In 2017, Philip Walker was working at a job he loved as a software engineer for Raytheon Technologies. The commute was long, but he enjoyed what he did and admired his colleagues. 

“Then one day I got a call,” Walker said. The person on the line, he said, told him “‘Hey, I got your name from someone you’re currently working with. We’re working on the Orion mission that is going to send astronauts to Mars.’ 

“And I was like, ‘OK, you’ve got my interest,’” Walker said.  

Walker ended up being recruited for the mission. The Wyoming-raised engineer, who lives in Denver with his wife and two kids, works for Stellar Solutions under contract with NASA. He describes it as a dream job, and his sincerity is palpable even over the phone. “Some days I pinch myself for sure,” he said. 

NASA engineer Philip Walker grew up in Big Horn. (Courtesy Philip Walker)

Walker, 42, loves space. Wherever he finds himself — family functions, standing in line for food, waiting for a launch on the NASA Causeway in Cape Canaveral — when people find out he works as a systems engineer on human spaceflight, an enthusiastic conversation ensues, he said.

“I’ll talk anyone’s ear off. I enjoy it,” Walker said. 

Growing up in Big Horn, Walker always had an interest in space. One of his earliest memories is of seeing the Challenger explosion on television. His dad told him stories about the Apollo missions and was “crazy good” at pointing out constellations during family camping trips.

Yet, Walker never would have predicted, he said, that someday he would be intimately involved in the historic return of humans to the moon — and beyond.

Keeping up with technology

In 2002, Walker was a senior at the University of Wyoming preparing to graduate with an electrical engineering degree. Looking at the job market, he decided to spend an extra year taking a few more coding classes, fulfilling the requirements to also earn a computer engineering degree. He thought it might make his résumé more appealing. 

He was right. His first job, doing classified work for the multinational aerospace and defense conglomerate Raytheon on ground systems for satellites, relied heavily on his software skills. 

“So that whole extra year that I took,” Walker said, “… well it turns out that the software side, the coding side, was more valuable to the job market at large.”

That theme has continued throughout his career. Software evolves much more rapidly than hardware does, he said.

Finding experienced hardware engineers is fairly easy, “… because the stuff they did 20 years ago still applies,” Walker said. “If you found a computer science person who last coded 20 years ago, it’s not going to work out.” 

Walker was content at Raytheon, staying 14 years. Then came the phone call.

Communication and coordination

Since commercial space companies burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, NASA has set its sights on putting people back into space. Numerous programs and initiatives have come and gone, but one thing has been a constant: the Orion spacecraft. 

Orion has the same basic shape as the Apollo command and service module that originally carried astronauts to the moon, but the similarities end there. Everything else is leading-edge and requires the best in the business to develop. That’s how, in 2017, Walker’s name came up.

The more Walker listened to the voice on the phone that day, the more excited he became. “It was much closer to home,” he said. “I could work from home if I needed to, because it was all unclassified work now … It was human spaceflight! Come on!”

Walker jumped at the opportunity. 

Today, Walker works as an avionics tester doing hardware/software integration for the Orion spacecraft. He sees the work as taking him back to his roots. “So, I take the code, I take the block of hardware,” he explained, “and I make sure the code can command the hardware.” 

Philip Walker outside the entrance to the Orion lab at Stellar Solutions in Denver, Colorado. (Courtesy Philip Walker)

Walker described the variety of “cool stuff” his team does on a regular basis. “I might have an oscilloscope hooked up one day,” he said. “I might have NASA representatives looking at our mission run another day. So, it can be very low level or very high level. It’s super interesting.”

According to Walker, his work involves integrating the output of a multitude of individual teams, testing the system end to end. The hardware and software available in his lab is as close as it gets to the real thing, he said — i.e., what is being built at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

This verisimilitude, Walker said, allows his team to run interesting scenarios NASA officials wouldn’t want to test on the real vehicle because they don’t want to risk damaging it. He and his colleagues simulate stressful, off-nominal situations all the time: What if the battery disconnects? What if it shorts out? What happens if they must reboot the computer while in orbit? 

