Cosplay is great, but some among us are truly living their dream. Meet real-life rocket scientist David Hewitt. Although David is returning to Dragon Con’s science- and tech-centric tracks, he also exercises his artistic talents playing bass and singing with fellow space fans in the Nerd Rock band Foot Pound Force. David will appear at Dragon Con in the Science, Space, Makers, and Filk Tracks.
Daily Dragon (DD): So, David, tell us what it’s like to really be a rocket scientist?
David Hewitt (DH): Life as a rocket scientist is both thrilling and boring. What you see us do in the movies and on TV is not really what we do. There is a fair amount of boring work involved with getting ready to launch. It is very challenging because like Scotty said, “I cannae change the laws of physics.”
One thing this field has taught me is that there is no substitute for an intense attention to detail. Of course, this is my dream job and I worked really hard to get here, but as someone once said, if you are able to align your passions with your career, you will never work a day in your life.
DD: In your day job and related extracurricular hijinks. have you ever blown something up? Or come too close for comfort?
DH: Too many times, dating back more than 20 years. You are not a true rocket person until you have been chased by your own creation. Blowups happen, and you need to be prepared for the eventuality. From all of those experiences (including some that I count as one or two of my nine lives), I have learned several critical lessons.
- Never turn your back on a homemade pyrotechnic device, especially if it did not explode when you pressed the button. Chances are, it will when you least expect it.
- There are two types of propulsion engineers: those who have had a foreign object contamination incident, and those who have not.
- Trust but verify. Just because it is marked as “inert” does not mean that it is.
- Check valves rarely do when you need them to. (See SpaceX Crew Dragon Abort Test failure from April of this year.)
- Be sure to debug your code before committing your test setup and sequence to automation by software such as Labview.
- Don’t be lulled into complacency with something you have done many times, especially when it is as dangerous as something involving rocket fuel.
- No matter how innovative and impressive your design is, Mother Nature always gets a vote.
- They already tried it in the 1950s and 1960s. If you think you have a new way of doing rocket science, learn your history before you find out the hard way that your new idea is a bad idea.
DD: What connections have you had with the commercial space industry and how will private enterprise affect future space exploration and even consumer or commuter travel?
DH: I am actually going to talk about that in great detail in my Space Track panel on the Growth of Commercial Space (Friday 5:30PM, Hilton 212–213). I have had many connections starting with my college years in the amateur-sounding rocket Project HALO sponsored by the Huntsville Alabama L5 Society. Our group put a garage-built rocket up 38 miles, launched from a weather balloon, in 1997. This, in turn, spun off two startups, first with High Altitude Research Corporation and then with Orion Propulsion, Inc. That also led us down the path of joining the Ansari X-Prize with our own design a year before it was won. I worked for Orion Propulsion, and we were a small NewSpace startup that had customers in all three major sectors of space: civil, commercial, and military. Orion Propulsion was sold to Dynetics in 2009, and that’s where I’ve been since. I’m able to work in all three areas of space on some really cool projects.
During this time, I was also a part of two different Google Lunar X-Prize teams, and I am proud to say that now I am working on a commercial lunar lander that is scheduled to fly in two years. This lander is a direct product of the efforts on the Google X-Prize from the company Astrobotic Technologies and my company is providing the propulsion system. The prize may have expired, but it spurred several companies on. Private enterprise is affecting current space exploration in a great many ways, and it is an exciting time to be in the business. One day space travel will open up to consumers and commuters, but the current innovations need to continue so that the cost of access can be greatly reduced.
DD: When should future enthusiasts begin learning about the possibilities of living and working in space? Do you have any suggestions for parents who want their kids to learn more about what space science has to offer?
DH: As early as possible. I am a lifetime space nut—my earliest space memory was watching the first space shuttle launch in 1981 on TV. I was hooked after that at age four. There are so many resources out there, if you know where to look for, age-appropriate books, toys, and games that can help to kindle the spark of interest. In fact, in this day and age we have so many more resources than when I was growing up. There are tons of YouTube videos that have great lessons as well.
I also highly recommend Space Camp in Huntsville if it is within affordability for parents. I’m a two-time alumni as well as a former Space Camp counselor, so I have some bias here. My thought on that is to wait until middle school age because that is where the program gets really interesting.
DD: How does creativity factor into work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?
DH: It goes hand in hand. I can safely say that the vast majority of people I encounter in STEM are creative super geniuses in many different ways. Dragon Con is a great gathering place for the creatives as well. I am always recharged after a weekend at the con because of the inspiration and conversation that I have with creative super geniuses in attendance.
DD: What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in a STEM or STEM-related fields?
DH: Follow your passions and don’t ever give up if something is hard—everything in STEM worth pursuing will be hard. The learning process is different for every individual, but never stop learning and you will find yourself leveling up, just like in video games. You need to master the foundational skills, and it is better if you can before college. If you are a high school student, take as many AP courses as you can get away with, especially calculus, chemistry, physics, and biology. You will most likely have to take these classes again in college if you are pursuing a STEM degree, but practice makes perfect. Finally, never lose perspective and remember to have a good time while doing all of this learning. Allow for your other creative skills to be fostered and grown as well, especially in the arts, with writing, music and visual art. If you are creatively well rounded, it will make you better at what you are doing in your chosen STEM field.
My path was a winding one into my career with several detours, one of which being my pursuit of other creative passions as a musician and songwriter. I am in a nerd rock band of engineers called Foot Pound Force, and we have been performers at Dragon Con for several years now, including a couple where we were guest performers. This year we have three performances thanks to our good friends in the Filk Music Track. We are going to have an acoustic set in the Art Show (Sunday 3–5PM, Hyatt Grand Hall), and we have an electric set that night in the Filk Track (Sunday 10PM, Hyatt Hanover F–G). We will also be participating World of Superheroes Tribute Show (Saturday 7PM, Hanover C–E) with a song or two and sharing the stage with all of the other Filk performers.
All four of us in my band are in STEM careers and we have so much to say about the geek culture in the process. Our drummer, Brandon Whitworth, is going to be on his first panel, where he will be talking about Hollywood Explosions vs Real Explosions with me on the Science Track (Friday 2:30PM, Hilton 210–211). I roped him in when the track director came calling with idea solicitations. I will be helping out on this panel, but Brandon is an expert on explosions. The fun thing about Dragon Con performances, other than the audience interactions, is the camaraderie we have developed with several other performers who are also in STEM fields.
I live in a heavily STEM-focused city in Huntsville. There are more PhDs in my town than almost anywhere else. A byproduct of this is a very deep well of creativity from so many areas. I have a few friends that have applied their skills and passions into cosplay and have become recognized masters of that craft. I always look forward to seeing what they come up with for the con. I have several costumes myself, but this year I am going to be marching in my first Dragon Con Parade with a group called the Huntsville Fremen. One of my costuming friends decided to make a costume that will need eight people to be in, plus two spotters. The costume is a 45-foot sandworm from Dune, set up like a Chinese parade dragon. I will be one of the segments of the worm and we will be marching with the rest of the Dune cosplayers. This one will be so much fun.
Visit David Hewitt and Foot Pound Force at: