Ronald L. Farris, BS ASE 1977, MS ASE 1978

There is no place like the United States of America. There is no place like Texas. There is no place like Austin. And, there is absolutely no place like The University of Texas at Austin!

I can speak from a bit of experience on this topic as I am writing this article from my current USAF duty station at Kandahar, Afghanistan where I am assigned as commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Group. I also wear a NATO “hat” and serve as the Senior Airfield Authority for our coalition assets that operate out of Kandahar Airfield—in other words, I run the airfield for all aircraft that use it, and command the USAF assets that are based here. This is a very interesting, dynamic, thrilling, exasperating, rewarding job. I have spent most of my time in Afghanistan, in one capacity or another, since August 2006, and have traveled extensively throughout the country dodging rockets, land mines, bullets and bombs along the way.

I had absolutely no idea this is where my engineering degree would lead—but it is a path followed willingly.

Let me tell you, Kandahar is a long way from Jester Center, Gregory Gym, the BEB, the Tower, the Union, the Drag, and WRW (I still haven’t figured out what that stands for, but most of my engineering classes were there). I have to also
be honest in admitting (all my profs can have a seat though this should not surprise them in the least) that I more survived the curriculum than mastered it. And, I guess that’s what UT really instilled in me—perseverance, survival, endurance, self-study, adaptability, tenaciousness, belligerence in the face of overwhelming odds, etc. That and my first real appreciation for beer.

Okay, back to this “road less traveled” story. I matured a LOT at UT at the hands of my guiding professors (Drs. Fowler, Tapley, Schutz principal among them), a few good friends, roommates, and a girlfriend or two. Fond memories, mostly, though I do recall making a 12 on a physics test after two all-nighters in a row. The high point of my UT “experience” was marrying Barbara, another UT student at the time (we were both seniors), who is now my wife of some 30 years and has borne us two wonderful daughters, Amanda and Lindsay, both now UT system graduates with meaningful lives and careers of their own.

From Austin we headed to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston where any space-loving aero engineer would be honored to work. And I did love my work there (though I never really appreciated Houston proper since I hate the two things it is noted for: crowds and traffic). NASA let me play in simulators developing procedures for deploying the most significant payloads of our generation—Hubble Space Telescope among them. I was a lead robotic systems expert and worked many shuttle flights in the Mission Control Center. They thought I had some leadership potential and made me the Extravehicular Activities (EVA or spacewalk) section head. We executed several significant missions including the Hubble repair, several satellite rescues, and the like. It was a lot of fun—and all based on the education provided by our world-class instructors and facilities at UT Austin.

Early in my NASA career I decided to join the military reserves and they, in some bit of poor judgment, decided to send me to USAF pilot training. I loved the air and the feeling of freedom and independence that came with it. I was fortunate to fly high performance fighters and have flown operationally the last three aircraft flown by the USAF Thunderbirds (though never as one of that elite group)—the T-38 Talon, the F-4 Phantom, and the F-16 Falcon. I have “lived the dream” of an aerospace engineer—the aero side as a fighter pilot, and the space side as a NASA engineer. Yes, I wanted to be an astronaut. No, it didn’t work out. Close, very close, but no cigar! And that is okay.

After serving in several capacities at NASA (engineer, flight controller, section head, deputy branch chief, project engineer, project manager, office chief), I had an opportunity to give something back to the USAF. There was an active duty fighter pilot shortage in the late 90s, and I was asked if I would be interested in taking a leave of absence from NASA to train the next generation of fighter pilots. After due negotiation, we left NASA in January, 2000 on a three year adventure. Well, the events of 9-11 changed all that and I have voluntarily extended several times now. I am honored to have the opportunity to wear the uniform of an active duty US military officer. Barbara has become a world class Air Force wife by living in seven houses in as many years. I ultimately decided to leave NASA and have now invested myself full-time to the war effort. I am convinced it is the defining event of our generation, and probably of our children’s generation. I am also convinced that we can make a difference in Afghanistan.

The rest is history. But, it is all based on the education and “survival skills” learned at UT. I find it somewhat amazing that we, in the great state of Texas, can get a world-class education at such a (relatively) affordable price. So, I will close here, having covered 30 years in 1,000 words or less!

Hook ‘Em Horns!