After dropping out of high school, a native South Philadelphian returned to his studies and currently oversees the processing of NASA equipment.
“I decided to leave school my last year ’cause I thought I knew everything,” Louis Carfagno said of missing his senior year of high school. Calling from his Houston, Texas, home, the current manager for space suit and tool processing for United Space Alliance, the main contractor for NASA, and doctor of aeronautics said, “I didn’t take the highway, I took the feeder road. I [want to] teach people to take the highway — the highway of education.”
From the streets of Ninth and McKean, Carfagno was far from a straight-A student. His father, Charles David, who never finished high school, often had to push the young Carfagno to attend his Italian Catholic classes.
“I worked in a factory for a bit,” Carfagno said of when he left high school. “Through different people talking to me, I realized I needed an education.”
The rest of his life has been a continuing lesson, from finishing his GED to joining the Air Force to attend college to a master’s degree and the final cherry, which was a doctorate of management in organizational leadership that he received as a 2009 holiday present.
“It was really sweet how I got it. I was driving before the Christmas break and I didn’t think I was going to hear anything ’till January, but my mentor called me. He called me Dec. 23, and school’s already out, and he said, ‘Congratulations, doctor.’ I said, ‘Stop messing with me. I don’t believe you,’” the 49-year-old said.
In addition to his proficiencies in aeronautics, Carfagno has found a passion for teaching, a gift he has grown to love over the past 30 years.
“I said I love teaching people, so I decided to become a professor. Embry-Riddle [Aeronautical University] hired me as an associate professor,” Carfagno said of the same worldwide-campus university that granted his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate. “I teach undergraduate and graduate aeronautic business classes. I fly for recreation once in awhile. In April, I joined the University of Phoenix as faculty, also, in the MBA program. I teach leadership and management classes and stuff like that.”
With his many hats, Carfagno continues his work for NASA, processing space tools and teaching astronauts how to use space suits. Some of his former pupils include U.S. Sen. John Glenn and actors Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck for the movie “Armageddon.”
“I did the films ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Space Cowboys’ in 1999 with Clint Eastwood. I even got a little cameo for about 30 seconds,” Carfagno said of Eastwood’s flick where he can be seen alongside James Garner and Donald Sutherland.
Hollywood aside, Carfagno likes his Houston home where he teaches and gives tours of the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which is a 102-by-202-foot pool that is 40-feet deep and contains 6.2 million gallons of water. But regardless of the gadgets, there are still a few things Texas doesn’t have.
“I go at least once or twice a year [to South Philly]. I still have friends out there. You know what I go home for? The cheesesteaks and the pretzels,” Carfagno, who spent Sundays at his grandmother’s Pennsport home, said. “I like it [in Texas], but it’s my job. It’s a nice place to have a good time out here. It gets hot here, in the summer, and I miss the Jersey Shore.”
After returning to school to complete his GED, Carfagno approached his father for college funds.
“I went to my father who was an old Italian guy who didn’t get through the ninth grade. He said, ‘If you want to go to college, do it on your own. You’re a man.’” Carfagno said. “I figured the military was the best bet. I went into the Air Force in ’87.”
While riding in SR-71 and U-2 spy planes, Carfagno was “life support” for the crews by prepping pilots’ pressure suits. It was here that the young Carfagno got some sage advice.
“One of the pilots said to me, he said, ‘Kid, once you have a degree you can do anything and it’s a lot of fun,’” Carfagno said.
He learned of Embry-Riddle that, at the time, offered worldwide classes via cassette tapes and had global proctors administer tests. While he continued his service, he completed his bachelor’s in professional aeronautics and left the military in ’91 with a degree.
In the years that followed, Carfagno held many positions from service advisor at a Volvo dealership to a tow-truck driver. Though he enjoyed the handful of years, he felt the need to do more.
“I learned of a position open for a spacesuit engineer. I was not sure what a spacesuit engineer does, but it’s better than working with people everyday,” Carfagno said. “In October, they called me and I was relentless. I went down for an interview and they hired me.”