Why I Became an Engineer

I do not believe in coincidences. As I have reflected on the events that have shaped my career, one event stands out. I am an engineer today due to a tragedy that occurred in Florida in 1967.

Astronauts (left to right) Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, pose in front of Launch Complex 34 which is housing their Saturn 1 launch vehicle. The astronauts died ten days later in a fire on the launch pad. (Wikipedia)

I was born and raised in a single parent home on the southwestern end of the Virginia Peninsula a few miles from the NASA Langley Research Center. Because of the proximity to NASA and the era in which I was born, my boyhood heroes were astronauts. As a child of the 60’s, I intently followed the race to the moon. For me, it was science fiction and fantasy coming alive.

On Jan 27, 1967, when I was six years old, three scouts died in the Apollo 1 while preparing for a mission. That tragedy had a profound effect on me. I have never forgotten this event. The public library a mile away from my house was renamed for one of those scouts, Vigil I. (Gus) Grissom.

In the years between 1967 to July 20, 1969, I spent many days in that library. I could not help but study the man for whom the library was named. In hindsight, I now realize that my hero Gus Grissom had a profound impact on me: he was a Christian, a Boy Scout, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and an engineer. Had he lived, he likely would have been the first man to step foot on the moon.

My interest in space exploration waned after the moon landing chiefly due to government defunding of the space program. Science fiction reading filled the void in my imagination that remained as space travel became routine. I met many physicists and engineers working in stereo stores and the like after NASA laid-off many hundreds of people. One of those out-of-work physicists who became a high school teacher would later give me a love for physics and electricity. I would learn to love history from the wife of a laid-off physicist forced into the workforce in order to help make ends meet. I would also discover in my school library a subject to spark my imagination as the space program had done before: robotics.

I joined the Boy Scouts in the early 70’s and set my sights on going to the Air Force Academy. I signed up for Air Force JROTC in high school. I would become commander of my unit and achieve the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before graduating high school.

In 1977, I had the chance to join Explorer Scouts. I have always loved learning new things, so I jumped at the opportunity. My explorer unit met in the building that housed the CDC STAR-100 computer at NASA Langley Research Center. The STAR-100 was one of only two supercomputers delivered by Control Data Corporation in 1974.  The other went to Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The STAR-100 was a 64-bit RISC-like machine with special hardware for vector processing. It was there that I used what would become one of the first computer video games, the real life Lunar Lander simulator that was used to train astronauts for later moon missions. I learned my first computer language, FORTRAN, on the STAR-100 during my time in Explorers. Those years helped me focus on what I really wanted to do.

Computer science in the late 1970’s was still in its infancy. So after witnessing my heroes being unemployed and struggling to survive, I really could not imagine how one could get a job in a field where the objects of one’s profession, namely computers, were so costly and few. By my graduation in 1978, my only goal was to become an electrical engineer.

Though I had prepared for the Air Force Academy, I could not bring myself to make the commitment necessary. My real interests were not in military service though I loved the leadership and discipline that a military education gave me. I decided for some unknown reason to apply to Purdue University, but after visiting Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (now known as Virginia Tech), I was determined to enter engineering school there. It was only later that I realized that Gus was a Purdue University graduate.

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