From Dropout to Mission Control
A NASA engineer credits the Army and college support services with putting the Galaxy at his fingertips.
By Jennifer Pocock
Ryan Brown’s mother raised him and a younger sister while struggling with poverty. They moved around a lot. “I valued working and paying bills over my high school education,” he recalls, “so I dropped out in the middle of my senior year.”
This month, Brown will begin his career in NASA’s Mission Control, helping to run the CRONUS system that keeps all computer systems, communications, and cameras running aboard the International Space Station.
What does it take to rise from dropout to the space program? In Brown’s case, it took the Army, a local college, and school support services.
After dropping out, Brown attained his General Educational Development (GED) certificate to get into the Army. There, he spent seven years on active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa, mostly as a support soldier for the Green Berets.
“The Army made me more disciplined,” he said, “but seeing the world also made me value education more.”
The odds are stacked high against people like Brown. A GED isn’t given the same weight as a high school diploma. As of 2014, in fact, the military requires a semester of college as well as a GED. Additionally, people who earn a GED instead of a diploma earn less money throughout life, no matter what type of education they pursue in the future. GED holders with a bachelor’s degree will earn a whopping 23 percent less than those with a diploma and a bachelor’s degree.
Upon leaving the military, Brown discovered that he was having a hard time finding a job as a veteran with a GED, even with an outstanding military résumé.
“I even got turned down for a furniture delivery job because I didn’t have prior furniture delivery experience. I was so frustrated,” he said.
He finally landed a plumbing job and then an electrician apprenticeship. During that time, he started using his GI Bill benefits to take evening courses in algebra at Black Hills State University.
“That was testing the waters to see what academic life would be like. I ended up thoroughly enjoying it,” he says. This was a key to his success. While many who earn a GED enter college, 77 percent drop out in their first semester, and only about 5 percent ever graduate with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Having caught up in math, Brown secured admission to the South Dakota School of Mines as a computer engineering major. Still, despite his acquired military discipline, he says he could not have succeeded without the school’s resources for veterans.
“My heart at my school has been with the Veteran’s Resource Center,” he said just after earning a bachelor’s degree in December. “We are all non-traditional students making a career change. There are a lot of stories in the military that you just don’t want to talk about around 18-year-olds. A lot of times, they’re traumatic stories that you don’t want to share with people you don’t know well.”
The resource center is more than a study spot — it’s a home away from home. It gives veterans a place to set their books down on campus and eat lunch, as well as built-in study groups, access to faculty who are veterans, and a place to ask questions about maximizing their GI benefits.
More than that, Brown’s experience as a veteran at school has served him well professionally. “It was like night and day,” he said. “Less than a year before school, I couldn’t get a job delivering furniture, but within a month [of enrolling], SpaceX was interested in talking to me.” This piqued his interest in a space career and eventually led to multiple internships in the prestigious NASA Pathways program and a job in Houston as a CRONUS, or Communication Radio Frequency Onboard Network Utilization Specialist, operator.
Attended 24/7, the CRONUS console in Mission Control plays an integral role in running the ISS and its onboard life support systems. Brown, when on shift, will be the go-to expert for these systems and advise the flight director of any problems with the console.
With the recent stand-downs and official end to the conflict in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of troops will soon be eligible for the GI Bill. “I would encourage any veterans that aren’t sure what to do to try out school,” Brown says. “They might be pleasantly surprised at how industry receives them.”
Jennifer Pocock is assistant editor of Prism.
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