So You Want My Job: Rocket Scientist

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 10, 2010 · 22 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

On board Liberty Star for Ares 1-X First Stage Booster RecoveryDavy Haynes on board the NASA recovery ship Liberty Star, 120 miles out in the Atlantic recovering the first stage booster for the recent Ares 1-X test flight.

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

This is usually the point where I say a little blurb about the job we’re covering this time. But, uh, I’ll let Davy Haynes describe it himself. What can I say? I’m no rocket scientist! The important details are that Mr. Haynes helps shoot off rockets into space and works for NASA. So his job is very, very cool.

Mr. Haynes answered our questions before reports emerged that President Obama’s budget will axe the Constellation space program that was aiming to return humans to the moon by 2020. The Ares rocket shown below will also be dropped. Mr. Haynes, if you’re reading this, I’d love for you to offer your opinion on this move and what it means for the future of the space program.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Where did you go to school? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc).

I’m 47 years old, with a wife and 3 children. I was born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, a.k.a The Rocket City. I grew up within sight of the giant rocket test stands at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center where the Saturn V moon rocket shook the ground during static test firings when I was a boy. I attended college at Auburn, where I majored in Aerospace Engineering. I’ve been with NASA for 23 years, the first 13 of which were spent as an Aerospace Technologist at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, although that included one year on a detail assignment to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas where I did flight design planning for Space Shuttle mission operations. 11 years ago I returned ‘home’ to Huntsville and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center as Chief Engineer of the X-34 project.

Currently, I am Chief of the Aerosciences Branch, where I lead a staff of engineers that produces aerodynamic, aerothermal, and acoustics environments that rockets endure as they ascend or reenter through the atmosphere. This includes aerodynamic forces and loads that generally size a rocket’s structure to resist bending, the aero and rocket exhaust plume heating that dictate thermal protection needs, and the acoustic sound pressure energy which sets the vibro-acoustic design requirements. In this type of work, we use a lot of wind tunnel testing, computational fluid dynamics, as well as actual flight testing.

The most important aspects of my job are ensuring the technical quality of my branch’s engineering products, and the planning, scheduling, and implementation of our task assignments so that our resulting design environments get delivered to the vehicle hardware, and guidance and control software designers in a timely fashion, and that those design environment databases get appropriately integrated into the designs and other systems, such as guidance and control, or thermal protection. This aspect can be the most challenging part of the job, at least from a technical perspective.

2. Why did you want to become a rocket scientist? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

Growing up in the Rocket City and within sight of the Marshall test stands, the space program was always familiar to me growing up, and it seemed rather natural to aspire to work in the industry. From a young age I was mechanically inclined and was one of those kids that took their toys apart to see how they worked. We had a next door neighbor that had served as an airplane mechanic in the Navy, and he indulged my interest and taught me how to overhaul and repair small engines. I was also fascinated with airplanes and flight, building and flying model planes and rockets. As soon as I was old enough to drive, I got a job at a small local airfield fueling planes and whatnot, getting paid in flying lessons, and I earned my pilot’s license before graduating from high school. At that point, it seemed natural to study aerospace engineering in college.

3. If a man wishes to become a rocket scientist, how should he best prepare? What kinds of degrees and credentials does he need?

Math and science studies are critical to being a good engineer in any area, and certainly so as a rocket scientist. A degree in Aerospace, Mechanical, or Electrical engineering is essentially mandatory today, and a Masters degree doesn’t hurt. I also think some practical preparation, or experience, is invaluable as well—stuff like student design projects, R/C model aircraft construction, amateur rocketry, and of course, practical piloting experience.

4. What kinds of job options are there for rocket scientists? Where can they find employment?

The Aerospace field is very broad, and there are almost endless sub areas, or disciplines of technical specialty such as aerothermodynamics, combustion, guidance and control, structures, etc. However, while the technical field itself is broad, in terms of specialties and expertise, the business aspect of Aerospace (and I’m speaking with respect to the US only) is predominately centered on four main product lines: military or Department of Defense (DoD), civil space or NASA, commercial aircraft, and commercial space, such as communications satellites. But most of the industry’s employment is either directly governmental, or government sponsored, and thus subject to cycles dependent upon the ebb and flow of government spending, especially that of the defense budget.

