Charles E. Harris

Aerospace Engineering, Class of 1972, BS
Engineering Mechanics, Class of 1972, BS
Engineering Science and Mechanics, Class of 1983, Ph.D.

In 1967, when Charlie Harris was only 17 years old, he earned money for college by working as a schoolbus driver. Only two weeks before the beginning of his senior year, he learned to drive the large yellow school bus by piloting it around the dirt roads on his family farm in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. He was then responsible for driving his own peers as well as elementary school students on the 18-mile one-way trek to Dan River High School.

Tenacious as ever, Dr. Harris is still a driving force today. He leads some 800 scientists, engineers, and technicians working in 21 disciplinary research branches as the director of research and technology at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. His ground transportation skills have graduated to space travel in support of NASA’s mission in aeronautics, space operations, and space exploration.

The father of three children, Dr. Harris admits today that he would never have entrusted his offspring to a teenage bus driver, especially since his employment was complicated by the advent of desegregation. He recalls that he had to take control of more than a few stressful incidents, but he was determined to keep order on his bus and earn his $67.50 a month.

His work ethic also allowed him to develop effective time management skills. After graduating high school and enrolling in Danville Community College, he took a job working 4:00 p.m. until midnight as a textile machine operator, making $2.05 an hour. He had aspired to this position since it paid 15 cents an hour more than the ordinary day laborer at the local plant. “One of my gifts is that I am a quick study and very efficient. If I could get all of my work done, then I could study on the job,” he says. His savings during these two years at Danville Community College covered his expenses when he later entered Virginia Tech after earning his associate degree in pre-engineering.

When he arrived at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg as a junior, he heard a presentation on aerospace engineering, and it sounded like “an exciting field” although he admits with a smile that he “had no idea why airplanes were able to fly.” He checked out an aviation book from the library, and after reading it,thought he “would never be able to master the principles of flight.”

“It was a grand adventure for a boy coming from the farm, and I was in awe of the Virginia Tech campus,” he reflects.

When he graduated in June 1972, the country was in a recession and the Apollo and supersonic transport programs had just been canceled. “Aerospace engineers all over the country were being laid off,” he recalls, so he opted to earn his master’s degree in engineering science and mechanics that he completed in September 1973. Not only did he earn his master’s degree during this time, he also married his wife, Sherry, an alumna of Radford University. After graduation, they headed to Lynchburg where he worked for Babcock and Wilcox, a nuclear engineering firm.

His first supervisor was a fellow Hokie, Charles Pryor, who today is also a member of Virginia Tech’s Academy of Engineering Excellence. Mr. Pryor, who held a Ph.D., became a mentor to him, and as the younger Harris watched his supervisor’s career advance, he decided to return to Blacksburg to get his doctorate as well.

“It was a huge decision because my wife and I now had two small children,” Dr. Harris acknowledges. “I am grateful to her for supporting the move,” and “it turned out to be one of my great all-time decisions.”

After several discussions with Dan Frederick, who was then the head of the engineering science and mechanics department, he opted to re-enter this curriculum. Virginia Tech engineering icon C.W. “Bill” Smith, who directed the fracture mechanics laboratory, and his Ph.D. advisor Don Morris, also an engineering science and mechanics professor, became two of the “three greatest influences of my adult professional life,” Dr. Harris says. The third was Dr. Frederick. “These three gentlemen live their lives in the right way. They care about people and they are marvelous role models and mentors,” Dr. Harris adds.

Dr. Harris supported his family of four by working as an instructor, yet he was still able to get his doctorate in three years. He remained for a fourth year as an assistant professor until he received a tenure track offer in aerospace engineering from Texas A&M. The Harris family moved to College Station, Texas, for the next four years, but was lured back to Virginia when NASA offered Dr. Harris his dream job.

Since 1987, NASA Langley has served as home to Dr. Harris, and his job has continually increased in responsibilities to his current position. He started by heading the mechanics of materials branch, and beginning in 1991, he simultaneously managed NASA’s Aging Aircraft Program. In 1997, he was named NASA’s Chief Technologist for the Structures and Materials Center of Excellence. That same year he received the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal for his work on the NASA Aging Aircraft Program.

In 1999, he also started working with Doug Dwoyer, another Virginia Tech alumnus and member of the Academy of Engineering Excellence. While working together on a center strategic planning team, they were brainstorming about the creation of an institute that could meet some of NASA Langley’s future needs. “It was a grand idea that originated from a think tank-styled creative work environment,” Dr. Harris says. The result was the creation of the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), a non-profit research and graduate education entity created to conduct leading-edge aerospace research and to develop innovative new technologies. The NIA and NASA Langley have a strategic partnership that allows the two organizations to partner and to share ownership of intellectual property. Dr. Harris spent two years as the project manager of the National Institute of Aerospace.

In 2000, Dr. Harris was promoted to the deputy directorship of NASA’s Structures and Materials Competency. From 2003 until 2006, he was a principal engineer in NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center (NESC), leading part of the space shuttle return-to-flight investigation after the Columbia accident. “This work was the most challenging of my career at NASA. I led teams of people who were the best in the agency. We had to pull together everything meaningful we had ever learned in our careers, and tackle really challenging technical problems. Our work allowed the space shuttle to return to flight,” Dr. Harris says.

Next, he led an independent investigation of the cracks found in the liquid hydrogen feed line to the space shuttle orbiter’s main engines. His team developed a high-fidelity crack detection method that was duplicated at the Kennedy Space Center, and used to inspect the flow liners of the orbiter Discovery. “This method led to the detection of 42 fatigue cracks not previously found by conventional inspection methods,” Dr. Harris says, allowing Discovery to be certified as flight worthy after removing the cracks and to continue in service without any mission delays.

Dr. Harris received the 2006 NASA Exceptional Service Medal in recognition of his extraordinary work as a principal engineer in the NESC. Next, he earned the 2007 NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal for exemplary engineering and technical leadership. But he still admits, “Human exploration of space is really hard. We are still just barely able to put people into space. There are challenges with every mission.”

Dr. Harris also earned the Presidential Rank of Meritorious Executive in 2005 and Distinguished Executive in 2008 in the Senior Executive Service for “sustained superior accomplishments in the management of programs of the United States government and for noteworthy achievement of quality and efficiency in public service.”

Due to Dr. Harris’ technical expertise in structural integrity of materials, he has also supported other federal agencies during his career. Among his appointments, he served on the National Research Council’s (NRC)National Materials Advisory Board’s (NMAB) Committee on the Aging of U.S. Air Force Aircraft. He also served on the U.S. Air Force’s Blue Ribbon Panel that evaluated the sustainment plan to extend the life of the C/KC-135 fleet to the year 2040. And he served on the NRC’s NMAB panel for new materials for the next generation commercial aircraft to support the FAA’s strategic planning to prepare for future aircraft entering the worldwide fleet.

Although retirement eligible, Dr. Harris plans to continue working indefinitely. As if he isn’t busy enough, he is adding to his plate by writing a book about the evolution of science, technology, and religion that he hopes to eventually publish. He is active in the Society of ExperimentalMechanics (SEM), including a stint as president of the organization. He also served as the technical editor of SEM’s research journal, the international journal of Experimental Mechanics. He is also an associate fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and served two terms on the NRC’s U. S. National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics as the AIAA liaison.

He and his wife have three children: Scott, Jennifer, and Steven. They have one granddaughter, Caroline.

Class of: 1972 (AE), 1972 (EM), 1983 (ESM)
Year Inducted into Academy: 2011

Dr. Charles E. Harris