Leonard Nicholson: Taking a WVU education into outer space
From the coal mining town of Oak Hill, W.Va., to NASA’s engineering labs in Houston, Texas, Leonard Nicholson is one of West Virginia University’s most accomplished alumni.
A member of the Academy of Distinguished Alumni of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics, Nicholson graduated from WVU in 1963 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Even after 42 years, Leonard is an active member of the Lonestar Chapter of the WVU Alumni Association and looks back fondly on his home state and the years he spent at WVU.
“The thing I remember most was that the atmosphere and people were such that you felt totally at home,” says Nicholson.
In the early 1960s, Nicholson took a keen interest in the burgeoning American space program. After a phone interview with NASA, he turned down a number of better-paying job offers and moved to Houston to begin work with the space program.
In a career that would span 37 years, Nicholson worked on a myriad of projects both exciting and tragic. He worked with the Russians on Apollo-Soyuz, the first international manned spaceflight, and played a key role in the 1973 launch and operation of Apollo Skylab, the first American space station.
Nicholson also was working in the control center as space shuttle program manger in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded.
“I’ve never seen a place that was as silent as the control room when that occurred,” he says. “It was the most shocking thing that ever happened to me.”
In 2000, Nicholson left NASA to work with Boeing on its space station project. As international space station deputy program manager, Nicholson oversees the project and monitors hardware performance, resupply and many other issues associated with keeping the station constantly in flight.
Throughout his long and illustrious career, Nicholson says he has held on to the skills he learned at the WVU College of Engineering.
“The mechanical design skills I learned at WVU were a key part of my background in understanding what it takes to make things work,” explains Nicholson.
Even before his work with NASA, Leonard was using his talent for mechanical design. In the summers while he was in school, Nicholson worked in coal mines and often used the mechanical design skills he was learning at WVU to design coal mine machinery.
These days, with nearly 1,400 miles between Nicholson and his alma mater, it can be difficult to make the trek home. However, he managed to return for the opening game of the 2004 football season. Nicholson won tickets to the game through the Lone Star Chapter of the Alumni Association.
Serendipitously, the game turned out to be on the same weekend as Leonard’s high school reunion in Oak Hill.
The weekend provided Nicholson with a fantastic opportunity to return to his home and remember what makes the state and school so special and unique.
“I had not driven from Oak Hill to Morgantown since I was in school, so that was my first opportunity to drive across the state in years,” Nicholson says. “The thing that blows me away when I come back is really just the absolutely beautiful place that it is.”
Even after more than 40 years and so many fantastic accomplishments, Nicholson is still an active member of the WVU Alumni Association.
“I joined because of the wonderful time I had at West Virginia,” he says. “And the Alumni Association is a great way to stay connected.”
Written by: Brian Wachur