HUNTSVILLE, Ala., May 3, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Exploration is all about experiencing new challenges, and Dr. Paul McConnaughey would know. He's found a way to explore and discover new environments both professionally and personally.
Years of running and biking, of training for and recovering from marathons, duathlons, 5Ks and adventure runs around the world – even on the Great Wall of China – have given him a keen appreciation for planning, discipline and teamwork. All qualities he has used for more than 30 years in his day job at NASA helping guide the nation's space program.
He'll be sharing his sense of adventure of the space variety with other avid travelers during this week's Travel Blogger Exchange (TBEX) conference at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It's all about chasing the challenge, experiencing different cultures and seeking out new experiences that keeps him going.
"Every day is different," said McConnaughey, the associate director, technical, in the Office of the Center Director at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. He's been in the position since August 2015, serving as Marshall's chief technical officer, working to keep the talented teams at the center focused on delivering high-quality engineering capabilities, space systems, scientific research and emerging technologies.
That big picture role is particularly interesting now, as testing of flight hardware is underway at Marshall for NASA's Space Launch System – the most powerful rocket in the world, designed to carry astronauts and equipment on exploration missions deeper into space than ever before, paving the way for our Journey to Mars. It's an exciting time in the space industry.
McConnaughey didn't imagine a career in space exploration but was intrigued by the sciences as he grew up in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, a small town near Lake Michigan. His interests led him to earth and environmental sciences and to classes at the University of Montana in Missoula, then at Oregon State University in Corvallis, where he earned a bachelor's degree in soil science. McConnaughey received a fellowship to study at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and earned both master's and doctoral degrees.
He taught mathematics and soil physics for three years at Mississippi State University in Starkville, then got the opportunity to put his graduate school experience in computational fluid dynamics to use on spaceships instead of soil.
"You think, 'What do I want to do with the rest of my life? Go on and publish papers? Or do I want to go and actually create space hardware?'" McConnaughey said. "That ended up being a no-brainer – space hardware."
He joined Marshall in 1986 as an engineer in the Systems Dynamics Laboratory, and has since worked on space vehicle technologies of joint interest to NASA and the U.S. Air Force. He's also served in the Exploration Systems Development Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, where he oversaw the integration of SLS, the Orion spacecraft and Ground Support Development and Operations programs.
Through it all McConnaughey has been an avid runner and traveler. He was a finisher in the 2012 Boston Marathon, and in March was part of a team of 12 from Marshall completing a 195-mile relay race from Chattanooga to Nashville.
After a year of training, McConnaughey and his wife, Angie, trekked to the 20,200-foot summit of Stok Kangri in northern India, and three days later ran a marathon through dusty, high desert trails. They are now planning and training for a bicycle camping adventure along North America's Great Divide, from Banff, Canada, to Mexico – a 2,700 mile trip.
"Training and qualifying for an event like this is similar to running a NASA project. You set a goal and a plan, work with a disciplined and diligent team, then execute," McConnaughey said. "Making the decision to participate is exciting and so is the event itself, but you've got the pain in between. There are a lot of things we do in NASA that are like that. All the hard stuff occurs in the middle, the essential 'grunge work' of development, testing and retesting, and we do that very well at Marshall."
Developing the knowledge, tools and vehicles for successful space travel is certainly difficult, but never boring. SLS will enable human exploration missions to deep space, and that's exciting even by NASA's cosmic standards.
"I'm here because I love my job. I feel like I can have a significant influence on the future of Marshall and the agency," McConnaughey said. "And, more importantly, to pass the torch to the next generation. Ultimately, a job is about the people you impact in your life, who they are and what they do after you're gone."
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