The Charlotte Convention Center’s Ballroom was a maze of booths filled with companies, professional schools, and government organizations on Thursday. They were there to meet students and recent graduates from historically black colleges and universities for the CIAA career fair.
Clayton Turner chatted with students at the NASA booth. His sales pitch: that NASA’s spaceflight and robotics projects benefit everyone.
Turner is NASA’s director of Langley Research Center in Virginia. He’s the first African American to hold that job. Throughout his career, he’s worked on things you probably would expect, like rocket flight tests and the Space Shuttle program.
But he hasn’t always worked in aerospace: before NASA, he was in the military, then repaired arcade machines, and was a music studio engineer. That path informs how he pitches NASA to students now.
“So my path was not the traditional path, and I don’t want them to get stuck in, “You can only do it this way,'" Turner said. "I want them to work to find their passion. That is my passion, 'cause I want everybody to be as excited by what they do as I am at what I do."
Micah Marshall spoke with Turner about jobs at NASA. Mitchell is in the Navy and works as a recruiter in Gastonia.
"Definitely going to be something I look into in the next couple of years," Marshall said. "In the meantime, I’m just going to look to figure out how to make myself more marketable. Make my resume speak for itself. And you know, just try to do the best I can to get a position at NASA."
Part of what Turner pitches to young people is NASA’s Artemis program. That program aims to train astronauts and return to the moon by 2024. Eventually, the goal is to travel to Mars.
To get there, Turner says he needs to recruit all kinds of people to NASA. That means starting with young kids. Before this career fair, he visited three majority-minority elementary schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system.
One boy asked him: "How do you know when to sleep in space?"
“That’s a question I had never been asked before, but think about that young man: he was curious, and he wanted to understand that. Understand how the solar system works, understand how it works to travel in space," Turner said. "So those are the kinds of questions we get, and those are folks who are really curious and are going to do amazing things for us."
NASA will open another round of applications for the Artemis program in March. Turner hopes even if the young people he meets today aren’t quite ready for that call, they’ll be ready to answer another one in the future.