advice for would-be astronauts, seeing as he was the oldest astronaut yet. “Decide what you want to do,” Deke replied, “then never give up until you’ve done it.”
I decided to be an aerospace engineer. I did it. 1,508 days after I left, I’m back. They’re going to have to drag me away kicking and screaming.
and theoretically us students ↩
well, not poetry and literary criticism ↩
minus the pocket protector, although I have learned first-hand why engineers use them ↩
I took 35 hours my first year at UAH; I took 36 hours over my last two years. ↩
Space gives you all the free vacuums you want, and it’s way better than the one at your local car wash! ↩
which was weird, because I was not yet done with school! ↩
Go on, Michael Terry, you want to read this. ↩