Another aspect of the US Aerospace industry, related to the four major product lines, is that the major employers tend to be geographically concentrated, although in recent years this has begun to change due to the internet and virtual presence. Atlanta, Denver, Huntsville, Orlando, Seattle, Southern California, St. Louis, and Washington D.C./Northern Virginia are major Aerospace hubs with good employment opportunities for rocket scientists. Of course there are other areas as well; but from a career perspective, rocket scientists will naturally have the most opportunities in an area that enjoys a concentration of Aerospace work. However, if you have your heart set on living in some other specific location, perhaps for family, environment, or other reasons, your opportunities might be much more limited, or you might be out of luck altogether. (Fortunately for me, I enjoy living in the relatively small town of Huntsville, a nice area for child rearing, and with ample venues for the outdoor activities I enjoy.)

NASA has 10 field centers across the US, all of which have civil servant and contractor job opportunities from time-to-time. The DoD installations and their contractors offer much more numerous job opportunities, although as previously mentioned, overall employment does tend to be cyclical.

5. How competitive is it to get a job with NASA? What sets a candidate apart from the others when he’s applying?

NASA enjoys a reputation as a “gee whiz” place to work and that, coupled with the fact that we don’t hire very many (most of our hiring only counteracts attrition), means that we can be very selective, and thus it’s very competitive. Many of our “new hires” are actually support contractors that have already been working with us for a few years and have demonstrated a high level of performance. But, we do still hire a few, mostly ‘fresh outs,’ or recent graduates. We look for high GPA’s, plus anything else that can set a candidate apart, such as hands on discipline experience like trajectory modeling or wind tunnel testing, for example. Perhaps most beneficial of all is the experience of those students that secure intern or co-op work assignments at NASA, alternating with their college semesters. Co-ops are almost always converted to full-time employees upon graduation.

APTOPIX Moon Rocket TestLaunch of the Ares 1-X

6. Is working for NASA as cool as every man imagines it to be?

At times, working for NASA can be really cool! But I must temper that by pointing out it’s not all launching rockets and conducting ‘smoke and fire’ tests every day. It takes a long time, a lot of work, and often many frustrations before we get to the point of ‘pushing the button.’ There are lots of seemingly endless meetings, technical debates, and voluminous data reports and documentation to complete. These are the not-so-glamorous, but necessary parts of the job that [hopefully will] culminate in the excitement and spectacle of launch day.

Working for NASA can certainly have its moments, and I’ve been fortunate to experience at least my fair share during my career. I have tested in, worked on, or at least toured, practically every type of high-tech engineering facility, laboratory, or test complex you could imagine. Some examples of the cool stuff I’ve done include: conducted numerous wind tunnel tests all over the country, ‘flown’ the Space Shuttle simulator in docking approaches to the Russian MIR space station, flown a helicopter range survey of White Sands Missile Range, conducted tow testing of the X-34 rocket plane on the dry lake beds at Edwards Air Force base, witnessed multiple rocket engine test firings, climbed launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center the day before a Space Shuttle launch, flown onboard a chase helicopter during a 40,000 pound parachute drop test, and most recently, deployed offshore on the NASA solid rocket recovery ship Liberty Star to observe the test flight of the Ares 1-X rocket.

7. What is the best part of your job?

In addition to the cool stuff mentioned above, the best part of my job is the satisfaction after completion of a lengthy, complex, or otherwise difficult piece of work. In this business, we often have specific work assignments that take multiple man-years of effort to complete. Planning, staffing, and implementing such work may not yield positive results or a useable product for months, or even years to come. When that work does come to fruition-a major design database delivered, a complex flight test conducted, a mission safely and successfully flown-the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, and yes pride, is proportional to the scope and difficulty of the effort.

