BY BRIAN NELSON
It's 8 a.m. on a Monday and former astronaut Bruce Melnick is revved.
He's back from a three-day fantasy trip as a driver at the Justin Bell Racing School in West Palm Beach, Fla., and can't wait to talk about it.
"You hit this turning point here at 135 mph," said Melnick, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems vice president at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. He's standing at his office marker board, gesturing like an excited student. "It's a bit like turning left into your driveway and turning right out of it before you hit the garage. I'm not exaggerating, it's that short."
Before you hit the garage? He turns with the "wow" look of someone who has come close to missing some of those.
What's the deal? Here's a family guy with a one-month-old adopted baby girl, responsible for some 2,000 Boeing IDS employees, and he's racing cars at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour?
Let's quickly add for the record that Bruce Melnick is as responsible a guy as they come. At work, he's a dependable, hard-working Boeing executive.
When he's not, well ... to put it bluntly, Melnick has this Tom Cruise need for speed. As an astronaut, he was one of a select few to notch speeds of 17,500 miles per hour. Nothing on earth can compete with that, so Melnick contents himself with the fastest legal machines he can afford.
Landside, there's a high-performance Z06 Corvette sports car he's souped up with a muscular engine and fat tires (and had General Motors designer John Cafero autograph). Waterside, he's bulked up his offshore 35-foot Sportfisherman and inshore Boston Whaler. And don't even ask about his off-road four-wheel-drive Dodge Ram.
As he sits at his conference table snacking on cake, the former Coast Guard pilot abruptly peels off formation, successfully dodging a nagging question about "midlife crisis."
"The T-34, T-28, Bell Jet Ranger, Huey, H-52, H-3, H-65, and T-38, in that order," he said, the letters and numbers rolling off his tongue.
Pointing to his Boeing-issued bookcase housing replicas of the planes he flew for the Coast Guard and NASA, Melnick suddenly bounds from his chair, locking in on the T-28.
"That's got the old big radial engine on the front," he said intensely. "When you fly at night, big blue flames come shooting out of these exhausts."
One wonders, as Melnick continues, if other ex-T-28 pilots have the same thought processes.
"And it's got speed brakes, mixture and prop levers, flaps, a real handful to learn in. I mean it's like an old World War II vintage fighter airplane. It's awesome."
Melnick's a guy who's led a hard-charging career but who somehow views himself as laid back. Anyone who's ever fished alongside him, even at the numerous charity fishing events he attends, has felt his competitive edge.
He's at the top of his game when he has a mission.
"I don't get a thrill or joy out of watching people do things or going along for the ride. To me, it's the hunt," Melnick said.
Melnick grew up the son of a Clearwater, Fla., charter boat captain. "We didn't have lot going on for us," he said of a family that survived making ends meet.
The challenge of rising to something better seemed huge to a kid in grade six. That's when, he remembers, his school principal announced that an astronaut named Alan Shepherd had become the first American to fly into space. It didn't take long for young Melnick to decide, "That's something I'd really like to do."
Aspiring to be an astronaut calls for more than dreams. You need to have some smarts, especially in science, mathematics and engineering. Melnick was untried, and no one in his family had ever taken a course or gone to college.
This was to be a dream he'd realize almost on his own.
Melnick's father, the charter boat captain, was drawing him toward a life on the water. But it may have been his mother who, purposely or not, helped lift him toward the skies.
Rita Melnick was actually the first aviator in the Melnick family. As a young WAVE (Women Accepted For Volunteer Emergency Service) in World War II, she helped ferry military aircraft to Europe for the war effort. When he got his aviator wings in 1978, he asked his mother to pin them on him.
Back in high school, those wings seemed a long way off. With fate pulling him into fishing, Melnick took an accounting of his talents, and, realizing he was indeed all about water and boats, smartly applied to enter the Coast Guard Academy.
"I'll never forget the time we went up to Cape May, N.J., going on international ice patrol, where the winds and the current going into Cape May were just brutal," he recalls. "And the captain had me, the junior guy, dock the ship because I had the best capability."
For someone of Melnick's achievements, self-confidence borders on boastful.
"I'm not bragging. It's just something that's always been natural to me," he continues. "Speed and operating the machinery to its design limits—I think I'm a natural at that. Some people get into a helicopter and really struggle. I get in a helicopter and in a few minutes it just feels like I'm a part of it."
Not that he hasn't made mistakes and had his share of danger. There were two brushes with death on a motorcycle and some drag racing exploits as a kid. Even in astronaut training, Melnick's thirst for speed often led him to grab a buddy, jump in a NASA jet and do some precision formation flying. "I won't call it dog fighting because you're not supposed to dog fight," he said.
While the space agency may have frowned, his daring on some high-profile rescue missions got him noticed in the Coast Guard. Eventually, the "Coasties" named the hard-charging Melnick their Chief Test Pilot, the credential that probably sealed his dream of getting into space.
In 1986, after several failed attempts, Melnick applied, and the Coast Guard chose him as one of their candidates for the NASA astronaut corps. NASA had never accepted a Coast Guard applicant before, but Melnick was hopeful.
That optimism, however, went out the window when Challenger exploded.
NASA was forced to shut down the space program and hunt for what went wrong. Melnick wasn't sure how long he could afford to wait, as his astronaut dream slipped into deep freeze.
The next year, with the O-rings identified as the culprit and new safety procedures in place, NASA once again called for astronaut candidates, and Melnick applied once more. There were 5,000 applicants. NASA chose him as the first Coast Guard astronaut.
After completing training, Melnick flew on shuttle missions in 1990 and 1992. On one, he used the shuttle arm to pluck a satellite from space in a risky mission.
But the Coast Guard aviator never got a chance to get his hands on the wheel of the orbiter, despite spending plenty of time in the Houston simulator. He looks back and says he probably would have stayed at NASA longer if he did.
"The other regret," he said, and then replaces the word with "unfulfillment," was not getting a shot at a space walk.
Melnick left the space agency in 1992 for Lockheed Martin. He jumped to McDonnell Douglas four years later and became the Boeing Kennedy Space Center site vice president the year after the two aerospace giants merged. And he brought his characteristic intensity to his new employer.
Melnick's devotion to perfection and demanding performance helped cap a winning year in Florida. NASA awarded Boeing IDS its highest award fees on the shuttle, payloads, and the International Space Station in 2003. The icing on the cake was "the flawless execution and performance" on Delta IV's November inaugural flight by the Boeing Expendable Launch Vehicle team at Kennedy Space Center.
As he wound up three days of chasing his demon around that track in West Palm Beach, Melnick stepped out of his loaned Corvette "totally exhausted," his need for speed momentarily satiated. On the drive home to Cape Canaveral, he was content to put his own Corvette on cruise control and relax.
But Melnick knows that fix won't last forever.
"I'll be back next year," he said, promising to continue chasing the one thing he can't ever seem to catch.
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