NASA People

Center Snapshot: Lawrence Taylor
10.24.09
Lawrence Image above: Lawrence "Bird" Taylor doesn't ride his bicycle to work at Vehicles Analysis Branch just for health or to save money. He does it for fun. NASA/Sean Smith

By:
Jim Hodges

Every day Lawrence Taylor arrives through the King Street gate at Langley Air Force Base, then proceeds across the field and through the golf course gate to NASA Langley.

"You can see the airplanes coming in and going out, and I design airplanes," he says. "It's like a dreamland."

It's also like a paradox.

While F-22 Raptors scream overhead, Taylor pedals his bicycle to his job at Langley's Vehicles Analysis Branch.

Day after day, four days a week, he commutes by bicycle, about 330 miles a month.

When their planes aren't up, he watches boats on the water off of the base. "It's gorgeous," says Taylor. "It's like when you're on vacation. Don't you like getting on a bike and going down the boardwalk or something? Well, I get to do it every day. It wakes you up."

While others ponder the bicycle as transportation during energy crises, Taylor does what he has since before high school. He raced bicycles in his youth. He met wife Judy at a bike shop in Norfolk, where he was working while going to college.

Son Ian and daughter Lauren ride bikes to school now.

When he gets to work, his thought processes speed up rapidly. Taylor deals in speed, as his father did while working on "X-planes" at NASA in the California desert.

"Low speed for us is Mach 5," he says of the Vehicle Analysis Branch. "(Limits are only) time and money, and to work with people who think outside the box like that every day is pure joy. That's the beauty of the Vehicle Analysis Branch. We have experts in all of these different fields, and we can work as a team and come up with a design together. It's just magical. I love it."

His job is configuring the outer shape of vehicles that could reach space.

"The whole vehicle is essentially a flying engine with tanks," he says, "so propulsion, structures, aeronautics, trajectory -- I get to work with those experts all the time. It's fascinating."

The process is constantly evolving. He has been at it since 1982, and has seen almost three decades of technology advancements in his primary tool: Computer Aided Design.

At day's end, he pedals back home, even in February: "You can stand anything for a half-hour." And even in the rain: "I grew up in the desert. I love rain."

There is a car at home. Judy drives it most of the time, though Taylor appropriates the vehicle for his other passion: stargazing. He's a member of the Virginia Peninsula Astronomy Stargazers, a group that specializes in outreach.

"My joy is in sharing astronomy with others," said Taylor. "Some people would rather be in a little observatory out in the middle of nowhere by themselves, maybe with some music. I'd rather be with a bunch of buddies in beach chairs, watching a meteor shower."

It's why he signs emails with "Clear Dark Skies, Bird."

"Bird" comes from glasses he sometimes wears. "Makes me look like that bird Woodstock in the (Peanuts) cartoon," he says.

The next day, it's time to ride again. Taylor advocates his favorite form of transportation to anyone who asks, and he laughs at some of the things he sees here at Langley.

"We have these 'green' forums and get speakers from all over the world to talk about this stuff," Taylor says. "We get in our cars and drive over to listen to the forum.

"We all talk about how things should be green and saving the planet, and then we get back in our cars and drive home or drive back to work. I love seeing people walking and riding bicycles around the center."

Outside his office, a Hummer goes by, and he contrasts a vehicle getting 12 miles per gallon to the infinite miles per gallon he gets pedaling to and from work.

"The numbers I've seen say you can save between $6,000-9,000 a year not driving a car, and that's not including the health benefits, like lower blood pressure and type-2 diabetes, chance of stroke, heat disease -- all of those things are improved by regular exercise," he said.

But no, he's not riding a bike just for the health of it.

"I actually calculated the difference (in burned calories) between sitting on my couch for a half hour and riding my bike for a half hour," Taylor said. "You know those little Dove Promises? It's two of those, each way. For four or five of those little dark chocolate things, that's how many calories I burn each day.

"It doesn't do anything for my waistline."

And he's not doing it just for the principle.

"It's a lot more fun to ride a bike than drive a car," Taylor says. "It's the ultimate convertible."