NASA People

Center Snapshot: Charlie Harris
09.19.09
 
Charlie Harris, center snapshot. Image above: With the Research and Technology Directorate, Charlie Harris has to wear several hats. One of them was the cap of the Peninsula Pilots in August, when Harris threw out the first ball on NASA Night. NASA/Sean Smith

By:
Jim Hodges

About this time every year for four years, Charlie Harris would get off his motorcycle just outside a building at Texas A&M in College Station.

He would walk to his office, a spring in his stride because it was time to face another class of aerospace engineering students.

"I loved it," said Harris, director of the Research and Technology Directorate at NASA Langley. "I loved Texas A&M and all of the things about the university. I loved all of the Aggie traditions.

"I loved everything about the academic life. I loved interacting with the students and doing research there. There is nothing more energizing that the academic year calendar, the beginning of the new school year with its anticipation and high energy of the students coming back to campus."

There was a rhythm to it all.

"By the time spring rolls around, everybody's tired and ready for the summer break," said Harris, who spent seven years in structural engineering in the nuclear field before going to College Station. "I just enjoyed everything about it. I really thought that teaching was a noble goal."

And then he found another goal.

NASA was trying to return the space shuttle to flight after the Challenger accident, and Langley had a role.

"I guess it was the dream," Harris said of his switch from academe to government work. "The lure of the NASA mission and the dream of being a part of something bigger than I am, of space exploration and aeronautics."

He already was familiar with the agency. Harris had done research at Johnson Space Center and at Langley, and so he knew the people at both facilities. In 1987, he was approached about heading up what was then Langley's Fatigue and Fracture Branch, now the Durability and Damage Tolerance and Reliability Branch.

Texas A&M lost a professor and NASA Langley gained an engineer.

"That was a compelling mission, to go back to space," Harris said.

So were future missions, then still on paper: the International Space Station, Constellation, aeronautics.

His primary field was structural materials, and "a lot of the personal research that I did found a home in the technology that we developed," Harris said.

Now his field is management. His title is actually confusing to some.

"I'm asked what I do, and I say that I'm director of the Research and Technology Directorate," Harris said. "Some say, 'isn't that everything that goes on at Langley?' "

That calls for additional explanation, about aeronautics and space science and space operations.

But that's the what. How he does it may be more interesting. "My job is all about relationships and everybody is different," Harris said. "There are so many people in the organization that it seems that continually, hour after hour there are interactions.

"I find that stimulating. The pace of the job is not hectic, but it is dynamic, very dynamic. I find energy in working with people, and I love it when people come together in relationships to solve problems together, make progress together."

That coming together is taking on an entirely new dimension with the 21st Century Laboratory. Harris is one of the moving forces behind it at Langley.

"Langley is a center in transition, and the research leading edge is ever-evolving," he said. "The laboratories have to evolve with that."

The center and the agency are on the threshold of an era in which, through advanced communication capabilities -- some not yet conceived -- discoveries will be made and technology will be invented by groups of people who will never be in the same room together.

That is requiring the technical community – even all of society – to take another look at the way work is done.

"It's exciting," Harris said. "It's a bit scary, too, because I think there are a lot of societal changes that we don't truly understand yet. It's very stimulating and provocative."

It's the sort of thing that makes it exciting to go to work in the morning.

When the work at Langley is done, there is civic and church work in Poquoson, long walks with wife Sherry and weekend golf to contemplate. Once a 10 handicap, fighting to play in the 70s, he now describes himself as "the classic bogey golfer.

"My goal every time out is to break 90, and occasionally I do that and occasionally I don't," Harris said. "Sometimes I'm happy with myself, and sometimes I get frustrated. But I have a great group of friends that I play with."

Like his romance with the academic side of life at Texas A&M, he continues to have a romance with his alma mater, Virginia Tech which yielded more than an engineering degree and an affinity for college football.

"I'm very fond of saying that everything good in my adult life can be traced back to my formative years at Virginia Tech, because in addition to my degree, that's where I met my wife," he said.

That was shortly after what was part of the freshman orientation in an era in which students' cars weren't allowed on campus. "Among the most important coaching that incoming freshmen got was how to get to Radford on Friday nights and how to get back," he said. "I learned that lesson well. We got married when I was in grad school."

That was 37 years ago. Like so many aspects of academics, it's been long lasting.