NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars

My Story Begins With a Rocket

Neil TaylorMy name is Neil Taylor.  Before I returned to college, I was a tech school graduate from the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute of Phoenix. I had thirteen years of experience as a Harley Davidson motorcycle technician, race mechanic, and shop foreman. For a while, I believed I was too old to return to school. When I finally worked up the nerve to return to the classroom, I attended Mitchell Community College in Statesville, North Carolina.

My sophomore year at Mitchell caused a major change in my life. It all started with a physics class. Dr. Knight taught calculus-based physics at Mitchell and ran a successful NASA University Student Launch Initiative (USLI) program. Our physics class was small, even by community college standards. When the team size fell from six to four, we had to make the decision to quit or carry on. We decided to soldier on and I became the team payload manager.

We took a unique approach to our rocketry project. Dr. Knight would never tell us we couldn’t do it. When we decided to manufacture every component of the rocket except the nose cone, Dr. Knight agreed. The spring ejection system was my biggest contribution to the rocket design. Being a Harley Davidson mechanic, I had a clutch spring out of a 1973 Harley Davidson Sportster lying around my shop. We launched our rocket at Wallops Flight Facility, a NASA facility at Wallops Island, Virgina. The spring ejection system worked! The parachute deployed and the rocket was safely recovered down range in the Atlantic Ocean. Without referencing any history books we may have been the first to launch Harley Davidson motorcycle parts on a rocket!

While involved with USLI, I also participated in NCAS, a fantastic engineering challenge that earned me a spot at the three-day engineering competition at JPL. Pursuing a project for my intense interest in it, not just for a grade, was a new experience in my college career and one I would have not experienced in my early college career without NCAS.

Neil Taylor at USLIAfter I participated in NCAS I decided my new goal was a NASA summer internship. I would never have thought about applying for a NASA internship if it weren’t for NCAS. NCAS gave me the confidence that maybe I was good enough after all. Dr. Cynthia Cheung accepted me for the Lunar and Planetary Science Academy, or LPSA at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The North Carolina Space Grant graciously awarded me half of my funding to make this opportunity happen. LPSA was the ultimate internship program. I was surrounded by some of the nation’s brightest students.

I graduated with high honors from Mitchell Community College with an Associate’s degree in science, pre-engineering. I applied for and received the Department of Defense SMART scholarship, which funded my electrical engineering degree at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. From here I graduated magna cum laude.

I am currently employed as an electronics engineer at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City. Right now, I’m also a graduate student at Oklahoma Christian pursuing a Master’s of Science in Engineering.

Even though my job is with the United States Air Force, my involvement with NASA continues to this day. In 2012, I was named a NASA student ambassador. I know that NASA has been instrumental in shaping my future. These programs changed my life, I wanted more for my family and for myself. I owe a great debt to those that have encouraged me in my academic endeavors, and I owe an even greater debt to those that have exposed me to these NASA opportunities. NASA represents the best that this country has to offer.