“NASA Doesn’t Hire Bored Astronauts”


QM-1 booster firing

At the Orbital ATK test facility, the booster for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket was fired for a two minute test on March 11. The test is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight before SLS begins carrying NASA’s Orion spacecraft and other potential payloads to deep space destinations. Image Credit: NASA

If today’s QM-1 test of the Space Launch System’s solid rocket booster had been delayed a little less, or a little more, I very likely would have been at Promontory, Utah, today.

As it is, I’m in town preparing for a wedding, which has a booster firing — even a firing of THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL BOOSTER — beat hands down, and so I watched the test from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, where I got to talk to Space Camp kids trainees about the rocket that one of them may someday ride on their way to Mars. Which, really, is a pretty cool way to watch it.

So, yeah, I had to wipe my eyes after the test before talking to the kids again. This job is exciting on a daily basis, but then there are those days where something huge happens, and you just sort of look around and say, “hey, we’re DOING this!”

The Orion launch in December was one of those. How long has NASA been working on Orion, and then one day I’m in Florida, and Orion is IN SPACE. And it’s mind-boggling. QM-1 has been imminent since I started at NASA (see my earlier blog post about that) but today it ACTUALLY HAPPENED. One step closer to a real, finished rocket. One step closer to launch. One step closer to Mars. This is happening. We’re doing this. It’s amazing.

It’s an incredible thing to watch. I’m blessed to be a part of it.

And, yeah, to share it with Space Camp trainees and other museum visitors? Such a thrill. I love watching stuff like this with my coworkers because it’s amazing that I’m actually a small part of the team that’s making this happen, but it was a different, unique and special experience to watch this one with these kids. In a very real way, they’re the ones we’re doing this for. We’ll be flying it long before they get out of school, but the really fun stuff, the walking on Mars? They’re just about the right age to be ready when NASA is. We’re building the future, and the future is theirs.

David Hitt peaking to Space Camp trainees before the QM-1 test firing.

Speaking to Space Camp trainees before the QM-1 test firing.

And such great questions from these kids. I was lucky to have SLS engineer (and former boosters engineer) Brent Gaddes with me to take the technical stuff they were throwing at us.  How can you apply ground test data to system decide to operate in low-pressure environments? (Good engineering and good modeling.) Why don’t you do subscale testing of something so big? (We do; the big stuff just makes for better television.) Why do you test so far in advance? (Because you don’t always know what’s going to come out of a test.)

My favorite: “What do I need to get a degree in to be as awesome as y’all?” Brent was able to give the right answer, talking about his engineering path to being a NASA engineer.

And here’s journalism-major David, pointing out that I’m the case study for the fact you don’t have to do it that way, but adding that, if this is what you want to do, you probably should. If your passions take you in a different direction, don’t automatically assume, like I did, that means there’s no place for you in NASA. But if you want to be a part of making something like QM-1 happen, figure out what part it would excite you to play in that, and pursue it with everything you’ve got.

Brent and I come from different backgrounds, but the thing we have in common is that we were both excited to get to come to work today. Astronauts will say that’s the best advice for joining their ranks — do something you love.

As I told the kids, “Follow your passion. NASA doesn’t need bored astronauts.”

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