Lowestoft man shooting for the stars with new NASA role

James Walpole at NASA

James Walpole, from Lowestoft, is now technical operations manager in the Astromaterials Research Exploration and Science division at NASA - Credit: James Walpole

Standing in the home of NASA, James Walpole feels like an imposter.

The Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, seems a world way from his Lowestoft roots, and the 47-year-old admits his new managerial role at the iconic agency is "surreal".

Little more than a decade ago, the father-of-three was working as an engineer at Birds Eye on the east coast.

James Walpole at NASA

James Walpole, from Lowestoft, is now technical operations manager in the Astromaterials Research Exploration and Science division at NASA - Credit: James Walpole

Now, the former Dell Road Primary and Kirkly High School pupil has switched focus from the sea to the sky for his new role.

Mr Walpole said: "I'm currently technical operations manager in the Astromaterials Research Exploration and Science division at NASA, which is a fancy way to describe astrogeology or space rocks, but I have to keep reading it out because it feels so surreal.

"We have the Apollo mission moon rocks in the building I work in, which is part of what my team does, we support and maintain the research labs where the moon rocks are stored.

The Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas

The Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas - Credit: James Walpole

"We have a bunch of research scientists here who do experiments on many astromaterials, including asteroid samples and Mars samples too.

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"It is all quite surreal and I've had the good fortune to see the Apollo mission moon rocks a couple of times.

"Some people compare it to the Crown jewels, but it is such a precious thing.

The Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas

The Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas - Credit: James Walpole

"It's not just a national treasure, it's a global treasure to think Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went up and collected these samples.

"And for me to now be in the same room, thinking back to my background in Lowestoft, I'm suffering from imposter syndrome somewhat and wondering how I ended up here with these.

"It feels quite crazy but at the end of the day, if you boil it down, it's still just an engineering job, just in one of the most amazing places on Earth and I feel really privileged to be here."

The Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas

The Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas - Credit: James Walpole

Mr Walpole began his new role in early December last year, having moved from the healthcare industry.

He said: "I've been in Texas for 11 years now. I got married and started a career in healthcare engineering.

"Healthcare in Houston is a really big industry, and the largest medical centre in the world is here so there is lots of healthcare employment.

"I started, became a manager and was with them for 10 years, where I had a fairly successful and accomplished managerial career.

James Walpole at NASA

James Walpole, from Lowestoft, is now technical operations manager in the Astromaterials Research Exploration and Science division at NASA - Credit: James Walpole

"But I saw the job posting for the NASA position and it felt like one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

"I applied and didn't have a huge expectation of getting it, but I felt like I wouldn't forgive myself if I didn't try.

"One thing led to another and I got the position.

"I just couldn't resist it."

After growing up in Oulton Broad, Mr Walpole lived in Carlton Colville for more than a decade before following his heart across the Atlantic.

He said: "I started following a girl on Twitter who lived in Houston.

"One thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was over here and we've been married 10 years.

"But all of my childhood was spent in Lowestoft.

"I lived and grew up and went to school in Lowestoft. I worked in engineering at Bird's Eye for 20 years.

"I've still got really strong ties to Lowestoft and I'm representing over here.

"I get back about every 18 months or so, at least I did pre-pandemic.

"All my family are in Lowestoft, including my three children, and my friends from growing up too."

Mr Walpole admits the Coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult to return to his hometown, as he supported those on the front line.

He said: "I was quite proud though to support the front line folks with the pandemic.

"I was running the engineering department for a Covid hospital here, which was a challenge but an honour."