Communication and coordination define his job, he said. On any given day, “I gotta talk to four experts to find out how the overall thing is going to come together … and make sure I understand what NASA really wants,” Walker said. “How should this work? Here’s how it does work, is that right?”

Walker appreciates that not many jobs exist where politics don’t come into play. “I have a job where we all have a common enemy, and that is space,” he said.

With Orion now a part of NASA’s Artemis program, Walker’s last five and a half years of work have come to the brink of fruition. The plan is to establish comfortable routines for a long-term human presence in orbit around the moon, on the surface of the moon and, eventually, on Mars. 

A tough outcome

On Aug. 29, Walker traveled to the Kennedy Space Center with his coworkers (and 400,000 other people) to witness the maiden launch of the Orion space capsule. Unfortunately, the launch was scrubbed due to technical issues and weather conditions, but Walker didn’t let it get him down. He posted on Facebook:

Long day that didn’t end the way we wanted. Still got to hang out with a bunch of fellow space enthusiasts, so a day well spent. You’re bonded forever with people who you wake up at 1:15 in the morning with, surviving on 15 minutes of sleep on wet causeway grass.

The launch was rescheduled for Sept. 3, and Walker stayed in Florida a few extra days. This time, a hydrogen leak caused the launch to be canceled. 

Walker, again on Facebook, described the situation as a “tough outcome” but followed it up with his characteristic positivity: “… but getting it right is the most important thing, as this rocket will be used for several years and launches to come.”

The Artemis I stack, consisting of the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket, returned to the vehicle assembly building at Kennedy Space Center in September to shelter from Hurricane Ian. (NASA/Radislav Sinyak/FlickrCC)

When Walker spoke to Wyofile in late September, he was excited that another launch attempt was scheduled for Sept. 27, but the approach of Hurricane Ian forced NASA to postpone the next attempt until mid-November. 

The right stuff

According to Walker, perseverance, dedication and patience are essential characteristics of a successful engineer. 

“I would say you have to learn to not get frustrated,” Walker said. “The stuff that’s hard is going to take some time, and you’re going to hit a few bumps in the road, but it’s super worth it. Just don’t give up.”

Walker has worked with engineers from all kinds of backgrounds, and in his experience, those who possess a true passion often accomplish more than those with natural talent but no drive.

“Those folks are super successful,” Walker said, “because a lot of times the intangibles are crazy important in this job. Engineers who can communicate, engineers who are empathetic, engineers who have some of those soft skills can be a rare breed.”

Walker said some of the best engineers he has worked with have come up from associate-level degrees or small colleges. 

“I find that blue collar, hard-work background to be a common thread. Even for the ones that went to MIT, they seem to have this, ‘I had to sling hay, I had to work construction, I worked at fast food restaurants for three years,’ sort of story.

“They don’t take it for granted, I guess,” Walker continued. “They have that hard work ethic and some common sense … that is sorely needed a lot of days.”

Walker is employing that patience as he awaits the next launch window. In the meantime, he’ll enjoy conversing with anyone who shares his passion, always seeking what he describes as “an instant bond forged over space.”

Kevin Knapp has contributed to and was a writer and reporter for a Sheridan County newspaper for several years. Knapp has a background in anthropology, Native American studies and video...

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  1. Sounds like another smart one…who left Wyoming, as so many of them do, even if it was to work on a project that is a waste of time, natural resources, and public money. We have messed up the home planet, and should leave other places alone, then go extinct, which might allow evolution of a truly intelligent species on the plundered Earth, hopefully a species whose response to the disastrous effects of plundering is to stop plundering…

  2. Dream jobs are rare. Good for Walker. Sounds like a nice place to work and learn.

    As for: “The plan is to establish comfortable routines for a long-term human presence …..eventually, on Mars”. That sounds like a total waste of money. I am happy to see Elon Musk spend his own money on a spaceship for Mars adevntures and for him to leave Earth. Not sure the taxpayers get much return on their dollar if humans are visiting Mars. Prove me wrong. Open to facts that say otherwise.

  3. Good article. I think you captured Philip’s enthusiasm well. He’s an asset to our space program.