As you walk through the doors of the newly refurbished auditorium on the NASA Ames Research Center campus, there are two walls lined with white-matted, gold-framed photos of the organization’s past leaders. There are a lot of white faces. Then, at the end, there's Lewis S. G. Braxton III, wearing glasses, a mid-length haircut and a full mustache. Braxton has worked his way as high up the ladder as any African American at NASA Ames.
That glossy, freshly scented auditorium is located on Moffett Federal Airfield, in the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s a region that’s not exactly known for diversity among its executive ranks. Yet here, at this public institution, which has been at the center of NASA’s space research and played a key role in the development of the region’s tech-heavy economy, Braxton has been the number two official on the campus, and the Deputy Director with the second longest tenure.
“NASA is really about settling the universe, a lot of people don’t hear it in those terms, but fundamentally: we explore to settle the universe,” said Braxton as he sat in his spacious corner office. And the universe needs a diverse mix of settlers. “The more diverse, the more experience and awareness your team has, the better chance you have at completing your objective.”
He acknowledges the benefits of having a cultural perspective that differs from many in his work environment. At the same time, he simply values his culture. “After one or two months being on this job, I need to be with my people,” said Braxton, “So, I’d go up to Oakland, find me a little bar, or I’ve got one in Milpitas. And I hang out there with the guys, and then I refresh and reenergize.”
Braxton grew up as a military brat and was constantly moving to new homes. He was born in Houston, spent his adolescent years in California’s Central Valley and then attended high school in Northern Michigan. “There’s nothing to do in upper Michigan. Especially during the winter,” Braxton said. “That was probably the best time in our life, because we were all captive,” he said, referring to his friends and himself.
He said he used that time as an opportunity to understand himself and the world around him; he got politicized. He learned how to navigate society while being in a military family during the very unpopular Vietnam War. Along with politics came the issue of race. As one of the few African Americans in his school, he made it a point to speak up about racial matters. When his teachers would call someone “colored”, he’d say, “what color?”
Braxton, a multi-sport athlete, says that his outspoken stance on race even carried over to the football field. “We used to run around the field singing Sly and The Family Stone songs.” And they weren't just singing "Everyday People." It was “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey."
He was also very good at tennis. He won multiple scholarships for what he could do with the racket in his hand, but he said that wasn’t his dream. As a kid, he watched his father fly bomber planes and bring back trinkets from his travels. That spawned Braxton’s urge to take to the sky and see the world. The military was the fastest way to do that, but he didn’t want to fly helicopters. “Those get shot down too easy,” he said. So, instead of risking his life in the Air Force, Braxton studied accounting at Cal State Fresno and got an MBA at Golden Gate University. Then, he got an internship at NASA, sight unseen.
Unbeknownst to staff at NASA, he was African American. When he first met an administrative assistant, she saw he was African American and commented, “We found another and didn’t even try.” And unbeknownst to the man with the regal name, that internship would evolve into a 40-year gig.
In 1975, Richard Nixon was fighting through the Watergate scandal, Patty Hearst was arrested for robbing banks with the Symbionese Liberation Army and Arthur Ashe celebrated becoming the first African American to win Wimbledon. That same year, a young afro-sporting, part-time tennis player nicknamed “Lew” was settling into his job with NASA in Mountain View, California. Not too far from him, the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of computer whizzes that included Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, started gathering regularly to trade gadgets and info.
At the same time the two Steves were planting the seeds that would become Apple, “Lew” Braxton and NASA were tilling the land, helping Silicon Valley become a place (maybe the only place) where Apple could grow up.
“I often tell people that Silicon Valley exists because of Ames Research Center,” said Braxton. He says the “breath and the depth” of the research conducted there bred collaboration with other Silicon Valley entities. He oversaw the development of the Concept Symposium with Stanford and a computer modernization deal with HP; the latter of the two didn't go smoothly as HP initially had issues with replacing NASA's computers.
Braxton said that Ames is different from the other sites that bear NASA’s name. While the Kennedy Space Center in Florida is famous for shuttle launches and the Johnson Space Center in Texas is known for training astronauts, people might not be clear on exactly what Ames does.
Maybe that’s because Ames does so much.
The Ames Aeronautical Laboratory was founded 75 years ago by NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics. In 1958, with NASA's creation, Ames slid under the wings of the new agency. The Center has been involved in everything from safety testing the tails of Boeing 757’s to conducting research on unmanned machines that go to other planets, like the Curiosity Rover. The landing strip at Ames hasn’t seen much action in recent years, but NASA is allowing Google CEOs to land their private jets there.
Next to the airfield is Hangar One. The colossal freestanding airplane hangar is a landmark for drivers zipping past Moffett Field on Highway 101, Silicon Valley's transportation backbone. Last year, NASA leased it to Google’s Planetary Ventures for the next 60 years. That project is set to cost Google a reported $1.16 billion dollars.
For four decades, Braxton has worked on the same piece of land that holds the world’s largest wind tunnels. He’s witnessed NASA's and Silicon Valley's evolution.
Even with the recent pushback against NASA and the government for spending money on space research instead of more practical domestic projects, Braxton is optimistic about the agency’s and Ames Research Center's future. The one hurdle he foresees for Ames is making sure the center is constantly demonstrating a “social imperative” as to why this research is important.
Braxton said that all he has to do to get people to understand the center’s core purpose is to tell them about the significance of researching methods of defending the planet from possible asteroid attacks. “As a human being, I don’t want to go the way of the dinosaurs.”
But there are other practical benefits of the research that has and continues to occur on NASA campuses. Take the foundational computing industry in Silicon Valley itself: semiconductors. It was the demand from the space program that allowed semiconductor companies to do the R&D and manufacturing learning necessary to drive the cost of integrated circuits down. "At one time the Apollo program consumed more than 80 percent of all IC's [integrated circuits] made in the world. In 1960, at the beginning, a typical chip that's used cost $1200. By the time the space program ended, it was $2," said Dag Spicer, curator of the Computer History Museum. In a sense, he noted, the chip industry is space research's "biggest spinoff."
And now, in some ways, Silicon Valley, which NASA helped create, is now taking over where the agency left off. In 2011, NASA shuttered its Space Shuttle Program. Now, it’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who might one day take us to Mars by way of SpaceX. You might even look at Google’s 60 year lease on Moffett Field as a physical symbol of this evolution.
With the Space Shuttle mothballed and the future of NASA-powered human spaceflight up in the air, it’s the end of an era for NASA, and so too for Braxton. He retired last week.
As he sat in that corner office in January, with barren walls where photos and NASA memorabilia once hung, he looked over a slide from a presentation he did last summer. Braxton identified numerous projects that his team at Ames Research Center had been involved in: SOFIA, a 747SP airplane equipped with a 100-inch infrared telescope that NASA uses for researching star formations, comets, and the chemicals that make up water on other planets. Kepler, an observatory spacecraft that searches for Earth-like planets (important since it's about settling space, right!?) orbiting stars. There’s even a nifty little counter in the Kepler website that shows how many planets and stars have been documented. And then there is the International Space Station, a habitable artificial satellite orbiting the earth… or a floating home for astronauts.
“You may not see our name on the label when something like Curiosity lands on the planet,” said Braxton, as he sat in his corner office, wearing a blazer with a NASA pin on the left. “But I always tell people: Ames is within.”
"I write about the future (Associate Producer at @ThisIsFusion).
I write about the past (publisher of #OGToldMe).
Oakland, CA raised me."