David "Skip" Roberts, a native of Thomasville, Ga., credits his career at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center to one simple thing – luck.
Roberts admits he never had heard of Stennis when a guidance counselor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile suggested he interview for a NASA internship. Roberts got the internship, and his career at Stennis was launched.
Now, he does not hesitate to encourage students to consider Stennis and a career with the nation's space agency. "I joke with them and say, 'If you want to be a big kid and play with big toys, come into this field,'" Roberts says. "But it's really true – you will work on unique projects, and you will see what the future is going to be."
A decade into his NASA career, Roberts is the lead mechanical engineer for Stennis' A-2 Test Stand. His main focus is test operations, which includes preparing the stand for rocket engine tests, assuming responsibility for the transfer of propellants and conditioning the engine on the day of operations.
Roberts also is helping prepare the A-2 stand for testing the J-2X rocket engine currently in development. Originally planned as a primary engine for the Constellation Program, work continues to develop the J-2X as a next-generation deep space engine. The Constellation Program is cancelled in the president's proposed budget for fiscal year 2011. However, testing of the J-2X engine on the A-2 stand still is planned to begin in early 2011.
That translates to plenty of work for Roberts as he oversees mechanical, liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen and piping systems at the stand. He also fills in as a facility manager for the A-1 and A-2 test stands, helping ensure on-schedule completion of needed maintenance and upgrade work.
"Maintenance especially is a continuous effort in order to keep stands more than 40 years old performing as needed," he explains.
Such work is a perfect fit for Roberts, who says he always enjoyed tinkering with things – "taking them apart and putting them back together, trying to see how it all worked."
A Georgia native, Roberts landed on the Gulf Coast when his Navy ship traveled to Pascagoula for overhaul. There, he met his future wife, Kelly, and quickly found the area to his liking.
After earning his degree in mechanical engineering, Roberts began work in Stennis' E Test Complex. There, he was part of innovative research and prototype projects, such as the 250K hybrid rocket engine testing project. Working with the Department of Defense, Stennis operators successfully tested the 250K, the world's largest hybrid rocket engine.
"Working at the E complex is exciting, because you're usually dealing with projects that are 10 to 15 years ahead of their time," Roberts says.
Roberts moved to the A-2 Test Stand about three and a half years ago. During that time, A-2 served as the sole testing facility for space shuttle main engines. Every space shuttle flight since the launch of the first mission in 1981 has been powered by main engines tested at Stennis.
While the last scheduled space shuttle main engine test was performed on A-2 in July 2009, Roberts still remembers the moment "when the engine lights up" as the most exciting aspect of his work.
For him and everyone else at the A-2 stand, that excitement returns in just a matter of months, when the J-2X engine fires for the first time.
For information about Stennis Space Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/.
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