8. What is the worst part of your job?

On the other hand, the duration and technical complexity (not to mention costs) of our projects results in some of them never reaching a satisfactory conclusion—a technical difficulty or risk cannot be overcome, schedules slip to the right and/or costs go through the roof. Plus, changes in the White House Administration, or Congress, can result in changing priorities or outright abandonment of prior plans. In these cases projects and even entire programs can be significantly descoped or canceled, despite years of effort and millions spent. Probably everyone that has been in the industry for more than a few years has their stories of canceled projects.

Of course, the Granddaddy of them all is every rocket scientist’s worst nightmare: catastrophic and fatal accidents such as the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger explosion, or the Columbia break up. Rocket science is a dangerous business, and when we make mistakes people can die quickly and violently.

9. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

There is a strong emphasis on work/life balance at NASA. That has not always been the case—especially in the Apollo moon race years (before my time here) when the divorce rate among employees was sky high. There certainly are some high stress, high workload, and high travel positions, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and to the extent possible, NASA tries to take family situations into account with such assignments. For example, in the past I’ve had assignments where I traveled on almost a weekly basis, but that was before I had children, and it was a voluntary assignment. For most of us, we only go into 24-7 mode in the event of a space flight emergency for a mission that is underway, or to address launch constraining issues for one that is imminent, or ‘on the pad’ as we say. Also, something that helps a lot with work/life balance is paid leave. A big benefit of being a government employee is that we have a rather generous paid leave allowance. I certainly make use of mine to pursue my outside interests, hobbies and family vacations.

In addition, NASA also has a strong commitment to employee health and fitness, and we have a fitness center located on site. For employee convenience, there is also a childcare center located on site for those with pre-school age children, and a credit union branch, post office, and small barbershop in one of our buildings.

10. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

A lot of people in the general public seem to believe that folks working in this industry have to be super smart, or even brilliant. The very fact that the terms “rocket science,” or “rocket scientist” exist in the popular vernacular is telling. This reminds me of an old joke:

A student taking a community education course in basket weaving was having trouble with the weave pattern. After demonstrating for the student several times, the exasperated instructor declared “Look, it’s not rocket science.” To which the student responded, “But I am a rocket scientist.”

Remember this joke the next time you hear someone use that phase, and possibly ask why no one ever says, “It’s not computer science.” I certainly find computer science much more intimidating!

11. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

In my work, it is not the knowledge of how to conduct a wind tunnel test that is valuable, nor even the actual completion of the test, nor the data report. The value is when the final result, the aero database, is integrated into the vehicle design, and provides an essential component that gets the rocket off the launch pad.

Thus, the most valuable thing that I have learned over the years is not technical knowledge, but rather the application of knowledge to achieve an end. The value is not the man who has all the technical knowledge, or even brilliance; the value is the man who can apply that knowledge to produce a tangible result, and that knowledge need not necessarily be his own. In other words, be the man who can make things happen, who can produce a result, who can organize, lead, and bring a vision into reality. Far too many men get lost in the process of what they are doing, and lose sight (or, too often, never have it) of what they need to accomplish, create, or produce. And remember that the value of what you produce cannot be determined by yourself, or your organization, but only on the outside of it, by those that use your product.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tommy C February 10, 2010 at 10:19 pm

As an undergrad AE at Georgia Tech (from the Huntsville area, at that), I certainly hope I can pull off a career like that. For now, back to homework… Great article!

2 Nate @ Practical Manliness February 10, 2010 at 11:22 pm

I especially enjoyed the part where Davy Haynes talked about the misuse of the term “rocket science”. I look forward to telling people his story of the basket weaving student!

It is amazing how many jobs are either exaggerated or unrecognized. I think a lot of unusual and bizarre jobs are well-respected simply because they are rare, and that some common fields(such as computer science) go unrecognized just because they are common.

Thanks for the great interview!

3 Tyler February 11, 2010 at 2:44 am

War Eagle!

4 Tyler Logan February 11, 2010 at 3:14 am

Interesting. Not a field I’d like but none the less, interesting.

5 Guido February 11, 2010 at 4:13 am

I wish I lived near a launch site, would’ve been awesome. But alas, there’s no launches in Holland.
Interesting article :)

6 DJ Wetzel February 11, 2010 at 8:24 am

I have a really good friend who is in Aerospace Engineering Master’s program at Notre Dame right now. I joked with him about becoming a rocket scientist, because it sounds so cliche, but it really sounds like an awesome job. Hat off to you and all you have done in assistance to our country!

