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Launching on a nuclear path

May 10, 2016

Honors student with 4.0 GPA lands highly selective Navy job

Editor’s note:  This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.

It’s rare for an entry-level job in a large organization to require a personal interview with the top boss. But when Arizona State University student and Navy ROTC Midshipman James Feddern applied for a position as a Naval Reactors engineer, that’s exactly what he had to do.  

Feddern pursued a job in what Lt. Austin Hancock, ASU Navy ROTC nuclear programs officer, describes as the Navy’s most intellectually selective community. 

The few applicants meeting the high initial entry requirements are invited to the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., for interviews. The first two are grueling questioning sessions with the engineering team. Feddern also underwent a third two-hour specialized interview on such esoteric topics as astrophysics.

Those who make it past all the technical interviews then sit down for a one-on-one with the top boss. In this case, Feddern faced Admiral James F. Caldwell Jr., director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, for final screening. The four-star military officer weighed in. 

Feddern made it.   

Following his May 9 graduation and his commissioning into the Navy two days later, Feddern will head to his new job as a Naval Reactors engineer at the Navy Yard. Naval Reactors is an agency that researches, designs, regulates and operates nearly 100 nuclear reactors and power plants that drive many U.S. warships, including submarines and aircraft carriers.  

“Initially, I will be going through more intensive training and education related to nuclear engineering,” said Phoenix native Feddern. “After that I could be assigned to do a variety of engineering jobs. I am very excited about this assignment. It was my first choice, and I am honored to have been selected to work at Naval Reactors.”

Feddern, a Barrett, the Honors College student who will be receiving his Bachelor's of Science in physics, shares some insights that led him to his current path and some other helpful views for readers. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I have a passion for science in general and really enjoyed studying physics in high school. When I started at ASU, though, I was enrolled in the flight program at the Polytechnic Campus. It was only after my first year, though, that I discovered I really had a passion for physics and a desire to learn more about it. Even though I liked learning to fly, I realized that it was something I would like to do as more of a hobby, rather than as a career. So I switched my major. I also thought I could serve the Navy with a degree in physics if I became an officer within the nuclear power community — which includes the opportunity to be an officer at Naval Reactors, a submarine officer, or a surface warfare officer on an aircraft carrier.     

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: One of the most important things I learned at ASU is that it’s more important to know what to do when you don’t know the answer to a problem than it is to immediately know the answer. Often it is simply not possible to know the answer to every problem or situation. But it is really important to know how to begin and approach a problem when you have no idea how to do it at first. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I really wanted to stay in Arizona. It’s definitely my favorite place to live, and it’s close to home. ASU in particular had so many different opportunities and a good flight program. This along with the financial benefits made ASU the best choice. ASU is also my father’s alma mater. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The best advice I think I could give is to actively find things you enjoy learning about outside of your field of interest and take classes in that subject, even if they do not relate to your major. For example, I took quite a few classes related to the philosophy of science. I found I really liked to explore and learn about the history and philosophy of science, so much so that I actually completed my senior honors thesis in this area. I definitely recommend that students in Barrett take advantage of senior thesis as an opportunity to expand their knowledge in different fields.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus has to be the upstairs patio at Barrett. This was the best place to study and meet people, especially when the weather was nice. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Initially, I plan to travel around Arizona a little bit before I leave, try to see some places I haven’t yet. Once I commission into the Navy I will go to work in Washington, D.C., at the Navy Yard. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I think one significant problem in our society is access to quality education. I would use that money to invest in scholarships for particular people around the world so they can obtain the best education possible. I think getting talented people great education is the key to solving other prevalent problems in society. Education is at the heart of society. Without developing and sustaining it, nothing can be accomplished.

Top photo by Deanna Dent

Jerry Gonzalez

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

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ASU astronaut headed to Hall of Fame

Scott Parazynski calls spacewalking the ultimate human exploration experience.
ASU prof Parazynski to be inducted into Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 14.
May 10, 2016

Scott Parazynski logged more than 8 weeks in space, performed 7 spacewalks — including 1 hailed as most dangerous ever

When rookie astronauts go on their first spacewalk, it’s common to hear them oohing and aahing when they go out the hatch.

Being awestruck may diminish with experience, but the sense of wonder never does, said astronaut Scott Parazynski.

Parazynski will be inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 14. A veteran of five space shuttle flights, he has logged more than eight weeks in space, including 47 hours during seven spacewalks. One of his spacewalks is celebrated for being the most dangerous and difficult ever carried out.

“It was quite a sporty day out there,” he recalled of that task.

