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Harris’ time at DU launches NASA career

Ryan Harris

DU alum Philip Harris's career at NASA will allow him to work on flight planning and operations for the International Space Station.

Philip Harris’ degrees in computer science and Russian from the University of Denver will allow the 24-year-old to launch a career in flight planning and operations for the International Space Station — splitting time between Moscow and NASA Mission Control in Houston while he works on flight control software and international liaisons.

It’s a dream come true for the recent grad, who has wanted to work for NASA since he was 3. He’s well on his way to his goal of becoming an astronaut some day, and he credits the support and flexibility DU allowed him to split time between classes and assignments at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center and Johnson Space Center.

Linda Olson, director of DU’s Pioneer Leadership Program, likes to picture Harris up in space with a big DU logo on his helmet.

“How many people do you meet that say they’re going to become an astronaut and you really believe them?” she asks. But she has no doubts about Harris’ drive to be an astronaut.

Harris (BS computer science ’10, BA Russian ’10) was born in Denver and remembers watching the space shuttle launch on TV as a kid.

“I thought that was awesome, and then I learned there were people inside it,” he says. A few years later, an astronaut came to visit his class at Patterson Elementary in Lakewood, Colo.

“I talked to him for a while,” Harris remembers. “That was a turning point. That’s what really solidified it and set me on my path of hopefully becoming an astronaut one day.”

Though his family moved to Minnesota, Harris returned to Denver for college. During his freshman year — in addition to participating in the Pioneer Leadership Program and starting the DU Curling Club — he applied for NASA’s co-op program that hires college students to work at various centers for a semester at a time.

“DU allowed me a lot of opportunity because they were willing to work with me,” he says. “I was one of the first co-op students to come out of the computer science department. It was new and unexplored, and all my professors were very understanding. DU allowed me to earn credit while I was gone. When I came back, I was able to integrate work I had done at NASA into the curriculum and expand on it. I didn’t have to live two different lives.”

Sharolyn Anderson, an assistant professor in the DU Department of Geography, was thrilled to have Harris in her classes. She had just gotten approval for a minor in geographic information systems (GIS), and Harris was her first student in that program.

“He left an amazing impression on me even in the first weeks of class,” she says. “He was very bright, realistic. He always came in with new ideas. He was very curious, always full of energy. I just adored him. He was the first student outside geography that came in and loved GIS. That’s what I do, so it was a refreshing moment.”

Anderson remembers when Harris came to him to say he had an opportunity to go to NASA, and asked her what she thought he should do.

“Go,” she said emphatically.

He was then able to incorporate the work he was doing for NASA — particularly remote sensing — into his coursework and share his experiences with the class.

“We always encourage students to incorporate real-life projects, to solve real-world problems,” Anderson says. “He would share his experiences with his classes, and that always made all the students feel like there were things they can do. He was a great showman for GIS and the things he believed in.”

Even as a freshman, Harris was incredibly focused, Olson says.

“He had one of the biggest course loads of anyone,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘How was he going to do this?’ He had so many majors and minors, but he really had a clear sense of what his interest and calling was. That’s not common in someone that young. He knew the things he had to.”

Harris started at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in January 2007 then moved to Johnson Space Center in Houston in August 2007. He returned to DU from January–June 2008. That summer, he returned to Johnson Space Center. He spent the fall 2008 semester at DU, and worked his final co-op stint at Johnson Space Center from January–August of 2009. Since then, he’s studied Russian through DU at Moscow State University. He completed his degrees in June 2010.

“It’s essentially a really long job interview,” Harris says. “I got to see different aspects of NASA, different disciplines, how NASA works and functions as a whole company.”

He expected that company to be very serious and dry and while he did find that everyone was serious about their jobs, he says NASA also is a big family.

“That was something I had never experienced before,” Harris says. “It was really just like a family and I felt at home there. Everyone tries to help and get the job done and make sure it’s the best product. It’s really nice and refreshing. I hadn’t seen that level of cooperation before.”

His last assignment was in the international operations group — staffed 24/7 as a liaison between the U.S. and Russian space agencies supporting the International Space Station.

“Working in this group, you see every day the results of your work,” Harris says. “Every day, there’s at least one Russian and one American on board the space station, and we’re making sure there’s no miscommunication between people on the ground scheduling.

Harris says Russian fluency is a journey, not a destination. Still, one of his career goals is to have a permanent, managerial position in Moscow. In the meantime, as he travels back-and-forth between Houston and Moscow every three months, he’ll also be working on a master’s degree in science and space studies online through the University of North Dakota.

He’s optimistic about the future of the space program and his place in it as exploration extends to Mars and beyond.

“I think we’re laying the groundwork for that now,” he says. “We’re going to have to work with all the international partners. Having this international cooperation between two countries that not that long ago were in a space race and didn’t like each other, how we can work together and achieve the same goals … It’s amazing.”

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