7 S February 11, 2010 at 11:31 am

I do flight test for military aircraft as an aerospace engineer and he has some great advice as well as not glossing over some of the less spectacular side to the job. Meetings and huge amounts of data to read, understand, report and put to use can be frustrating at times. Great article!!

8 Logan February 11, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I am currently a college undergrad in the process of transferring to UC Davis as an Aerospace Engineering Major, so this article couldn’t have covered my “So You Want My Job?” area more perfectly. Two questions I had:

One of the only qualms I have about the Aerospace field is the geographical concentration of the industry. I was happy to hear the mention of “virtual presence” and I wonder what the effects of the Internet will be on how Aerospace programs are run?

Secondly, (and this is probably more relevant in light of the new direction NASA is taking) how large of a role is the private sector going to play in the future of Aerospace Engineering? And would this a good or a bad change?

I’m not sure if anyone will have the opportunity to answer those questions but I still want to thank you immensely for an article that has given me much more relevant information on my planned career than most of the other places I have looked.

9 Joe Cope February 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm

wow. what a fantastic addition to the SYWMJ series! that was one of the most interesting ones i’ve read yet, and one of the most well-written ones too. cheers to you, Mr. Haynes, War Eagle! and cheers to AoM, as always. keep it up, brett!

10 Oracle989 February 11, 2010 at 6:33 pm

GREAT ARTICLE! I’m planning to major in AE when I go off to college next year.

@Tommy C:
How’s Tech? It’s one of the schools I’m considering.

11 mike February 11, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Interview a mars rover driver!! : http://marsandme.blogspot.com/

12 Tommy C February 11, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Tech can be brutal, but it can have some pretty awesome opportunities because it is so technology centric. It’s a very unique culture, and can have some drawbacks from the rigor, but its all about keeping the right attitude. If you want to see what Tech is really like at times, check out http://onlyattech.net/. Note that not everyone is really THAT nerdy or THAT miserable, but its much more honest than most school pamphlets and tours.

Tech isn’t for everyone, but I can’t imagine going anywhere else now and getting as much out of it, and I’m saying this after pulling my hardest week yet this semester (looking forward to more than 3 hours of sleep tonight, lol). Message me on the forums if you have any specific questions, I’ll try to help you as much as I can.

13 Tommy C February 11, 2010 at 9:39 pm

@Guido
If you ever get a chance, a launch is worth crossing oceans. I caught a shuttle launch last summer, and it was one of the most powerful events I have ever seen.

14 walter daniels February 11, 2010 at 9:52 pm

I grew up in the shadow od the space program (Melbourne FL), and knew more than a few “Rocket scientists.” Sadly, once again stupidity is at work. We suffered an enormous loss in 1969-70, when they almost completely shut down our space program. Now, the short sighted idiots are doing it again. It’s like we’re living in a house made of eggs, and hoping nothing happens. If we don’t make progress on space exploration and colonization, we will die off.

15 Chris Kavanaugh February 12, 2010 at 3:35 pm

I grew up in the shadow of Rocketdyne between Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley in California. Feeling,hearing and seeing the exaust plume of a Saturn rocket test and then seeing the then unknown Manson gang rummaging in trash was ‘unique.’ I believe in the program. But knowing now we were exposed to dangerous carcinogenic chemicals and the site is now a candidate for superfund cleanup is disheartening. If we cannot keep our one home safe and clean we have no business exploring others with the same cavalier atitude.

16 Aaron February 14, 2010 at 12:13 pm

@Logan: I recently got my master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering, and am working in the rocket industry. Here are my responses to your questions.

