Rocket Man

Life of a rocket scientist:
stress, budget cuts, making dreams real

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From Correspondent John Holliman

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama (CNN) -- The best time in the life of a rocket scientist is the time spent standing by a launch pad or a test stand, watching a brand-new rocket go through performance tests.

For Danny Davis, building rockets, "to make rocket dreams a reality" as he puts it, has been his life for more than a decade. Working at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, his first job at NASA was working on the space shuttle.

"I grew up in the labs, and worked very closely with shuttle components," Davis said. His knowledge of shuttle components is intimate; he's worked with the external tank, the r-feed system and even the solid rocket motors.

Danny Davis

When one of those rockets failed during the final launch of the Challenger space shuttle, Davis said, it made a permanent change in his life. Now, he says, "Every launch is a Challenger replay. That was a very tough time for all of us here."

Challenger's final launch

Challenger blew up after launch January 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

"I was a three-year engineer, and I think it affected all of us. You have to realize what's at stake, the enormous power that you're trying to take care of." Now, he said, he holds his breath until MECO, main engine cut off, eight minutes after launch.

Today, Davis is a manager, and the small rocket project is his baby. After an hour of preparation there's a meeting with his boss, the center's director, to talk about progress on the rocket. It's designed to lift a pound of payload to orbit for a fraction of the cost of sending it up on the shuttle.

engine test

He loves his project, but during these times of severe budget cuts at NASA, he worries about its survival.

"There's a lot of stress associated with this job. You want to keep the project alive, and you've got to constantly sell it, and there is a lot of budget pressure," Davis said.

In the lobby of Davis' office building, a notice is posted warning NASA rocket scientists to look for jobs elsewhere.

layoffs are a constant worry

"Downsizing is a real issue," Davis said. Budget cuts -- mandated not by Congress, but by NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin -- are the source of the downsizing.

In the past five years, NASA has cut its workforce from 24,000 to just over 20,000 employees. Another 3,000 jobs will be cut by the end of the century. So far, 1,500 rocket scientists like Danny Davis have lost their jobs.

Not only does the staff have to learn to be smarter with fewer resources, Davis says, it's also important "to make sure that we are needed, focusing on relevant activities that really do show a payoff, so that you are not vulnerable to extinction."

The pressure is compounded by the fact that nobody knows what a rocket scientist really does -- "Only my Momma," Davis jokes. Congress and the public constantly criticize NASA, and scrutinize the work of scientists like Davis in the search for wasteful spending.

"We're a pretty easy mark because we're out front trying to do some things not easily done. We're very visible to the public. To make those things happen requires a lot of activity, a lot of energy, therefore you have to spend a lot of money," Davis said.

Nevertheless, Davis says, he loves his job. "One thing I really like about the job is that we have a very clear path to betterment of the general public. If our project succeeds, and we're able to place payloads in orbit much cheaper than we do now, a lot of people win. We'll get a lot more research in space."

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