Alumni Spotlight: Russ Fortson

Russ Fortson received his bachelor's and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering from UGA.  Russ is an engineer with NASA contractor Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and works at the Johnson Space Center.  Russ lives in Houston with his wife, who also works for NASA, and daughter, a rising ninth grader and science enthusiast.

How did your career path lead you to NASA?

I’ve been working at the Johnson Space Center since ‘96.  Before that, I worked at the Kennedy Space Center from ‘90 to ’95.   I worked at the Warner Robins Air Force Base for a couple years before KSC, and before that I actually worked for UGA down at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton two separate times.  When I finished my undergraduate degree, I worked with the extension engineers for two years.  After grad school, I worked in the research department for about a year.  During my time with UGA, we did energy audits on greenhouses, tobacco curing barns, irrigation systems, etc.  It was all geared towards making them more energy efficient.  I really enjoyed working there.

But I was also a big space nerd.  Back then, the space shuttle had just been flying a couple years and there was preliminary talk about building a space station. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I thought, well, if people are going to live in space all the time, they’re going to need food!  My major professor in grad school, Ron McClendon, had worked at Lockheed at one point so he understood my excitement and encouraged me to keep pursuing it. 

At an American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE) meeting, I connected with a couple of agricultural engineers that worked for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center.  I wrote letters and bugged them for three or four years until they finally hired me!  When I arrived at Kennedy Space Center, we worked on building systems to grow food on the moon or Mars.  (We haven’t gotten there yet, but we will get there eventually.)  This evolved into a career in space life support systems.

That’s how an agricultural engineer ends up working in the space program!

Why did you choose to attend UGA?

My dad grew up in Athens and went to Georgia, so I was raised a Bulldog.  I always assumed I would go to Georgia.  I transferred to UGA after two years at Young Harris College.  When I went off to college, I didn’t know what I was going to do.  I liked history and thought maybe I’d be a lawyer… but then I took an astronomy class and discovered I liked science.  When I was getting ready to finish up at Young Harris, some friends also going to Georgia were planning to study agricultural engineering.  They explained that you have to do all this science, but then you get a job at the end of it all!  And I said, “Oh, hey, you get paid?  All right!”  So that’s how I wound up getting into ag engineering.

What are your best UGA memories?

It’s hard to choose.  I’m a football fan, so I really enjoyed going to all the games.  I was there in 1980 when we won the National Championship, which was great!  I made a lot of friends through classes and my fraternity and still keep in contact with a lot of those folks.

What do you remember most about your time as an engineering student at UGA?

There were less than 200 people in engineering back when I was in school.  It was great because you knew all of the teachers and everyone in your classes.  The department head at the time, Robert Brown, was an electrical engineer, so he placed some of that emphasis in the agricultural engineering curriculum.

At the time, personal computers were just coming along.  As an undergraduate, we used the big mainframe computers and always had to walk down to the Science Library to pick up our printouts.  By the time I came back to grad school after working a couple of years, they brought personal computers into the department.  A lot of the work I did in grad school was computer modeling of the best way to irrigate soybeans.  With the computer, I was able to model the best time to water soybeans based on the weather and water in the ground.  Obviously running an irrigation system is very expensive, so if you can tell farmers how to cut that down, they make higher profits.  It was fun doing things like that.

I enjoyed the classes.  I probably didn’t enjoy them as much at the time because it was hard, but going through difficult things with friends is a rich experience. 

I still remember some of the projects we worked on.  There was a student competition around the county to design a micro mini tractor for the ASAE micro mini tractor pull.  In case you aren’t familiar with tractor pulls… back in the day, a bunch of farmers got talking about who had a better tractor.  They’d hook up their tractor, pull stuff, and see who could pull the most stuff.  That evolved into competitions where tractors would pull different things.  Of course, we weren’t going to build giant tractors that could pull tons, so we designed mini model tractors that were about the size of a shoebox.  They were gasoline-powered tractors that would pull 50 or 60 pounds.  The engineering club built one, our fraternity built one, and we’d compete against different engineering teams all over the country.  I guess you could say that’s country nerd fun!

Who were some of your favorite engineering professors?

They were all good!  I’ve been out of school long enough now that it doesn’t sound like I’m brown-nosing.  They all had different qualities. 

I was in Sid Thompson’s first class… and you know, Sid still looks exactly the same!  He looked like a student when he started.  When we walked in that first class, we all thought he was another student.  The department was so small that we all knew each other, so we thought, “Who’s this guy?”  And that was Sid.  He was really good and showed us what engineering was all about… the hard way!  He really demanded a lot in class.  He was fair, and it was enjoyable, but Sid will work you!  His first class was an eye-opener.

My major professor, Ron McClendon, was great to work for.  He was a mentor who’d advised me on my career, such as how to go about looking for jobs in the space program.  Very helpful.

Dr. Law was a world expert in electrostatics.  He was one of the few professors that you walked softly around, because he had such a reputation for excellence—you didn’t want to upset him!  But when I took his class I really enjoyed it.  He had a reputation for a hard class and demanding a lot.  But I really enjoyed that class.  He’s a wonderful man.

Derrell McLendon was an excellent man and taught electronics.  He always demanded excellence, but was always there to help you do your best.  I enjoyed his classes.  He was great.

All of the engineering professors demanded a lot out of you, but they were always willing to help you out and make sure you learned the materials so you could succeed.  They were great.  It’s hard to pick just one.

What current projects are you working on for NASA?

I lead a group of 21 engineers and support staff helping to ensure the safety of three new spacecraft that NASA is having built.  (As an aside, no country has EVER built more than one human-rated spacecraft at a time, so NASA is doing something that has never been done before.  It’s just not in the papers for some reason.)  We each focus on a particular system or area (such as life support, propulsion, electrical power, guidance and navigation, etc.) and review the specific designs to see how they can fail, and what the consequences are.  Our overriding goal is to keep the crew safe, and then to help make sure the mission is completed.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

Oh man, putting people in space!  I’ve always been amazed by that.  This is going to sound corny, but this is truly how I feel… I think it is human’s destiny to explore and to ask, “What’s over that hill?  What’s across that ocean?  What’s out there?”  I think humans are going to do that and I want to be a part of that.  I know I’m not going to go to the moon or Mars, but I think that some small piece of the work that I’m doing and we’re doing is going to enable that.  I just think that’s cool.

How has your UGA Engineering degree influenced your career?

I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without it!  While I was in school, there was a tendency of people on the outside looking in and saying, “Agricultural engineering?  That’s not real engineering, you’re just going be a farmer, etc.”  And that’s just not true.  I’m thankful for my broad engineering background.  Yes, it was an agricultural engineering degree, but we also had a department head who was an electrical engineer and made sure that we understood electronics, computers, and new technology.  Agricultural engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering… all these different types of engineering go together and from that you can apply that to so much.   I feel like I’m a good example of this because no one would draw a line from agricultural engineering to working on a spacecraft life support system—but it’s a logical line.  I’ve done energy audits on greenhouses and irrigation systems, and now I’m looking at a humidity control system and a trace contaminant control system on new spacecraft being built.  And I can draw a direct line between the two.  They sound different and are different, but I can connect them because of my UGA education.  UGA gave me so many options. 

Sometimes, if you go to a big engineering school and get a very specific degree, you can become pigeonholed.  But at Georgia, there’s a lot of cross-fertilization between the disciplines.  I notice this in the engineers I see coming out of UGA today; they’ve got a broad engineering background, and I think that’s important.

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