From an early age, all I ever wanted to do was work for the space program. Everything I studied, every turn I took was in preparation to hopefully one day be working around spacecraft and technology. I felt the best way to get there was to obtain an applicable engineering degree then use it and persistence to get a job with NASA. I received my degree in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech. What is aerospace engineering? It’s basically like mechanical engineering, but delves into things like orbital mechanics that mechanical does not. It also goes much deeper into aerodynamics – things like boundary layer theory, super-, hyper- and trans-sonic flow – honestly topics I’ve all but forgotten. Still, the education gave me a solid tech foundation and I use much of it in my writing. It also led me to my dream job.
Upon leaving college, I landed a job with NASA. And not just any NASA job. I landed a job where the action was. I landed a job where the Space Shuttle was launched and sometimes recovered. I landed a job at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Shortly after arriving I moved into the role of Space Shuttle experiment engineer. Every scientific experiment that flew aboard the Shuttle was put together, tested, put on a payload carrier, tested, mated to the orbiter, tested and finally tested one last time, all by the group I worked for. After the mission those same experiments had their data and materials/life science taken out and then had to be removed from the orbiter and payload carrier. Many of those experiments carried life science or other time-critical material. They had to be placed on board the orbiter as late as possible before launch and taken off as early as possible after landing. We were the last people on the Shuttle before the crew boarded for launch and the first people to enter the orbiter after the crew was taken off after landing. That meant climbing around the launch pad looking up at the massive orbiter, external tank and solid rocket boosters – all ready to go. Looking down three hundred feet into the flame trench through open grating under your feet – you couldn’t have a fear of heights. We manned the second van in the recovery convoy – wearing little white coveralls in our big white truck.
Additionally, I volunteered to give launch tours to VIP guests on launches I wasn’t directly involved in. This gave me exposure to a lot of great information – people asked questions, and we had to have the correct answers. Did you know that you could fit Yankee Stadium and about half its parking lot onto the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building? If you chopped 25 feet off the Washington Monument it would fit through the same building’s massive doors? Aside from learning some fairly useless trivia, I was also introduced to a lot of great old historic sites like the Apollo I launch pad, the astronaut beach house and the old Mercury launch complex and mission control. The Apollo pad is one of the most hauntingly beautiful places I’ve ever been.
One of the last things I did while I was there was to create the first Space Shuttle Virtual Tour. Unfortunately, it is no longer active. It was taken aboard the Shuttle orbiter Columbia. I wish I still had the source materials so I could share it with others.