Being in the right place at the right time — with the right preparation — led to a career that has taken a Pratt man far beyond the small space where he grew up. Tobin Melroy has been interested in space flight since he was a young child; for the last 12 years, he has worked with United Space Alliance, the main contractor for NASA manned flight.
A 1995 graduate of Pratt High School, Melroy earned a degree in aerospace engineering from Kansas University in 2000. After interviewing with a couple of companies, he accepted a job with FlightSafety in Tulsa, Okla. A friend called to say United Space Alliance was interviewing on campus; Melroy said he already had a job.
He related the conversation with his friend: "You gotta interview, this is NASA, Mission Control, Houston, we've got a problem." Melroy returned to campus, but had missed the interviewer. A phone call resulted in his being part of a group of potential recruits invited to Houston to interview with several flight control groups.
From a handful of offers, he accepted a job as a flight activities officer for the shuttle program. Melroy said he felt badly going back on his word to the Tulsa company, which asked if they could "sweeten the deal."
"Nothing could compete with Mission Control at NASA," he told them.
His team built flight plans, established priorities and timelines for shuttles going to the International Space Station launched in 1998. In 2000, with the station still under construction, Melroy's group was responsible for getting construction components into space. Expedition 1, launched Oct. 31, 2000, put the first people at the station, and it has been occupied continuously ever since.
After 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated when re-entering the earth's atmosphere, the shuttle did not fly for a while.
Materials for experiments, food, clothing and other necessities were launched by what Melroy called a suitcase. Station workers would spend a week unpacking the bus-sized capsule, repack it with trash, and send it back to earth.
Much changed after the disaster, not the least being the massive amounts of inspections and safety procedures to make sure it wouldn't happen again, Melroy said.
In August 2011, the U.S. suspended the shuttle program. About 1,000 workers were laid off or were offered severance packages. Melroy was able to transfer to station operations, where he does many of the same jobs, but in cooperation with international partners.
Right now, there is only one way to get people to the space station, on board a Russian Soyuz capsule. It's been flying for a long time, and is pretty reliable, Melroy said. A couple of private companies are working on a manned capsule, but they're a good four years away. Cargo can be taken to the station by the Europeans, Japanese, Russians and two American companies.
Melroy's team begins its week with a teleconference with planners from all the international partners. What comes out of that call is a "big jumbled mess" of all the work everyone wants to get done, all scheduled on top of each other. The American planners are the integrators; their job is to establish priorities and timelines, through two additional teleconferences each week.
"There's a lot of back and forth, sometimes a lot of butting heads," Melroy said. "Probably the biggest difference between shuttle and station planning is working with the international partners — all the diplomacy and delicacy. It's infinitely more complex."
He's enthusiastic about space research that improves the quality of life on earth.
Medical imaging that is commonplace in diagnosing illnesses started because there needed to be a way to monitor the effect of outer space on astronauts, and cellular phone technology is also a space product. Most recently, a processing system that filters urine, cleans it and "spits out drinkable water" was used in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
"It sounds bad, but the way they explain it, the water is cleaner and better than any water you get out of a tap," Melroy said. "You just have to get past the psychological part."
Money spent on the space program — less than one-half percent of the national budget — doesn't go into a "black hole," he said. "We're always getting something back from the research."
NASA is currently working on a vehicle to take Americans back into space, with a projected launch in 2017, Melroy said.
His interest in space was piqued, ironically, by a disaster. At the age of 10, his third grade class in Nebraska was watching the launch of the Challenger shuttle, which for the first time carried civilians, including a teacher. It broke apart just seconds into flight, killing all its crew members.
On a more positive note, he was able to participate in space camp at the Kansas Cosmosphere, where he could "play astronaut," learn about flight control and take a mock flight into space.
Melroy visited his parents, Dennis and Jane Melroy during the Christmas holiday, and was the guest speaker at a Rotary Club luncheon last Thursday.