Building the Dream
You don't have to spend long talking to Scott Higginbotham before you realize that this man loves his job. His enthusiasm is still evident, even after 15 years as a mission manager whose team prepares payloads to fly aboard the space shuttle.
"One of the special things about this job is that you get to see all these people come together to build some really cool spaceships, and then you get to see them launched," he says with unabashed excitement. "I did that as a little kid with toys and now I'm doing it for real. This is not just a job, it's a continuation of the fun I had as a kid. I've been really blessed. It's nice to have a job that's fun."
Image at Right: Scott Higginbotham works closely with the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) as he helps them prepare the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo. Image credit: NASA
But that enthusiasm might seem to belie the huge responsibility of the work he orchestrates, backed up by two engineering degrees and some people skills that can't be taught. When dealing with the multi-national cooperative effort of building the International Space Station, all of these skills and talents must come into play.
As a mission manager for a vast array of components destined for the station, Higginbotham leads a highly trained team of engineers, technicians and quality inspectors who assemble and test station hardware at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida before it is launched aboard the shuttle.
"I get to work with an incredible bunch of people," he says. "I don't know that we have anywhere in this country a better collection of interesting and talented people than we do here."
Maybe Higginbotham's greatest joy comes from seeing those components reach space. "Launch day is the culmination of everything you've been working for, and to finally see that vehicle lift off the pad and take your spacecraft up where it belongs, it's almost indescribable."
But as exciting as the launch can be, it's what comes next that gives him the most satisfaction. "The best part is when I go home after launch, and I'm exhausted, drained," he says. "And I sit down on the couch, I turn on NASA Television -- and usually the timing's about right -- when the payload bay doors come open, and there it is: that spaceship I helped build, and it's now circling the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour. That's so incredibly cool."
Image at Left: In the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Higginbotham (left) discusses the Kibo with Kohki Oikawa of JAXA. Image credit: NASA
The international aspect of the space station work has taken him to Japan four times, since his assigned missions include all of the components that will make up the Kibo (Hope) module, the Japanese contribution to the station.
The learning experience of working with Japan and other international partner nations has helped shape what he feels is the groundwork for the future cooperative efforts in space exploration.
"What we're doing here now on the station, not only are we building this marvelous research facility, but we're also learning and setting the stage for how we can work together on manned spaceflight projects for the future," he says. "Hopefully, what we've learned from the station will make the next big program even better."
But Higginbotham is quick to point out that as much as he loves his job, it comes second to his devotion to his family. That balance is made a little easier since his wife, who he describes as his best friend, works just down the hall and has shared mission assignments with him. "I have two passions in my life. One is my family, and the second is my work. And so I'm really blessed in that regard, because I have the best of both worlds."
Given these dual passions, it's not hard to imagine that his best bragging rights come from the moments when he can point to the TV during live mission coverage and say to his kids, "Daddy helped build that!"
Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center