The Blind Date That Almost Never Happened

I felt a little like this by the end of this saga.

Ten years ago today, in the midst of the hellacious Tropical Storm Allison, my wife and I got married; however, our little adventure came very close to never happening.  I had been on blind dates before and wasn’t exactly one to turn up my nose at a chance at a night out.  So a coworker and cubemate of mine, took it upon herself to set me up on a blind date with an old high school friend of hers.

I knew absolutely nothing about the girl I was being set up with; my friend refused to show me her picture, thinking that I would judge her just by her looks.  I was told she was a school librarian.  I thought this was a strange coincidence as the last blind date I had been on was also with a school librarian.  This blind date, arranged by the commander of the Naval outpost where I worked, was with a quiet, mousey, stereotypical school librarian.  She was perfectly nice, but fairly bland, and when my car broke down in the middle of the date and I had to have us taken home by a tow truck driver, I decided that there wasn’t going to be a second date.

Back to this situation and I didn’t have too high of hopes.  But, as I often do, I said what the hell and went for it.  The girl I was to go out on a date with lived in Dallas (another black mark given my Philadelphia roots) and would be visiting her family for Thanksgiving.  My friend arranged for us to go out the Friday after Thanksgiving.  She gave me her phone number and I was supposed to call her before Friday to confirm that we were on for that night.  My friend who set us up was also going out-of-town for the week, spending time in Florida with her family.

So I call the number I was given on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  Their phone rings and an answering machine picks up.  A woman’s voice is on the recording saying that “they” weren’t home right now.  The woman answering does not say what her name is on the recording.  I leave a message, but something seems strange about the whole situation.  I have a feeling that I didn’t call the right number.  There was something about how the woman said “they” that made me think she wasn’t talking about a roommate.  I dialed again and got the same message.  I don’t leave a message, but hang up when the same answering machine picks up.

Then, I wait.

Monday passes.

Tuesday passes.

It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  I call the number I was given one more time.  The same answering machine picks up.  I leave another short message.  Again, I feel like something is not right with this situation.  At this point, I talk about the situation with my roommate, an old fraternity brother of mine, and we both agree that it’s fairly unusual to get stood up on a blind date like this, though it was definitely within the realm of possibility.  Again, the friend who set me up was out-of-town and this was before the cellphone was ubiquitous.  I had no way to get in touch with her.  The only information I had beengiven was my date’s first and last name and the town she lived in.  I didn’t have an address.

So my roommate and I did the only thing we could do, we pulled out the phone book and starting looking up her last name.  Unfortunately, since this girl I’m being setup with lived in Dallas, I didn’t know if she’d be listed or if her parents were listed.  The other unfortunate part is that her last name was Magee.  Now that’s not Jones or Smith, but it’s not exactly uncommon.  As we’re flipping through the phone book, I remark to my roommate that this is pretty desperate, isn’t it?  He shrugs, gives me a what’ve you got to lose remark, and we picked out the first number in the list that has the right last name and is in the right Houston suburb.

The phone rings, I ask for the woman I’m supposed to go out with and, lo and behold, we called the right house.  My friend from work had given me the wrong number.  The number in the phonebook was a second line in the house that her father had not yet bothered to shut off.  Victory!  Almost.  She gave me her address, directions to her house, and of course the right phone number.

Friday rolls around.  I head out in my sporty, leased Toyota Corolla.  At this point, I’ve lived in the area for six months, and I’m driving through a neighborhood I’ve never been in.  My directions say to take a left right after the fire station.  I pass a municipal building and wonder, was that it?  I turn, I take another right and then another left and I’m lost.  Again, I have no cell phone and I don’t know where I am.  I pull over and an old couple pulls up to the house where I had parked.  I do something completely out of character and ask if I can borrow their phone.  They let me and I call and get directions, again.

I do finally find the house, we do finally go out on a date, and we buck tradition and decide to go out again the next night.  Three months later, we were engaged.  Eighteen months later, we were married and ten years after that, we have three little girls who are very glad my roommate and I decided to flip through a phone book and take an extra step for a chance to go on a blind date.

For the record, my friend from work accidentally gave me her sister’s phone number, who was married, hence the “they” in the message, and who was with her on vacation in Florida.

My kids will probably think this picture was taken before the advent of color photography.

How I got here: NASA

Where is here exactly?  I am the Chief of the Training Execution Branch in the Spaceflight Training Management Office of the Mission Operations Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.  In NASA speak, that means I’m the BC in DA7 in MOD at JSC.  Acronyms make everything better.

What does all that mean?  It means we are in charge of training astronauts, flight controllers, and other instructors in preparation for all of NASA’s human spaceflight missions.  Training for every Space Shuttle mission, International Space Station Expeditions, and all related missions has been led by my branch.  It’s an awesome job with an awesome amount of responsibility.  It’s taken me twelve years to get to this point, but it was a bit of a winding road even to get my foot in the door.

A question that I sometimes get from those interested in space is how did I get my job? I have worked as a civil servant at NASA for the last seven years. Prior to that, I worked as a contractor at Johnson Space Center for almost five years. I wound up getting the job through a lot of luck, some good connections, and in the end a fair amount of hard work.

