Meet Orthodox Jewish NASA Aerospace Engineer, Aaron Brown
Houston, we don’t have a problem! That’s because when Aerospace Engineer, Aaron Brown, first encountered Torah in an in-depth way, he thought it was out of this world. Brown, who specializes in trajectory analysis, design, and operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, sees no contradiction in being a rocket scientist and an Orthodox Jew. Originally from Peoria, Illinois, Brown attended a Jewish Day School until 5th grade where his love of space was initially fostered through trips to the Planetarium. “I loved Astronomy as a child, I studied Halley’s Comet and it was just a really cool thing. I enjoyed math and science. I was a nerd.” It wasn’t until Brown attended Space Camp that he realized he wanted to work in the Aerospace Industry. “I said ‘yeah this is it. I want to do this the rest of my life. I went back 3 more times.”
A deep Jewish pride was also fostered in Brown’s childhood. “We had a strong identity but weren’t religiously observant. We always lit candles, made Kiddush and Hamotzi.” When his parents divorced, Brown moved to Chicago suburb Buffalo Grove and was switched to public school. Through undergrad and graduate school, Brown’s Jewish observance wavered. Then he got the offer for his dream job, the beginnings of a career at NASA, which took him to a heavily Christian area – Houston, Texas. It was in this very non-Jewish environment that he was pushed into an exploration of his own faith.
Brown was struck by the interest everyone had in his Judaism. “People found out that I was Jewish and started asking me questions: ‘Oh that’s so cool. Do you believe in this? Do you celebrate that?’ I found that my education and my ability to answer those questions was really lacking.” Brown was confounded by this. “Here I was, a Jew professing to love Judaism… and yet I really couldn’t answer a whole lot of questions about it. Being a Jew was important but I couldn’t tell you why. I said ‘That’s not right. I need to change that.'” Brown began a lunch and learn program through a local outreach program and started learning more. He then spent ten days on a Jewish retreat meant for beginners which opened his eyes to the treasures of his heritage. “It was an unbelievably life-altering, moving experience for me. Part of it was what made it so wonderful is that the rabbis didn’t shove Judaism down my throat. They simply presented it as one would present food at a banquet on a table.” Brown took things on slowly, processing his observance at his own rate. “I loved it so much that I ended up going again the following year.” Brown went to classes, asked more questions. Keeping kosher and Shabbos observance followed.
For Brown, the fact that he is a science-minded person has never been in conflict with his observance. “Science and Torah easily fit conceptually. I believe that Torah is the emes (truth) and science presents itself as the truth. If two things are true, they obviously can’t be in conflict with each other by definition.” On resolving the age of the Universe, he says “We Jews have to do our due diligence and resolve the answer to that question. They are both right and our job is to figure out how they fit together.” He not only encourages others to do the same but particularly those who may not have been exposed to STEM. “There’s a rabbi in town whose daughter is going into electrical engineering. It was so awesome to hear of frum girls who go into these fields. [With] 3D printing, self-driving cars, medical tech…now more than ever we have a need for it.” Brown’s love for science is contagious. “I encourage girls to go into these kinds of fields. Women have a fantastic opportunity and should be encouraged to pursue this kind of education.”
At JSC, Brown is one of six Shomer Shabbos among the thousands of employees. There is no kosher food near NASA, so Brown has double wrapped his lunch for the past 15 years. “I stay on top of Daf Yomi while I eat.” Brown has rarely encountered challenges to his observance. “When I was still working in Mission Control, I had to support a 2-week mission. At that time I was really just starting to observe Shabbos and I told my supervisor I can’t support my shift. Fortunately one of my coworkers was able to.” Brown now works in engineering, where no one works on the weekends. “Yom Tov doesn’t really ever conflict with my work. My bosses are down with the whole ‘Aaron’s not going to be here for three weeks during September / October. They know that it’s a part of me and respect that. That’s one of the reasons that I really love working at NASA. It’s very family-friendly and religiously tolerant. It allows me to be who I am without any difficulty.”