Todd May, a native of Fairhope, Alabama, has worked for NASA nearly 25 years and is now director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama — a career in space exploration launched by a phone call that came at just the right moment.

May was fresh out of college, an engineering degree in one hand and a great job offer in the other. He was about to accept it, but then a friend from NASA telephoned.

The other job would have paid more but couldn’t offer May what NASA did — and still does: A mission.

“I thought, ‘This is NASA!'” he remembers. “‘I’m going to go to work for NASA!’”

May became a NASA employee in 1991, working in the Materials and Processes Laboratory at the Marshall Center. On Feb. 1, 2016, he became director of Marshall, where NASA’s Space Launch System — the most powerful rocket ever built — is managed and now under development. May had since August 2011 been the program manager for SLS, which will carry astronauts in NASA’s Orion spacecraft on deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately on a journey to Mars. In August 2015 he was named deputy director of Marshall and, in November 2015, was asked by NASA to serve as acting director following the retirement of Patrick Scheuermann.

May’s entire professional life has focused on helping humans explore space: remotely with instruments and unmanned spacecraft, or directly aboard the International Space Station, space shuttles and, in a few years, SLS. But when growing up on the Gulf Coast around Mobile, Alabama, May wasn’t aiming for the stars.

Teachers said he was bright, but rambunctious. “I got to know the principal,” he said, laughing.

His parents both recognized and supported their son’s nascent interest in science and how things work. “I took a lot of stuff apart,” May said. His dad — a chemist with four patents — loved telescopes and watching the skies, and would take him up on the roof of his grandfather’s beach house to observe. His mom got him the classic 160-in-1 electronics kit for experiments and took him on regular visits to a planetarium and museums. They both expected him to wash cars, paint and do other jobs around the house and in the neighborhood, instilling a work ethic that would later be invaluable.

But May continued cutting up in classes and exercising a uniquely rebellious spirit. Once, in third grade, he took his math book home and finished all the problems for the entire year in one night. “The school gave me a new book and said, ‘Don’t do that again,'” he said.

It was a teacher’s tears that turned him around. At Fairhope High School, his biology instructor took May out into the hallway when he was disrupting the class, crying as she told him he was wasting his talent.

“The fact that she was crying, not angry, is what hit me,” May said. “That’s when I started to change and started applying myself.”

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in materials engineering at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. There, May became acquainted with some NASA engineers and researchers doing advanced studies. It’s also where he met his wife, Kelly, with whom he has four children.

May’s NASA career has included service as deputy program manager of the Russian Integration Office in the International Space Station Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1994, and working on the team at Marshall that developed and launched the Gravity Probe B mission to test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in 2004. That same year he assumed management of the Discovery and New Frontiers Programs, created to explore the solar system with frequent unmanned spacecraft missions.

May moved to NASA Headquarters in Washington in 2007 as a deputy associate administrator in the Science Mission Directorate. Returning to Marshall in June 2008, he was named the center’s associate director, Technical, a post he held until being named SLS program manager. He led SLS through a series of milestones, including engine tests and an in-depth Critical Design Review in July 2015.

Now, with SLS development on budget and on schedule toward a first test flight in 2018, May is taking on new challenges as director of Marshall — one of NASA’s largest field installations, with nearly 6,000 civil service and contractor employees, an annual budget of approximately $2.5 billion and a broad spectrum of science and technological missions, along with SLS.

Wherever May travels — across country or around the world — he’s always proud to say he works for NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center. And he always gets a positive response.

“It’s about what we do,” May said. “NASA’s mission statement is ‘to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.’ When you have a mission like that, you can really have fun with your job.”

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