As a youngster in Guyana, George Matthews knew he wanted to be an engineer, but didn't necessarily expect to work on rockets.
When he left his native country and came to the United States for college, it still wasn't a field in which he necessary expected to land.
When recruiters from a company at Vandenberg Air Force Base called as he wrapped up schooling at Cal Poly, Matthews remained skeptical.
Yet 13 years later, the Nipomo resident, who as a boy enjoyed taking things apart and reassembling them - sometimes with parts left over - has helped launch multiple rockets from Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla.
The United Launch Alliance staff engineer's latest project, an Atlas 5 rocket carrying a military weather satellite, is scheduled to blast off between 9:12 and 9:22 a.m. Sunday from Space Launch Complex-3 on South Base.
Matthews left Guyana at the age of 18 to come to California - his grandmother and other relatives lived in the state - for college. After attended community college in Bakersfield, he ended up going to Cal Poly, majoring in mechanical engineering and graduating in 1996.
"It was the inevitable progression to gain a higher education," Matthews, 37, said of immigrating. "I always knew I wanted to be an engineer. I always knew I was going to go to college, by hook or by crook."
Yet, "aerospace kind of happened for me. I didn't want aerospace, per se."
He majored in mechanical engineering - with an eye toward giving himself career versatility such as oil industry, manufacturing or aerospace.
"I think for me it was more about being marketable, coming out of college and being able to market yourself," he said.
As graduation neared, he was interviewing with defense contractors and debating moving from the Central Coast.
While on a job interview in the Bay Area, he got a message on his answering machine - "I've got that tape still" - about the Vandenberg job with Lockheed Martin.
"I called back. I had some reluctance because I didn't know what it was like to work on an Air Force base," Matthews said, but he returned the call.
After taking a tour, he was offered the job to work on Space Launch Complex-3, which was being validated for the then-new Atlas 2 vehicle.
"There was a lot of work happening out there. I got excited. I was like, yeah this is cool.'" Matthews said.
Around the same time, he also became a naturalized citizen.
There wasn't any doubt that he would eventually become a citizen.
"I came here, even though I paid for my education, I felt this was really where I was going to start my life, build a life and also give something back to my adopted homeland. I felt I had an obligation there."
He began working on propellant-loading systems, hydrogen specifically, and then became Centaur upper-stage hydrogen operator, the person who loads the fuel to the rocket's upper segment.
The job has brought new challenges and new experiences, such the 1998 Atlas 2 launch where he first heard his voice - on the countdown net - air on CNN. Those words? "Centaur hydrogen 40 percent ... Centaur hydrogen 100 percent."
Now he's Centaur pneumatics engineer, responsible for stabilizing the thin-shelled upper stage that is pressurized for flight, giving him the second-to-last words - "vent valves locked" - for that part of the countdown.
His first launch was "extremely exciting. It's a sense of euphoria," he said.
Sitting at the panel of warning lights and monitors that let engineers know the systems are working as the clock counts down to zero, he recalled his heart "pounding in my chest" and his mind racing to remember that they had performed their tasks while readying the rocket.
"It's extremely exciting. Once the vehicle lifted off, you're suppose to start securing your systems. I did it, but your mind is so just focused on the health of that rocket and where it's going and what it's going to do," he said.
Along with Vandenberg launches, Matthews helps with East Coast Atlas missions, including one that required changing out a faulty engine.
"That's why I really enjoy this job," Matthews said. "There's times when you're going to have challenges. Basically just trying to meet those challenges, and successfully meet them, is what makes it exciting for me."
October 17, 2009