Johnson Space Center sprawls beside lagoons where Houston gives way to Galveston Bay. It has the feel of a suburban college campus, albeit one geared to the training of astronauts. The day I visit, White meets me in Building 15, the low-rise warren of hallways, offices, and labs that contains Eagleworks. He is wearing a polo shirt embroidered with the Eagleworks emblem, which depicts an eagle, mid-swoop, soaring over a futuristic starship.
White did not start his career in propulsion. He studied mechanical engineering, and he joined the agency in 2004 as part of its robotics group, having worked at JSC as a contractor since 2000. Eventually, he took command of the robot arm on the International Space Station while working on a Ph.D. in plasma physics. It was only in 2009 that he shifted his responsibility to propulsion, which had been a long-standing interest of his and the reason he came to work for NASA in the first place.