Charles Norton
Charles with an Antares Rocket being readied for launch. Credit: NASA WFF

Charles Norton has worked at NASA for two decades but he’s had a connection to the agency since 1993 when he worked as a graduate research assistant at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Recently, he was Special Advisor for Small Satellite Missions at NASA Headquarters. He was named JPL Associate Chief Technologist in July 2020.

He shares how his parents; the bassoon and ballroom dancing influenced his life and career.

Where are you from?

I'm originally from Long Island, New York – Smithtown. I think of myself as a product of the Space Age. It's how I ended up being born there. My father worked at Grumman Aerospace Corporation in Bethpage, New York.

Where did you go to college?

I went to Princeton University for my undergraduate degree and to Rensselaer for my master's and Ph.D. (They're sometimes also known as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), but they officially changed their name to Rensselaer.) It's an engineering school. Actually, it’s the oldest engineering school in the United States, in Troy, New York. Of course, Princeton is in Princeton, New Jersey. My undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering and computer science and my master's and Ph.D. are in computer science.

Persistence, belief, and confidence in your abilities – and knowing how to learn from and contribute to the experience of a diverse community of scientists and engineers that share your desire for mission success – is very important.
- Charles Norton

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

I think my first interest was probably sparked by family history. My father James Francis Norton – who, sadly, has passed on – worked on the Apollo Lunar Module at Grumman.

He passed just after I was born, so I never knew him, really. Although I didn't get to know my father, my mother did share stories of what it was like during the Apollo Era and the race to the Moon. They would have engineers coming over to our home, working on the Lunar Module's development.

Also, I've just had a great interest and enjoyment of mathematics and science. It was an area where I showed some ability, and it seemed like an exciting career path as it's one that fosters both creativity and change. My mother, Alva Norton, was a mathematics teacher at a high school for gifted children and an administrator there.

During the era when I was growing up, electronics, consumer electronics and computing (personal computers and things of that nature) were very new and novel. So, I'm sure that had some influence as well.

How did you end up working for the space program?

I was looking (during my Ph.D.) for a novel topic that was related to computing and it turned out that the early web browser called Netscape Navigator had just become available as a way of searching online. I found out that there were opportunities to apply for NASA graduate fellowships. So, I applied, was admitted, and was given the opportunity to come to JPL, which at the time had supercomputers that were on the TOP500 Supercomputing Sites list.

I also knew this would be an opportunity to work on a practical application of high-performance computing (in my case computational plasma physics) as part of my dissertation research, and that was of interest to me. And of course, having that family background with the space agency – it just looked like a good match to start my career.

I was very fortunate to find this opportunity by searching the web, applying, getting admitted and then pursuing it.

Tell us about your work

For many years at JPL, I was involved in computational science and engineering. I wrote a proposal to perform some computational image processing work – which would involve developing new algorithms for a special type of flight computer for a new type of instrument that JPL was developing.

But it turned out that after I won that proposal, I was also given an opportunity to support the Earth Science Technology Office at NASA Headquarters, so I decided to pursue that programmatic role instead. My co-investigator took over the computational image processing work. After she completed the project, we pursued an opportunity to flight test that hardware on a CubeSat.

Back at that time, around 2010 or so, CubeSats were an interesting potential mechanism to validate the performance of new technologies in space.

To make a long story short, the mission was developed and flown successfully with collaborators at the University of Michigan and JPL.

From that time forward, I became more deeply involved in exploring the potential of small satellites to support not only flight validation of new technology, but also innovative science missions.

As a result, based on past programmatic activities and SmallSat flight missions I've managed, that led to my recent role helping to establish NASA's overall strategy for how to incorporate small missions as part of their science, technology, and exploration goals across the agency.

What's one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

The advice I would give is to explore and leverage the numerous resources available today within the context of your personal goals in science and engineering.

This should include the diversity of people across the industry and the perspectives that come either through personal discussions or technical papers. It’s also critical to always find new ways to continually challenge yourself.

If you really believe in what you're doing, just stick with it. Everything will work out even if there are challenges that you have to overcome to achieve your goals.

Persistence, belief, and confidence in your abilities – and knowing how to learn from and contribute to the experience of a diverse community of scientists and engineers that share your desire for mission success – is very important.

What has been your biggest challenge, professional or personal, and how did you overcome it?

Trying not to take on too much is always a challenge. And I think the best way to overcome this is to ensure that you schedule sufficient time to support your other interests.

I've been a musician for many years, and it's very important to me, even though time is precious, to find a way to remain engaged with the symphonic performing arts community.

In this day and age time is precious and people are very busy, so it's important to know how to manage what you choose to take on. Enjoying the benefits of close family connections, to enjoy all life has to offer, I believe can help anyone overcome most challenges.

Who inspires you?

I would certainly say my parents were both inspirational. Sadly, both have passed. My mother passed away back in 2000, not long before I was married. She took on a lot, raising our family essentially by herself. My father’s legacy certainly has been inspirational and I felt it strongly while celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landings and even throughout the 60th anniversary of NASA as well.

It does make you think back to all that has occurred and what people have done, in an age where there were very few people of diverse backgrounds in science and engineering. I happen to be African American. So, my parents, I'm sure, had unique talents that others recognized and respected. In this regard, they have been very inspirational.

In many ways, I'm also inspired by my two daughters because I can see that kids these days are very busy and very active trying to manage their educational development as well as their personal lives while growing up. And for children growing up today, it's a very different environment than when I was growing up

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

All the small satellite projects I've been involved with have certainly been my favorites. One of the benefits of working on small missions is that they occur rapidly, so you can be involved in a number of missions that go to space and perform a wide variety of very interesting technology demonstrations and science measurements involving outstanding teams.

So, certainly, it has been a highlight of my career, but even my prior work in computational science has been exciting. I spent many years with teams developing solid earth dynamics and other simulations and reminiscing about those projects is pleasurable to me.

What are some fun facts about yourself?

I am a musician, a bassoonist. I've played the bassoon since I was very young and currently perform with the Caltech Symphony. In fact, when I was graduating from high school, I had to make a serious life choice to decide whether I wanted to become a professional musician as a bassoonist or pursue science and engineering. Indeed, one of my teachers arranged the rare opportunity to audition for the principal bassoonist chair of the New York Philharmonic, a position that opens up perhaps once every 40 or 50 years.

But in the end, when I was given the opportunity to study engineering at Princeton, I decided against the audition and to continue to perform as a bassoonist in my spare time. I deemed this a less risky long-term career path simply because people with skills in electrical engineering and computer science were in demand. So, this was a very practical decision for a senior in high school to make.

I was a competitive ballroom dancer back in graduate school. In fact, I was involved many, many years ago in setting up the original Argentine tango group at Caltech in the early 1990s. As it turns out that's how I met my wife, Fei Chen, as she was a postdoc at Caltech and we were both Milongueros. Sadly, we don't get to dance these days, but it would be nice to get back into Argentine tango someday. But that's a fun fact that we certainly have enjoyed.

Astronaut standing outside the Apollo 11 Lunar Module on the Moon.
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin deploys an experiment on the Moon. Credit: NASA

What is your favorite space image and why?

I think the image of the Apollo 11 LEM on the Moon. I think about that quite a lot, especially lately given the anniversary of the landing. I only recently learned there were small satellites deployed from the Apollo Command and Service Module to perform lunar exploration science. So it’s an interesting connection back to my beginnings in that regard.