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Center Snapshot: David Dress
Center Snapshot: David Dress. Image above: David Dress relishes a new career path after moving from aeronautics to space exploration. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Sasha Congiu, NASA intern

David Dress met wife Cathy on an interstate highway and it was love at first note.

"It was 1979, and a friend and I were leaving Roanoke and heading back to Virginia Tech. We caught the eyes of a group of three girls in another vehicle, and we ended up passing each other several times, each car posting notes in the windows for the other to read as the two cars traveled down Interstate 81," Dress recalls, smiling. "As we neared our exit, we wrote 'Going to Va. Tech. Coming with us?' Turns out that they were going to a hangout that night in Blacksburg. We met the girls there, and Cathy and I started dating a few weeks later. It’s a good story to tell the grandkids later on."

They also share a love for the Virginia Tech Hokies. "My wife went to Radford, and she loves the Highlanders, but she's also a Hokie through and through," he says. They love to tailgate with their family and friends at home football games.

Dress, NASA Langley's deputy director of the Space Technology Projects Office, received a bachelor's degree in aerospace and ocean engineering at Tech and a master's degree in fluid mechanics and thermal sciences at George Washington University.

Following in his footsteps are his two sons: Brian, who is studying biomedical engineering at Tech; and Jason, who graduated in May from Tech with a master's degree in mechanical engineering.

But Dress wasn’t like his sons.

He was unsure of what he wanted to do and initially went to the University of Kentucky. As his first year progressed, he realized VT was better suited for his career interests.

"Aerospace kind of looked interesting to me, and they didn't have that major (at Kentucky), so I transferred to VT after that first year," explained Dress. "Aerospace was just something that caught my attention. Although I can't pinpoint a defining moment, growing up in the '60s and watching the race to the moon had a significant impact on me. I still remember visiting the Kennedy Space Center as a kid and touring inside the Vehicle Assembly Building."

After graduation, Dress was hired as a contractor at NASA Langley. Two years later, he became a civil servant.

During his early career, he researched experimental test techniques, including magnetic suspension and balance systems, cryogenic wind tunnels and more. He also did research for his master's thesis, utilizing a small wind tunnel with a magnetic suspension system.

"That was very satisfying because we did a lot of good, fundamental research in magnetic suspension," said Dress. "It culminated with my master's thesis on drag measurements for a body of revolution. It was a complete package of experimental research that was very rewarding to accomplish and a lot of fun from start to finish."

One of his most memorable and challenging accomplishments was managing a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation in the 1990s. Dress describes how he was the manager of the 14-by-22-Foot Subsonic Wind Tunnel at the time, and it had a heavy workload with customers from the Department of Defense, industry and NASA.

To meet the needs of all the customers, center management decided to operate the facility around the clock. Dress and his team went from a staff of 30 to a staff of 60 within a few weeks.

"We had to train the new personnel, bring everybody up to speed and start operating around the clock," explained Dress. "The planning and training occurred in the November/December timeframe, and by the beginning of January we were operating around the clock."

He and his team successfully completed the backlog of tests within nine months so that the facility could revert back to a five days per week operation.

"It was pretty amazing to pull that off," said Dress. "I am very proud of the entire staff that made that effort successful. From a management perspective, that is something I'm personally proud of."

After managing individual wind tunnel facilities, becoming a branch head and eventually a deputy director for Center Operations, Dress was ready for another challenge. After 26 years of doing aeronautical work, he applied to NASA’s Leadership Development Program.

"The leadership program allowed you to do something different for a year and challenged you to improve as a leader/manager and possibly redirect your career," Dress said.

Upon acceptance, he was moved to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to work on systems engineering and integration for the Constellation Program.

From then, his career and interests shifted.

"After 26 years, it was like flipping a switch. I changed my career from the aeronautics side to the space side and, as I was preparing to return to Langley, I decided to continue working space exploration," he said. "In hindsight, it was refreshing and challenging to make this change and re-direct my career."

When he returned to Langley, Dress was the deputy and then manager of the Constellation Program Level II Office. In November 2010, after the creation of the Office of Chief Technologist (OCT) at headquarters, Langley formed the Space Technology Projects Office to manage the work the center does for the OCT. Dress was named deputy for this new Langley office.

"I am really enjoying creating partnerships with individuals at other centers, which fits in extremely well with what the Office of Chief Technologist is looking for," Dress said. "They’re looking for folks to bring in the A-team from across government, industry and academia to work on these technologies."

Dress looks forward to seeing how his role will develop while he and his team continue to grow partnerships and compete for new work for Langley.

"Having the opportunity to bring new or expanded work to the center is what I find exciting," he said. "As NASA evolves, we are essentially helping to make the center more vital for the future."

Apart from work, "golf is a real passion of mine," he said. He also working with his wife in creating gardens and landscapes.

"Cathy is very creative, and I enjoy implementing her vision in constructing and developing gardens and landscaping around the house. We have a lot of fun with that," said Dress. "We have raised bed vegetable gardens as well as blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. We even enclosed one of our gardens with a rock wall. We've been working at this over a few years. It's a process which evolves as you see the changes in the landscape."

He also likes going on vacation with his family, doing maintenance work around the house and --especially -- going to Tech football and basketball games. And for seven years, he has taught the Confirmation class at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church.

Dress is grateful for his 30 and continuing years at NASA. "NASA is a great place to work," he said. "I've had a wonderful time working with many great people. We've accomplished a great deal and there's much more to come."

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