This article by Drew was published in Live magazine in February 2016. It is included in the life-skills book MTO Wisdom at Amazon
Believe it or not, at only 23 years old I was a designer on the Space Shuttle. Major design work was just starting in 1973 at the main orbiter contractor, North American Rockwell, in Downey, California. The same core group of engineers who had designed the moon landing Apollo program for Rockwell was then designing the new Space Shuttle. I asked some questions, did some research, and requested a job interview in a key design group.
Young hubris being what it is, I wasn’t surprised when I got the job. My resume would have looked good to NASA: a Mechanical Engineering degree with high honor from Auburn, up-to-date computer-aided design skills, and a secret security clearance from the US government. I’d already passed the professional engineering exam, plus had experience as an engineer on the Delta Rocket program and as an engineering assistant on the F-15 fighter development. So I could even read aircraft blueprints. But most important, I knew that my relatively low salary would bring the average salary down thereby increasing Rockwell’s profits on the project.
That’s how I joined the group of veteran engineering heroes. Those guys were geniuses with degrees from MIT, Cal Tech, and Stanford plus years of experience on the Apollo. They were so nerdy as to make me seem cool. My credentials weren’t so impressive anymore. I stayed busy keeping the brilliant engineers’ pencils sharpened and checking their calculations for minor mistakes. I hoped that eventually I’d get my chance. That chance came in a surprising manner and was bigger than I had expected.
After a few weeks, the Shuttle Project Director brought in another manager who was more personable, but not as technical as the manager who had hired me. Together the two managers were supposed to share the pool of design engineers. That arrangement lasted only a couple of weeks. Their leadership styles were just too different. The Project Director solved the problem by telling the managers to split the group and the systems they were responsible to design. The original technical manager took all of his brilliant engineers. The new personable manager got the old guys, plus the paper shufflers and me. Their primary role, like mine, was to keep the average salary down.
Crushed is not adequate to describe my feelings at being relegated to that group. My dream was dashed. At the time, I was a new Christian just exploring my faith. I couldn’t believe that God would let this happen to me. One of the brilliant engineers, also a Christian and my friend, understood how I felt and came to console me. “Don’t you believe that God is running your life?” he gently asked.
“God must be,” I answered bitterly. “If I were running my life, I’d be doing a better job!” As the next few days passed, the only reason I didn’t resign is that I didn’t want the humiliation of going back to my hometown in Alabama defeated.
The new personable manager soon realized what had happened. He was stuck with the engineers nobody else wanted. One afternoon he came to my desk, where I was sitting morosely, with an armload of blueprints. “Here, Drew. Just try to do the best you can,” he said and dropped the drawings in front of me. Then he simply walked away. I can still remember the tone of hopelessness in his voice.
I’ve never entered a lottery. But I know the feeling of winning one. This was responsibility I would never have gotten while assisting the brilliant engineers. Of course, the first thing I did was apologizing to God. I’m not sure, but it seemed like He was laughing at me. For certain, I got an impression of His forgiveness telling me, “It’s okay, young one.”
Immediately I started designing our group’s portion of the system. The work made me study the advanced chapters in my engineering textbooks, which my undergraduate professors hadn’t been able to cover. And to be honest, the brilliant engineers in the other group coached me a bit privately, especially my Christian friend. Everything was new and needed fresh thinking for the first reusable spacecraft. Without any Apollo experience, all of my thinking was fresh. I created some significant innovations. That was an exhilarating time as the basic shuttle design was created.
Eventually the Project Director realized that the design groups were imbalanced and brought them back together. Now the brilliant engineers were checking my designs. And my designs all passed with only minor modifications.
Being an Alabama country boy, three years living in Southern California were enough. I applied and was accepted to graduate school at Georgia Tech. There I specialized in compressible fluid flow, which had been a major area of application working on the Shuttle. My thesis in this specialty led to a wonderful job as a research engineer in a small southern town.
The personable new manager who had given me a chance in spite of his misgivings was very pleased with the work I had done for him. He released me from any obligation to return to California, even though Rockwell had paid all of the tuition for my graduate degree at Georgia Tech.
Proverbs 3:5-6 cautions us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” (NAS) Now whenever things in my life haven’t worked out as I had planned, I’ve remembered when I was so arrogant as to think I could run my life better than God. “Take it slow there, fellow,” I tell myself. Sometimes I can sense God still chuckling a bit.