Thom Rich is too young to remember when the first humans walked on the Moon in July 1969, but he does remember the space-related toys he played with as a child.
He also remembers the launch of the first space shuttle – Columbia – in April 1981. “I was in the sixth grade, and they brought in televisions for us to see it,” said Rich, a New Orleans native who grew up in nearby Metairie.
Now living just across Lake Pontchartrain in Lacombe, Louisiana, with his wife of 26 years and two sons, Rich works as chief of the Facilities Engineering Services Division at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, just inside Mississippi. The site was built in the 1960s to test rocket engines and stages needed to carry those first humans to the Moon. It also tested the engines that launched every one of 135 shuttle missions, including the first 1981 flight.
Now, the site is testing engines and stages to return humans to the Moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program and power eventual missions to Mars. For Rich, this is the next best thing to being old enough to remember the first lunar missions. “I cannot wait to be of an age to remember it firsthand and for my children to experience it,” he said. “It is so distant for kids to think of people on another planet or object. This will bring it home.”
For Rich, that day is closer than it ever has been since he arrived at Stennis 20 years ago. It was not by intentional design – a friend submitted his resume for a contractor position on site. Rich, electrical engineering degree and experience in hand, received an interview and soon began work as a contractor design engineer, then as a supervisor of several different teams.
After six years as a contractor, Rich joined the NASA team as a design and construction project manager. He served as the contracting officer representative for the A-3 Test Stand construction project and the high-pressure industrial water line project in the B Test Complex. Eventually, Rich was tapped as lead, then deputy chief, of the design and construction project management team for the Stennis test complexes. He was chosen for his current position about a year ago.
In that role, Rich is responsible for various areas related to facility systems – logistics, energy management, operations, maintenance, design, construction and sustainability. The work directly supports Stennis testing of engines and the first flight core stages for NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket, the backbone of the Artemis program and future deep space missions.
“The facilities engineering services team ensures the center has all of the facility requirements needed to meet the agency and center missions,” Rich said. “All of the support projects for the Green Run (core stage) testing and the testing of RS-25 engines (for SLS) have been run by contracting officer representatives from our group.”
Rich loves the work – and his colleagues at the site. “I have never been around so many people that want to get a mission accomplished,” he said. “The can-do attitudes and all of the stories behind those attitudes make my work place amazing. It is a family that works together to get everyone to succeed.”
As one would expect from a large family, it also offers an amazing level of diversity, Rich noted. “I love to look for different insights,” he said. “It helps me broaden my perspectives and helps to shape my opinions and decisions.”
All in all, Rich relishes the privilege of working for NASA at Stennis. He pointed to what he experiences in every classroom he visits – “you get undivided attention just because you say you work for NASA.”
It is particularly exciting to explain the work conducted at Stennis, installing large rocket engines and stages in place and testing them just as they will fire on actual launches. “What other place can say that they mount a rocket to a building with the intent of keeping it in place to make sure that it works properly?” Rich said. “That is just one of the coolest things imaginable and we have great people here at Stennis that make that happen every day.”
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