Center Snapshot: Paresh Parikh
Image above: Paresh Parikh became involved with Orion while detailed to Johnson Space Center. Now he heads NASA Langley's contribution to the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle program. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
By: Jim Hodges
Six years ago, Paresh Parikh was content with his job, which was working in Computational Fluid Dynamics research at NASA Langley as he had been for almost two decades first as a contractor, then as a civil servant.
"I sat in my office, did my work, produced very good software," said Parikh, manager of Langley’s efforts with the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (O-MPCV).
"But that was all of my vision. It was all that I had. I didn't know much what NASA Langley did on the space side, on the materials side, what orbital mechanics was. I knew it as a subject, but I didn’t know what Langley was doing in that area."
Then he was summoned to the center director's office and told to go to Johnson Space Center and come back with space business for Langley. He stayed a year, working with Constellation, with Orion -- all pretty far from worrying about predicting airflow (measuring liquid) on an airplane's wing.
Or was it?
Working with the space-side of NASA at JSC what brought out differences between the cultures of a space flight center and a research center.
"When I talk about space work to Langley colleagues, people would say, 'I only work in aeronautics and have not applied my tools to the space side,' " Parikh said. "I would say, 'if you can estimate flow over an airplane wing, you can estimate flow over a space craft.' "
He learned that the view from space centers was that they did deadline work and research centers wrote research papers with little regard to schedule deadlines.
"I would hear 'at Langley, you have a lot of wind tunnels, right?' " Parikh said. "That's all they knew."
In trying to educate the rest of the agency about the potential at Langley, Parikh was educating himself to a world beyond Computational Fluid Dynamics.
"The (Orion) project manager would have a meeting every morning and he might say, 'can Langley do anything in avionics?' " Parikh remembered. "Or radiation-hardened avionics? I know what radiation-hardened avionics is, but I had no idea what we (Langley) could do in that area. Fortunately the center senior management, before I went, sent a message to every branch head to say that I was there to get business for us, 'so when he calls, please respond.' And people were looking for work."
In teaching others in NASA about what Langley had to offer, Parikh was learning for himself.
"It was a great situation," he said. "I learned a lot more about Langley capabilities while in Houston then when I was here."
It was another opportunity in a career of opportunities for Parikh, who hails from Sidhpur, a farming community in India's state of Gujarat. His father, who traded grain from farmers to wholesalers and insisted that his children go their own way, rather than demanding they work in the family business.
It's why Parikh is the first engineer in the family, his brother the first lawyer, his sister an economist with a master’s degree.
He studied English as a class, rather than as a language, and so struggled to cope with an English-language national institute in India before going on to the University of Washington in Seattle.
Along the way, he learned a lesson that continues to drive him.
"We were from a very small town, and there were few opportunities in that town," Parikh said. "It was surrounded by bigger cities. I have found out that anybody from my high school graduating class who left, went out of town to a big city like Bombay or Calcutta or Bangalore did very well. It was a question of opportunity."
Parikh has applied this lesson to a scholarship program he runs for the local American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics section, offering money to high school graduates who want to attend college.
"One of the criteria when I became chair of the scholarship committee was 'what are your grades, your grade-point average?' " Parikh said. "I recognized that people coming from a small high school don't have as many options to do (advance placement) classes (which add to the GPA). I added one more criterion. Despite less opportunity, how has that person done? Make it a more level playing field."
Parikh has taken stock of his life, added up the opportunities given him, sons Maulik, a doctor in Dallas; and Ronnie, who is in graduate business school at Harvard; and wife Panna, who managed his research and development company before Parikh became a civil service employee and decided to repay society by volunteering.
This year, he is the Hampton Roads representative (loaned executive) for Peninsula’s Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), has volunteered with a Langley "Day of Caring" crew, is a member of Langley’s Speaker Bureau, tutors students who ask and helped establish temples in Chesapeake and Newport News.
When time permits, he enjoys poker and Karaoke, favoring Indian music. As many weekends as possible are spent in Dallas with 3- and 1-year-old grandchildren.
"This country has given me so much, and I want to give back," Parikh said. "I have a very good life. I'm happy where I am. I'm happy for my children. I am reasonably secure. I can't lose sight of the opportunities I've been given here."
Among the greatest of them was gaining insight about opportunities at NASA Langley. And he got it by spending a year in Houston.
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