SOME MORNINGS, WHEN KEVIN VEGA, BELM ’03, pulls into the parking lot at Kennedy Space Center, he can feel the weight of history.
The complex has been the launching point of every American manned space mission since 1968. It is where astronauts left for the moon and where a space station was shot into orbit. Even its appearance conjures feelings of pride and patriotic grandeur: painted onto the side of the center’s centerpiece building, the tallest in rural America, are the NASA “meatball”—as the agency’s logo is affectionately known—and a 20-story-high American flag. “It’s tough to work here and not be inspired,” says Vega, 31. “The history that’s gone on out here is just endless. The workers. The dedication.” These days, though, the center can feel a bit less inspiring. The final space shuttle launched in July 2011, and President Obama has canceled a program that was to become the country’s next giant leap in space exploration. Thousands of NASA and space contractor employees have lost their jobs.
But just because NASA won’t be providing the ride any longer doesn’t mean they’ve completely abandoned manned space flight. Instead, they are banking on private company partners to develop their own space-worthy vehicles that can offer space tourism to private citizens and also give NASA astronauts a ride to the International Space Station. That’s where Vega comes in: as an engineer in NASA’s commercial crew program, it’s his job to make sure these private sector partners have ideas that can fly.
KEVIN VEGA GREW UP IN MIAMI, the child of Cuban-born parents. He doesn’t remember a time in his boyhood when he wasn’t playing with Lego bricks, building creations and tearing them apart. By the time he was 12 years old, he had moved on to taking apart more sophisticated things— a VCR, a television, video game systems. “I wanted to understand how things operated and who thought of these great ideas,” he says, “the inventors and engineers and scientists who came up with [ways] to solve practical issues for mankind and make things a little more efficient and easier.”
He became intrigued by space travel in seventh grade when his Miami middle school class traveled three hours north to tour the Kennedy Space Center. “From then on, I wanted to work for NASA,” Vega says. “The great feats that we [accomplished], the moon landings and so forth—I loved all of it. I also loved the competition part of it, the drive to be the best.”
He was drawn to Wentworth for its program that combined electrical and mechanical engineering. His decision was cemented by an offer to play baseball for the Leopards. He stuck with college baseball for three years, quitting to focus on academics in the five-year electromechanical program. (Vega also met his wife, Pauline Leyson, BIND ’03, at Wentworth; today, they have a one-year-old daughter, Arianna.)
Following his third year, he took a co-op at the School of Public Health at Harvard University; following his fourth year, his second co-op was with Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. After graduating from Wentworth in 2003, Vega had a few job offers—one with Harvard, one in Michigan, and yet another in California. But he moved back to Miami. “I knew God had a different and better plan for me,” says Vega. “So I held out, and a few months later, I got the call to come work for United Space Alliance.”
The job didn’t just get him out of his parents’ house; it put him in the small circle of engineers working directly on NASA spacecraft and brought him within reach of his childhood aspiration. And then, after two years of engineering rocket boosters at United Space Alliance—and 12 years of dreaming of the day—NASA called.
JANUARY 9, 2006. THAT WAS VEGA’S first day at NASA. Even today, he recalls the date and speaks of it with disbelief. “It just seemed so unattainable,just because of the percentage of people who get to work on any one of the space vehicles,” Vega says. “For me, it was really a godsend and a dream come true to get the opportunity to work out here with people who are as passionate as I am.”
By the time he arrived at NASA, the shuttle program was in its twilight years. President George W. Bush had announced plans two years earlier for NASA to return to the moon through a program called Constellation, which would have replaced the space shuttle. But in early 2010, amid a budget crisis and flailing economy, President Obama announced plans to cancel the agency’s efforts to return to the moon.
NASA was left uncertain about its future and its mission. In the months after the announcement, Obama’s vision for the agency began to take shape. Among other plans, he wanted NASA to cooperate with private American companies pursuing ventures in commercial space flight. Ultimately, NASA might even hitch a ride on one of their space vehicles—and an endorsement from the agency might help the private companies develop demand in the public for personal space travel. “NASA’s goal,” Vega says, “is to help develop a commercial entity that can get our astronauts to the International Space Station by 2016.”
Today, Vega is NASA’s chief engineer liaison to aerospace and defense giant Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK), one of seven companies working with NASA to design and develop spacecrafts. In that role, he oversees a team of systems engineers familiar with every phase of the company’s plans, from the electronic systems of an aircraft to its electrical power. Vega spends much of his time inspecting the company’s plans or meeting with ATK personnel to review and test systems on the spacecraft. He has to be intimately familiar with the spacecraft the company is designing so that, when the time comes, he can help the agency decide whether it can depend on a private company to transport its astronauts. “The biggest part of this program is insight into what they’re doing,” Vega says. “The more insight NASA gains, the more comfortable we’ll be.”
Beyond his work with private companies on manned space flight, he also teaches within NASA’s Rocket University, showing other agency engineers how to design a rocket from the ground up—part of NASA’s shift in focus from ground operations to design and development. It’s a way, he says, to help the agency’s remaining employees retool for NASA’s future—whatever it may hold.
IN JANUARY, WHEN FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER Newt Gingrich was stumping for primary votes in Florida, he promised to build an American colony on the moon by 2020. He was roundly mocked by fellow candidates and talk shows alike, both factions attacking the candidate’s espousal of the fantastical rather than the practical. But NASA officials are quick to point out that projects like moon colonies—while sounding like science fiction—are technologically within reach.
After the Florida primary, Charles Miller, a former NASA executive, opined on CNN.com that critics didn’t understand the potential benefits of pushing onward in space. “American history proves that smart, focused action by the US government can jump-start entire new industries that open new frontiers—from western railroads, to the air, to theInternet—and that is exactly where we are today in space,” Miller wrote.
NASA continues to stand at that precipice, armed with the technology and, in some cases, even the equipment to move forward with bold plans. “It’s hard to just forget about what we have done and the possibilities of what we can do,” Vega says. “We just have to adapt to these changes.”
Vega still has the sort of job he dreamed of as a kid. It just no longer looks quite like he had expected. —AMY WIMMER SCHWARB