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From the Fall 2019 Edition of Discovery

Following Star Trails

Author Marcha Fox (BS’87, Physics) pursues unbeaten path as late-blooming scholar, NASA space shuttle engineer and Sci-Fi writer

USU Physics Alum Author Marcha Fox

Author and Engineer Marcha Fox (BS’87, Physics)

Photo courtesy Mary-Ann Muffoletto

Six months after her 1987 graduation from Utah State University, Marcha Fox burst into tears during an interview with the director of the USU Women’s Center, who was collecting stories from “non-traditional” students.

“She asked me how I did it – how, starting college at age 35 with six children at home – I managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics,” says Fox, a native of New York State. “I just lost it. I had no idea how I did it. I didn’t cry at the commencement ceremony but then, it hit me.”

Something in that question unleashed fears, worry, exhaustion and, finally, pride, Fox had held deep inside during hours upon hours of lectures, labs, study and exams.

“I had no idea how I’d survived juggling so many responsibilities other than one day, one class and one quarter at a time,” says Fox, who now, after a 21-year NASA career, lives along Lake Buchanan in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin.

It was a rare show of tender vulnerability from Fox, whose life is marked by fearless treks from coast to coast in search of new adventures. Now 71, the self-described “nerd” is able to devote herself, full-time, to

her life-long love of writing science fiction. Author of six novels and several other books, Fox also writes regular posts to her blog, “Marcha’s Two-Cents Worth: Random Ponderings on the State of the Universe.”

Fostering a Love of Reading, Writing and Science

Growing up in Hudson Valley town of Peekskill, New York, Fox developed a love of astronomy from her mother.

“My mom encouraged me to learn and explore,” she says. “As a child, she would take me out at night and she’d point to the moon, she’d point to the stars and I learned some of the constellations. I think we all have something inside of us, where we feel connected when we look at those things that, even as a child, you realize there’s something special about them.”

Fox was an early reader and wrote her first story in first grade. She honed her writing skills, while regularly writing letters to relatives and pen pals. And, she continued to read. An only child, she says “books were my friends.”

Fox spent a lot of time in her school and public libraries and science fiction books were among her favorites. Against a space race backdrop, her interest in science grew, as did her fledgling attempts at science fiction writing. To her sixth grade classmates’ amusement, Fox wrote stories about “how our teachers came from other planets.”

“I loved writing science fiction and I loved reading science fiction, but I was sometimes disappointed that some of the stories didn’t really contain actual science,” she says. “I wanted my stories to be scientifically accurate and challenging.”

Finding a Niche at USU

When Fox was in eighth grade, her family moved to California’s San Francisco Bay Area. Following graduation from Hayward’s Sunset High School, Fox married and was soon raising a family. In 1973, Fox, her husband and children relocated to Cache Valley, Utah. After being a stay-at-home mom for 15 years, Fox decided to enter USU.

“I felt so lucky to have a university right in my own community,” she says. “I wasn’t sure how I’d fit in as an older student, but I soon discovered age didn’t matter.”

USU alumna Marcha Fox at the Johnson Space Center, Houston.

USU alumna Marcha Fox, manager, far left, with the NASA Payload Safety Engineering Group in May 2002 at the Johnson Space Center, Houston.

Photo courtesy NASA

Fox began as a part-time student, taking classes in her favorite subject of astronomy with physics professor Farrell Edwards, who would become a favorite teacher.

“He was so entertaining and made learning fun and relevant,” she says, “I remember him wearing his orange, superhero cape.”

But Edwards also inspired her. She describes a “light bulb” moment in class.

“He told us anybody who wants to badly enough can earn a degree in physics,” Fox says. “That struck a chord with me. I doubted him. I thought I’d prove him wrong. Instead, I proved him correct.”

Fox soon found her tribe at USU – fellow physics majors – “nerds,” she says – who’d gather in the engineering building for marathon study sessions.

“We supported and helped each other, studying into the wee hours for finals,” she says. “I still laugh over a late night session, when we ordered pizza and struggled to divide its cost based on how much each of us ate. There we were, tackling super-complicated calculus problems, but couldn’t solve a simple fast food bill.”

Fox praises other faculty, who became mentors and shepherded her toward opportunities.

“Gordon Lind, who was head of the physics department at that time, was a great teacher, a great guy and gave me loads of encouragement,” she says.

Gil Moore, who initiated USU’s Get Away Special student space research team, was also an important mentor and remains Fox’s friend today.

“He’s an awesome, inspirational, can-do person,” she says.

Building an Aerospace Career

Fox’s mechanics professor, Rex Megill, gave her “my first real job” with Cache Valley-based Globesat, Inc., a satellite research and development firm he founded.

“I began working there in December 1986, during my senior year at USU,” Fox says. “It was an invaluable introduction to the space industry. During that experience, I developed my senior project and helped with the very first Small Satellite Conference at USU in 1987.”

Fox’s next career break came in 1988, while attending a trade show in Houston.

“I met a man who worked for NASA as a civil servant and hired contractors from General Electric Government Services,” she says. “I gave him my resume and six months later, I was moving to the Houston area, near Johnson Space Center, to become part of the space shuttle team.”

Working with NASA’s Shuttle Program

Fox started her new job just months before the launch of Shuttle Discovery in September 1988, marking the first Return to Flight mission following the 1986 Challenger accident.

