Rocket man

Robert Bardwell
Robert Bardwell (Eric Schultz/Rocket City Photo)

Rocket man

By Natalie Chandler

Robert Bardwell aims for the stars

Robert Bardwell had a childhood dream of riding a rocket into space. After graduating from Texas State University in 2000, his career course veered just a tad. He’s now designing and building them.

“I like to set very lofty goals,” says Bardwell, a rocket propulsion engineer for NASA. “When I was in the second grade, I was shooting for the stars. But luckily for me, I landed on a cloud of building rockets.”

Change was a constant for Bardwell during his youth. By the time he began high school in San Antonio, the self-described Army brat had lived in seven U.S. cities and at a military base in Germany.

The first in his family to attend college, Bardwell liked the affordability of Texas State. There was also the 3-2 program that allowed undergraduates to transfer to The University of Texas at Austin or Texas A&M University after three years and graduate with two degrees — a liberal arts degree and an engineering degree.

Bardwell always knew he wanted to work for NASA or in a NASA-related field. And he was certain that he did not want to leave his new college family. “After three years, I decided to stay at Texas State,” he says. 

But by that point, finances became a bigger challenge. Unfamiliar with the process of applying for scholarships, Bardwell had begun college with just enough money saved for one semester. “By the second semester, I didn’t have enough money to cover my finances,” he says. “I was actually going to drop out.”

A conversation with history professor Dr. Gregg Andrews — now retired — changed that. The department helped Bardwell obtain funds for the rest of his second semester. Later, he was accepted as a resident assistant at his residence hall, which paid for his room and board. 

Books were another issue. Bardwell had been relying on the notes he took in physics class to get by. So he interviewed for a job as a physics lab instructor, which helped cover more of his expenses. 

“It was very difficult to save up the money, but I had many people supporting me at Texas State and I never gave up,” he says. “It was just an obstacle I had to break through, climb over, and go around.” The challenge gave him the confidence “to not give up, and always find a way.” 

“I got to the point where I couldn’t be stopped because I was so determined to be the first one in my family to get a college degree and live up to my mom’s expectations,” he says.

Bardwell’s perseverance continued after graduation. He started working as a contractor at Boeing and earned two master’s degrees. He then advanced through the ranks with the aerospace company and later landed a job at NASA. 

Since 2007, he has worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Center in Alabama, where he is designing Space Launch System, NASA’s largest and most powerful rocket that will eventually take humans to Mars. When he’s not building rockets, Bardwell is inspiring students with his success story, including his two nieces who just completed their freshman year at Texas State. 

“I got to the point where I couldn’t be stopped because I was so determined to be the first one in my family to get a college degree and live up to my mom’s expectations.”  

Bardwell was named a Young Alumni Rising Star in 2016, an award created to recognize Texas State alumni for their accomplishments in their profession, affiliations, and service. Bardwell has also been honored with the Stellar Award from the Rotary National Awards for Space Achievement and the NASA Space Flight Awareness Award. 

Bardwell enjoys mentoring high school and college interns through the National Society of Black Engineers. “I tell students that there are a lot of great universities out there, especially in Texas, but if you want to be more than just a face in a classroom, Texas State is absolutely where you should go,” he says. “The attention you get is unbelievable. You’re a part of a family.”