Marshall Center’s Neil Otte traded John Deere axle
grease for Space Shuttle’s External Tank
When Neil Otte was growing up in Kahoka, Mo. near the stomping
grounds of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Mark Twain he knew exactly
what he wanted to do with his life: to be a diesel mechanic on John
Deere tractors.“I was a farm boy from a farming community in northeast
Missouri,” says Otte, chief engineer for the External Tank Project at
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “What else
would I want? I thought being a diesel mechanic was pretty exciting.”
His eleventh grade science teacher told him that he would get bored.
He was right.
Last fall, Otte returned to Kahoka to share that story with Gloria
Allen’s eighth grade class at Clarke County Middle School. “I wanted
those eighth graders to understand they shouldn’t discard an idea because
they didn’t think they could do it,” adds Otte.
“I never considered working for NASA. When I was growing up, those
guys were heroes. NASA was revered,” says Otte. “They had landed a
man on the Moon. And I was just a small-town boy.”
Otte became a diesel mechanic going from high school, to technical
college, to work. “But, after seven years, I could take those diesels
apartand put them back together without thinking about it. It just wasn’t
a challenge anymore.”
“My teacher was right. I got bored.”
By that time, his wife Kim had completed college and the couple decided
it was Neil Otte’s turn to try something different. He enrolled at Iowa
State University in Ames, Iowa, and began work on a bachelor’s degree
in mechanical engineering.
“When I started college, I remember telling my wife that if
I ever finished I might be able to work at NASA,” Otte recalls. “Then,
right before graduation, I saw a notice on a bulletin board that NASA
was coming to interview.”
In 1987, NASA’s Marshall Center offered him a job as a structural engineer
performing stress analysis on the Space Shuttle’s External Tank.
The gigantic rust-colored External Tank is the largest single element
of the Space Shuttle at 27.6 feet (8 meters) in diameter and 154 feet
(46.9 meters) tall 34 feet (10.4 meters) longer than the distance
of Orville Wright’s first flight made in 1903. During launch, the tank
acts as a backbone for the Orbiter and Solid Rocket Boosters and withstands
7 million pounds (3.2 million kilograms) of thrust.
Otte also served as a lead engineer during the development of the new
Super Lightweight External Tank a redesign that dropped the tank’s
weight by 7,500 pounds (3,393 kilograms) allowing the Shuttle to carry
more payload to the International Space Station.
Otte has worked with the National Launch System, Heavy Lift Launch
System, and the Shuttle’s Structural Assessments Branch. In 1999, he
joined the External Tank Project office as the Engineering Team lead
prior to being promoted to chief engineer. As chief engineer, he is
responsible for the overall technical aspects of the tank.
Otte holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and has completed
all course work for a doctorate degree from Auburn University in Auburn,
He and his wife, the former Kim Huffman, reside in Huntsville with
their three sons, Kyle, Quinn and Chay. Otte is the son of Marilyn Otte
and the late Junior Otte of Kahoka.
The Marshall Center serves as NASA’s leader in research and development
of the propulsion systems that enable safe, reliable and lower-cost
access to space and space exploration. It is the home of the Shuttle’s
External Tank, Solid Rocket Boosters which include the Reusable
Solid Rocket Motor and Main Engines.