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Engineering mechanics alum bridges the NASA generation gap

Engineering mechanics alum Garret Fitzpatrick tests a NASA spacesuit, equipped with a variety of survival tools in case an astronaut bails out of a Space Shuttle orbiter.

Engineering mechanics alum Garret Fitzpatrick tests a NASA spacesuit, equipped with a variety of survival tools in case an astronaut bails out of a Space Shuttle orbiter. (large image)

“It’s not easy to generalize about 70 million people,” says Garret Fitzpatrick (BSEMA ’07). Yet that’s exactly what he’s been doing for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Fitzpatrick and three other young NASA employees were invited earlier this year to participate in a panel discussion about how NASA can reconnect with people younger than 30—the age group known as “Generation Y.” (See the full article, NASA’s Gen Y Speaks Out).

This group, which will soon be the taxpayer base supporting NASA, does not in general view the agency as the pinnacle of technology the way their parents did. Many don’t see the relevancy of current projects like the International Space Station or the Mars rovers.

The NASA moon landings inspired Generation X. The Challenger and Columbia disasters have affected Generation Y.

To outline these issues and the general characteristics of Gen Y—such as independence and an expectation of immediacy, thanks to the Internet—Fitzpatrick and his colleagues developed a PowerPoint presentation for the panel discussion.

The presentation made it to the desk of top NASA administrators. Now Fitzpatrick and the others have spoken at multiple NASA conferences— including one with Buzz Aldin, the second astronaut to set foot on the moon, in the audience.

Intended to facilitate conversation about how NASA can use new approaches to engage people in the agency’s missions, the presentation has generated a lot of feedback—positive and negative—from NASA and the public.

For Fitzpatrick, it’s been a whirlwind. After all, it’s still his first year on the job.

Fitzpatrick began working for NASA as a co-op his junior year at UW-Madison, where he studied engineering mechanics and astronautics.

He says he took full advantage of UW-Madison’s flexible co-op program, studying abroad while not working at NASA. He studied in Ireland and Russia, which he researched in-depth to obtain a certificate in international engineering. Additionally, he has backpacked through Europe and Asia.

The international experience has helped Fitzpatrick tremendously in his work at NASA.

“Talking to a room full of NASA senior managers can be nerve-racking, especially when the message you’re conveying is one about changing some very traditional approaches,” he says.

“But then I think about crossing the border into Vietnam on foot with a backpack and a travel book, then taking a 36-hour bus ride crammed among people who don’t speak English, yet they treat you like you’re a long-lost relative. Presentations don’t seem as stressful anymore.”

Fitzpatrick is originally from Westmont, Illinois. When deciding where to go to college, he watched most of his high school friends chose the University of Illinois. He knew he wanted something different and headed north to Madison.

His try-something-new mentality parallels how he views NASA. “Space exploration is going out of your comfort zone on a big scale,” he says. “Continually learning and growing on a very large level is the main motivation at NASA.”

For Fitzpatrick, NASA is an inspiration to challenge the impossible, and the research helps solve Earth-based problems. Learning how to keep people alive on the moon, for example, could produce a new energy source, Helium-3, as well as innovative waste management strategies or manufacturing processes.

When not presenting to managers, Fitzgerald works as a shuttle crew escape engineer. His team develops the orange suits worn by astronauts in case they need to bail out of a Space Shuttle orbiter.

“My group basically exists for a bad day,” he says, explaining that the suits contain a variety of survival tools, including parachutes, life preservers, oxygen and global positioning systems.

Fitzpatrick advises other students interested in NASA to have a well-rounded education. “There isn’t a recipe to follow to work for NASA. I think what NASA really values is diverse experiences,” he says.

In the future, Fitzpatrick wants to go into space as an astronaut, in keeping with his passion for crossing borders and pushing boundaries.

“JFK said: ‘We choose to go to the moon, and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,’” he says.

“I didn’t come to NASA to try to solve the easy problems. I came here because we’re in the business of doing things that haven’t been done before.”

At UW-Madison,
NASA is in the air

Engineering faculty and students have strong ties to the U.S. space agency.

NASA has been busy. In the week of July 7, 2008, alone, the Phoenix Mars Lander picked up soil samples and International Space Station astronauts walked in space.

Though these missions may seem light years away, the people who help make them happen aren't quite so distant. The UW-Madison College of Engineering has connections to NASA in several ways from a student organization whose members conduct experiments in zero gravity and a co-op student who builds lunar rovers to a recent alumnus who works on space suits and a faculty member who offers advice on some of NASA's toughest problems.