“Astronauts are some of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet,” Blake Dumesnil ’06 commented while guiding the Sawdust crew through a new exhibit at Space Center Houston.
A graphic artist for UTC Aerospace Systems, a NASA and Johnson Space Center supplier of engineering and technology services, Dumesnil was instrumental in designing the Independence Plaza exhibit, which opened to the public Jan. 23 and highlights the space shuttle program’s 30-year history.
Dumesnil’s connection to NASA and the space program reaches back to his childhood growing up in Clear Lake. His mother still works at Johnson Space Center, and many of his neighbors also were connected to the space program, including Dr. Shannon Lucid, who lived across the street.
Lucid was one of the first six female astronauts inducted into the corps, and until 2007, she held the record for the most hours in orbit by a non-Russian and the most hours in orbit by a woman.
“Shannon’s a legend,” Dumesnil said. “She’s flown on six shuttle missions and was recently inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame. She’s a close family friend with whom I still keep in contact.”
As most young children do, Dumesnil fantasized that some day he, too, would become an astronaut. But, he realized early on that he wasn’t as strong as needed in subjects like math and science to gain admittance into the program.
However, he had other talents he was able to leverage—talents that would eventually open the door to his working alongside astronauts and making his own contributions to the space program.
Dumesnil, a gifted artist, was fascinated with storytelling and the filmmaking process, which led to his interest in film school. During middle school, he began to use graphic design software programs and quickly discovered that those tools also could be used to help tell a story.
“I was a pretty imaginative and creative kid,” Dumesnil said. “The idea of combining art and storytelling really appealed to me.”
In 2002, Dumesnil enrolled at SFA to work toward a double major in cinematography and graphic design. Studying under SFA filmmaking legend William Arscott, Dumesnil began to perfect his craft.
“Professor Arscott’s influence wasn’t just about how to operate a camera or light set,” Dumesnil said. “It also was about bringing out the emotion in a story and how to tell it in the most beautiful and effective manner. The greatest things about his mentorship were his bluntness and push to make you better.”
Dumesnil recalled that although sometimes the feedback could be harsh, Arscott was always honest.
“One of the worst things you can say to an artist is that their work is always ‘good,’” Dumesnil said. “Artists need to hear the truth about their work. It’s impossible to grow or make a professional career for yourself if the feedback is sugarcoated. William Arscott never sugarcoated anything, and that made you much more creative and effective as an artist.”
When he graduated from SFA in 2006, Dumesnil was able to use the skills he learned at SFA to land a job with UTC Aerospace Systems working as a camera engineer.
“My work involved testing, modifying, certifying and delivering the handheld digital cameras that the astronauts used aboard the space shuttles and still use today aboard the International Space Station,” Dumesnil said. “It was a wonderful way to begin working in the aerospace industry, and it helped me learn a lot about NASA processes.”
In October 2009, NASA held a competition that led to a career change for Dumesnil—one more suited to his talents.
“NASA held an internal, agency-wide competition to design the patch to commemorate the end of the space shuttle program’s 30-year history,” Dumesnil said. “There were 90 entries, and I was fortunate to have my design selected.”
Winning the competition propelled Dumesnil into a new role within UTC Aerospace Systems, and he soon found himself working as the full-time, in-house graphic designer supporting Johnson Space Center engineering.
“Through the years, my role as a designer has grown, and I’ve been brought aboard as art director and marketing consultant on a number of projects to help teams tell their stories,” Dumesnil said.
Recently, his talents have been utilized to help create Independence Plaza at Space Center Houston, a multi-exhibit complex featuring the historic Boeing 747 shuttle carrier aircraft and the shuttle replica Independence.
“It was extremely disappointing when Space Center Houston and Johnson Space Center were not awarded one of the actual space-flown shuttles for permanent display after the shuttle program retired in 2011,” Dumesnil said.
However, as luck would have it, the shuttle carrier aircraft was flown to Ellington Field in 2012 to participate in an air show. What happened next launched the beginning of Space Center Houston’s newest exhibit.
“Dr. Ellen Ochoa, Johnson Space Center director and former astronaut, persuaded NASA to turn over possession of the 747 to Space Center Houston. We also were able to secure a high-fidelity mockup of a space shuttle,” Dumesnil said.
The goal was to strip the 747’s fuselage to renovate and showcase various exhibits celebrating the shuttle program. Another challenge was to position the mock shuttle atop the 747 to depict as closely as possible how the pair would look when an orbiter was being ferried. Then, guests could walk through both vehicles, something the general public had never been allowed to do.
After the challenge of disassembling and moving the huge airplane almost 10 miles through city streets was accomplished, the plane was reassembled in place outside Space Center Houston’s main visitors’ building.
While a seven-story tower with two elevators allowing guests access to the flight and mid-decks of the shuttle and the shuttle carrier aircraft were under construction, Dumesnil and the design committee finalized the exhibit details and worked toward their integration.
The landmark attraction includes video interviews with shuttle astronauts and shuttle carrier aircraft crew members—14 of which Dumesnil coordinated, produced and directed. The interviews were then edited into six different videos, which detail much about space shuttle history.
In addition, Dumesnil was responsible for designing the entry wall panel guests see before walking outside to the Independence Plaza exhibit. In recognition of this and his other work, Dumesnil was awarded the 2015 UTC Aerospace Systems President’s Award.
While Dumesnil’s career working with NASA is still evolving, he says it’s difficult to pinpoint a favorite project or moment. He’s worked with astronauts in designing their mission patches—seven patches thus far—and he’s had the unique experiences of interacting with astronauts like Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, and Fred Haise, who was one of the three astronauts to remarkably make it home after the aborted Apollo 13 mission.
However, he said a moment that will forever remain vivid occurred on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003. Dumesnil was asleep in his dorm room in Mays Hall at SFA when he was awakened by a loud but low rumbling that rattled the windows.
“I clearly heard the noise but drifted back to sleep. Sounds like that were very common for me to hear growing up in Clear Lake because of our proximity to Ellington Field,” he said. “Nearly every day, I would hear F-16s or NASA T-38s flying overhead, and they frequently rattled the windows.”
Dumesnil said it didn’t immediately click that he shouldn’t be hearing that sound so far north in Nacogdoches. “Not long after I heard the windows rattle, my phone rang, and it was my parents,” he said. “They told me that NASA had lost communication with the Columbia crew. Then, I remembered that my friend’s dad was piloting Columbia.”
Sean Kasperbauer, Navy Cmdr. William McCool’s stepson, and Dumesnil worked together at Space Center Houston during college leading tram tours for visitors at Johnson Space Center.
“I still recall Sean’s excitement the summer and winter of 2002 before the mission’s launch. Sean brought us some decals of the mission patch, and I was thrilled that his dad was going up,” Dumesnil said.
Coincidentally, before he met Sean in December 2001, Dumesnil earned the Eagle Scout rank and received a signed letter and photograph from McCool, who was an Eagle Scout himself, congratulating Dumesnil on his accomplishment.
“It was such a kind, unexpected gesture and something that I treasure to this day,” he said. “It was very emotional and heartbreaking when the realization set in that the Columbia crew had been lost, and someone I had a personal connection with was aboard that mission.”
As for the future, Dumesnil said although the aerospace industry is in a transitional phase, development of the Orion program is on target, and he expects it to successfully succeed the shuttle era.
In terms of design and marketing, he’s on the ground floor of helping develop the public’s perception of these new programs and what people will think of NASA during the next 50 years.
“To have an influence on NASA’s branding and identity moving forward as we venture into the possibility of going to Mars is incredibly exciting.”