Alan Poindexter’s enrollment at Georgia Tech was part of his planned trajectory into the sky.
“I had always wanted to be a Navy pilot. I knew that one of the ways to become a Navy pilot was through the ROTC program,” said Poindexter, AE 86, who followed his future wife to Atlanta after graduating from a junior college in Florida and worked as a part-time fuel truck driver at DeKalb Peachtree Airport while attending Tech.
While he was a Tech student, his father, John Poindexter, was serving as a vice admiral in the Navy. He was the guest speaker at his son’s Navy commissioning ceremony at Tech.
Another speaker helped Poindexter seal his decision to aim for astronaut training.
“I don’t know that I ever made it a career goal until my senior year at Tech. Admiral [Richard] Truly [AE 59] came and talked to us about one of his flights,” Poindexter said. “I spoke to him afterward and asked him what the career path was like.”
As a Navy pilot, Poindexter was twice deployed, during Desert Storm in 1991 and Southern Watch in 1993. He also earned a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School before being selected as an astronaut in 1998.
He piloted STS-122 aboard Atlantis in February 2008 and commanded STS-131, a Discovery mission, this past April.
“Flying humans in space will probably never be easy,” Poindexter said. “Launching humans into orbit, meaning you have to launch them and their machine at a speed that is somewhere between seven and eight times faster than a rifle bullet, takes a lot of energy and is not a simple task. Sometimes people read about it and don’t understand the complexity, or perhaps we make it look easy because we’re successful most of the time.”
He said the crews undergo so much training in simulators that there are no surprises during launches. “Afraid is not how I’d classify it. I’d say alert. You know what you’re getting yourself into,” Poindexter said. “We’re ready to deal with a bad day.”
On both missions, Poindexter visited the International Space Station, “approaching a million pounds in space now with interior space about the size of a four- or five-bedroom house.”
He said cooperation aboard the space station shows that people from around the world, “with a common goal and common interests,” can work together despite their political or cultural differences.
“We’re doing science and technology that will benefit all of us for years and years to come,” Poindexter said. “From space, there are no borders.”
Jennifer Scott Williams, EE 01, attended Tech through the dual-degree program with the Atlanta University Center.
After three years at Spelman College working on a math degree, Scott Williams arrived at Tech for two years of engineering work. “It seemed big and a little bit menacing,” she said of the Institute.
She intended to pursue a degree in textile engineering — until she experienced a “defining moment.”
“I went to an electrical engineering class in session, and the students were using their circuit boards to design circuits. One of the teams … had LEDs, these little lights on their circuit board,” Scott Williams said, recalling “when they finally got it set up, the lights started to dance, and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
Scott Williams interviewed with NASA through the Atlanta University Center. She also interviewed for jobs in consulting and investment banking. “I was leaving Tech with the mentality that once I had an engineering degree I could do anything,” she said.
An on-site interview — and a visit inside a space shuttle simulator — at the Johnson Space Center in Houston convinced her that was the place for her. “I was an astronaut for like an hour, and I got to land the space shuttle. They hooked me,” Scott Williams said.
A civil servant at the space center since August 2001, Scott Williams is a shuttle flight controller in the communications division, which monitors everything from cameras to telemetry. “Anything that has to do with talking to the crew, that’s what we’re responsible for,” she said.
An antenna system, also the responsibility of Scott Williams’ group, failed during Poindexter’s shuttle mission in April.
“We had to come up with another method to get video down,” she said, describing the mood as “very tense” as the team developed a plan that involved using equipment aboard the space station.
“It was a shock to everybody that it broke, but we had to work around it,” she said, adding that mission control scenes from movies like Apollo 13 aren’t much of a departure from reality.
Tragedy affects everyone at NASA. Scott Williams remembered the events of Feb. 1, 2003. “We were scheduled to land, and everyone was real excited,” she said.
“My group lead called me. I thought it was so strange to hear her voice. She said, ‘We lost Columbia.’ I sat there holding the phone. ‘What? Am I dreaming?’ It did not connect at all. … Words couldn’t describe it. I had a million questions and no answers.”
Tragedy brought the close-knit co-workers even closer. Tech alumni throughout Johnson Space Center wear their white and gold proudly. Scott Williams may be the proudest of them all. She arranged for the group photographs of Tech alums at Johnson as well as at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
Elizabeth Stewart Smith, ME 81, also attended Spelman and Tech through the dual-degree program, arriving in Atlanta in 1975 carrying hot pink luggage and wearing a suit, hat, gloves — “the whole nine.”
She also was tough as nails and determined to make something of herself.
“I paid the dues” to be a Georgia Tech graduate through six years of study between Spelman and the Institute, Smith said. “I had to get that degree.”
Shortly after being hired as a research engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, Smith took a leave of absence to return to her native Houston to care for her ailing grandmother.
“At the end of six months, she was back on her feet, and she told me to go get a life,” Smith said.
Through a chance encounter with a Morehouse College graduate who worked for NASA in Houston, Smith secured an interview and transferred as a civil servant to the Johnson Space Center, where she has remained for almost 30 years.
In her early years with NASA, she worked in the space center construction division. “This place is amorphous. It continually changes … with new science, new technologies,” said Smith, who liked working on the evolving facility.
In 1985, she answered a call for volunteers to work on the space station, another evolving facility that houses Smith’s projects from over the years. “They’re still using my moding indicator” that lets the space shuttle crew know it’s safe to dock with the station, she pointed out as an example.
“I was able to move forward and be promoted. I had lots of opportunities to lead. There are a lot of products that they’re still using that I developed,” said Smith, now the assistant manager of the space station program’s integration office.
She said Tech prepared her well for the challenges at NASA.
“It was worth every minute,” Smith said. “You are ready for anything. Seriously, you’re ready for anything.”
Tech also taught her how to lead and be led, she said. “If you don’t work well with others [at NASA], you’re not successful. A team does come up with a better answer than an individual. It really is true … because you’re pulling from different areas of expertise.”
Smith is not disheartened by the impending end of the shuttle program. “If you’re an old station person like me, it’s what we planned all along. We always said there would be visiting vehicles. We always said there would be an evolution of uses.”
The evolution of the space station revolves around worldwide cooperation, Smith said.
“Where we are now, the way our world economy is set, no one nation can afford to do it alone,” she said. “We have to learn that we are not in this all alone. It doesn’t make us less of a leader. In fact, I think it makes us more of a leader. … There’s something about the American spirit and the way we’re able to innovate.”
Sathya Silva was in third grade when she chose her career path.
“One day it just hit me that I wanted to work at NASA,” said Silva, AE 08.
The desire didn’t wane as she grew into a teenager.
“I would stay home and watch documentaries about galaxies,” Silva said. “I was a little bit of a nerd.”
She learned about the Yellow Jacket Flying Club, which offers Tech students the opportunity to get pilots’ licenses more affordably than at a commercial school, at FASET, and she joined the club and began earning her wings soon after landing on campus as a freshman.
“I honestly can’t say I’d be the person I am today without the Yellow Jacket Flying Club,” said Silva, who was able to serve as the club’s supplies officer and then the vice president of programs while attending Tech as a co-op student.
The co-op program first took her to Houston, where she worked for the NASA contractor Jacobs Technology.
“You get your foot in the door” as a co-op student, said Silva, who was able to graduate in four and a half years and was hired by NASA before commencement.
Silva is a data processing flight controller for the space shuttle until September, when she enters graduate school at MIT.
The move from NASA, however, could be temporary as Silva still dreams of one day becoming an astronaut.
The end of the shuttle program isn’t clouding her dream.
“I have confidence that they’ll come up with something,” she said.