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Center Snapshot: Nathanael Miller
Nathanael Miller. Image above: Nathanael Miller volunteers for TEDxYouth@NASA at the Virginia Air and Space Center. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

Competition is as natural in school as recess. You compete for grades, in athletics, for social status. But where is the competition when your home is the classroom and your parents are the teachers?

"It depends on how you define competition," said Nathanael Miller, an aerospace engineer working on the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle III program.

"Two metrics drive people. Some people are success driven, some are excellence driven. If you’re excellence driven, you’re competing against yourself. If you’re success driven, you just have to beat the guy next to you."

Growing up home-schooled in Williamsburg, Miller said he "didn’t have this notion of beating the guy next to me as much as it was being the best I could. So my standards were internal.

"The best I can do is the best I can do."

It's been more than good enough through college at Thomas Nelson and Old Dominion, through years with Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars, through co-op work at Langley and now as a term hire approaching his first anniversary.

It's allowed him to accumulate a resume of programs that reads, at first glance, like that of a 30-year veteran. It's also given him a subsystems lead role with IRVE-3. He's working on its guidance system, which involves changing the center of gravity of a vehicle to maneuver through an atmosphere, likely that of Mars.

The job has captured his concentration, after time spent moving from one thing to another at Langley, volunteering for educational outreach, being involved in mentoring robotics teams, never saying no.

"I've got a deliverable and a flight date (spring of 2012) and a budget and a schedule," Miller said. "With that, I've had to really just focus and turn off all kinds of different opportunities that have come through."

Testing is already scheduled. He has worked with tests before, but it's different now that he's not just assisting a professor's research.

"When you have a test that doesn't work and you need an answer, you don't get to walk away from it," Miller said. "(Earlier) I didn't walk away, but I could have because it was the professor's problem. Now, if I don't get the answer, I can't go on to the next stage of development, I can't meet my schedule, I can't make my flight."

He stopped a moment, then smiled.

"We ain't in Kansas any more, Dorothy," Miller said, laughing.

Going back to the philosophy of competitive excellence allows him to face testing in a different way than some would. It's more of an Edison-like "there are no failures" approach that says you do the job as well as you can, then test to see whether what you've done works.

If that sounds blasé, it's not.

"Working with technical stuff and having technical stuff go South, or building something and the parts don't go together, building something and it breaks or breaking a piece of equipment is part of the game," Miller said. "You take it and keep going. You only fail if you quit after the last time you fail."

A lesson came in college, at Old Dominion University, when he was thrust into a leadership role in working with undergraduate students in a new laboratory.

"I managed about seven teams by the time I left the university, seven or eight," Miller said. "Guys would come in and I would help them find work they needed to do, help them get the job done, help them find resources to do their projects.

"The first two, maybe three teams I had, I completely ran into the ground. I came in and said 'here's the way we're going to do it.' Seeing a team disassembled by poor leadership was very instructional to me."

He learned from that failure, and part of that knowledge has carried him to the NASA Foundations of Influence, Relationships, Success and Teamwork program for the agency's future leaders.

"I think the tragedy is when you don't learn," Miller said.

He became a part of NASA Langley well before working in the LARSS program, helping his brother, Sam, with a robot as a volunteer while still high school aged. Sam Miller is 17 months older and enrolled in North Carolina State's doctoral program after spending time in robotics and playing a role in the successful Max Launch Abort System launch in 2009 as a resident engineer with the NASA Engineering and Safety Committee.

"Growing up, we worked closely together, and if I had a chance to work on something with him, I'd do it in a minute," Nathanael said. "Following in his footsteps isn't that hard. Breaking out is. It's been a bit of work."

That breakout came in graduate school, when a robotic idea Sam Miller had was carried to fruition by Nathanael as part of his masters thesis.

"They're putting an instrument on that robot right now in the Mars development program," Nathanael said.

Away from Langley, he rides unicycles and is working on a home he just bought in Phoebus after a length search.

"It's a pain being an engineer and buying a house," he said, laughing. "Don't ever do it."

The home, built in 1944, presents a list of challenges he is taking on, some in an unusual way. The latest is programming a computer so that his front door unlocks if someone knocks on it in the right way.

"I'm a tinkerer," Miller said.

Doing the best that he can.

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