Hey everyone! This week on Questions To Inspire, we have an amazing interview. We are going to talk with someone that works at the NASA Langley Research Center – Telecommunication Engineer – Aaron Ward!
Good afternoon, Aaron. Let’s start out with you telling us a little bit about yourself.
I’ve been in the telecommunications industry for nearly 15 years now, working my way up from a telecoms laborer pulling in cable on small contracted job sites, to completing repair calls from customers. Eventually being fortunate enough to being a resident contractor for other large enterprises, until my experience opened an opportunity onto NASA-Langley 3 years ago.
Many people don’t know how much NASA does for the scientific world and for environmental studies. I think the consensus is that it is only about space. Can you talk about your area of NASA and what are the goals that you hope to accomplish?
NASA’s goals have always evolved with scientific need ever since the days of NACA, NASA’s predecessor, began here at Langley in 1917. Ever since then, Langley in particular has been there when the American people have looked up into the sky and envied the flight of birds and then wanted to touch the stars. The quest for both have been an enduring journey that often enough creates more questions with the answers we find and it involves remarkable effort from a wide array of remarkable people.
With questions and answers found becoming more complex, everyone finding those scientific solutions need to be connected to each other, which is where my team and I play our part. Our contract, NASA Integrated Communications Services or NICS for short, are responsible for keeping everyone connected with telephones, teleconferences and online tools, so they can come up with better solutions and better ways to understand the planet on which we live. The entire goal of NICS is to anticipate the needs of the Agency, provide communication connections and help NASA be as integrated as possible, which everyone can benefit from.
My job is absolutely fascinating, as most people working on projects are only involved with their own specific study or project, mine takes me wherever my phones are, which are in some fantastically interesting places on Center that amazes a curious person like myself. One day I could find myself in the Flight Research hangar, watching mechanics fine-tune a Cessna being converted for autonomous flight, or next to the test section of a acoustics chamber measuring noise levels from a drone propeller. It all fuels my obsessive curiosity and inspires me to keep all these fascinating people connected to each other.
Let’s talk about you working at NASA, what was your reaction and what did others say when you told them you were working for NASA?
I honestly had no idea that the job itself was at NASA-Langley until I got the address for the interview. Ironically enough, my very first contract that I worked on at the beginning of my career was 10 years prior at NASA Langley! I always dreamed of working in the telecommunications office here even though the opportunity more or less fell into my lap as a chance happening.
It’s always surreal, telling people where I work and I could not be prouder of the Agency and its’ work all across the globe. Doing what I do, has given me the opportunity to meet people all over Langley and I still get giddily excited to tell anyone on the outside about who and what I encounter here. I can’t tell you the number of gifts I’ve given people of things from the NASA-LaRC Exchange! It’s especially satisfying to stoke the curiosity of children into what NASA does because we will *ALWAYS* need more of the brightest minds out there.
One of the the things we want to do in these interviews is talk about the importance of education, especially focusing on STEM subjects. How important is it for children to learn STEM skills and what was your favorite subject during school?
It’s absolutely critical for children today not just to learn STEM subjects, but to encourage them to explore it. As automation and artificial intelligence continues to make rapid progress, we will need an entire generation of young minds unchained by the older preconceptions of “What’s Possible” because that question is evolving faster than anyone ever could have anticipated. We will always have a need for anyone who has a hunger to learn more from any STEM subject!
My favorite subject in school *HAS* to be chemistry. The building blocks of all life depend on chemistry and I always, with a bit of maniacal glee of course, loved watching the really active reactions. (You should totally look for “Mercury Thiocyanate Reaction” on YouTube. Mindblowing :P)
I will definitely check that out. What would you consider your greatest accomplishment in your career?
I’m sure most would answer with a truly moving moment or a huge accomplishment of skill, but mine is much more subtle. The proudest moment of my career was when I was standing alone in the Model Prep Hall of one of the sub-sonic wind tunnels and I looked up to see a cable trough I had installed 10 years earlier as an 20 year old kid with a head of ideas and I always wanted to come back to NASA-Langley to stay and little did I know I’d be in that exact same spot a decade later remembering that moment and looking back at all the hardships and experiences that had gotten me to where I am today.
How amazing is that! Let’s talk about inspiration. What was the best piece of advice that was given to you that has really stuck with you through your life?
I think the best piece of advice was an off-hand comment my Dad told me years and years ago when I was younger and mad about something not going the way I had hoped and saying I regretted doing it at all (The event itself has long since passed my memory :P) but what my Dad told me next was something that has stuck with me and will, for the rest of my days was this: “The only experience you should regret is one you don’t learn from” and it’s stuck with me as a guiding principle since.
There’s so much incredible pressure on children and teenagers today. Not only are they having to navigate childhood and the social pressures from it, but now there is a pressure online for them to cultivate a brand with social media, something that my parents never prepared me for, nor will I be able to fully prepare my son for when the day comes. Every small thing you say and do, especially online, can be scrutinized to the 10th degree, even years after the fact and there’s so much pressure for them not to make mistakes.
Screwing up is part of the human experience and there’s almost always immediate consequences and it’s easy to forget that a negative experience is absolutely something you can learn from. From having jobs we hate or being with people we can’t stand, we learn something just as important as what we want out of life, we learn what we *don’t* want out of life and what we’re not willing to put up with or compromise bits of ourselves for, which is equally important.
Thank you so much Aaron, for talking to us today. I want to end on one last question and it is incredibly serious. If a group of astronauts and a group of cavemen got into a fight, who would win?
I LOVE SILLY QUESTIONS!! 😀 I also think this question is not nearly as silly as it appears and children can learn loads from the answer. Earth has always been a very dangerous place to live. For the 250,000 years we’ve been on the planet as evolved humanity, we have always had to fight tooth and nail just to survive, so early humanity was adapted VASTLY differently to deal with all of the constant danger around us. Early humans were physically developed beyond the peak physical conditioning of even the best Olympic athletes of today, just because of the dangerous way of life.
It absolutely was survival of the fittest and only the strongest, fastest and most durable humans survived by outrunning, outwitting and outhunting its’ competition. It can be easy for us, with our large brains, to look at our ancestors as simple creatures, but they were survival MACHINES capable of what we would consider superhuman physical abilities. So sadly, as smart as our unlucky astronauts are and the amazing amount of things they’re capable of, I think I’d have to hand victory to the cave people if it came down to a simple fight…
This question reminds me of one of my favorite Youtube videos done by a group called Kurzgesagt, who do WONDERFUL videos that explain otherwise really complicated issues in wonderfully entertaining animations. Check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGiQaabX3_o and they go more in depth about early humanity that I didn’t think about before I saw it!
Wow! Another victory for the cavemen! Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions for us at Questions To Inspire and thanks everyone for reading. Be sure to check out some of our other interviews and stay tuned for new interviews in the future!