When Neil Otte was growing up in Kahoka, Mo. – near the stomping grounds of
Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Mark Twain – he knew exactly what he wanted to do
with his life: to be a diesel mechanic on John Deere tractors.”I was a farm
boy from a farming community in northeast Missouri,” says Otte, chief
engineer for the External Tank Project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight
Center in Huntsville, Ala. “What else would I want? I thought being a
diesel mechanic was pretty exciting.”

His eleventh grade science teacher told him that he would get bored. He was

Last fall, Otte returned to Kahoka to share that story with Gloria Allen’s
eighth grade class at Clarke County Middle School. “I wanted those eighth
graders to understand they shouldn’t discard an idea because they didn’t
think they could do it,” adds Otte.

“I never considered working for NASA. When I was growing up, those guys
were heroes. NASA was revered,” says Otte. “They had landed a man on the
Moon. And I was just a small-town boy.”

Otte became a diesel mechanic – going from high school, to technical
college, to work. “But, after seven years, I could take those diesels
apartand put them back together without thinking about it. It just wasn’t a
challenge anymore.”

“My teacher was right. I got bored.”

By that time, his wife Kim had completed college and the couple decided it
was Neil Otte’s turn to try something different. He enrolled at Iowa State
University in Ames, Iowa, and began work on a bachelor’s degree in
mechanical engineering.

“When I started college, I remember telling my wife that if I ever finished
I might be able to work at NASA,” Otte recalls. “Then, right before
graduation, I saw a notice on a bulletin board that NASA was coming to

In 1987, NASA’s Marshall Center offered him a job as a structural engineer –
performing stress analysis on the Space Shuttle’s External Tank.

The gigantic rust-colored External Tank is the largest single element of the
Space Shuttle at 27.6 feet (8 meters) in diameter and 154 feet (46.9 meters)
tall – 34 feet (10.4 meters) longer than the distance of Orville Wright’s
first flight made in 1903. During launch, the tank acts as a backbone for
the Orbiter and Solid Rocket Boosters and withstands 7 million pounds (3.2
million kilograms) of thrust.

Otte also served as a lead engineer during the development of the new Super
Lightweight External Tank – a redesign that dropped the tank’s weight by
7,500 pounds (3,393 kilograms) allowing the Shuttle to carry more payload to
the International Space Station.

Otte has worked with the National Launch System, Heavy Lift Launch System,
and the Shuttle’s Structural Assessments Branch. In 1999, he joined the
External Tank Project office as the Engineering Team lead prior to being
promoted to chief engineer. As chief engineer, he is responsible for the
overall technical aspects of the tank.

Otte holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and has completed all
course work for a doctorate degree from Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.

He and his wife, the former Kim Huffman, reside in Huntsville with their
three sons, Kyle, Quinn and Chay. Otte is the son of Marilyn Otte and the
late Junior Otte of Kahoka.

The Marshall Center serves as NASA’s leader in research and development of
the propulsion systems that enable safe, reliable and lower-cost access to
space and space exploration. It is the home of the Shuttle’s External Tank,
Solid Rocket Boosters – which include the Reusable Solid Rocket Motor – and
Main Engines.