Bringing “Out of This World” Back to Earth: Interview with a NASA Contractor

Photo credit: NASA

Picture this: NASA.

What did you think of?

If it was anywhere along the lines of a bunch of hyper-intelligent scientists working on complex projects with pristine perfection, then you’re a lot like Alex – an employee of a NASA Contractor.

A NASA contractor is a company that is inherently separate from NASA by name, but which works closely with the governmental organization in many of its daily functions. Alex works as an engineer for one of these companies, on a team which helps oversee the International Space Station.

With Alex, we’re in the business of lassoing back down to Earth down a career which many see as distant and unattainable. So, to begin on that mission, what are the kind of tasks he handles on a daily basis?

I work on a team which supports planning the launch of supplies, power and resource management, crew internal and external planning, robotics, requirements and verification of all future hardware, visiting vehicle schedules, fitting hardware, finding spaces for experiments, vehicle rendezvous and approach, clearance and aerodynamic assessments, controlling and monitoring air flow. . . .

Alright, maybe not our best first step in terms of making this job seem attainable. This isn’t even everything he told me guys, but some of the tasks were so far from my current realm of understanding, they didn’t make the cut for this article. Another way in which Alex describes his responsibilities, which might be a little easier, is:

I don’t work with much of the science behind things. I know what happens, but I don’t know why. Even if you try to know everything, you’re just not gonna’ get it. For example, there are some rats in orbit for a test, and I get a notification that the rats are getting too hot, so I have to take measures to cool them down. I don’t know how hot a rat can get or why the rats are up there to begin with, but I know that they’re approaching too hot.

In case you guys were wondering, which I know you were. According to the Rat Forums (Yes, this is a real thing), temperatures of about 90° F are uncomfortable, 100-104° F are distressing, and beyond that is pretty much fatal territory. But the real question here (Sorry rat enthusiasts), is how Alex got to this position in which he is the savior of all space-rat-kind, among other responsibilities. Let’s take a step back in time:

I had a roommate in college who I met a girl through, and that girl was from the Houston area. After school ended, I ended up kind of staying in Miami a little bit longer. She was going to move back home, so I moved there too, and then the roommate I mentioned earlier got a job with the company I work for now. After a couple months went by, there was an opening for a position. I have an engineering degree and no job, they had a job and needed an engineer, so I took it. It was more of an instance of convenience than anything else. It didn’t hurt that it was NASA, but it’s not really what I was looking for when I was originally job hunting. I specialized in audio, so I was looking at Dolby and other people who make audio equipment.

The first thing that struck me about this story was how normal and casual it is. I don’t know about you guys, but when I think of anyone even remotely associated with NASA, I think of a person who has spent their entire life dedicated towards the pursuit of “the great beyond” or something of that nature. The fact that Alex ended up there without even really trying (Not that he didn’t try to get the job, but just that he wasn’t necessarily aiming to work there initially), stupefied me. It was the first blow to a continuous series of hits in which I, and now hopefully all of you, will realize that nothing is sacred. We’re all just little clumps of cells existing on a hunk of rock and water in a cold, vast universe which will never remember us. Your dreams are within reach and we are finite people, go after them already.

On the topic of chasing dreams, I followed up on Alex’s statement that originally, he had been looking for a job in a slightly different field. What exactly does he find exciting about his current job?

There’s a NASA website that has all of the sciences we perform right now. There’s all sorts of stuff on crystal growths, plants, flame behavior – really interesting stuff. There’s one experiment that had a 30 megabit per second laser communication link called OPALS, it was faster than anything else we’ve had. There’s going to be a whole generation of satellites that use lasers. This operation was a huge step in showing that it all works.

Take that, Trappist-1, you may be on all of the space news headlines, but there’s apparently even better stuff going on!

As surprised as I have been throughout this interview, I asked Alex if there was anything about starting out with his company that surprised him:

 I wasn’t expecting there to be so many people doing regular, administrative work. When you think of NASA, you think of everything being done with this pristine perfection. But it’s just regular people working. There’s so much basic function and paperwork that has to be done. Everything is documented, approved, and kept record of . . . It was really comforting actually. I was extremely nervous coming in and thinking, “What am I doing here? I’m not a space geek, I didn’t prepare for this in school.

Outside of all of the responsibilities, practicalities, and general cool science news he gets to encounter on a daily basis, there was one segment of Alex’s interview the end that particularly stuck out to me. This is during a moment where we were discussing his team dynamic in-depth:

In other interviews about my job, one thing that always comes up is “It must be so nice not to hate the people you work with” and I didn’t know how rare that was. There’s a lot of trust among each other. Like, if I have something that must be submitted by a certain time and for some reason I can no longer do it, I’d have 100% confidence that any other person here, if they knew how, would get it done, do it right, and have it submitted on time. And these aren’t people that work for me, these are the people who work with me.

No matter what we do in life and where we end up, one thing the things which matters most is the relationships in our lives. Many careers today foster volatile group dynamics – we all have the family member or friend who can’t stand their co-workers. Yet, these are the people we spend what is often the majority of our days and weeks with, rendering it senseless to be in a place where you cannot enjoy the company of those around you. I once saw on the website of an internship I was apply for, “Would we want to be trapped in a bunker with you?” Perhaps, if nothing else, that’s a question we should be bringing into not only our job searches, but our social interactions in general. While Alex might not have initially set forth on his job search with this question in mind, it is one which is likely undeniable to him now.

Behind all of the hard science and ambitious, mind-boggling missions, perhaps that fact alone is what might really make his career “out of this world.”

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