Interview – NASA – Keith Woodman, PhD

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 – Small Business Innovation Research – Keith Woodman, PhD!

Good afternoon, Keith.  Let’s start out with you telling us a little bit  about yourself.

I am NASA’s SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) operations manager for Human Space Exploration. SBIR is a government-wide initiative to help American small businesses by letting them help us develop the technologies we need. My job is to oversee the investment process; tell small businesses what we need and review the technology proposals they come back with. NASA invests close to $200M each year in SBIR companies.

I have worked for Langley Research Center in Hampton VA for thirty years now. It has been a great place to work and supported my education, from community college all the way to a PhD. For the last seven years, I have also taught for American Military University’s graduate space program.

So you have grown with Langley for awhile now. 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?

Since I support Human Space Exploration, I am primarily interested in the technologies that will help our astronauts live and work in low earth orbit (like the International Space Station), on the moon, and eventually Mars. I hope that many of the technologies we develop for space, like new materials and medicines, will help many people here on Earth as well.

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?

Even though I had always wanted to work for NASA, I honestly never thought I would. I was a very average student in high school and no one in my family had ever gone to college. NASA offered an opportunity through the local community colleges for a chance to come and work, provided that you made good grades that first year in college. That gave me a goal and an incentive and that’s all I needed. I became a much better than average student and earned a spot at NASA, and this began a lifelong love of the agency and of academia (like I said, I now have a PhD and teach for a college).

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?

My father always emphasized the importance of math so even though I wasn’t great in other subjects in high school, he demanded I be good at math. Thank goodness he did or else I would not be where I am now. A lot of people think they can’t be good in math and with an attitude like that, they never will be. You have to give math a chance and just keep practicing. If you do, one day it will just “click” and all of a sudden you’ll find that you can be good at math, you might even enjoy it (for example, I loved Calculus!).

It’s hard not be good at math and then not be good at science (like physics) and engineering, they go hand-in-hand. So concentrate of the math first and build off of that. STEM skills are always in high demand and can lead to a lot of opportunities, including NASA

What would you consider your greatest accomplishment in your career?

The thing I cherish most is finishing my PhD which I could not have done without the support of NASA. That’s kind of a short answer so the two runners-ups were developing a technology that was patented (protected by the government) and licensed (a company liked it so much they bought it) and getting to work mission operations for a shuttle launch.

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?

When you are the leader of a team or group, always take responsibility. Don’t try and lay blame on others. If something goes wrong, take responsibility, say “This happened because I didn’t….” and give suggestions about how to make sure the mistake is not repeated. This gives you credibility to those who work for you and those in charge of you

That is really great advice! Thank you so much Keith, 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?

Ah…the greatest managerial response of all…it depends…

It depends on which astronauts we’re talking about, many of our astronauts come from the armed services so know how to fight. Also, if the astronauts are given any time to plan and coordinate they will absolutely win because they are really good at dealing with emergency situations. If you choose the wrong astronauts and don’t give them any preparation time, then the cavemen are going to bonk some heads.

I am giving that point to the astronauts! 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!

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