BTU #104 – Scott Washburn: Submarines to PhD & Astronaut Finalist

“I think the biggest thing is finding something you’re passionate about and really going all-in on it. There’s no lack of different ways to become an astronaut. If you look at the resumes of people that were just selected, Navy SEALS, Pilots, MIT Professors, engineers at SpaceX, people who specialize in Marine Biology, Doctors – so there’s no lack of options on how to get there. I think the biggest thing is just finding what you’re really passionate about and going all-in on it.”
– Dr. Scott Washburn

Dr. Scott Washburn is a Radiation Effects Engineering Manager at SEAKR Engineering. He started out at the University of Colorado, Boulder, after which he served in the Navy as a Submarine Officer for five years. When he first left the Navy he worked as a Thermal and Project Engineer at SSL (Space Systems Loral), after which he returned to the University of Colorado Boulder for his Masters, and then his PhD in Aerospace Engineering. Since then he has worked as Chief Engineer at Geryon Space Technologies, as well as a research engineer at NASA. Scott was also one of the 50 finalists of the astronaut selection program.

The top 2 reasons to listen to this episode is:

  1. Shooting for the stars: Scott always wanted to be an astronaut and he pursued this career with all he had.  He was one of 50 finalists… from 18k applicants (0.27% of all applicants). He’s a case study in setting crazy goals and fighting with everything you’ve got to pursue them.
  2. Passion: Scott talks about pursing one’s passion with vigor, and it’s inspiring no matter what your desired career path.

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Selected Resources

Show Notes

Note: I’ve typed these notes while conducting the interview – they are not intended to be a verbatime transcript, but rather the highlights, and may contain spelling and grammar errors. My intention is to provide veterans with a quick reference to see the gist of our conversation, along with timestamps to hear the interviewee’s actual advice in their own words within the interview.

