At 23, Nick Gorman was sleeping under a bench in Waterfront Park in Charleston, South Carolina. He had served time in prison, been on and off drugs, and alienated himself from any family that could help. He had hit it: rock bottom.
He was scared, and he was alone, but he decided this wasn’t the life for him. This wasn’t who he was.
“Once the world has you down, it’s so hard to get up,” he said. “I wanted to prove that I wasn’t ‘that guy.’ I wanted to get my life back.”
Nick hasn’t just reclaimed his life — he’s literally shooting for the stars. He’s studying mechanical engineering through Trident Technical College and The Citadel, and he’s completing a fellowship with NASA through the College of Charleston. His dream is to be an astronaut.
A Decade of Turmoil
Nick was born and raised in Charleston. He enjoyed school — his grades weren’t the best, but he tried hard. Science, history, and geography were among his favorite subjects. He played baseball and was on the wrestling team. He grew up in the country and was raised with a certain set of values, to work hard and do the right thing.
But when he was 16, his parents divorced. He lived with his grandmother for a little while, but he found himself distracted. His grades slipped, and he eventually dropped out, although he did return for his GED a few years later.
This time in his life — the late 90s and early 2000s — is a bit of a blur, Nick said. His best friend Dustin died when he was 18. He moved to Wisconsin to live with some family and try school there for a little while. He thought they could help him, but he only got into drugs.
“I lost myself for a while,” he said. “I lost my moral compass. I was misunderstanding what love was.”
Nick returned to Charleston addicted and alone. He got into the rave scene, and at 21, he served about nine months in jail. He says he should have learned his lesson then, but it would take another three years — and sleeping under a bench — before he decided that something had to change.
He found work at a restaurant, washing dishes. He also found a new family. The job got him off the street, too — he couch-surfed for a while before getting an apartment with some guys from work. It would be another four or five years before he could afford a place of his own.
“My 20s were turmoil,” he said. “I wanted to give up.”
Everything changed the day after he turned 30: he met his now-wife, Michele. They began dating, and less than a year later, their son Dustin was born. Nick named him after the best friend he’d lost.
“I realized I had someone who really loved me, and I hadn’t had that in a long time,” Nick said. “Michele was the driving force that helped me get started.”
Reclaiming His Life
Over the next five years, Nick worked his way up to general manager at the restaurant, but long hours meant he was missing out on too much at home. He took a job in construction instead, doing trim work. But, with his wife pregnant with their second son, Aiden, he decided it was time for a bigger change.
He quit work, drove to Trident Technical College, and enrolled in classes.
In fall 2014, Nick began work toward a degree in engineering design graphics. He put everything he had into his classes — he was footing the bill for his education, so he was that much more driven to succeed.
“I realized I’d found something I loved,” he said. “I was good at this.”
Invitations to join Phi Theta Kappa soon came. Initially, he ignored them — he felt he didn’t have time to be involved. When he finally decided to see what it was about, he said it was the best decision he’d made.
Nick became vice president of leadership for the Alpha Epsilon Omicron Chapter and later served as president. He attended the international convention in Nashville, and he was a Social Media Ambassador at Honors Institute 2017 at Loyola University in Chicago.
He graduated from Trident in spring 2017 and was asked to speak at commencement, an experience he described as “difficult but soul-cleansing.” He immediately re-enrolled at Trident in the 2+2 Engineering Transfer Program to The Citadel. He’s studying mechanical engineering and will transfer to The Citadel in spring 2019. He’ll graduate in spring 2021 with his bachelor’s degree.
Good Moments Get Better
Nick found another opportunity through Phi Theta Kappa, and it would change the course of his life. He applied and was accepted to the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program.
“I felt like this door opened for a reason, so I needed to rush through it,” he said. “As hard as everything had been, I was finally getting somewhere.”
Nick completed the five-week online session and was invited to participate on-site at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. He became the chief operations engineer and mission commander for surface operations.
More opportunities followed. Nick applied for a Community Outreach Fellowship and a Research Fellowship through the South Carolina Space Grant Consortium at NASA and received scholarships of $5,000 for each.
In his research fellowship, he is designing a system to make solar panels on the Mars rovers more efficient. His work with NASA is through the College of Charleston, where he is also working on a project to design a mission to go to one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus. His classmates voted him the principal investigator — a science mission’s version of mission commander.
Through his community Outreach Fellowship, he speaks at local schools about NASA and science, and his son Dustin, now 9, thinks he’s a pretty cool guy.
“These have been some of the top moments of my life,” he said. “After having so many down moments in my life, it’s so good to finally have some good ones.”
Most recently, Nick landed a job designing intelligence communication systems on Navy warships. A fellow Phi Theta Kappa member from Trident recommended him for the job. He’ll work part-time while in college, and he’ll be one step closer to his goal.
He wants to design space craft for NASA, and his ultimate dream is to be an astronaut. But, even if that never happens, he’s already accomplished more than he ever expected himself to.
“Working for NASA as a civil servant is a real possibility for me now,” Nick said. “I want to make my mark on the world, and that’s a good place to do it.”
Apply now to become a NASA Community College Aerospace Scholar. The deadline is Oct. 17.