By Donna Parker
Every morning, when Royce Renfrew, who earned his bachelor’s degrees from Trinity in computer and information science in 1985 and in history in 1989, backs his pickup truck out of his garage in Friendswood, Texas, he glances at a thorny branch on his dashboard – plucked from an East Texas meadow five years ago.
I’ve kept it there ever since I walked the shuttle debris field after the Columbia accident in 2003. It’s a reminder to me that, in my profession — people can get killed,” says Royce, recently selected as a NASA Flight Director.
It’s a new responsibility-laden job that this former high school math teacher has been preparing for his whole life.
“This is the job I’ve dreamed of and I’ve been after this since I started working here. The buck stops with the Flight Director, who’s in charge of the mission and safety of the crew. There are 18,000 people here at the Johnson Space Center and this is a tremendous honor for me. In 50 years of space flight, there have been only 73 flight directors.”
Renfrew even has a few Trinity connections on the job site, one of whom is his wife, Vanessa Stringham Renfrew ’87, and the other—his best friend, Eric Riecks ‘84. Royce and Eric are such good buddies that Royce named his 13-year-old daughter, Erica, after him.
“Trinity has been such an influence in my life. Eric and I have been lifelong friends, and Vanessa and I were married in the Parker Chapel. As a high school graduate from Marble Falls, Texas, Trinity was the only school in which I was interested. Touring the campus, I fell in love with it and decided that’s where I wanted to go to school. To me, it’s the quintessential college campus with green grass and fountains.”
“I went to Trinity to become a lawyer but one of my electives was computer science. Once I took that course, I realized I had discovered my calling. It was the beginning of the computer science boom at Trinity. When I declared my major, there were 32 students in that department and when I returned the following fall, there were around 150!”
“Maurice Eggen, department of computer science, was my advisor and I still correspond with him. Thomas Hicks, department of computer science, instructed me in how to correctly write code and Gerald Pitts, also in the department of computer science, was a great influence on me, mentoring me in my senior software design project. He’s the one who taught me how to make things work correctly.”
“I’ve often said that the distinction between me and the other engineers here at NASA is that I have a liberal arts background, causing me to think very differently than a lot of folks.”
One thing Royce knows for sure — human space flight is a dangerous profession and one in which things don’t always go as planned.
Royce lost two close friends in the Columbia accident. At the time, he was a Space Station flight controller in the robotics group, not assigned to the Space Shuttle STS-107 mission, but he wanted to do something to help out, so he participated in the debris recovery program in East Texas, keeping a journal about that sobering experience. Here is an excerpt:
“I’m standing in a field with some cows grazing not 20 feet away, their tails swatting at flies, looking at a piece of a spacecraft. This is certainly not right; it does not fit into my understanding of the world. It is momentous and awe inspiring, frightening and extremely unique all at once.”
“This reminds me of what I do for a living. It rededicated me toward doing this job that I really love to do…and to do it right.”
“One hundred years from now, where does the human race want to be? Still scratching around on one little planet arguing about religion and borders, or actually colonizing stars? The destiny of humans is not to remain locked on this planet forever. We should be exploring the universe.”
You may contact Royce at Royce_Renfrew@yahoo.com.