  • 3:43 – Scott’s bio
  • 4:40 – There’s a story about you and your wife Amanda, summiting Mt. Bierstadt, a German Shepherd, and the Ellen Degeneres – could you share a bit about what happened?
    • A 14er is a mountain that is over 14k feet tall; it’s big in Colorado. Back in 2012, his wife and he went to climb Mt. Bierstadt. They were planning on doing two peaks in the same day (Mt. Evans). They got off course in the traverse and his wife spotted a dog. She had found a big, German Shepherd tucked under the rocks. As they got close, they realized she was injured. They tried to carry her, but the terrain was rough and they weren’t able to make it work. They found a park ranger further down the mountain, but he wasn’t able to help. So they drove back to Denver, calling rescue groups along the way, but weren’t able to get any help. So when they got home, they posted about the dog on 14ers.com, and posted the location and started to organize a rescue group. They received a hug outpouring of support, and went back up with a group of 8. They found the dog, loaded her into a backpack and took turns hiking her out. They took her to a vet (who they had met on 14ers.com) and helped her recover.
    • They figured that was the end of the story. However, it reached it’s way to the local news that evening. From that point it exploded, which they hadn’t anticipated. Part of the reason it exploded was because they were contacted by the dog owner, who wanted the dog back. They wanted to know what had happened first, and it seemed like the owner had been stuck in a storm and decided to leave the dog behind. However, since the owner hadn’t tried to get the dog back or rescue the dog, they were uncomfortable returning the dog. They went on Good Morning America and then the Ellen Degeneres show.
  • 12:28 – For an active duty audience, how would you explain what you do for a living?
    • The short version is that his team tests and analyzes how electronics work in a space radiation environment. There’s a HUGE radiation environment in space – more than xrays at a doctor of a nuclear power plant. The space environment is constantly bombarded by these atomic nuclei. They’re so energetic they’ll go straight through a person or piece of electronics and drive a huge amount of damage. So his group looks at this damage, and analyzes the electronics at his company and see how they respond and fare
  • 14:28 – How did you decide to leave the Navy?
    • It was a really tough decision. He had initially signed up only intending to do five years. However, he LOVED his time in the Navy and the submarine force. He loved the job, missino, and people. So appraoching the end of his term, he struggled with whether to stay in or get out. The reason to get out was because he always wanted to be an astronaut. And he knew he could get there as a submarine officer – back in 2000 Captain Steven Bowen was selected, and one more recently. However, he wasn’t sure how to standout amongst other submarine officer. So to improve his odds, he decided to get out go into the industry.
  • 16:20 – When you decided to leave the submarine force, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do?
    • His first job at SSL was fortuitous. There was another former submariner who worked there and was familiar with what veterans were capable of. He worked with a recruiting agency that had worked with him previously and they made the connection. He didn’t have a clear picture of when he left how he would go about doing this. So he was employed for a while after leaving the service because he hadn’t planned properly. He didn’t realize what opportunities were out there, and didn’t start this process until he got out.
    • There wasn’t a clear-cut path to be an astronaut, so had to really experiment
  • 19:14 – Role at SSL
    • It was very different than my role in the submarine force, where I was mostly operatinally focused. At SSL it was heavy engineering – math, computer models of satellites & thermal systems and how they worked together, and what temperature they’d operate at in orbit. It was a massive transition.
    • One thing that motivated him to go back ot grad school was being in a hard engineering environment, and my skills from undergrad were pretty soft. After over a year I decided to go back to grad school (starting two years after he started working). he had started trying to work nights & weekends. So decided to switch to full time
  • 20:57 – Straight to education vs. industry experience
    • 50/50 on this – it was very beneficial to get experience in industry first
    • But if you have a really good idea of what you want to do or the field, going back right away is a good way to go
  • 22:18 – How did you decide to pursue a PhD in Aerospace Engineering?
    • It was an idea of getting a PhD but not the primary plan. He originally intended to go back to industry with his masters
    • After his first year he was given a National Defense Fellowship; the nice thing was that it gve him the opportunity to study any topic that he wanted to. He had gone to grad school wanting to merge nuclear background with aerospace – space radiation, space nuclear reactors, etc. There wasn’t a graduate program for this, but the fellowship gave him the opportunity to forge his own path.
    • his dissertation; Magentic fields to sheild humans from space
  • 24:30 – What advice do you have for veterans wanting to pursue a PhD?
    • One nice thing about being a veteran in a program like this is that you can get down to business and knock it out. I did mine in two years, which is a pretty short time frame. Most service members I met were the same. It’s different if yuo’re more focused and willing to get the job down
    • My advice is to not get it just to get it; make sure you’re really interested in it, because as soon as you leave with your PhD, that sets what you will do; it is difficult to branch out from there
  • 25:56 – What led you to astronaut training?
    • It’s not really a training program. He submitted his application early in 2016 for the group that was selected this year. It was 18k people who put in for the application down to 120 semi-finalists who come in for a 3-day interview, and 50 people for a weeklong interview to select 12 people this year. They’ll go on a  two year training cycle: wilderness survival, underwater vehicle egress, Russian language and international space station
    • It was a lifelong dream, so he plotted along the way his interests and what things he could add on to help him get there. Working in the space industry was 1. Being a submarine officer was another one (and this had led him to submarines in the first place, in addition to serving his country). he tried to find little things along the way – private pilots license, scuba certification. They were things I wanted to do anyways, but found them exciting and worked
    • It started as a standard job application – follow-up questions, medical requirements, if yo8’re a pilot or not. They had over 50 HR specialists to go through all the resumes
    • The 3-day interview process was one of the coolest processes of his life. It’s covered by NDAs so he can’t talk in detail but they evaluate screening you as a person, medically (medical requirements are VERY strict) for example kidney stones, you’re disqualified if you’ve ever had them.
  • 31:06 – What advice do you have for veterans wanting to go this route?
    • The biggest thing is finding something that you’re passionate about and going all-in on it. You’ve got Navy SEALs, pilots, MIT professors, SpaceX engineers, Doctors, Marine Biologists – there’s no lack of options on how to get tehre. it’s about finding out what you’re passionate about and going all-in on it. Finding people who can push themselves constantly – constantly work to improve yourself and make yourself better. Find things challengin that push your skills and boundaries.
  • 33:27- What was it like not getting in the final stage
    • It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. When I got the news it was in one way a crushing blow – I spent so many years in pursuit of this goal. At the same time it was ok. When you make it to the final 50 every person there is absolutely incredible. It’s something they’ve been pursuing their entire life as well.
    • When he wasn’t selected it was hard to be too upset when he saw the people who were selected; so it was hard to be too upset about it. And now he has a few friends who are astronauts as well, which is very cool
    • At some point when you’re swinging for the fences and the odds of getting selected are so low you have to temper your expectations so if it doesn’t work out you’re still ok with everything.
  • 37:15 – What resources – books, websites, programs – have been helpful to you in your civilian career that you would recommend to listeners?
    • Didn’t have a ton of resources that I relied on
    • One thing I’ve gone back to a lot lately is Chris Hatfields – an astronauts guide to life on earth
    • His path to becoming an astronaut – there are so many snippets of wisdom that apply to every day life
    • how to go after things in a way that helps you in your pursuit. Really good life l
  • 38:27 – Work at NASA
    • A co-investigator, while researching at the University of Colorado. Very cool being able to work with the NASA research centers. IF you are really interested in pursuing this path, tehre are a lot of great opportunities to get involved. If you’re undergrad or grad school, you can do co-ops that are a great way to get your foot in the door. Or if you reach out and tap into the NASA network. Everyone there is so excited and passionate about what they do, they are more than willing to share their experience with people
    • Find the person at NASA doing it and reach out; you’ll be surprised that they’ll reach back out
  • 40:04 – Final words of wisdom for active duty & veteran listens?
    • The biggest thing is to find your passion
    • It’s wortwhile, espeically in times of transition if you’re on active duty looking to get out and at different points – take stock of your world and make sure you’re striving for those things. I was taking a look at what I liiked about th emilitary when I got out and looked to try to fit them in my life when I got out. That was one of the big struggles – many things I loved in the service Ic ouldn’t find at my job. Realized I needed to find these in outside of owrk activities. Espeically a sense of service. This is my biggest peice of advice – see what you like and find how to get more of