My recent trip to LA

I love that the world can be both so small and so large. I don’t mean that you find yourself on vacation in Rome surrounded by millions of strangers and happen to bump into an old college friend (although those kinds of coincidences can feel quite odd). I’m referring instead to expecting to run into an old friend in a strange city because over time you seem to know someone everywhere. Family and friends move around for so many reasons – career, cost of living, or whim – and the older you get the more likely it is that you can fly to a particular city and have a friend to call on.

Now that I’ve been out of college for a number of years, I’ve realized that the same thing happens in any given field or interest area. Stay in an industry long enough and people you went to college with, worked with, interned with, or whatever, will tend to move around until you can find an acquaintance at all the important companies or institutions.

This made itself apparent this past weekend on a quick trip to the Los Angeles area to visit some friends and family. My wife and I weren’t in town at all for geeky reasons – we just wanted to see some old friends who deserved a visit – but space follows me these days. It’s not exactly amazing that we know some folks that work at Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They are old engineering friends from high school and college, after all. But just because I know someone from SpaceX – who very, very graciously offered us a quick tour of the main factory – doesn’t mean I am somehow an insider. It just means I know someone. This is a hard concept for a lot of people in this world to realize and is why you end up with groupies and name-droppers and people like that. A person needs a good dose of humility to avoid the slippery slope that leads to vanity.

This was one of those "seeing a friend in Rome" coincidences

The last Space Shuttle External Tank also happened to be in town

I received my needed dose of humility when I was led down the hall from the visitor entrance at 1 Rocket Road, around the corner past mission control, out under a flown Dragon capsule, and saw the assembly lines of tanks, engines, and spacecraft in SpaceX’s flashiest factory. After a lifetime of being a space geek, 4 years in college, a couple of internships, and 7 years working at JSC, somehow I hadn’t realized that I’d actually never visited a facility where rockets are being built.

My mind had somehow glossed over this with the illusion that I had. After all, I have been to all the famous NASA rocket parks at JSC, KSC, and MSFC, not to mention each of National Air and Space Museum’s locations a number of times. I’ve seen rockets; I’ve seen a space shuttle launch; I’ve seen a Falcon 9 launch; I’ve been inside the VAB on a tour. But seeing those places is quite different from walking into a facility where photography is not allowed (another concept foreign to me from my years at JSC) and seeing an assembly line of Merlin 1 rocket engines getting ready for integration into the famous Falcon 9 “octaweb.” The images of massive tanks being welded, payload fairings being laid up, and Dragon capsules being integrated, are burned into my mind. I have no illusions that the factory is deliberately designed to leave me in awe. But it doesn’t matter. The point probably would have been made just as well at the ULA or Orbital ATK factories: it’s a big damn world.

Flight hardware! (Photo via Steve Jurvetson’s Flickr)


I felt absolutely ignorant walking around that factory. I have a degree in aerospace engineering and yet many of the details of what I saw on Saturday escape me. The world is big in both these gulfs of knowledge, but also the gulfs of time and experience. I last saw my high school classmate at least many years ago, if not a decade. His experience at SpaceX, watching it grow from a struggling startup in 2008 to a dominant industry force today, is vastly different from my experience in a steady job at NASA, surrounded by the always present glory of manned spaceflight but also at the whims of politics, and the morale roller coaster that provides. He has hands on knowledge of spacecraft design, while I am one of some hundreds of people in the world who know what it is like to operate a modern manned spacecraft. This is the largeness of the world that hit home for me last Saturday.

And yet, sitting and chatting over a meal with several Virgin Galactic employees gave me a feeling of smallness, like we are all in this together regardless of badge or funding source. It occurs to me now that networking is not important just for selfish reasons of career growth. It is also important to stay out of the trap of living in a bubble, of thinking that your little slice of the world is the most important. I can’t feel good about what I do without the context of how it fits into the bigger picture of what everyone is doing, not just in Houston and Los Angeles but around the world.

It is all too easy to let the size of the world become overwhelming. How can I have an influence among 5 million people in my city? A hundred million in my country? Seven billion in my world? How can I have an original idea? Surely I am not the only one to have thoughts like these from time to time. One way to make the world small again is to create and preserve relationships with other people doing the things you care about. They might show you some “flight hardware” and then you will be hard pressed not to feel motivated.

May 24, 2016 10:50 pm

3 Responses to “My recent trip to LA”

  • Crystal McCoy says:

    This is so awesome and well written and really sounds like such a fabulous and unexpected treat! Thanks for sharing it with us. It was so fantastic to get to meet you and your lovely wife Leah! Thank you so much for taking time to share your world at JSC with us! It is a memory I will treasure and look forward to coming back in the near future! Stay excited…what you do is important!

  • X says:

    Hi Ben,

    Great read! Very insightful.

    When you get a chance to tour a SpaceX facility, being a NASA employee, do you not see them as a competitor? Since the beginning of SpaceX’s existence, I’ve always been curious how NASA executives view them. From the outside perspective, they are a privately funded company competing and performing on the same level as NASA. You mentioned the sheer amazement you felt just walking through their facilities. I guess the point that I am getting to is that if SpaceX can perform at such amazing levels to rival that of NASA, in a relatively short amount of time, then why does the government use tax money to fund NASA anymore? It would seem that by privatizing space exploration, NASA operations, etc., it may breed more competition amongst privately funded companies – the need to use tax dollars on NASA is pointless if it can be privately funded by investors and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. Am I completely wrong here? I figured asking a NASA employee who is thoroughly impressed with what I would call the “competition, is going to produce a great answer.

    Either way, thanks for sharing!

    • Ben H. says:

      No. SpaceX is not a competitor but a direct NASA contractor. Walking the factory floor, I got to see at least one Dragon capsule under construction that will launch cargo to the ISS in just a few months. They are an important part of our mission.

      SpaceX is not completely privately funded. NASA is paying them billions of dollars for cargo and later crew delivery to the space station. They are most certainly colleagues and I cheer for every one of their successful launches.

      NASA has never been a place that cranks out rockets in a factory at SpaceX. NASA designs and contracts rockets and spacecraft and then other people, like SpaceX, build it. Even NASA’s SLS, which is ostensibly a “NASA rocket” is built at commercial company factories (Boeing) not a NASA facility. The only difference in this case is that SpaceX has their own ambitions beyond making money off of their NASA contracts.

      The bottom line is that you are right that NASA’s scope and goals may change due to companies like SpaceX. NASA may scope back and maybe do a limited subset of what it does today, but it will never go away. NASA is important as an administration to organize and execute the exploration and research goals of the US government.

      Thanks for your question.

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