For 1998 electrical engineering graduate Christopher D. “Chris” Wade, the term “the sky is the limit” has had no meaning.
The Clarksdale native went directly from Mississippi State University to work with NASA contractors in Houston, Texas, providing support for the International Space Station. A high school science teacher’s son, he soon moved into a position as a full-time NASA employee.
Wade has spent his career putting his electrical engineering expertise to work in the areas of robotics, logistics and operations that support the ongoing ISS project. At present, he leads the Visiting Vehicle Robotic Capture Project.
Wade said he routinely works with an international team of partners. They include Canadians who supply the space station’s robotic arm and Japanese who provide a transit spacecraft to regularly resupply the permanently manned research platform as it cruises at a brisk 17,500 miles per hour about 240 miles above the Earth’s surface.
“My day-to-day work involves communication with various spacecraft providers and astronauts to ensure that the spacecraft safely arrives at the space station, attaches with the station’s robot arm and unloads efficiently and safely,” Wade said.
Wade’s first job in Houston was an eight-year stint with Lockheed Martin, where he was involved with engineering space robotics for the NASA contractor. In preparation for retirement of the long-serving space shuttle, federal legislation had enabled the space agency to work with private companies in developing capabilities for transporting cargo to the new space station.
Taking advantage of local educational opportunities while at Lockheed-Martin, Wade enrolled at the University of Houston and, in 2006, received a master’s degree in systems engineering. Two years later, he received an offer to join NASA.
“We had all these companies bidding to build spacecraft to bring resupply goods to the space station,” he recalled. “We were no longer going to have the space shuttle to do those things. My job was to determine how to grab those vehicles and attach them to the space station.”
Described by NASA as the “most complex scientific and technological endeavor ever undertaken,” the ISS will mark its 15th year in orbit this November. The following year will be its 15th year of continuous human occupation, with three astronauts present at a time.
“The number gets as high as six, depending on if we’re swapping crew out,” Wade said.
On the station’s 10-year anniversary, the odometer read more than 1.5 billion statute miles—an equivalent of eight round-trips to the sun—over a course of 57,361 Earth orbits.
While astronauts travel to and from the ISS aboard a Russian spacecraft named Soyuz, unmanned spacecraft routinely are flown up to deliver food, water and other needed materials.
As NASA works to build the next generation of manned spacecraft, Wade’s current responsibilities include tracking logistics, reviewing design adjustments and conducting engineering reviews. He is responsible for ensuring that the spacecraft carrying vital resupply materials to the station are always successfully captured by the on-board astronauts using the space station’s robotic arm.
TOP-BOTTOM: 1. Chris Wade inside the space shuttle flight deck display at Space Center Houston. 2. An exterior detail look at the Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center. 3. Chris Wade works in a simulator of the controls for the International Space Station’s robotic arm, which astronauts use during training. 4. Astronauts train for International Space Station missions in the Vehicle Mock-Up Facility.
Wade said resupply missions to the station take place about once every other month. Like so much of NASA’s work, the resupply missions involve precise practices that require the spacecraft to fly close enough to be attached, but not close enough to have a collision.
He described the ISS as being located in “low Earth orbit,” about the length of a football field with end zones, and powered by large solar panels on both sides. The section occupied by the astronauts is comparable to a six-bedroom house, with two bathrooms and a gym. There also is a 360-degree bay window from which the crew controls the robotic arm. The entire structure weighs 924,739 pounds.
The culmination of a scientific collaboration among five space agencies representing 15 countries, the heavenly outpost clearly is visible with the naked eye at night and weather permitting.
For Wade’s work providing effective management and engineering leadership for the ER3 Visiting Vehicle Capture Analysis Task, NASA selected him in 2012 for an Exceptional Achievement Medal. The recognition is among more than a dozen honors he has received since starting his career.
Key to his professional success is his honest enjoyment of his every-day tasks.
“I actually enjoy the technical work,” Wade said. “I like working with the space robotics and the astronauts and designing the missions.”
Wade said he also considers his work as direct support of ISS’s important research goals. Because the station’s near weightless environment, known as microgravity, simplifies certain biological and physical properties and processes, scientists have a truly unique laboratory for observing and exploring phenomena normally masked by effects of Earth’s gravity.
One current research project involves protein crystal growth in microgravity, which Wade said may lead to human health benefits.
Looking back over his life, Wade credits his mother, a ninth grade science teacher at Clarksdale High School, for encouraging him in the subjects of mathematics and science. Though he had a natural interest in what now is termed STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, he said the extra push from his mother gave him the momentum needed to be successful in higher education.