Parazynski is a University Explorer and a professor of practiceThe School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering is part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. within both the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering and the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

Spacewalking is like nothing else, he said.

“You’ve actually moved off the planet,” he said. “You’re sort of disconnected from it to a degree. You look out the window and see this beautiful planet floating below. It’s a surreal, out-of-body experience to know that all of humanity and everyone you’ve ever met in your life is below you on planet Earth. It’s a strange mental perspective to have. You’re drawn out to the cosmos, but you’re always drawn back to the beautiful blue planet below you.”

With nothing but the black void of the universe below their feet, some people, especially on their first spacewalk, have a sense of falling, Parazynski said. Even astronauts, despite being highly trained and highly focused on mission tasks, can’t resist succumbing to the wow factor every so often.

“Every once in a while you look up and there’s the Great Barrier Reef above you,” Parazynski said. “Then you get back to work.”

Astronaut Scott Parazynski on a spacewalk.

Scott Parazynski on a spacewalk during
the 2007 STS-120 mission to the International
Space Station. Top: Parazynski repairing a
damaged solar array on that mission,
considered the most dangerous spacewalk ever.

Photos by NASA

There are some downsides. Lack of gravity makes life more difficult. “You can’t just put things down and expect them to be there,” Parazynski said, adding that everything is Velcroed down in place. If not, “you’ll find it in the cabin air cleaner in a couple of days because of the air flow.”

There will be a fitting twist to Parazynski’s induction. The night before the ceremony, about 400 guests will dine at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida beneath an enormous Saturn V, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built.

Parazynski’s father was a Rocketdyne engineer who worked on designing and testing the F-1 engines for the Saturn V.

“My father worked on the Apollo program when I was very young,” Parazynski said, imbuing him with the passion to become an astronaut.

Now Parazynski will join the ranks of astronauts who have made significant accomplishments in space or contributions to the advancement of space exploration. They include John Glenn, Jim Lovell, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Walter Schirra, Michael Collins, Donald K. (Deke) Slayton, Fred Haise and L. Gordon Cooper Jr.

“It came as a surprise out of left field, but I’m really thrilled to be included amongst all the folks I’ve looked up to for so many years,” Parazynski said. He flew with Glenn as the senator’s crewmate and personal physician in 1998 on a Discovery mission when Glenn became the oldest person to fly in space.

The event supports the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which awards $10,000 scholarships to students at universities around the country to help defray educational costs in the pursuit of science, technology, engineering and math fields. The foundation was created more than 30 years ago by the surviving six members of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronaut corps.

“You look out the window and see this beautiful planet floating below. It’s a surreal, out-of-body experience to know that all of humanity and everyone you’ve ever met in your life is below you on planet Earth. It’s a strange mental perspective to have. You’re drawn out to the cosmos, but you’re always drawn back to the beautiful blue planet below you.”

— Scott Parazynski, NASA astronaut and ASU University Explorer

Parazynski said he misses the teamwork the most, “working with America’s best and brightest on things that are of great consequence. The sense of purpose was amazing. It was a dream come true.”

In October 2007, Parazynski led the spacewalk team on a highly complex space station assembly flight, during which he performed four spacewalks.

His fourth and final spacewalk is widely regarded as one of the most challenging and dangerous ever performed. He was positioned by a 90-foot robotic boom farther than any orbiting astronaut had ever ventured from the safety of the airlock. It was an unplanned emergency repair to a fully energized but torn solar array wing. He spent 45 minutes getting to the tip of the space station.

The array couldn’t be powered down. Everything on Parazynski’s suit had to be specially insulated so electricity couldn’t arc into it. Space suits contain 100 percent oxygen. He could have been electrocuted if he touched a solar cell. The other risk was how far out he went. Mission planners usually want spacewalkers to be able to execute an emergency return to the airlock within 30 minutes of a failure. If his suit failed, he wouldn’t be able to make it back in time.

Mission Control and the crew agreed a higher degree of risk had to be accepted. In the related photo on this page, Parazynski’s feet appear clamped into the boom. They weren’t. He had to concentrate to keep them wedged in.

He attached five devices called “cuff links” on the array, which kept the torn section folded and prevented further tearing. The feat has been called the “Apollo 13 moment” of the space shuttle and space station eras because of the tremendous coordinated effort in orbit and on the ground by Mission Control and other engineering experts.

“That was quite unusual,” Parazynski said.

“It’s the ultimate human exploration experience, to float above your planet, and see it from that perspective and to go on a spacewalk,” he said. “I really miss that and I wish I hadn’t had to hang up my space suit. It was time for me to get out of the way of the new recruits and to move on to other things.”