Tim Nitchen received all of his rocket-building experience on the job.
The United Launch Alliance technician has no formal education beyond a high school diploma. Despite his success, he doesn't think his path into the industry would work as well for him today as it did 24 years ago.
"The way jobs are now, you need some sort of degree," he said. "The industry has become much more competitive."
He recommends at least a two-year degree in some sort of engineering field.
After high school, Nitchen attended one semester of college, intending to study graphic communications. When that wasn't working out, he quit and worked in sales for seven years. Eventually, he decided that wasn't for him, either, and he applied for a job at McDonnell Douglas in Pueblo, Colo. McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997, and the company closed the Pueblo facility and moved him to Decatur. Colorado-based ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
His job includes almost any hands-on rocket construction work, everything from wiring to welding.
"I build the rocket from the ground up," he said. "I work with people who have built houses for a living, or have some sort of military experience."
He said he had no idea he would end up building rockets when he graduated high school.
"But I knew I like to work with my hands," he said. "When I was 10 or 11 years old, my parents got me an Erector set, and I used to build all kinds of things."
ULA Engineering Manager Amy Pace's story is similar to Nitchen's. She started with McDonnell Douglas, then was moved to Decatur by Boeing. She has a degree in mechanical engineering from Auburn University.
"For any job, you should try to get hands-on experience," she said. "Find a company that provides internships. The classroom can prepare you some, but it doesn't prepare you for day-to-day."
Pace said she comes from a family of engineers, but still made the decision on her own.
"I loved math in high school," she said. "And whenever I would watch a shuttle launch, time would stand still."
Pace has worked in the industry for 18 years. As a test engineer, she tested Delta IV rockets.
"No two days are the same," she said. "There's field work and desk work."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at 256-340-2445 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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