“When I was in 12th grade, we were trying to figure out where I was going to college,” he said. “We were trying to figure out what was the best engineering school. We talked with the guidance counselors, and they recommended Mississippi State.”
While academically prepared, Wade said he was like any student coming from a small town to a large university. “It was a bit overwhelming,” because MSU “was big; very, very big,” he said.
Though Wade found the university environment a bit daunting at first, he successfully settled into the campus and, at graduation, found the Starkville experience had prepared him well for things to come.
“When I got to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, it was a similar type of experience, with a large, complex environment,” Wade said. “That whole MSU experience was very good practice for the NASA experience.”
As an engineering major, Wade said he had little time for extra activities. He did join Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, which he now describes as a good outlet that helped him achieve a sense of equilibrium during the college years.
In addition to having fraternity brothers to encourage him academically, several members also pursuing engineering degrees served as his mentors. “It helped me find a good balance for work and social activities,” Wade said.
“Between engineering school, the fraternity and the co-op (cooperative education) program, that was pretty much it; there wasn’t much room for anything else,” Wade said.
He did make room for dating when he met his future wife, the former Judi P. Brown, while both were co-op students at Mississippi Power Co.
Asked what advice or recommendations he would share with today’s college students, his response was almost immediate: Get comfortable with multitasking.
“Relish the opportunity to have to do more than one thing at a time,” he said. “Mississippi State provides an excellent opportunity for that."
“I also would tell them to really focus on the coursework and the material because you get really useful real-world information and knowledge at Mississippi State,” he continued. “People are using this information in the real world; a lot of the theories and applications taught there are real-world stuff that people use every day to do great things.”
Wade’s career and family responsibilities keep him very busy in Texas, but, when possible, he makes the effort to return to Mississippi and even conduct STEM camps to help teach kids about engineering careers.
“It’s good to let folks know what’s going on in STEM because there are a whole lot of jobs out there,” Wade emphasized.
“There’s a shortage of available workers and people who are trained in those fields,” he said, adding that “recruiting students into STEM fields early is a good idea.”
He’s already encouraging his 10-year-old daughter, Kennedy, who he said is very good at math. With two engineering parents, she may have STEM skills in her genes. Wade said she definitely has “Bulldog” in her blood.
While Chris Wade’s NASA career is the stuff movies are made of, his wife Judi Brown Wade, an MSU chemical engineering alumna, also has had a successful career path since her 1997 graduation.
The Vicksburg native works for INVISTA as an environmental compliance engineer at its Houston facility. Headquartered in Wichita, Kan., INVISTA is one of the world’s largest integrated producers of chemical intermediates, polymers and fibers.
“Mississippi State did give me a great background for being able to work as a process engineer, and to help improve processes at the plants that I’ve worked with. I’ve seen that the chemical engineering degree prepares you well for several different roles, including management,” Judi Wade said.
The Wades’ story also points to the success of MSU’s cooperative education program. Chris and Judi met during college when both were participating in MSU’s co-op program and working with Mississippi Power Co.
Judi Wade said that while she and Chris actually had a calculus class together on campus, it wasn’t until he was working for Mississippi Power’s distribution office and she was working in the power generation plant that the two got to know each other.
Each semester, about 200 MSU students co-op with about 100 different employers, and MSU has the second largest co-op program in the South. About 80 percent of co-op students receive job offers from their co-op company, and it’s not uncommon for their work experience during college to bring up to a 20 percent increase in their starting salaries, according to the MSU Career Center.
Chris said the Mississippi Power work experience was his first electrical engineering experience outside of the classroom.
“I did primarily work associated with managing the local distribution power grid and learned how all the lines were routed into individual homes and businesses,” Chris Wade said.
He also helped maintain a database of the power company’s equipment. He said the work experience was very relevant to his work when he started with NASA because the robotics group works with electrically based equipment.
“Some of the experience I got learning about electrical distribution power systems turned out to be really useful when I was learning about electrical systems associated with robotic arms,” Chris Wade said.
Judi Wade likewise said the co-op experience was an excellent way to prepare for her future role as an environmental engineer. As part of her work with Mississippi Power, she conducted water testing from the plant outfalls to make sure the plant was operating within state and federal guidelines.
“Probably one reason I’m in environmental now is because of that co-op,” Judi Wade said.
After her MSU graduation, Wade initially worked as a process engineer at International Paper in Vicksburg until she and Chris became engaged in 1999. When they got married, she worked as a process engineer for several years before joining environmental engineering groups.
The Wades married in 2000 and now have a 10-year-old daughter, Kennedy.