People and Community Science and Technology

The right stuff

UM engineering alumnus David Cox reflects on his storied career at NASA.
NASA engineer David Cox

David Cox at Kennedy Space Center. Photo: Diego Meza-Valdes/University of Miami

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—On Earth, the experiment went off without a hitch. But in the zero-gravity environment of space, something went wrong. 

As the astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) were preparing to bed down, the temperature inside one of two shoebox-sized chambers containing plant life suddenly skyrocketed, threatening to ruin an international research project that could provide a blueprint on how to grow vegetables and refresh cabin air on extended spaceflights, perhaps on a mission to Mars. 

NASA project manager David “Dave” Cox knew he had to quickly “work the problem.” Within two hours he had a solution. Communicating with ISS astronauts from a small control room at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, Cox instructed one of them to power down the grow lights and transfer the plants into a clear bag, a process that allowed the specimens to float inside the crew compartment and absorb the natural light from the space station. 

His plan worked. The plants survived. But still, the question of why the temperature rose in the first place remained. Cox and his team quickly discovered the answer: a blown fuse in one of the coolant pumps, a problem for which they had not developed a contingency plan. “We never thought it would blow,” Cox recalled. “All of our ground data showed we had no fluid issues. But in space, once you remove gravity, fluid dynamics act very differently.” 

The only solution: fly up a new fuse, along with the tools to replace it, aboard one of the scheduled flights of a space shuttle orbiter, which would rendezvous with the space station. 

The fix wasn’t quite on the level of the Apollo 13 crisis in 1970, when astronauts on a mission to the moon were forced to use the lunar module as a lifeboat after an oxygen tank exploded in their service module. But it did help define a brilliant 28-year career at NASA that saw the University of Miami College of Engineering alumnus serve in a multitude of roles—from working on the environmental control systems and payloads for the space shuttle program, to serving as an integration and test engineer for the ISS, to managing KSC’s life science flight experiments. 

“Challenging, inspirational, and rewarding” is how Cox described working for NASA, something he had always wanted to do since he was a tenth-grader. 

While he no longer works for the venerable space agency (he retired earlier this year), his memories of playing an integral part in countless missions and of accomplishing the goals he set for himself to help humans “survive off of this planet” live on. 

“The can-do attitude of NASA is second to none,” Cox said during a recent interview at launch site KSC, where he worked for most of his career. “I have never seen such tremendous professionalism anywhere else in my life than with NASA. Yes, there’s absolutely stress involved. But we dealt with that stress tremendously well. We did a tremendous amount of planning, probably more so than in any other industry I know of. And that planning reduced stress. It gave us a plan to follow, which took the emotion out of it. That’s what NASA is really good at—looking at things without the cloud of emotion.”

He credits the agency’s belief in diversity and versatility for helping him transition to new roles. In his job as an operations test engineer responsible for the planning and scheduling of space shuttle payloads, Cox thrived. “That was the reason we flew—for the payloads,” he said, noting that the shuttles launched numerous earth-observation and deep-space satellites and ferried into space massive modules used in the construction of the ISS. 

He often interacted with the astronauts who flew on shuttle missions. When the space shuttle Columbiadisintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, killing all seven crewmembers aboard, the tragedy affected him profoundly. “The hardest part was that we lost the crew. They were our friends. We trained them. I have a picture of myself with the STS-107 crew during that training,” said Cox. “We don’t like talking about it. It’s that difficult. The public sees it many times removed. As the project manager of three experiments that flew on that mission and who trained those astronauts, it’s much more personal.” 

Even the loss of Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after takeoff on January 28, 1986, affected Cox, who was still a mechanical engineering student at UM when that disaster occurred. 

“I had just gotten out of class,” he recalled. “I walked into the mechanical engineering office and saw everyone gathered around a TV set. Someone told me Challengerexploded. I was so grief-stricken because of the astronauts who had lost their lives, and I worried that my dream of becoming a NASA engineer had just disintegrated.” 

When NASA mothballed its space shuttle fleet in 2011, ending three decades of a program that sent astronauts, scientists, engineers, and cargo into orbit on missions that could last as long as two weeks, Cox felt it was the right time. The reusable winged spaceships, he said, had accomplished what they were designed to do—build a space station. 

“The space shuttle orbiters were like your dad’s car that had 400,000 miles on it and looked great sitting in the garage,” Cox explained. “Every now and then you’d take it out, but you were afraid to go past downtown. You wouldn’t drive it to another county, and you certainly wouldn’t road trip to another state. Dad maintained it well, but there were so many parts to it that if one of those parts failed, it would be catastrophic. For the space shuttles, the expense of maintaining the systems to their original design requirements—in this case, space-flight worthiness—got to the point where it was time to send them to their retirement homes.” 

Today, the four remaining orbiters are on display at different locations around the nation. One, Atlantis, can be seen at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. 

Serving as project manager for KSC’s life science flight experiments was Cox’s greatest challenge, he said. “We could not let our experiment objectives put the crew or vehicle in harm’s way,” said Cox. “Flight safety was our No. 1 rule. The culture at NASA is absolutely one of safety. We did difficult things and we made it look easy. But what’s most important about what we did was that we did it safely while minimizing the risk to the crew and the health of the vehicle.” 

As a project manager of life science flight payload development, Cox led the development, launch, and operation of KSC’s first permanent biological research system on the ISS, partnering on projects with the Canadian, Japanese, and Russian space agencies. He was named KSC Engineer/Scientist of the Year in 2010 for his contributions in that area. 

After several years managing research projects for ISS missions, Cox became a partnership development manager in the Kennedy Space Center’s planning and development office, helping to spearhead efforts to make KSC a multiuser spaceport that allows commercial space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX to use the center’s Vehicle Assembly Building and launch pads. 

Now, Cox is dedicated to improving the community of Cocoa Beach, where he’s lived for the past 30 years. He and his wife, Vicki, are planning to target one of their rental properties to the commercial space industry. “My passion is still for this community and human space travel,” he said. 

His love for UM remains just as deep as when he attended the University in the 1980s. His maternal grandfather, he said, was a member of UM’s first class of 646 full-time students in 1926. 

“My years at UM are still to this day some of the best years of my life,” said Cox, who was born and raised in North Miami Beach. “The friends I made there, the opportunity to get an education that would launch my career with NASA—I just can’t put into words how much the U means to me. I am who I am because of the University of Miami.”