James works with rockets. As an aerospace engineer, his particular work is powering the rocket which will launch the Artemis missions, first in 2020 to the moon. After this will be a manned mission, Artemis II in 2022; then Artemis III, a manned moon-landing in 2024. In 2016 James launched a School of Philosophy in Huntsville!
James Maddox, Huntsville Alabama, USA
I graduated from university as a nuclear engineer, then worked for nearly a decade in the nuclear industry before I had the sense that another direction was needed. The nuclear work had lost its attraction, and I was keen to find a place in which to participate more fully in the work of philosophy. I needed to redress an inner imbalance, a disequilibrium, so that I could be of better service to the world without denying the needs of the world within.
I reflected on what I thought was really cool, and that had always been outer space and technology. Who doesn’t like rockets, right? I liked the idea of participating in an effort that might inspire the world to feel the unity of the human race. Fifty years ago when men landed on the Moon, everyone said: “We did it!”, not “America did it”. I really liked that sentiment. Aerospace engineering, particularly rocketry supporting the peaceful exploration of this beautiful universe, was calling me.
The original moon rocket which launched the Apollo missions was designed and tested in Huntsville, before launching from Florida. Huntsville is the center of the aerospace industry, home to the second largest research park in the nation behind only Silicon Valley. It is a vibrant and growing community with a STEM-based (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) economy.
My natural inclination was to work with propulsion systems – the part that makes the rocket ‘go’. This is the focus of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, in charge of the next moon rocket.
The move to Huntsville answered the discontent I was experiencing by providing a place of inspiring technological work in aerospace and a strong economy with plenty of engineering work.
I now work as an aerospace engineer, specifically in the area of propulsion, supporting the testing of the Space Launch System (SLS) – the next moon rocket. All rockets carry “avionics boxes”, which are like the brain and nervous system of the rocket. These have to be tested rigorously for years to ensure their correct behavior during nominal and off-nominal conditions.
Space exploration – why?
When we think about space, a reasonable question is: why bother? It’s expensive. It’s dangerous. We are not without troubles on terra firma. I respect these concerns but would just offer that the universe is a breathtakingly beautiful and majestic place. People would not know that, if not for the brave hearts and keen minds that have opened up the journey there.
It inspires awe and wonder, and we can do with more of that. It also strengthens the care for and wonder at our own beautiful home. Many feel that the modern environmental movement was largely inspired by the photos taken by astronauts, not of the Moon, but of Earth. They captured in a few images the extraordinary beauty and fragility of our home amongst the stars.
Space travel therefore offers a complement to the quest for beauty and meaning in life. I say complement, not substitute; I think that all we can find “out there” we can find “in here”, and then some. The adventure of space is not unlike the adventure of philosophy. As T S Eliot said: ‘we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.’
Testing the rocket
I lead a small team that reviews test data against test case objectives to confirm that the Main Propulsion System behaves as expected. We investigate and report any problems that our analysis discovers. This vehicle is planned to launch the Artemis I mission in late 2020, which is not very far away. So, it is an exciting and propitious time to be in the industry.
A typical day involves refining some aspect of our test evaluation tools and processes, which have been built and updated over time by trial and error to improve efficiency. Our work is to ensure that the vehicle will perform safely and meet its mission objectives.
Our testing work is one of several tasks on the critical path. This means that delays to our work mean delays for the entire program. So as the weeks come and go, the sense of urgency rises. Engineers like myself are training for console (see photo), so that they can respond to problems arising real-time during countdown and flight. There’s a gradual sense of growing intensity that touches all aspects of the work.
As we prepare for the Artemis I mission, our team has had the support of space flight veterans who were around in the days of Apollo, Skylab, and Shuttle. They share not only expertise, but also warnings. While the work is inspiring and exciting, it is also very dangerous, as attested by the loss of 17 astronauts flying or working in space vehicles since NASA’s inception.
It was in this time period that the prospect of a philosophy group began to feel appropriate and practicable, and so after making enquiries etc, we started offering classes three years ago. Some students have been introduced to meditation, including my eldest daughter.
What I have experienced with this journey is that life and philosophy are ultimately the same thing. Sometimes, they can seem different, even as though one competes with the other. But in moments of clarity, it seems that the goals of both are the same – happiness, fulfilment, service, wonder, beauty. Philosophy provides continuing reminders that the beauty is my own – but belongs no less to others. It has provided me with a framework and an inspiration within which my life can unfold. Life and philosophy – I need not choose one over the other – I choose both, because they are the same journey.
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