Growing up in Huntsville, AL: A Child of NASA Culture


For me, my indoctrination into the NASA culture all started in Huntsville, Alabama in 1982.  Everyone thinks it’s unique to have actually been born in Huntsville, as most folks around here are “transplants.”  Admittedly, we moved overseas for a while when I was young, but, in addition to yearly trips to visit, we had moved back to Huntsville by the time I was to start first grade.  On my first day of school in the US I walked into Roger B. Chaffee Elementary School where I saw a plaque in the foyer regarding the school’s name sake and a space themed mural in the cafeteria. My first American field trip was to the Space and Rocket Center.  In fact, we went to the Space and Rocket Center at least once every year while attending Chaffee.

Everyone has their own version of home.  Whenever I get home from a trip, driving on I-565 from either the airport or the interstate, I pass the Space and Rocket Center and know that I am home.  The Saturn V (an exact replica) on display outside at 363 feet tall towers above everything and even has a camera at the top used by the local weather stations to show current weather.  There’s also the Space Shuttle Pathfinder (the full-sized test-model) sitting out there, complete with external tank and solid rocket boosters.  And a newer addition to the museum is an actual retired Saturn V being displayed horizontally inside the Davidson Center.  Despite being on display indoors, the entire front of the Davidson Center is made up of windows allowing for a full view of the massive rocket.  This is home.

On field trips, we’d learn about Werner Von Braun and the beginnings of the US Space Program.  We’d watch space themed movies in their giant domed movie theater. At the end of the day, we’d eat the astronaut ice cream sold in the gift shop.  I even went for a weekend at Space Camp with my Girl Scout troop, where we got to take part in examples of astronaut training and missions.

My personal exposure to NASA didn’t stop there though.  My own father worked on NASA projects starting when we returned to Huntsville, and continuing even to this day, still working as a contract engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center.  Marshall Space Flight Center is one of NASA’s primary centers and is involved in the design, test, fabrication, and/or continuing support for NASA’s launch programs and the International Space Station, as well as quite a few other science and engineering endeavors.  My father went to work early in the morning and, even after getting home, would work late into the night.  He brought home the patches and pictures from missions he worked on.  He was at Cape Canaveral on business for most of my birthdays in elementary and middle school.  Apparently, NASA likes to launch things on my birthday.

Some kids might have been resentful of such a time suck on one of their parents, but my father shared his love of NASA and space with me.  I collected those patches he brought home (I still have a box full of them at home).  I bought a plastic Space Shuttle toy with my own allowance, and I hung on every space related word anyone said.

Much as I had gone to an elementary school named for a hero astronaut, my high school was named for Virgil I Grissom.  Discovering a strong affinity for mathematics and the physical sciences there led me to study Chemistry and Mathematics in college. As I continued living with my parents through my undergraduate education, I was still privy to my father’s on-going stories of his NASA related work.  At this point he had started helping out propulsion groups with avionics and such, so he was telling me all this cool propulsion stuff.  I was hooked!  I started reading about it, and began hoping I could use my education to become a propellant chemist.

Upon completion of my Bachelor’s degree, I had little luck getting into a propulsion related field.  I accepted a job as a Research Chemist at a Biotech company and started taking classes shortly thereafter, one at a time, towards a Master Degree in Engineering.  After over a year as a Research Chemist I decided to speed things along towards my goal of working in propulsion.  I left my job, pulled out my 401k, and headed off to graduate school.  I was officially accepted into the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville as a graduate student the next semester, after I had shown my competency with an appropriate number of prerequisite courses.  I started as a teaching assistant to pay for tuition, and by the following fall I had gotten a research assistantship with the propulsion group at the university.

My graduate research was on the burn rates of solid propellants.  I was testing different solid propellants for the new NASA Constellation program that was to take over for the soon to retire Space Shuttle.   Even before I graduated I had been offered my dream Propulsion Engineer job working on a NASA contract.

It was inevitable for me as the child of NASA culture to want to join the horde of engineers in Huntsville when I grew up; I wasn’t disappointed.  I love the people I work with, the projects I work on, and even the random nerdy Star Trek jokes that aren’t so uncommon.  I’ve gotten to see both small scale and large scale solid rocket and liquid engine tests.  I’ve laid my hands on hardware that has been to space, and will go there again. The best part is that I’ve gotten to contribute to it.

I still get chills when I watch the video of a NASA launch.


This post is written by Ashley F Penton

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