NASA People

Text Size

Center Snapshot: Mike Smith
Maya and Mike Smith with their robot, Doborg. Image above: Mike Smith and his daughter, Maya, a member of the FIRST Robotics Team, show off their robot, Doborg, at the Virginia Air and Space Center. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Denise Lineberry

For Michael Smith, there is no divide. He lives by the words of Mark Twain: "Make your occupation your recreation."

If it's practical, he builds it. If one of his children wants something made, he helps them make it happen. When danger is a possibility at NASA's Langley Research Center, Smith goes into overdrive as a senior safety engineer.

That last in that list came first this week when an 18,000-pound Orion test article splashed into NASA's Langley Research Center's Hydro Impact Basin. Smith has been on safety watch alongside the 115 feet long, 90 feet wide and 20 feet deep basin for each test since they began this summer. On Thursday, he worked to ensure the safety of a host of media personnel who were invited to witness the process.

Whether at the Gantry for testing, where Apollo astronauts trained for moon walks, or with the launch of the first developmental flight-test of the agency's former Constellation Program, Ares 1-X, his job remains the same -- engineering a safe environment.

When Smith was 9, his father, who worked as an F-4 fighter quality assurance engineer, put him into the he Civil Air Patrol, which exposed him to aviation. Smith spent time building Cessna's, various cargo C-130s, helicopters, jets, and then rockets. His love of aviation remained as his skills for building took off from Boeing 777 to F-22 fighter manufacturing.

"I never thought that I would be building aircraft and spacecraft," Smith said. "I've come a very long way."

Even after receiving his degree in industrial engineering from Southern Illinois University, a certificate in industrial electronics and robotics and his airframe and power plant license, Smith still yearned to learn.

While working as an Aerospace Project Manager for several machining and fabrication companies in Hampton Roads, he began an 8-year stretch at Harvard University, where he studied science and environmental engineering. He is currently working toward his PhD in Aeronautical Science.

With learning came teaching. Smith worked as an aeronautics professor in Okinawa Japan. He also worked as an aeroscience professor at Hampton University.

His favorite students are his two daughters, Rina, 18, and Maya, 15. Rina follows in her mother’s musical footsteps, and is working toward a degree in dentistry. Maya, is his robotics' development assistant. She recently joined the FIRST robotics team, making her father’s recreation her own.

"My children are my main bosses," Smith said.

They come up with ideas of things to build and they set the rules: nothing can be bought.

From a hodgepodge of items, they begin building. Paint can tops and French door parts have been used on his robot projects. Trips to the dump proved useful.

They’ve built a moving, talking robot. Its interactions are being programmed. The only exception to the rule is purchasing the programming needed for the robot to communicate.

For Smith, there will always be a fine line between work and hobby, trash and treasure.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman