Looking back, it is easy to see how Thomas "Tommy" Carroll became a systems engineer at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center.
His mother was a teacher who instilled inquisitiveness for learning in her son. His father, who worked as an inspector at Stennis for a time, was a natural-born "tinkerer" who introduced Carroll to the world of design and devices. His grandfather worked on Ford Mustang automobiles, and Carroll spent many a day with him, learning the ins and outs of mechanics.
However, Carroll did not see how those influences converged until a friend's mother, Jan Burge, asked the then-high school student what he wanted to be when he grew up. Carroll's initial answer was that he did not want to grow up.
Burge took a different tack, asking what school subjects interested Carroll. He said he liked math – and Burge responded he might like to be an engineer. Carroll also indicated he liked working on things.
"Well, there you go," Burge said. "Sounds like a mechanical engineer to me."
"Great," Carroll responded. "What does a mechanical engineer do?"
While he did not know the answer to that question then, Carroll certainly does now. He has spent the last dozen years at Stennis, working in various ways as an engineer. He even served as test conductor for nine space shuttle main engine tests, an experience he describes as "the closest thing you can get to being a launch director without actually leaving the ground." Currently, he is part of a team preparing the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis for the new J-2X engines.
Stennis has assumed responsibility for testing the J-2X, which will be used in NASA's Constellation Program to carry humans back to the moon and possibly beyond. For Carroll, his current focus is on making sure the stand and its systems are configured properly to perform the necessary tests on the new engine.
"I couldn't ask for a better program to be a part of," he said. "This is not like being part of the Space Shuttle Main Engine Program. That was a mature program when I joined it, but with the J-2X, we're at the beginning of a young program.
"Twenty years from now, we may still be flying the J-2X engine, which means whatever we put in place now, as far as test equipment and process, we have to be sure is right and helpful to everyone down the road who may have to use it."
Carroll speaks often of contributing to others because he remembers the contributions of so many others in his life.
His path did not go straight from his conversation with Burge to his work at Stennis. Following high school, Carroll joined the Marines. During the Desert Storm war of the early 1990s, he was stationed in California, where he worked to support F-4 and F-18 aircraft.
After a tour in the Marines, Carroll returned to south Mississippi in 1993 and enrolled in Pearl River Community College in Poplarville. He then moved on to Mississippi State in Starkville. At both institutions, he recalls professors who influenced him.
"They were there when I needed them, helping me figure out the next step," Carroll said of the mentors. "They would tell me, 'You need to be thinking about the future in this way.' That makes a lot of difference."
Following Mississippi State, armed with a degree in mechanical engineering, Carroll headed to Stennis, where he initially worked with Rocketdyne, then with Pratt & Whitney. In 2007, Carroll joined NASA and the J-2X team.
During that time, he and his wife, Jamie, settled in Long Beach, Miss. Carroll met the Carriere, Miss., native at Pearl River Community College, and Jamie now also works at Stennis as the lead software developer for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.
Looking ahead, Carroll sees "incredibly exciting" times in space exploration. "In five years, we'll be flying test flights for the new Constellation rockets – and that will be exciting for everyone to see. There's a world of difference in seeing an engine test and an actual craft shoot up into the sky. So, the next several years will be a great time to be in NASA and in the space program in any way."
For information about Stennis Space Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/.
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