NASA People

Center Snapshot: Erik Vedeler
08.20.10
 
Center snapshot Erik Vedeler. Image above: Erik Vedeler earned three degrees with the help of a track scholarship at New Mexico State and still runs, but also includes wall climbing among his avocations. Photo Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

It was the 1980s, and Erik Vedeler was running.

And running.

And running ... from Santa Monica to the Los Angeles Coliseum ... from physics to engineering ... from sports to the real world ... to what? And where?

"To get anything out of a thing, you have to focus for a while," said Vedeler, who heads the Electromagnetics and Sensors Branch at NASA Langley. "It's a path."

Norwegian by birth and raised in Santa Fe, he ran his own path through New Mexico State, earning three degrees with the help of an athletic scholarship. Vedeler ran the 5,000 and 10,000 meters with the track team in the spring and cross country in the fall.

"There was a period of time when track was the most important thing, the reason I was there," Vedeler said. "I was one of those athletes, I was in school to do my sport. I was passionate about track."

That didn't keep him from earning degrees in physics, computer science and math in four years. He calls physics "my passion," but acknowledges that his first thought as a college freshman was to earn a degree in astronomy.

"My granddad was an astrophysicist, and he was a big influence on me," Vedeler said. "I asked a counselor if they had a degree in astronomy, and they said we don't have an undergraduate degree in astronomy.

We recommend physics. I said that looks good to me and got in the physics line."

He added degrees in computer science and math. And still, he kept running, adding marathons --­ surreptitiously, at first, because the New Mexico State coach didn't want him to run them.

In 1984, the Olympics were in Los Angeles, and the first L.A. Marathon was run on the Olympic course, from Santa Monica to downtown.

It was as close as Vedeler came to the Games.

"I tried to qualify for the marathon trials but missed it," he said.

To qualify to run in Buffalo for a spot on the U.S. team, he needed to run 2 hours, 19 minutes, 4 seconds. Vedeler topped out at 2:21:08 for the 26 miles, 385 yards.

Still, he continued to run. With support of an athletic shoe company after graduating from New Mexico State, Vedeler became a professional runner. And then there was a bit of soul-searching.

Running to what? And where?

"I was not, either through ability or training or whatever, I was not down for the Olympics or real greatness or anything like that," he said. "I started thinking that I had an academic side around me. What could I do about that?"

He could earn a masters degree in electrical engineering, as it turned out, and he could answer a call from Langley.

Vedeler came to the center to see what was available. "I had a tour of the building (1299), and recognized the names on the doors," he said. "They were authors of papers I had studied. I thought, 'I've arrived here. If I can work with these guys, this is great.' "

That was in 1988, and he's been with NASA since.

The NASA path led through the University of Texas, where Vedeler and wife Jessica Woods-Vedeler -- who works in the Structural Dynamics Branch -- did graduate work. And through Paris, where Jessica was executive officer for space research and technology for the NATO Research and Technology Organization.

He became fascinated with electromagnetics and sensors while pursuing his electrical engineering masters, and remains intrigued by their possibilities.

"I have notions and ideas that people in the branch aren't necessarily interested in working on," Vedeler said. "I have a long list of ideas to tell people, and they tell me I'm crazy, forget that one. Then, once in a while, one can get some momentum."

Away from Langley, he runs, perhaps because he always has. He no longer competes. Well, he tries not to compete.

"I have a hard time separating my competitive instinct from just having a good time," Vedeler said. "I ran a race in Virginia Beach two years ago, and a buddy was on the board of a (sponsoring) charity. He said, 'Erik, just get out there and run. You don't have to race.' So I broke down and got out there, but I couldn't turn the competitive part off."

Without training for the event, he finished second.

"It wasn't a great time," Vedeler said. "I'm concerned as I get older that I'm going to hurt myself because I can't turn the competitive juices off."

He also scales walls, a relatively new activity in which climbers work their way up a course that becomes more difficult as it gets higher. In that, he has scaled down past pursuits, which included climbing 20,335 Mt. McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, in 1990; and Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador, a 20,561 climb.

Again, there is a family influence. An uncle, Gerry Roach, was the second person in the world to climb the "seven summits," the highest peaks in each of the continents.

Then, there is history. And genealogy. And exotic vacations with Jessica. "I have lots of different interests," Vedeler said. "Academic. Outdoors. Engineering and science. They're all passions of mine."

"Passion" is a word he uses freely, probably because it applies often.

"You have to have the internal passion," Vedeler said.

To accomplish what you want to accomplish in whatever path you take.