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On July 20, 1969, 12-year-old Gary Cox was one of a half billion people around the world who were glued to their television sets when Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of Apollo 11 and planted his left foot on the moon.
Growing up as one of seven children of a car salesman and a housewife in the rural community of Galesville, Maryland, “I was the biggest geek when it came to space and science,” Cox recalls. “I was the kid with the telescope who was out all night looking at the moon and trying to figure out the different planets.”
As a child, he had no clue what his future held: an out-of-this-world career opportunity with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
His career wasn’t a straight trajectory to NASA. His parents couldn’t afford to send all seven of their children to college, so Cox worked in construction for a local general contractor after high school. At age 22, he’d worked his way up to become a project manager when he received a devastating diagnosis: He suffered from chronic kidney disease. Six years later, his kidneys failed, and he remained on dialysis for a year, until he received a lifesaving transplant from his brother at age 29.
“It was a difficult time in my life that made me see I needed to get out of the line of work I was in,” he says. He took his first job for the federal government as a construction representative for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. “My career just took off from there as I went through various jobs of increasing responsibility,” he says.
As the father of three children, Cox worked his way through college, first taking computer science and business administration classes at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland, later earning a bachelor’s degree in management at the University of Maryland University College and then enrolling in the University of Phoenix’s master’s degree program in management information systems. “By that time, I’d been going to college for about 20 years, taking one or two classes at a time,” he says. “Talk about continuous learning—I was definitely a continuous learner.”
“I hadn’t set out to become a senior executive at NASA, but I was committed to trying to be excellent and add value no matter what job I was doing,” he says. “I took on the hard assignments, not knowing where they’d lead. From the combination of my work ethic and desire to make things better, everything fell into place.” During the 12 years he served as a division director at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he oversaw facilities support contracts and integrated business applications, he stayed in touch with a former colleague who’d gone to work for NASA. One day she called out of the blue to let him know NASA had an opening for a contract specialist. “It was an opportunity I jumped at,” says Cox, who followed NASA like an avid football fan follows their team.
He joined NASA in 1998 as a contract specialist for the Earth Observing System Data Information System (EOSDIS) program at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s an incredibly important program for the planet,” he says. “A lot of different satellites and instruments are looking at polar ice coverage, measuring oceans’ temperatures and heights—pretty much everything that needs to be measured to understand what’s going on with global warming.”
Cox later served as branch head in the Information Services and Advanced Technology Division at GSFC and Agency program manager for NASA’s Outsourcing Desktop Initiative before assuming his current role as deputy chief information officer for IT Reform. He oversees NASA’s vast IT infrastructure—the networks, telecommunications, computers, Web services and more. “They are very critical to what NASA is doing in aeronautics, space exploration and science,” he says. “NASA is way out front in using technology for the mission.”
Like that 12-year-old boy who watched breathlessly as man first stepped on the moon, Cox still feels deeply inspired by NASA’s mission. “It’s about the environmental mission, the exploration, the science,” he says. The little boy who could gaze all night at the stars through his telescope has grandchildren now, but he’s never lost his awe: “When you look at the images from the Hubble Space Telescope, they’re just incredible!”
Lori K. Baker is an award-winning journalist who specializes in human-interest profiles, business and health. Her articles have appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, Arizona Highways and Johns Hopkins Health.