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'Forget Normal -- Be Exceptional'
Marshall's Jim Duffy Tackles Engineering Challenges, Life With Equal Zeal
NASA aerospace engineer Jim Duffy.

NASA aerospace engineer Jim Duffy. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Chances are, Jim Duffy had a hand in a lot of the work being done right now at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Since joining NASA in May, the 40-year-old Marshall engineer has tackled a cavalcade of structural and mechanical design activities for the Engineering Directorate, touching on a whole spectrum of Marshall work. He's the lead for the component development team tasked with designing the Upper Stage Instrument Unit for the Ares I launch vehicle. He supports the team delivering spares and sustaining hardware for the International Space Station's recycling and life support systems. He's developing a sounding rocket payload model for science test flight. He also lends his services to the European Space Agency's Extreme Universe Space Observatory -- a telescope headed to the space station in 2013 to study cosmic rays.

In his spare time, he's also studying. A lot. Learning the latest computer-aided design software, boning up on 3D modeling techniques or participating in lessons-learned sessions to improve engineering best practices -- Duffy says professional growth is the ticket to success.

"Always stay current, always keep learning, " he says. "Education is the means to achieve a fruitful life."

He learned that lesson in rehabilitation, he says. After he almost died.

The right tools for the job
A native of Akron, Ohio, Duffy was a sophomore at The Ohio State University in 1990 when a motorcycle accident left him a quadriplegic, with limited use of his arms. He spent seven months in rehabilitation, then moved to an independent living facility near campus called Creative Living. He learned to use computer software to complete class work, scheduled a phalanx of test scribes and support personnel, and rededicated himself to his studies -- eventually becoming a teaching assistant in various undergraduate engineering classes.

By the time he graduated in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, Duffy had acquired practical experience other freshouts might need years in the work force to master. He went to work as a mechanical designer for Texas Instruments of Dallas -- and in addition to his regular duties began developing classes for the company, once more teaching others what he knew.

"Teaching was a great stepping stone," he recalls. "It helped me stay current, follow trends and hone my skills. What I may have lacked in basic design experience, I made up for by knowing the tools."

A chance to apply that knowledge in new ways led Duffy and his wife Bobbie -- whom he'd met at Ohio University after his accident and married in 1997 -- to relocate first to Lorain, Ohio, where Duffy served from 2000-2007 as lead design engineer for a top telecommunications company, and then to Huntsville. He joined Triumph Aerospace Systems in 2008 as a systems engineer, supporting development of the Ares instrument unit at the Marshall Center. Two years later, having completed his master's degree in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering via distance-learning classes at Ohio University in Athens, he accepted a civil service appointment at Marshall.

Abilities, not disabilities
Now he spends much of his days poring over CAD drawings, the walls of his office papered with drawings of another sort: signed artwork by his three children. Other than the elevated workstation accommodating his wheelchair -- and the massive Ohio State Buckeye wall art, brazenly proud in Alabama, the land of Tide and tigers -- it looks like the office of any other Marshall Center engineer.

Duffy says getting to NASA "is the cap on my career," but that hardly seems possible as he launches enthusiastically into a tally of upcoming goals. He wants to get his doctorate, but most importantly, he wants to share his story. In his spare time, he's shopping an original magazine article called "Forget Normal -- Be Exceptional." He has also spoken at several schools back home in Ohio, and is mulling the idea of writing an autobiography, intended to inspire people with disabilities who may be daunted at the idea of going to college.

What advice would he give them? Concentrate on abilities, not disabilities. "Work around your limitations," he says, gesturing to his busy workstation, with its subtle alterations. "And don't be afraid to seek out accommodations necessary to do your best work. That's what drew me to NASA."

He smiles. "I always followed the space program as a kid, but it never occurred to me that I'd end up working here, with the good people in the Engineering Directorate. It turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

So far, anyway.

The Marshall Center celebrates Disability Employment Awareness Month in October. To learn more about the Individuals With Disabilities Program at Marshall, visit http://eo.msfc.nasa.gov.

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Angela Storey
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Ala.