Center Snapshot: Nathanael Miller
Image above: Nathanael Miller volunteers for TEDxYouth@NASA at the Virginia Air and Space Center. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith
By: Jim Hodges
Competition is as natural in school as recess. You compete for grades, in
athletics, for social status. But where is the competition when your home is
the classroom and your parents are the teachers?
"It depends on how you define competition," said Nathanael Miller, an
aerospace engineer working on the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle III program.
"Two metrics drive people. Some people are success driven, some are
excellence driven. If you’re excellence driven, you’re competing against
yourself. If you’re success driven, you just have to beat the guy next to
Growing up home-schooled in Williamsburg, Miller said he "didn’t have this
notion of beating the guy next to me as much as it was being the best I
could. So my standards were internal.
"The best I can do is the best I can do."
It's been more than good enough through college at Thomas Nelson and Old
Dominion, through years with Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars,
through co-op work at Langley and now as a term hire approaching his first
It's allowed him to accumulate a resume of programs that reads, at first
glance, like that of a 30-year veteran. It's also given him a subsystems
lead role with IRVE-3. He's working on its guidance
system, which involves
changing the center of gravity of a vehicle to maneuver through an
atmosphere, likely that of Mars.
The job has captured his concentration, after time spent moving from one
thing to another at Langley, volunteering for educational outreach, being
involved in mentoring robotics teams, never saying no.
"I've got a deliverable and a flight date (spring of 2012) and a budget and
a schedule," Miller said. "With that, I've had to really just focus and turn
off all kinds of different opportunities that have come through."
Testing is already scheduled. He has worked with tests before, but it's
different now that he's not just assisting a professor's research.
"When you have a test that doesn't work and you need an answer, you don't
get to walk away from it," Miller said. "(Earlier) I didn't walk away, but I
could have because it was the professor's problem. Now, if I don't get the
answer, I can't go on to the next stage of development, I can't meet my
schedule, I can't make my flight."
He stopped a moment, then smiled.
"We ain't in Kansas any more, Dorothy," Miller said, laughing.
Going back to the philosophy of competitive excellence allows him to face
testing in a different way than some would. It's more of an Edison-like
"there are no failures" approach that says you do the job as well as you
can, then test to see whether what you've done works.
If that sounds blasé, it's not.
"Working with technical stuff and having technical stuff go South, or
building something and the parts don't go together, building something and
it breaks or breaking a piece of equipment is part of the game," Miller
said. "You take it and keep going. You only fail if you quit after the last
time you fail."
A lesson came in college, at Old Dominion University, when he was thrust
into a leadership role in working with undergraduate students in a new
"I managed about seven teams by the time I left the university, seven or
eight," Miller said. "Guys would come in and I would help them find work
they needed to do, help them get the job done, help them find resources to
do their projects.
"The first two, maybe three teams I had, I completely ran into the ground. I
came in and said 'here's the way we're going to do it.' Seeing a team
disassembled by poor leadership was very instructional to me."
He learned from that failure, and part of that knowledge has carried him to
the NASA Foundations of Influence, Relationships, Success and Teamwork
program for the agency's future leaders.
"I think the tragedy is when you don't learn," Miller said.
He became a part of NASA Langley well before working in the LARSS program,
helping his brother, Sam, with a robot as a volunteer while still high
school aged. Sam Miller is 17 months older and enrolled in North Carolina
State's doctoral program after spending time in robotics and playing a role
in the successful Max Launch Abort System launch in 2009 as a resident
engineer with the NASA Engineering and Safety Committee.
"Growing up, we worked closely together, and if I had a chance to work on
something with him, I'd do it in a minute," Nathanael said. "Following in
his footsteps isn't that hard. Breaking out is. It's been a bit of work."
That breakout came in graduate school, when a robotic idea Sam Miller had
was carried to fruition by Nathanael as part of his masters thesis.
"They're putting an instrument on that robot right now in the Mars
development program," Nathanael said.
Away from Langley, he rides unicycles and is working on a home he just
bought in Phoebus after a length search.
"It's a pain being an engineer and buying a house," he said, laughing.
"Don't ever do it."
The home, built in 1944, presents a list of challenges he is taking on, some
in an unusual way. The latest is programming a computer so that his front
door unlocks if someone knocks on it in the right way.
"I'm a tinkerer," Miller said.
Doing the best that he can.
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