As a new graduate, I would not expect to be able to telecommute without being able to come into the office at least occasionally. Also, I wouldn’t recommend doing it even if you can, because there is so much to be gained from conversations you can have, or even over-hear, in the office that you would miss out on if you are telecommuting. With that said, the internet allows companies to have offices in various locations around the country all working on the same things. For example, where I work our main location is in Maryland, but we have satellite offices in California and Florida. We conduct a lot of teleconferences and share a lot of information across the internet. So there is more freedom for companies to go where the people are, but I would be prepared to go where you can find a job. I moved about as far as I could to take my job, and I don’t regret it. However, I know of several companies with large presences is Northern California (since you are going to UC Davis I assume that is where you would be looking) including NASA and Lockheed Martin to name two.

What do you mean by ‘private sector’? Most of the work in aerospace is done by corporations, even for DOD and NASA programs. NASA’s new direction may eliminate some jobs at NASA and the contractors working on the Constellation program, but it will also create jobs with the companies that build whatever will replace it. Also, that may be some of the same companies. I guess the idea is to create more overlap between civil space and commercial space, much like military aviation often overlaps commercial aviation. The bottom line is that while the private sector may play a larger role in the future, most Aerospace Engineers don’t work for the government to begin with.

If there is someone with more experience, please feel free to correct any mistakes I may have made, but that is how I see it.

17 george February 15, 2010 at 12:45 am

I do not want his job because I actually used to have it. Manned space flight is an embarassment as well as a huge waste of money. We are closer to the stone age than to inter-stellar travel. The Aries X-1 looks an awful lot like a space shuttle solid rocket booster the program I used to work on. The author is probably not old enough to remember why we went to the moon. It would have been far too crass for President John Kennedy to say we need to put hydrogen bombs the size of school busses into red square. So instead he said we will go to the moon in 10 years. When we got to the moon it was just as scientists had predicted a dead rock with no scientific value. However we did get the payload, propulsion and guidance technology required to put those bombs where we wanted them to go. Nixon knew it was a facade and cancelled the remaining moon missions. I was a prime contractor after the shuttle blew up and Congress directed NASA to put the Saturn V back in production (higher weight payload into a higher earth orbit than the STS disaster). NASA said we can’t becuase we threw away both the tooling and plans for the Saturn V and the INS deported the Porject Manager for the propgram Arthur Rudolph. Remember what Werner Von Braun said ‘I shoot for the stars but sometimes I hit London’ probably the last truth from the manned space flight mission, a sinkhole for the taxpayers money.

As Doug Bandow said ‘you could not have come up with a more expensive launch capability if you tried’. Clearly the author does not remember when the STS was advertised as putting payload into orbit that would be too cheap to measure, but in reality is somewhere between $100,000 and $1,000,000 per pound into low earth orbit.

The Saturn V cost only 10,000,000 USD in the 60′s which even allowing for inflation is way cheaper. It was killed for a reason, it was too cost effective and too low tech. Thanks NASA you lying theives.

18 Scott W February 15, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Great look at a great profession. I have have a buddy that is in this field and I’d commend the accurate portrayal between boring reports and exhilarating firing tests and launches.

I also commend Davy for not biting on the political antagonism in the introduction. This is about a profession, not politics. It doesn’t take a ‘computer scientist’ to know our country faces financial difficulties, and it certainly isn’t the first time that projects at NASA have been on the chopping block. Perhaps we could have another one of these installments on congressmen / women.

Scott West

19 Logan February 16, 2010 at 11:01 pm

@ Aaron: Thanks for the information, those are some questions I have been wondering about for a while, and your take on the industry was a big help. When I said “private sector,” what I meant was probably more along the lines of “Is the presence of NASA and government direction in space going to decrease, while commercial space becomes more common?” but your response covered that and more. Thanks again.

20 Dave February 21, 2010 at 1:54 am

The private sector is likely to boom very soon with this ‘new direction’. As a NASA contractor employee myself I foresee a large out flux of people from NASA/its main contractors to these other private corporations (i.e.: SpaceX, Orbital, etc.) due to this new NASA direction and the retirement of Shuttle. However, as with all politics, a lot can and will happen in the next 6 months…

21 dario February 22, 2010 at 3:09 pm

i am 13 years old and i love roketry and yes im a nerd when i grow up i want to invent a rocket that gose th speed of light

22 Robert July 2, 2010 at 9:49 am

Crappy working conditions aside, I still think I’d rather fly it than build it. Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be pilots.

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