Pass Christian resident Jeff Henderson did not arrive at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center until 2000, but his journey to become a NASA systems engineer involved with development of a new J-2X engine that will help power the future of American space exploration began more than 20 years earlier.
Henderson, now 47, and a pair of friends were leaving their high school graduation ceremony at Kemper Academy High School in DeKalb, Miss., when their math and science teachers approached them. They were wondering if the three boys were interested in going to college.
When Henderson indicated he was, Cullen Q. Lee and Stewart Bosarge arranged for him to receive a scholarship at a nearby junior college to help pay the costs of continued education. The amount was not a lot – no more than a couple hundred dollars a semester – but it meant the difference between Henderson pursuing his goal of becoming an engineer or remaining in DeKalb and engaging in a more routine line of work.
It was a goal fueled by two key factors in the 17-year-old's mind.
"For one, when I was in school, I had a natural ability for math and science," Henderson recalls. "Also, there was the reality of where I lived. A small town offered very few opportunities when it came to work. You could haul pulp wood or something like that. So, there was a desire to do better."
With that motivation and the help of the scholarship, Henderson worked his way through two years at East Mississippi Junior College in Scooba and three years at Mississippi State University in Starkville. Along the way, Henderson was helped by other DeKalb residents, including Jack Barnes, who provided summer jobs at Tennessee Gas Pipeline.
Henderson spent time painting, performing maintenance, removing asbestos and installing a recycle line for unused natural gas. "Without the money I earned at Tennessee Gas, I would not have been able to pay for college, especially the years at MSU," he says.
Henderson has been careful to repay such kindness in subsequent years, such as by sponsoring young people to attend Boy Scout camp. "You don't forget who helped you," he explains. "You have to pass it on."
Three weeks after receiving his degree from MSU in 1983, Henderson began work at the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station. He made the transition with $135 in his pocket, just enough for a deposit on a small apartment.
Henderson worked 12 years with Grand Gulf, eventually becoming a plant supervisor. Then, he married and moved with his wife to Oklahoma, where he found work with the Boeing Company. In Oklahoma, Henderson worked in the avionics program on the B-1 bomber project, which led him into the area of test engineering. He eventually transferred within Boeing to Stennis Space Center, continuing to hone his engineering skills. When Pratt & Whitney acquired the Rocketdyne division of Boeing, Henderson shifted to the new company and remained at the South Mississippi facility.
In 2006, he left Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and went to work for NASA at Stennis, serving first on a development team for the new A-3 engine test stand being constructed at the site. He is currently on a team involving the new J-2X engine that will power the Ares spacecraft being developed for NASA's Constellation Program.
NASA plans to retire the current space shuttles in 2010, with the Ares 1 rocket of the Constellation program taking flight by 2014. The goal of the Constellation program is ambitious – to return humans to the moon with possible journeys to Mars.
The J-2X engine will power the upper stage of the Ares I crew launch vehicle and the Earth departure stage of the Ares V cargo launch vehicle. The new test stand at Stennis is being designed to simulate altitudes as high as 100,000 feet in order to test the engines like they will be operating in space. Henderson's role is to make sure the necessary systems are in place to test the J-2X, which means integrating a wide variety of criteria.
The J-2X project is something new for workers accustomed to the space shuttle main engine test program Stennis has conducted for more than 30 years. For instance, the new engine has to ignite in space, something the space shuttle main engine does not do. And, even as construction of the A-3 Test Stands continues, engineers are working out the precise methods that will be used to test such capabilities of the new engine.
As those criteria are developed, Henderson works to ensure the test stand systems will be capable of performing the needed tests. "If we can't tell them what we want, they can't build it," he explains of the integrated process.
According to Henderson, any mistake in what is needed versus what is built could be very costly in terms of money and program delay.
"It's a fast-moving project," Henderson says. "We're on the leading edge here. You can compare this to the Apollo program back in the 1960s. We are the future of space exploration for NASA."
For information about Stennis Space Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/
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