Dr. Tom Benson has been working for NASA Glenn Research Center for over thirty years. Throughout that time he has worked on many of the cutting-edge problems as well as having held an array of positions. He has performed ground level research for both aeronautical and space based applications, managed projects and a branch, and performed educational outreach. Dr. Benson came to stress to us that life will take you many places, and when opportunity comes knocking, sometimes it’s best to take a chance and go with your gut.
The talk started with an overview of exactly what Dr. Benson thought engineering involved and what motivated all of us to be engineers. He stressed aspects of design, critical thinking, and problem solving and stated that the question of how to make something happen is what distinguishes an engineer from a scientist. He spoke of the diversity of the aerospace field and how it ties into other disciplines.
Dr. Benson then started to tell us about his career as an engineer and the decisions he made that brought him his many experiences. He started from his undergraduate experience at Ohio State where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After finishing he was drafted into the Vietnam War and entered the Air Force. He had been near the top of his class, and when he was given a less technical job within the Air Force, he wrote a letter to his senator, John Glenn outlining his qualifications and the situation he was in. This rectified his dilemma and he was sent to Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Because of a mistake by a cab driver, he was taken to the wrong building on his first day and was given a different job than originally assigned. He worked with engine inlets, making design selections and meeting with manufacturers. After his four years of service, he went back to graduate school to pursue his Ph.D. focusing on computational fluid dynamics (CFD) at Ohio State.
After graduation, he found a job melding his interests and experience at NASA Lewis Research Center doing CFD of engine inlets. Through this job he got to see SR-71 development and work on the cutting edge of aerodynamics. He was then tasked with managing a futuristic project to design a vehicle that could take off from a runway and reach orbit at speeds near Mach 20 and land on a runway. He knew this was an impossible venture as no speeds over Mach 5 had been reached at the time. The goal was reduced to mach 7, but this was still a lofty goal. After four years on the project, he took a position as Deputy Branch Chief. He shortly found out that management was not for him, as he was one who likes to do things himself and not delegate.
After one year of meetings, meetings, and meetings he went back to research this time in the space field. He was still doing CFD, but this time for shuttle missions and had a couple of experiments flown in space. After this program was shut down, he really wanted to find something that inspired him again. After seeing his son’s love for video games, he decided that this type of entertainment could also be educational, so he built his first computer based interactive solver called Foil Sim. From there,he found a new career building simulations for education outreach including simulations for rockets and baseballs. He also started web based books called beginners guides, outlining specific fields in a parallel fashion allowing one to learn about any topic of interest in the field and not in a linear fashion.
His outreach and passion has led him to do many outside the box things. He stressed that having fun with your job and enjoying your work is very important to success. He talked of his obsession with the Wright Brothers and rebuilding their planes. He toured the country with a friend as the brothers giving informational talks. He has also done digital classroom events with children in India and Egypt, thrown out the first pitch at a Cleveland Indians game, and performed an interpretive dance about fluids in a Cleveland theater.
All in all Dr. Tom Benson is a man who has done many things in his life and loves spaceflight and NASA. He wanted us to know that we are the future and we can make a difference. He told us to question the way things worked and help to get humans back to what they do best: exploration. He emphasized that doing all that you can, keeping your interests and activities diverse, and having fun with it is an avenue to success.