Today he is emeritus adviser to the Flight Projects Directorate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, following a distinguished 32-year career at the federal space exploration and research agency. But nearly four decades ago, John Decker ’79 became a master’s graduate in civil engineering at NJIT, an educational achievement he credits for a lot of his professional success.
Decker, a recent retiree, served previously as associate director of the directorate and worked on the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope. He also spent nearly eight years as deputy project manager of the large, infrared James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), playing a leadership role in its formulation and implementation. JWST is scheduled for launch in spring 2019 as the “premier observatory” for “thousands of astronomers worldwide.”
In his free time, Decker has moved from space to stage, applying his undergraduate degree in architecture and fine arts to the design and construction of theater sets.
NJIT recently welcomed the esteemed alum for a two-day visit, Nov. 30-Dec. 1, during which he toured his old academic stomping grounds, informally networked with students, staff and faculty, and shared his “out of this world” experiences at NASA. Following are some of the highlights of his stay.
(Above) Decker spoke with students in the astronomy and astrophysics class of Professor Dale Gary in Faculty Memorial Hall. There he reminisced about his days at NJIT, joking that he used a slide rule back then. He also elaborated on his professional pathway to and at NASA. “We designed engineering solutions with the astronauts,” he said of his time at the agency, adding, “We rewrote the astronomy textbooks for the classes you’re probably taking now.”
(Above) Career Development Services (CDS) coordinated one-on-one informational sessions for Decker to speak with undergraduate students interested in learning about and applying for internships at NASA. Shadae Farquharson, a third-year mechanical engineering (ME) major, was the first student to meet with him in one of CDS’ interview rooms. Decker talked to her about ME at the Goddard Space Flight Center and advised her to apply for many opportunities. “I’ve always had a passion for space exploration,” Farquharson remarked. “I believe that interning at NASA would be an adventure and that I would learn so much.”
(Above) An interest in the dynamic analysis of structures led Decker to enroll at NJIT to study this area. During his return visit to campus, he toured both the Concrete Testing Lab in Colton Hall, where he spent many hours, as well as the new Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructure Laboratory in Weston Hall, pictured here in the background. He acknowledged that his structural analysis work at NJIT prepared him well for his job at NASA, which called for analyzing the stress and strain pertaining to satellites. “It’s all the same physics,” he said.
(Above) Decker’s visit culminated with the Albert Dorman Honors College colloquium, “Shooting for the Stars: From NJIT to NASA.” A large crowd in the Campus Center Atrium listened as Decker told how he took evening classes at NJIT to earn his Master of Science in civil engineering, went on to do earthquake analysis of safety-related structures at nuclear power plants, and ultimately jumped at the chance to work in structural dynamics analysis at the Goddard Space Flight Center. He also spoke about and shared images from the Hubble Space Telescope, describing it as “perhaps the most productive science device mankind has ever built” and noting its longevity — Hubble was designed to be in space for 15 years and has been there for 27.
Decker’s advice to those interested in careers at NASA is to do the requisite research and seek out specific NASA projects and relevant areas. “Patience and persistence are the keywords,” he said, “and don’t be afraid to leap at an opportunity when you see it.”