The road to this point began when I was young; I grew up knowing I wanted to work in the space business. I had an aptitude for math and science (as well as English and creative writing but that’s a story for another time) and my parents happily fostered those interests.  At about 10, I began telling people I wanted to be an ‘aerodynamics engineer’. Eventually, I became smart enough to realize I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. When it came time to select a college, I picked what at the time was the top small school engineering program in the Northeastern US, Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

In high school, I was, shockingly, a bit of an outcast and I relished the opportunity to start over in college.  Who would have guessed that I would have fit in very well with other kids who attended a school dedicated to engineering?  My freshman year I joined the Zeta Psi Fraternity of North America in one of the best decisions I would ever make.  To say I wasn’t quite ready to maturely handle my newfound freedom would be an understatement.  Those first two years were very intoxicating and I ended my sophomore year with a 2.1 GPA at a school where it was impossible to get below a 2.0 (WPI records any grade below a C as no record as if you dropped out of the class).

Then as is usually the case, I had an experience that scared me straight as well as a girlfriend to help me get back on the straight and narrow.   My junior year I decided that in order to help my job prospects after college and overcome my poor GPA that I should get a co-op job.  It turns out companies aren’t lining up to hire people with a GPA that’s barely above washing out.  I wound up being a last resort for a 3D solid modeling software development company that needed some help in the customer support department.  The work was miserable; nobody calls customer support because they’re happy and I knew little more than squat about what I was supposed to be good at.

It turns out though, that I was really good at it.  I was able to quickly master the software and even became known as the stereolithography expert because I was the only person who got the module to work.  See, my poor grades were more a result of my lack of desire to do work outside of the classroom, than an inability to do it.  I could get high scores on a fluid dynamics test, but I’d get a poor grade in the course because I hated to do work outside the classroom.  So performing in the work environment wasn’t an issue.  I learned fast, worked hard, and got along well with everyone.

With this renewed focus and the disappointment in my inability to find a decent job, I tore into my remaining classes and wound up graduating with a 2.9 GPA.  And still struggled to find a job coming out of college.

My friends had all accepted jobs with engineering corporations across the country in the months leading up to graduation.  As classes ended for seniors, I was still desperate for something to do.  Finally, a week before graduation, I got lucky.  A remote satellite operations center along the coast of Maine about two hours from the Canadian border needed a satellite engineer to replace someone who was retiring.  The location was so remote that they were having trouble finding someone interested in filling the position.  I jumped on it.

I was now a 22-year old bachelor living by myself 45 minutes from the nearest town after spending the previous five years living in a small city with my fraternity brothers.  My job had me working with one other engineer and on occasion some of the roughly dozen other Navy personnel stationed at the outpost.  The satellite I supported had an orbit that shifted 30 minutes a week, which meant my shift constantly moved to match the window of communication with the satellite.  I was miserable.

It was late winter in ’99.  A fraternity brother of mine was working on a contract in upstate New York with his contract soon to expire.  He had a high school friend who was engaged to a girl who worked for United Space Alliance (USA) in Houston.  He interviewed down there for multiple positions.  At the time, NASA was just about to begin International Space Station construction in earnest.  USA was staffing up in all areas.  I eagerly sent my resume in to the same person who interviewed my friend.  USA flew me down to Houston to interview.  I left a foot of snow on the ground in Maine and arrived to 80 degree weather in Houston.

Just as I had at the customer service job, I excelled as a satellite engineer.  I was able to demonstrate to USA that I had learned quickly at the other job and had the aptitude to be an instructor.  I also came relatively cheap, since I had such a hard time finding a job coming out of college.  Within a couple of weeks, I was hired to be an Environmental Control and Life Support Systems instructor on the ISS program.  My career at NASA had begun.  I was a contractor and over the course of the next few years did enough to convince NASA to hire me on as a civil servant.

So how did I get here?  I got lucky and came at a time when the human spaceflight program was expanding.  I had a connection who helped me make contact with someone in position to hire someone and with a need to add personnel quickly.  I worked hard to demonstrate that I would be a competent member of the team.

For those looking to get into the human spaceflight business now, my advice would be to have patience and be open to looking outside of NASA.  For those in college, apply for a co-op position.  Even when they’re not hiring new employees, co-ops are still brought in and if they perform well are retained.

With the current environment, Shuttle retiring, ISS no longer under construction, and no new program in an operational phase, it will probably be some time before NASA and its main contractor go into a hiring phase.  The best avenue into human spaceflight ops is probably through the companies trying to establish themselves through the Commercial Crew Development Program.  Blue Origin, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing were all just awarded contracts for the next year to continue developing potential spaceships that could be successors to the Space Shuttle.  It wouldn’t surprise me if they were all hiring at some point.

It’s easy to imagine that within the next few years we could enter into longer term partnerships with these corporations.  The people who work for those companies could become leaders in the human spaceflight frontier of tomorrow.  NASA has a history of hiring top performers in its contractor workforce in order to retain people with critical skills.  There’s never any guarantees but it is a possible way in.

Finally, continue to develop your connections.  Just reading this puts you a step ahead of where I was.  Today, there’s more ways to make the necessary connections than ever.

The great thing about human spaceflight is that it takes all kinds of people with all kinds of specialists to pull it off.  It doesn’t matter what area of math, science, or engineering are your specialty, there’s room for everyone.