Fred Zayas ’86 was probably always destined for a life in the aerospace industry. Growing up in Titusville, Florida, in the 1970s gave him a front-row seat to the Space Race.
“Titusville is across the river from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. I graduated from Astronaut High School. My family had an Italian restaurant, and we all worked there. I started working when I was around nine years old. I’d serve the people from the space center, who were excited to be part of something special and having a ball. I thought it would be great to be part of something like that,’” Zayas chuckled.
With more than three decades working for primary contractors with NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, Zayas has moved from that front-row seat to a starring role with the teams that have supported cruise missile programs, space shuttle missions, the International Space Station and the foundation for exploratory projects such as the Artemis 1 mission. He is even more excited about the projects in his future.
“I’m very blessed to have a profession that doesn’t really feel like work. I just enjoy it,” Zayas shared.
The work, the joy, the long-term friendships and the knowledge to supervise spacecraft all started at Lenoir-Rhyne, and Zayas freely praises his alma mater for helping him reach his life goals. “You know, LR helped me fulfill dreams,” he said.
Preparing to launch
Church-sponsored ski trips during high school introduced Zayas to western North Carolina, and he fell in love with the area. He also loved playing football and running track, so he hoped to continue as an athlete in college.
I remember pulling up to Morgan dormitory, just so excited that I made it there without getting lost. Then I didn’t feel lost at all. The first few days passed, and I knew LR was the right place.
Fred Zayas '86
“I was just an average player — and an average student — with high aspirations. LR sent me a letter, and the geographic location and the education founded in liberal arts and Christianity felt right. It was immediately apparent they were student-focused and cared about me and my goals. I didn’t visit the campus before making my decision. I took a leap of faith. It was a leap of faith for them too.”
The first in his family to go to a four-year college, Zayas had not prepared for his move to North Carolina in the weeks before he arrived on campus for the fall semester of 1982.
“I was working but I had no car, no money, just an aspiration to get to LR. I could write a whole story on the miracles of getting there. I got this beat-up Datsun B210, and I remember pulling up to Morgan dormitory, just so excited that I made it there without getting lost. Then I didn’t feel lost at all. The first few days passed, and I knew LR was the right place.”
Zayas credits the financial aid office with helping him navigate the process of applying for Pell grants and student loans so he could stay at LR. He worked as a resident advisor, in the library and eventually as an assistant to some of his physics professors.
“I struggled with my classes for a few semesters, but my professors, especially Dr. Cooke and Dr. Renick, never gave up on me. I also had a group of close friends who were really good students. They taught me how to study and encouraged me to keep working hard. In my fourth semester, something clicked, and I earned good grades in difficult classes,” Zayas shared. “I can’t believe I finished in four years, taking 21 hours a semester in my last two years. Meeting that challenge was a testament to the support at LR.”
Countdown to ignition
When Zayas returned to Titusville after graduation, he had a job waiting for him — he just didn’t know it yet.
“Starting the summer after my sophomore year, I worked as an intern with McDonnell Douglas Aerospace,” Zayas said. He had hoped to take a break between graduating and going into the workforce, but his bosses had other plans. “I called the team I interned with and said, ‘Hey, I’m graduating in May.’ They said, ‘Great. You can start Monday.’”
Zayas started his career as a design engineer, ensuring hardware systems worked as intended. At the time McDonnell Douglas — which merged with the Boeing Company in 1997 — was a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense. Much of Zayas’ work involved assembly, analysis, testing and deploying cruise missile systems.
“The McDonnell Douglas team and leaders were fantastic to me. I believed in the work we were doing, but I got to a place where I was ready to do something different, so I applied to work with the space program.”
Lockheed Martin Corporation hired Zayas in 1987 as a reliability engineer for the space shuttle ground operations contract at Kennedy Space Center. He moved up the ranks through multiple engineering disciplines. After completing his master’s in aeronautics science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, he was selected to transfer to Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi as a safety and mission assurance key contract manager.
“The Lockheed Martin test operations contracts included many activities — testing the space shuttle main engines, building and testing experimental engines, maintaining high-performance computing systems. For the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contract, we calibrated satellites in space and built deep-water submersibles and buoys that gather the data that monitors the oceans and atmosphere.”
After five years in Mississippi, Lockheed Martin moved Zayas to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as a key contract manager, coordinating with other space center teams to provide cargo shipments for the International Space Station.
“Safety and mission assurance cover a lot of facets of a project — institutional, flight and hardware system safety, reliability engineering, risk management, procurement and process quality, business management and continuous improvement. Throughout my career, I have become a practitioner and leader for these skills to support mission objectives.”
A highlight of Zayas’ 22 years with Lockheed Martin was the project that followed: senior manager for Lockheed Martin on the Orion crew exploration vehicle. “This is the spacecraft that recently launched on Artemis and was deployed to circle the moon. I had the awesome opportunity to lead the Houston safety and mission assurance team supporting the crew module design.
NASA’s Artemis program comprises a series of missions that will return humans to the moon for extended exploration and experimentation. The Orion spacecraft launched with Artemis 1 on Nov. 16, 2022, and traveled further into space than any previous vehicle designed for humans before returning on Dec. 11.
“My sons had the unique opportunity to climb aboard the mockup module while it was in development — I think they were the first youngsters ever in that craft,” Zayas shared.
After 22 years, his time with Lockheed Martin ended when the company sold off its Information Systems and Global Solutions division — where Zayas worked as part of the technical services for human space flight. Lockheed Martin offered Zayas the option to accept a transfer and remain with the company, but he didn’t want to disrupt his family with another move. He accepted a leadership role in the specialty chemicals manufacturing sector with Ascend Performance Materials before returning to aerospace.
The next mission
In 2018, Zayas accepted a position with ARES Corporation, a NASA contractor supporting mission and program integration for the International Space Station. After several years working with NASA and its international partners and spacecraft providers an opportunity arose to join the Axiom Space team in the role of director of safety and mission assurance.
Maybe next up will be Bears in space.
Fred Zayas '86
Axiom Space is among a wave of companies working to commercialize space, making microgravity accessible to countries, institutions, industries, and individuals.
Other well-known private space companies include Space X, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, which focus more on transportation, while Axiom Space specializes in infrastructure and facilitating private astronaut missions to conduct experiments.
“We’re designing and building the world’s first commercial space station,” said Zayas. “It’s going to have two habitat modules, a research module, a manufacturing module and a power tower module that will integrate an extravehicular activity or EVA airlock and a solar array to generate electricity.”
Once in orbit, the Axiom station will facilitate personal astronaut missions for individuals who want to conduct experiments or work on projects in microgravity.
Axiom Space will conduct operations while docked to the International Space Station until the older station is decommissioned around 2030. Axiom Station will be a platform in low-Earth orbit supporting research studies and a range of industries, including aerospace technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and precision manufacturing among many others.
“Axiom Station is made of modules so it can be expanded to accommodate hundreds of people living and working in space. Our experienced team is also designing our Axiom space suit and leading private astronaut missions such as the 2022 Ax-1 mission and the upcoming Ax-2 mission.”
These plans to boldly go to space require sophisticated and complex safety solutions. Fred Zayas has been preparing for this role since he rolled up to Morgan Hall in a dinged-up Datsun.
“Who would have known that an LR student from such humble beginnings would have the opportunity to serve on a team that will be changing how the world works, plays and learns?” said Zayas. “Maybe next up will be Bears in space.”