“My first position was with Life Sciences,” she says. “During my career, my positions included technical writer, engineer, supervisor and manager. It was challenging, exciting work and I loved it.”

Her work fueled her love of science and space, while affording her opportunities to travel to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Washington, D.C. and overseas to the European Space Agency headquarters.

A certificate Fox received from NASA, in appreciation for her participation in the recovery of debris from Space Shuttle Columbia, following the 2003 accident.

A certificate Fox received from NASA, in appreciation for her participation in the recovery of debris from Space Shuttle Columbia, following the 2003 accident.

Photo courtesy Marcha Fox

At Johnson Space Center, Fox was often able to watch space operations from Mission Control. The shuttle program, she says, was “amazingly vast.”

“Thousands of people were involved,” Fox says. “It was truly a huge team effort that made this great thing happen. Every team member played an integral part. I had no idea how big and complex getting shuttles into space was, until I was in the thick of it.”

It was a career she’d dreamed of as a child and as an undergraduate that eventually became a reality, she says. “I met with astronauts regularly in meetings and was on the front lines of space missions.”

Yet, her proximity to space operations also made her aware of the inherent danger of emerging technology, along with disagreements over safety violations and pressures to meet deadlines. Fox witnessed close calls for catastrophic hazards, she says, which were not acknowledged as the ominous warnings they represented.

Her worst fears were realized on the morning of February 1, 2003, when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during atmospheric reentry.

“It was a Saturday, not a workday, and I was home cleaning my house,” Fox recalls. “We expected a routine shuttle landing.”

She didn’t hear the first phone call, but soon learned the grim news and rushed to work. There, she met other shocked, heartbroken co-workers.

“It was devastating,” Fox says. “We knew the seven crew members.”

Fox at the June 2018 Space Coast Book Lovers Conference in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Fox shares her books at the June 2018 Space Coast Book Lovers Conference in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Photo courtesy Marcha Fox

She immediately volunteered to help with the sobering task of recovering shuttle debris that had rained over a 375-mile-long swath of east Texas and west Louisiana.

“I was assigned to a team of Native American smokejumpers, elite wildland firefighters,” Fox says. “We literally walked for miles, combing the ground for debris.”

Her teammates’ skills amazed her.

“These guys could spot a copperhead (snake) sunning itself on a rock from 50 yards away,” Fox says.

Her team, along with other professional teams and civilians, collected some 84,000 pieces of the doomed shuttle, representing 39 percent of the vehicle’s total weight. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined the accident’s immediate cause was a 1.7-pound piece of foam that fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank during launch and struck the left wing, causing serious damage. The breach ultimately led to the vehicle’s disintegration during reentry 16 days later.

Fox remained with her contract position at NASA for another six years, until her retirement in 2009. During those years, she and co-workers worked toward safety improvements, preparing the way for yet another Return to Flight Mission, with the launch of Shuttle Discovery in 2005.

“My career was marked with extreme highs and lows,” she says. “But my most rewarding task as a manager was mentoring new employees right out of college. I felt I could help them get off to a good start and nothing was more satisfying than doing that.”

On to Writing Adventures

Embarking on post-retirement life, Fox turned her full attention to writing.

“I had drafts from years of writing, but had never had time to pursue publishing,” she says. “Also, because technology moves so quickly, I needed to update and polish my writings. Much of what I had originally speculated was no longer science fiction, but had become science fact.”

From 2013-2015, Fox published the Star Trails Tetralogy, a four-book science fiction series, detailing the adventures of a space-faring family. She added a prequel and a compendium to the series, along with an additional adventure involving a telepathic botanical lifeform that lands aboard a UFO diverted by F-16s to Utah’s Hill Air Force Base.

Marcha Fox and her family

September 2019: Right to left, USU Physics alumna Marcha Fox BS’87 with her daughter, Kelley Chambers and grandsons, Conner and Hunter Chambers. Kelley and her husband, Greg Chambers, own Logan’s Firehouse Pizzeria and Icehouse Frozen Custard. Fox notes “they hire many USU students.”

Photo courtesy Mary-Ann Muffoletto

Fox describes the series as “hard science fiction;” that is, science fiction based on scientific accuracy and logic.

“That was after all, one of my primary motivations for earning a physics degree,” she says.

But Fox’s writing interests also delve into other areas. The prolific writer has published books about family history and astrology, the latter of which she defends as having “no conflict with modern science.”

“Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus and Newton were all astrologers on a quest to obtain more accurate data for their astrological readings and predictions,” she says.

“While most scientists and mainstream religions shun astrology, I believe astrology’s ancient wisdom deserves respect and continued study.”

Fox initially investigated astrology to debunk it, she says, “But I discovered it works.”

The author is currently at work on a trilogy of conspiracy thriller novels, set in small-town Colorado, in which urban residents, rural landowners and Native American tribes become unlikely allies as they discover mining and oil industry pollution is endangering their water supply.

“This is a departure from some of my previous sci-fi works,” Fox says. “I hope readers will enjoy the suspense, along with the rich culture and history of the region.”

She’s consulting with a member of the Cheyenne tribe, who lives on a reservation in Montana, to ensure her story’s accuracy. “My science background and natural curiosity make the research element of novel writing equally enjoyable to creating characters and watching them come to life,” Fox says.


By Mary-Ann Muffoletto

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