For Asian-American and Pacific Islander Month, Johnson Space Center is honoring a few employees whose character and culture have helped shaped them into the people they are today.
Shamim Rahman’s first taste of Johnson Space Center was as a cooperative education student with Rockwell, the Space Shuttle Program’s prime contractor for the first few flights, right on the middle floors of Building 1 and in the thick of the action.
“Shuttle Program Manager Bob Thompson and his team were getting ready for STS-1,” Rahman said. “I was one of these freshmen kids helping Rockwell schedulers track updates, manually putting the sticky magnet tape on the boards and moving the schedule diamonds.”
This was heady stuff for the Indian-born Rahman, who had never envisioned having the opportunity to live in the United States—much less work for the famed post-Apollo American space program.
“I knew about NASA from when I was a small child, like most people, but I didn’t think it would ever be possible (to work here), because I didn’t live in the U.S.A.,” Rahman said. “I was pretty much raised in India and Bahrain, but schooled in English, thankfully. My professional expectation was that I would go work in some science field in India … but somewhere along the way it just seemed that if I started to go to school here, I might get closer.”
Rahman came to America to start his schooling at Texas A&M University, just hours from JSC, with the support of his immigrant family. At Texas A&M, he got a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering. Rahman’s graduate studies furthered his rocketry education, landing him a master’s degree in aeronautics from Caltech and later on a doctorate in mechanical engineering with a propulsion concentration from Penn State.
Fully equipped with the “right stuff” regarding book smarts, all Rahman lacked to work in his field of choice was American citizenship and an employer.
“While at Caltech, I was given a job offer by The Aerospace Corporation in California, but they said you had to have citizenship,” Rahman recalled.
Though he had already submitted his application for citizenship, he was leery about the wait time and applied for special dispensation to hurry the process along.
“I got sworn in at the Brazos county courthouse in Bryan, Texas, in April 1985, with someone else who happened to be a soldier,” Rahman said. “It was just the two of us, and I felt very fortunate.”
To cap off his happily ever after as an American citizen, in 1985, Rahman began working on Air Force space launch systems. However, it still wasn’t NASA and the ultimate human spaceflight experience.
That would come later—at NASA’s Stennis Space Center—all due to a trait that Rahman values above all others: persistence.
“Persistency is a way to overcome barriers,” Rahman said. “Persistency, focus and just trusting that things will work out. For example, I think I tried about three times to get into NASA. It took the fourth attempt to finally get on board.”
While the fourth time was the charm for Rahman, he credits his culture and upbringing for giving him the tools he needed to make his aspirations a reality.
“It’s the cultural expectation within both my maternal and paternal family,” Rahman said. “Their expectation was to get the maximum education possible and apply that in a profession. Didn’t matter what particular line of education, as long as it was a superior college education. It’s like you drink water, you eat, you sleep and you study, and then work in an honorable profession. And you will bring honor and respect to your family doing so.”
One of Rahman’s college professors, Jose Porteiro, encouraged him to write a paper for an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) student conference—an exercise which later held a lot of meaning for the rocketry whiz kid.
“That paper became the regional qualifier for the International Astronautics Federation (IAF) Conference,” Rahman said.
Not only that, but months later, the AIAA invited Rahman to the international conference in Budapest to present that paper in the IAF competition.
Rahman won the undergraduate category, to his great surprise.
“I get this certificate … it’s in Latin … and it says that your paper is the prize winner,” Rahman said.
At the later award ceremony, Rahman received his medal from none other than Hermann Oberth.
“Most have heard of (Wernher) Von Braun. Oberth is the professor who inspired Von Braun,” Rahman said.
Rahman still has Oberth’s book, written in German in 1923, introducing the rocket equation to the Western world and how rocket propulsion might work, signed by the writer himself. It’s one of Rahman’s most treasured possessions and a link to a career that has exceeded his childhood expectations—made possible by education and persistence.
After 13 years at Stennis Space Center, Rahman, his wife of 25 years and two grown daughters are now part of the Clear Lake community.
“It’s great to have a supportive family who is also as interested in space as you are,” Rahman said.
Three decades after STS-1, Rahman made it full circle back to JSC to become the associate division chief of Engineering’s Propulsion and Power organization. Now, as lead for the Orion-Space Launch System (SLS) Interfaces Working Group supporting NASA’s Orion Program, he works to help achieve technical and programmatic consensus between Orion and SLS technical experts to ensure that the whole integrated system is designed to be seamlessly compatible for its upcoming missions.
Rahman considers himself one of the lucky ones, or one among those “people with ordinary lives who are able to rise to do extraordinary things—and make a living doing it.”
He considers everyone at NASA in the same group.
“There are frequently people who would have all kinds of barriers to overcome—languages, or culture, or not having means,” Rahman said. “I think there’s a lot of luck involved at times, too.”
And persistence—which Rahman has relied upon in spades.
Catherine Ragin Williams
NASA Johnson Space Center
Shamin Rahman is lead for the Orion-Space Launch System Interfaces Working Group supporting NASA’s Orion Program. Image credit: NASA/James Blair
Professor Dr. Hermann Oberth, left, congratulates Rahman, at right, during the 34th International Astronautics Congress in Budapest, Hungary, in 1983. Rahman presented a student paper on wind tunnel subscale testing (at Texas A&M University) of a Shuttle Ice Suppression System on the launch pad. Photo courtesy of Shamim Rahman.