Like a superhero, NASA mathematician Adam Mullins has an origin story.

And, like all good origin stories, Adam’s involves overcoming a time of intense suffering, followed by a period of reflection and then discovering his true identity.

For Adam, ’18, the story begins in Celina, Ohio. In seventh grade, school came easily, and with little effort. He didn’t take much of an interest in a particular subject though he earned high marks in all of them. Success had made him complacent.

Then, Adam developed a stomach ache.

After three days, the pain became too much. His mom drove him to the family doctor. In an examination room, the doctor pushed on his stomach. Adam screamed. It was determined his appendix had ruptured, requiring an emergency appendectomy. It was a painful surprise that steered him on a new life path — one that eventually led him to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Risky calculations

Adam works for federal contractor ARES Corp. calculating risks involving NASA’s $150-billion International Space Station.

He hired on just a month after graduating with a major in math and a minor in computer science in Spring 2018.

International Space Station

To keep the busy, thriving International Space Station in full operation, NASA depends on risk analysts such as Adam to help make daily decisions on how best to maintain its complex systems and ensure astronauts’ safety. (Photo provided by NASA)

Risk analysis is a daunting yet essential function, relied on by NASA program managers, flight directors, flight controllers, and others who make daily decisions on how best to maintain the complex space station and ensure astronauts’ safety.

Weighing about 925,000 pounds and consisting of approximately 70 separate major components and hundreds of minor ones, the space station travels 17,500 miles per hour at an altitude of about 220 miles. It’s not hard to imagine something potentially going wrong.

“Many of the systems associated with the space station carry risk,” said Adam. “There’s risk that a spacecraft will collide with the station. There’s risk that a spacesuit will fail in some way.”

As a quantitative risk analyst for the space station, Adam performs Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA). “PRA involves building models based on the current configuration of the space station and inputs from technical experts to estimate the risk associated with using different hardware or completing different tasks.

“It is a highly analytical job that is perfect for a mathematics major.”

Comeback kid

Adam’s demanding NASA job serves as a measure of the distance he’s traveled since that fateful day when a burst appendix changed his life’s direction.

Adam missed almost three weeks of school after his emergency appendectomy, returning just as his teacher announced an important exam in his pre-algebra class. He pleaded for more time to prepare but was refused.

“I totally bombed the test,” Adam said.

Failing resulted in a lackluster final grade for the course, which determined whether students would be placed into advanced math for the next five years. Those who did advance would finish high school having taken calculus.

Adam didn’t make the cut.

He was devastated — but also defiant.

Refusing to let one bad grade determine his fate, Adam set a goal to get into calculus his senior year. Whatever it took.

“It really wasn’t about the math,” he said. “It was a challenge.”

The easygoing student who never really cared about school was gone forever. Adam doubled up on math classes his sophomore year, taking Algebra 2 and Geometry at once. Along the way, he found himself falling in love with math, even if he struggled at times.

Not only did he finish calculus his senior year, he also earned a perfect score on the Advanced Placement test for calculus, according to his teacher, Erika Draiss, who is current mathematics department chair at Celina High School.

“I wish I could push every kid to their full potential, but not every kid lets you,” Draiss said. “I am grateful to have been part of the process with Adam.”

Fate intervenes again

Adam chose Ball State because he wanted to be a high school math teacher.

“I didn’t know a lot about the math field,” he said. “I assumed I had to be a teacher.”

Adam earned good grades, but felt his destiny was elsewhere. Things began to fall into place when he switched his major to mathematical sciences.

By the end of his junior year, Adam began feeling anxious about the fact he had yet to earn an internship.

Adam Mullins

Adam was encouraged by a Ball State mentor to apply for a NASA internship. Maintaining a full year of internships in Houston while continuing his college studies in order to graduate, Adam applied the intense dedication that helped him succeed through previous life challenges.

His mentor, Associate Professor Dan Rutherford, suggested Adam apply to NASA for a Summer 2017 internship. Rutherford believed in his student — even if Adam wasn’t quite yet convinced. Far less prestigious organizations had already turned him down, “and you tell me to apply for NASA?” Adam remembers thinking.

“Adam was a little discouraged,” Rutherford said. “But I knew he was a good student from all the classes he had taken with me.”

Rutherford’s encouragement paid off one slow but fateful afternoon when Adam googled “NASA internships.” A half hour later, he was hitting the send button on his completed online application.

Weeks later, a rejection email arrived.

It contained boilerplate language encouraging students like Adam to apply for internships in fall and spring semesters. Adam dismissed the idea. After all, he had to be on campus to finish his coursework.

Somehow, though, in closing out the email, Adam realized that he had accidentally resubmitted his application for a fall internship.

“I thought, ‘Whatever. I’m not going to get it.’”

A month later, NASA called to set up an interview. Impressed by Adam’s mathematics background, particularly his experience in undergraduate statistics and mathematical software — NASA’s Safety and Mission Assurance group offered him a 16-week internship at the Johnson Space Center for the Fall 2017 semester.

Configuration diagram

The components of the International Space Station (ISS), as of June 2017, are shown in an exploded diagram, with modules on-orbit highlighted in orange, and those still awaiting launch in blue or pink. The station consists of approximately 70 separate major components and hundreds of minor ones. (NASA)

During his internship, Adam assessed the failure rate of the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), a spacesuit astronauts wear when working outside the space station. His analyses helped EMU management “better understand how often the particular subsystem failed and what it might do in the future,” he said.

NASA was impressed by the Ball State student’s work and asked him to return in the Spring for a second internship. He created a web application to assess safety concerns for software updates that get sent to station. Again, NASA was impressed by the results when Adam reduced about 10,000 lines of data, down to approximately 900 lines, with accurate filters.

Spending his entire senior year in Houston was itself a risk, threatening to set Adam back academically. To cope with the situation, he repeated what he had done in high school: set a goal (this time to graduate on time) and work extra hard to stay on track — with online courses and help from Ball State.

The experience was tough, he admits, but also an amazing opportunity: one that directly led to his being hired by ARES and that he hopes may one day lead to being directly employed by NASA.

All of that involves intense dedication — and perhaps that’s truth revealed to Adam in his own unique origin story. A burst appendix might have been the wake-up call that changed his approach to learning, but it didn’t make him a prodigy.

“By no means am I naturally good at mathematics,” he says. It’s a fact he remembers freely sharing with the dozens of students he tutored at Ball State’s Learning Center.

“The idea that some individuals are ‘math people’ while others are not is a completely false generalization. Success in mathematics comes with hard work and dedication, and that starts with the student.”

No superpowers required.