How many of us grew up watching I Dream of Jeannie or Star Trek and wondered what it would be like to be involved in the space program? Well, Major Nelson and Captain Kirk can't tell us how it feels to be a senior official at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center ( KSC), but Woodrow Whitlow Jr. certainly can. Whitlow (pictured left) was named deputy director of KSC in September 2003; he gives MiSciNet the inside scoop on his life and work at NASA.
Whitlow grew up in Inkster, Michigan, about 30 kilometers west of Detroit. He always liked math and science, probably because he was such a fast learner. His parents encouraged his interest with science-related gifts. "My first real science toy was a telescope that I got for Christmas when I was in the eighth grade. After a few years of use, I gave it to my girlfriend's [current wife of 33 years] brothers," Whitlow says. His passion for science continued to flourish even though he wasn't quite sure which path he would take. "At one point in junior high school, I wanted to become a chemist and tried to get a chemistry set. Although I never got it, I spent a lot of time after class in the chemistry laboratory in high school. I did this even after I had decided that I wanted to study aeronautics and astronautics and become an astronaut," Whitlow explains.
Whitlow's urge to succeed may be traced back to his parents and their philosophy on having a good work ethic. He says, "My parents always insisted that my brother, sisters, and I be good citizens in school and do our best. They didn't try to steer me in any one direction but were determined that I would have every opportunity to be successful."
Although many mentors played important roles in Whitlow's career, his high school guidance counselor, the late Charles Ealy, insisted that he attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He did and earned bachelor of science (1974), master of science (1975), and doctor of philosophy (1979) degrees in aeronautics and astronautics.
In 1979 Whitlow became a research scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Although he had expertise in many disciplines, he specialized in computational and theoretical fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, unsteady flows, and aeroelasticity. Whitlow quickly rose through the ranks at NASA, becoming a senior research scientist and program manager for both the Structures and Dynamics Group and Astrophysics. He also headed the branches of Aeroservoelasticity, Unsteady Aerodynamics, and Aeroelastic Analysis and Optimization.
Whitlow's meteoric rise continued during the 1990s as director of the Critical Technologies Division, Office of Aeronautics, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., deputy director of the Aeronautics Program Group, and later deputy director of the Airframe Systems Program Office back at Langley. His illustrious and prolific 24-year career in aeronautics research culminated with his present position as deputy director of KSC. He is responsible for assisting the director in determining and implementing center policy and managing and executing KSC missions. For more on Whitlow's career, see his NASA biography.
Balancing Family Life and Career
Whitlow's family has always been very supportive of his career even though they had to endure periods of separation because of work. Whitlow spent a year at NASA Headquarters as a participant in the Professional Development Program (1989-90) and recalls the sacrifices made on both sides. "Each weekend, either I went home to Virginia or my wife and two daughters visited me in Washington, D.C. When I accepted a promotion in 1994, I commuted on the weekends. This lasted for 8 months. After accepting a position at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, I moved to Ohio about 5 months before my wife could join me. Again, I went to Virginia most weekends. Now that I am at the Kennedy Space Center, my wife has yet to move, so we travel most weekends. My wife earned an MBA and has had outstanding career, but when I move, she always has to find new employment. Words can't describe what this kind of support means to me."
Although the Whitlows have moved around, they still found time to raise two successful children. He explains, "Mary, the older daughter, earned a bachelor's degree from James Madison University and a master's from Howard University. My younger daughter, Natalie, earned a bachelor's degree from Clark-Atlanta University and is completing doctoral studies in psychology at the University of Missouri. We are the proud grandparents of two beautiful granddaughters, Annessa Michele and Chandler Jalea Michele Whitlow."
Interested in Aeronautics?
Flying has always fascinated humankind, and Whitlow says it is possible to enter the field of aeronautics and do just that. He says, "First, having a love and dedication to the field is a must for someone entering the area. Because aeronautics will be something the students will have to do every day, commitment is a must. Without it, success will be very difficult. In addition, excellent writing and communications skills are required as well as an aptitude for math and science. Having the drive to get good grades in those subjects is the key."
Whitlow continues by saying that students have an opportunity to make great contributions, but they must set goals and achieve them. "Set a vision of where you want to go and what you want to do and have the confidence, endurance, and inspiration to get there. It won't be easy, but great accomplishments never are. There may be setbacks along the way, but like that saying goes, if you fall down 10 times, stand up 11. Be sure to pursue your dreams with every ounce of your strength. Doing this will prevent future thoughts of wondering what would have happened if you had only tried harder. A heavy investment will yield a big payoff."
Although Whitlow has been on the cutting edge of aeronautics and astronautics research for many years, he still insists he is like everyone else. "I have interests outside of math, science, and engineering. For enjoyment I run, lift weights, and participate in sports. I played baseball at MIT, and I continue to have a passion for the game."
How does Whitlow see the future of flight? He thinks advances such as biologically inspired, self-healing airplanes and nuclear-powered rockets would revolutionize the aerospace industry. "It's been 100 years since the Wright brothers' first flight. In that relatively short time, we have developed airplanes that fly people around the world, landed men on the moon, and sent spacecraft to other planets and outside of the solar system. Even with those stellar accomplishments, the future of aeronautics and astronautics promises to be many times more exciting."
Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.