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One-on-One with Scott McLaughlin – Spaceport America executive director

Scott McLaughlin

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Scott McLaughlin was the kid who brought a transistor radio to class so he wouldn’t miss a minute of the nation’s first space shuttle launch.

He built model rockets in his family’s garage and “did some electronics” while growing up in Las Cruces.

“We lived out in the country a little bit and had a lot of land to run around, but I was always involved in something,” McLaughlin says.

McLaughlin, the new executive director of Spaceport America, has a career path that includes working at Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston (he didn’t like it and stayed for only five months) and developing a new version of a radar system to measure winds aloft. He has marketed the system to customers ranging from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to Albuquerque’s Double Eagle airport, which uses it to support the Balloon Fiesta.

A native New Mexican and a dedicated musician, McLaughlin met his wife when the two played in the New Mexico State University Pride Marching Band. He plays trombone, drums and sometimes baritone horn and has performed with a symphony and community concert bands, including the Mesilla Valley Concert Band and the Mesilla Valley Swing Band.

McLaughlin took over the top job at the spaceport in March, after his predecessor, Dan Hicks, went on administrative leave following allegations of financial mismanagement and abuse of power.

McLaughlin describes it as a “dream job.”

“I like the interface of government and business and technology,” he says. “I think that’s kind of a miraculous place, especially in the United States, right? Where we have funding so readily available for new and exciting things.”

“And I have always loved space.”

Tell me about the radar system you developed.

“I designed and worked on radar systems that measure wind. The business was making a product called wind profiling radar. It’s just a unique kind of radar that points up into the clear sky. Believe it or not, you can get this itty bitty reflection from the turbulence and you can then measure the Doppler shift and you can measure the winds.”

Describe an interesting project you have worked on.

“I would say there were two. One is the Kennedy Space Center radar, which was a unique application of a big radar to support space launch. Another project was a very much smaller system we built to go on a ship. I got to ride on a NOAA ship for one project, and then several years later we won a contract to develop another radar and I rode on a container ship, which was quite interesting.”

For someone who loves space, Mission Control would seem to be the perfect job. What happened?

“That was a really hard decision in my life. When I got the job, it did seem like a dream job, and I loved learning everything I could about space. They have an incredible library there … and any question you could have ever wanted to ask about NASA was in that library. But it became obvious to me that I needed to keep using my hands. I either needed to become an astronaut, or I needed to go do design. Mission Control folks are very smart people, but they’re not designing hardware.”

How do you spend your free time?

“Music has always been a big part of what I’ve tried to do. It keeps me sane. My wife and I have always camped, ever since we met. We tent camp. There’s a family cabin in the Pecos wilderness that we share with my brothers, so we go up there quite a bit. I definitely feel lucky to have that. We just like to get outside, you know, get a nature bath.”

Scott McLaughlin, executive director at Spaceport America, attends the unveiling of a rocket launch systems stand March 16. (Courtesy of Spaceport America)

What’s on your bucket list?

“One of the benefits of where I was in my companies over the last 15 years was quite a bit of travel, either it was business development, going to conferences, visiting customers or actually working on the radars. And for a reasonable amount of that, I was able to bring my wife, so we’ve gotten to go to many places around the world. There’s still several more places we’d like to travel together. So there’s a lot of focus on just trying to stay healthy. This is kind of a stressful job, but so was running a company. The interesting thing is I feel like I know how to take care of myself. I know there are times where you just have to dive in and every minute counts at the job, but I feel like I’ve already had a lot of practice learning how to back up and take a little bit of time away to make sure I stay healthy and that I stay healthy with my wife.”

From left, Scott McLaughlin, Spaceport America executive director; Allan Turk, flight operations manager; Guillermo Blacker of business operations, and Bill Gutman, director of aerospace, pose for a photo at the 2019 Spaceport America Cup.

Pet peeves?

“One of the things I’ve studied a lot over the years is trying to understand ego and what makes each of us tick, right? We have to have enough self-control and enough ego to move forward in life, but then there are those who go way beyond that. So I think it’s really important to work with people who are working hard for the organization and not just for themselves. Another one is, humans are technologists so I like people to figure out how to use the technology around them, whatever it is. For some people, it’s harder than others and I understand that, but we’re running a spaceport, (and) we’re helping our customers do the highest-end stuff, so I have an expectation that everybody will do the best they can with the tools they have.”

What’s something about you that few people know?

“When I can’t sleep at night, I read poetry. I downloaded poetry anthologies on my Kindle, and I can just quietly get out of my thoughts, get out of the stress of the day if I can’t sleep. Some I’ll read many times; other times, I just like passing through a poem for five minutes and then moving on to another poem for five minutes.”

What’s your favorite book?

“One of the books I’ve returned to over and over again is ‘The Genius in All of Us’ (by David Shenk). That’s a book about our innate ability to get good at something. You know, there’s this belief … that we’re innately good at something, like we’re born with it. And I think there’s a little bit buried in there, but I think that’s incredibly self-restricting. I like the idea that available to all of us is simply, through a lot of passion and a lot of learning and a lot of listening, you could do anything you want to do. You can go start your own company, you could go be a rocket engineer, or whatever. I think, getting back to New Mexico – and not just New Mexico – we’re sometimes so limiting in so many ways. But that’s not what America is about, right? America has always been about entrepreneurship and discovering new things.”



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