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For release: 08/19/03
Release #: 03-142

Anniston, Ala. native Frank Parris Jr. designs game plan for conducting experiments in space

Photo description: Parris

When it comes to designing a plan for conducting experiments on the International Space Station, Frank Parris knows his game. As an operations engineer at the Marshall Center, Parris works with scientists to develop procedures for the Space Station crew to perform experiments in space. He also helps train crews before their missions.

Photo: Parris (NASA/MSFC)

Being an engineer wasn't in Frank Parris' game plan, but since he still runs his high school football team's Internet page at Walter Wellborn High School in Anniston, Parris realizes a good player is always willing to change his game plan.

"When I played football at Wellborn, it was the first time I was pushed to the limit of my endurance and learned a valuable lesson: That even though I wasn't a very talented football player, I could make a very worthwhile contribution to the team," Parris said.

You see, Frank Parris always wanted to be an astronaut.

"When I was 8 years old, I remember gathering with my family to watch the Moon landings. I got to stay up late, so I knew it was an important moment for America," Parris said.

Parris didn't become an astronaut, but as part of the NASA family at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., he helps conduct experiments aboard the International Space Station - the orbiting laboratory that NASA and space agencies from 15 other countries are building 240 miles above Earth. Although this new home and workplace in space is still under construction, research is being carried out everyday.

As an operations engineer with NASA contractor Jacobs Sverdrup Technology Inc., Parris works with scientists to develop procedures for the Space Station crew to perform experiments in space. Before the crews leave Earth for the Station, Parris helps train them as they practice conducting the experiments in simulators and mockups similar to the ones aboard the Space Station.

During a Space Station mission, Parris supports science activities from the Telescience Support Center at the Marshall Center - at a console used to communicate with the crew, as well as to send commands to, and collect data from, experiments on the Station.

"Even though my work is done here on Earth, sometimes I feel like I'm up there on the Space Station working right alongside the crew," said Parris. "When I see them successfully complete an experiment, I know that I helped make it possible. It's the next best thing to being there."

Parris' aerospace career got started when the 17-year-old dreamed of flying and becoming an Air Force fighter pilot. However, the first change in his game plan came when U.S. Rep. Bill Nichols of Sylacauga nominated him for a coveted position at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

"Congressman Nichols called and said he didn't have a slot for Air Force Academy, but he did have one available for West Point," Parris recalled. "As it turned out, my eyesight was less than perfect, and I couldn't have been a fighter pilot anyway. And going to the same school as Gen. George Patton, and Presidents Eisenhower and Grant seemed okay."

So Parris waved goodbye to his parents, F. Ray and Shelby Parris -- who still live in the Wellborn community of Anniston - and moved to New York, where he pursued a bachelor's degree in engineering.

His time at West Point was a defining period in his life, Parris said. He especially gives thanks to his dress uniform, Gen. John Sedgwick - a civil war general for the North -- and the general's "lucky spurs."

Parris explained: "When I was having trouble with one of my classes, I followed a tradition at West Point. I got in full dress uniform and went to Sedgwick's Monument and spun his 'lucky spurs,'" he recalled. "Legend has it if you spin Sedgwick's spurs at midnight before a final exam, you'll pass."

Although he did get demerits for being out of his room after taps, Parris easily passed the final and the course. After graduation and a stint in the Army, he moved back to Alabama and joined Teledyne Brown Engineering in Huntsville in 1989.

Parris has earned numerous NASA Group Achievement Awards for his work as an engineer, supporting nine of NASA's Spacelab missions - a microgravity science laboratory that carried hundreds of experiments inside the Space Shuttle's payload bay.

One of his greatest contributions and greatest challenges came with working on the STS-94 Space Shuttle flight in 1997, a mission that completed more than 30 science experiments inside the microgravity science laboratory. For that mission, he co-developed a special software program for a German experiment team. The team was unable to look at its science data, Parris said, "and we came up with a way for them to see it." He also developed ways to get the best results from experiments during missions.

After supporting the Spacelab flights, and earning a master of science degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1993, Parris began supporting science on the most sophisticated, world-class laboratory ever placed in orbit - the International Space Station.

"Talking to the astronauts who work up there and realizing they are real people is undoubtedly the 'coolest' part of working on the Space Station," Parris said. "A close second is working with young people - summer interns and high school students - on various NASA-related projects."

Parris encourages young people to follow in his footsteps in the engineering profession. He participates in the "Hands on the Workplace" program, hosting a local high school teacher for a week and speaking to the teacher's classes.

When he's not mentoring or working with the Space Station, you'll probably find him tinkering around on his 1975 Corvette. And as you'd expect from someone working in the "space" business, Parris is a "Trekkie." He loves the "original" Star Trek TV shows. And back on Earth, he admits to being a fan of the television reality show "Survivor." But you won't catch him ever trying out for the hit show. He's more interested in helping explorers "survive" in space.

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