The College of Science’s department of physics and astronomy hosted Kevin Metrocavage, the operations manager for the International Space Station at NASA, in a departmental seminar held on Friday, March 9.

metrocavage points at board

Metrocavage is the the operations manager for the International Space Station at NASA.
Image Credit: College of Science

Intended for faculty, staff and students in physics and astronomy, the seminar set the scene for Metrocavage to share his story of a small-town boy who made it at NASA.

As a child, he was a huge “Star Wars” fan with a thirst for science, space and engineering. Today, he is responsible for maintaining overall situational awareness of space station activities for senior leadership across various departments and agencies throughout the government.

“NASA wasn’t something that people did where I came from,” he said during the colloquium, hosted in conjunction with the Society of Physics Students. “I grew up in a really small coal town. It was a beautiful small town in Pennsylvania, but not exactly a farm system for engineers.”

Metrocavage didn’t let that stop him, however, from following his dreams. He went to college, and during summer breaks worked as a counselor at a space camp. Prior to his role as operations manager, he worked for 18-plus years in Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where he served as a flight controller, instructor and manager for the International Space Station Motion Control Systems group.

The space station, he said, is an engineering marvel with a global reach involving more than 100,000 people at 500 contracted facilities in 37 states and 16 countries. Elements of the station were constructed throughout the world to super-tight tolerances and sent up on separate missions.

students in lecture hall

Many students from the department of physics and astronomy attended the seminar.
Image Credit: College of Science

“There were pieces that were built and tested (but) never tested together at all until in orbit,” Metrocavage said. “It’s amazing.”

The station, which includes a research laboratory and a gym, is about the size of a football field.

“Rumor has it you all have a pretty good football program, so I think you know what I’m talking about,” he said to laughs from the audience.

Despite a heavy reliance on technology, however, Metrocavage emphasized the human aspect of the space station. He said growing vegetables in space is one example of a process that needs human interaction, and he cited several kinds of technologies first used on the space station — water purification systems, for example — that are making their way down to Earth.

“The space station really is about life on earth,” Metrocavage said. “That’s what makes this so special. It’s not just this fancy thing we see up there that we can point at and say, ‘Oh, cool.’ It really is something that makes life better on earth.”

For Metrocavage, being involved with the International Space Station project has been a dream come true. He admitted that sometimes he found college challenging, but the result was worth the effort.

“The message here is that sometimes it’s tough and you’re not sure you can make it,” he said, addressing the students in the room. “But one of the things I want you to leave with today is, ‘Hang in there.’ There is hope. Trust me, I got my butt kicked the first two years of college. But it was something I wanted to do. I fed off those dreams. And I became a space station flight controller.”