NASA loses a dreamer

A dear friend of mine, Nicholas, is leaving his engineering job at NASA in order to embark on another kind of journey: going to medical school in Lebanon.  He is one of those people who is genuinely out of this world.  Exceedingly brilliant, a talented writer, a gifted danseur, but above all, a dedicated humanitarian- Nicholas spends at least 85% of his life’s energy focusing on how to make the lives of others better.  It is why his next adventure will be obtaining the medical education necessary to work with Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and make helping others his life’s work.  While his mission may sound slightly pollyannaish or naive, Nicholas is completely aware of all the challenges he will face along the way.  That said, on the eve of his move to Lebanon, I am proud of him.  There is no one that would make a better doctor than Nicholas.

I wanted to share a blog posting of his.  The original post can be found HERE

Goodbye NASA

Tomorrow is my last day at NASA. My friends and co-workers took me to lunch today and presented me with some very touching mementos of my time here. My manager gave a very nice speech about me before turning the floor over to me. I wasn’t quite sure what to say – so I told the story of how I came to work at NASA. I am well aware that at 30 years of age, I hardly have a trove of wisdom to dole out – but if I have learned one thing in life, it can be related by this story.

By all measures, I was a space nerd from day one. My friends read about video games and idolized baseball players – I read about the space shuttle and idolized astronauts. Spring break of my senior year, my class took a trip to Cozumel – I went to space camp. In fact, though I have been embarrassed to admit it for all but the last few years, I chose Purdue as my university because the back of the Space Camp textbook listed how many astronauts had graduated from each school. When the military academies turned me down, I chose the next school down on the list.

Suffice it to say, when it was announced that NASA would be interviewing for their co-op program during my sophomore year at Purdue, I was quick to submit my name for an interview slot and anxiously awaited the results. It turns out there was no need to be anxious – I didn’t even come close to getting an interview. NASA told the school of engineering at Purdue how many people they wanted to interview and Purdue split those slots up amongst the engineering departments. Given that the number of requests far outnumbered the number of slots, my department, the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, somehow ranked the students and awarded the right to interview to those at the top of the list. Needless to say – that did not include me.

I remember a sense of utter emptiness upon finding this out – as if my whole reason for existing had just disappeared. So I did what an arrogant 19 year old does when faced with rejection – I went home and called the Johnson Space Center. Through a mixture of charm and perseverance, I found out the name and e-mail of the individual who would be coming to interview at Purdue and sat down to write him. The details of the e-mail are long forgotten, but the theme was one of unabashed begging. I told him that I had wanted to work for NASA my whole life and that even though Purdue disagreed, I believed I deserved a chance to explain what I had to offer. I asked him for five minutes – any five minutes – to plead my case. I offered to meet him at the hotel for breakfast, to take him to lunch or to drive him to the airport…any time he could find for just one more interview.

Beyond all hope, he wrote me back. Kind and sympathetic, he told me to meet him after his last scheduled interview so we could chat. A few weeks later, we sat down for fifteen minutes – he looked at my resume, asked me about why I wanted to work for NASA, then thanked me and headed off to the airport.

The next day, he sent me an e-mail explaining the process he would follow. The interview files from Purdue would be added to those from dozens of other schools. To these he would add the files from phone interviews, local interview and countless unsolicited resumes waiting in his office. Somehow, he would wade through the sea of applicants to pick fifty people who would begin as co-ops that year. “I’m not sure when the process will be finished and I’m not sure who I’m going to hire” he explained, “but I do know that I’ll be hiring you.”

That was ten years ago. I spent the next five years as a student employee and the five years after that as a full-time NASA engineer – the proudest title I have ever held. I’m leaving now to pursue a different dream. Along with the pride of working for the US Space Program, I’ll take with me a slew of lessons, technical and otherwise, including the one I first learned as a brash 19 year old student in the fields of Indiana.

In pursuit of a goal, through no fault of their own, people will stand in your way. Oftentimes they are following a system of rules they didn’t create and with which they don’t necessarily agree. When this happens, realizing that life is simply too short for barriers, thank them kindly – then go around them.

Well said, Nicholas.  If anyone is a testament to pursuing one’s dreams, it is you.

~ by ladamesansregrets on July 25, 2008.

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