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Uncategorized July 20, 2023

Sean Papso

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” – Woody Allen

Before Robert Downey Jr. brought Ironman to the big screen, I feel it’s safe to say no kid ever grew up dreaming of becoming a federal government contractor. For me, I held onto a childhood dream of growing up to be an astronaut. Yet, reflecting back on the last (almost) four decades, I cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling journey. Through my own trials and tribulations, triumphs, and myriad of teaching moments, one element has always remained steadfast; an unwavering urge to serve my country.

Reaching for the Stars

As a kid, I grew up all over the map. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to two former Naval officers, I spent the first seven years of my life trying to decipher the difference between a “crik” and a “creek,” learning “slippy” isn’t actually a real word, and doing my best to learn the English language amongst the Yinzers of Western Pennsylvania. In 1993, my family moved to the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona where I discovered the paramount value of adaptation to change; a skillset that would prove invaluable for my life journey ahead.

Throughout my elementary years, I spent most of my time outside in the (dry) heat of Arizona. Outside of our time in various youth sports leagues or in Boy Scouting, my friends and I habitually did what most young boys do; challenge boundaries and take risks. I vividly remember the many days I spent pulling out cactus spines and tending to scrapes and bruises from my bike jumps that “didn’t quite make it all the way over” whatever I was trying to clear. In school, I was driven to succeed wherever and whenever possible, and kept busy with as many extracurricular activities that I could get my hands on. I was blessed with a natural gift of learning and retaining knowledge and was fortunate to have many opportunities to continue to challenge myself and grow. Humility, however, always followed in various forms and I am grateful for the many lessons learned along the way.

I credit my parents with instilling in me a foundation of determination and follow through to see any commitment I make to the end. This was tested several times in my childhood; two of which vividly stand out among the pack. First, in 1998 my dad and I hiked the Grand Canyon. For those familiar, we took the shorter, albeit far more difficult South Kaibab trail down to the bottom, spent the night at Phantom Ranch, and then took two days coming back up along the Bright Angel trail. We had been training for months, but in 6th grade, nothing really could have prepared me for the reality of carrying a loaded backpack down (and back up) almost a full mile of elevation change. Along the hike were several instances where I was ready to quit, but calling on a foundation of determination, and my dad’s voice saying, “we can’t just live on the side of a cliff forever,” allowed me to complete the trek with memories that would last a lifetime.

The second test began in early 1999. I was driven to become an Eagle Scout to improve my resume for the future, but also found my evolution into a teenager had other priorities in store. My first Scoutmaster warned us of the “virus” that infects many Boy Scouts around halfway on their journey to Eagle. He called it the “fumes;” that is, the car-fumes and the per-fumes. Between school, sports, and adolescence, my own journey to Eagle hit a major road bump around the Star Scout rank. I had risen through the ranks quickly up until that point, but my drive was being eclipsed by shifting motivations. Calling on my follow through and my parent’s continued support (plus an idle threat from my mom that I wouldn’t get my driver’s license until I made Eagle), I galvanized the motivation to resume my progress, completed my journey, and fulfilled my commitment of becoming an Eagle Scout in 2001.

Starting in middle school, my foundation was enhanced with the quality of perseverance, learned through two additional family moves. I encountered new life challenges with each move, essentially being forced to “start over” twice in my teenage years. Entering 7th grade, we moved to Houston, Texas. In middle school, I found a niche as a starting power forward on our school basketball team. We enjoyed a myriad of successes, including winning the district championship in 8th grade. Our coaches were passionate, and I quickly learned this passion also translated into very challenging “punishment days” following a loss. I remember our 7th grade coach telling us, “there are only two reasons to lose a game; you either get out-coached or out-played from a lack of effort. And I’ll tell you all right now, no one is out-coaching me.” While tongue-in-cheek, I credit much of my preparation for military service to coaches like him, who taught me to push through what can seem like insurmountable challenges to meet seemingly impossible expectations.

Entering Sophomore year of high school, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia. This move was the most difficult I encountered to date, to include my adult life. By sixteen, friendships are made, bonds are solidified, and all of us are looking forward to graduation and beyond. These years really tested and refined my ability to “make new friends.” I continued to play basketball, tried my hand at track & field, and became very involved in instrumental music performance, making the Georgia All State band as a tenor saxophonist my senior year.

Called by Duty, Bound by Honor

Sophomore year also saw a defining moment in each of our lives; September 11, 2001. We all remember where we were.  For me, that was the end of first period Algebra II heading into second period World History. Having grown up in a family of military veterans, I always had the impulse to serve in uniform on my journey of pursuing a childhood dream in space. After witnessing the events of this day, the impulse was solidified into a plan of action. As I began looking at colleges, I knew I wanted to find a path to becoming an aerospace engineer and a military pilot. I was intrigued by the challenge and prestige of attending a Service Academy and began taking a serious look at the United States Naval Academy. From Junior into Senior year of High School, I tailored my resume, academic electives, and extracurricular activities to make myself as competitive as possible for admittance. I went through the application process, received nominations from my Congressman and both Georgia Senators, and received an appointment to the Great Class of 2008.

Our Naval Academy class motto is “Honestate Arcessiti Dignitate Obligamus” which translates from Latin into “Called by Duty, Bound by Honor.” As the first incoming class to have an application process be truly influenced by the events of September 11, 2001, we bonded ourselves to the 2002 re-authorization of flight for the First Navy Jack and made the design an integral part of our class crest. During my time in Annapolis, I remained determined to study aerospace engineering on my journey to becoming an astronaut. I learned how to balance a difficult and heavy course load with increasing military leadership duties and obligations, mandatory extracurricular activities, maintaining a required level of fitness, and finding time to sleep. I had the privilege to learn academics from distinguished professors and developed and refined leadership qualities from senior officers and NCOs. I also received a great deal of exposure to the inner workings of the military bureaucracy and the sometimes frustrating aspects associated with it.

In the summer of 2006, I felt my childhood dream coming true. I applied and was selected for an internship at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. Working in the Extravehicular Activities (EVA) branch, I participated in a comprehensive study on understanding on-orbit trends and times to complete EVA tasks outside the International Space Station (ISS). This period of time was a particularly important one for NASA, as they were desperately trying to complete assembly of the larger components of the ISS against an ever-aging Space Shuttle fleet. While only a small window of time, this internship remains as one of my proudest moments in my life where I truly felt like a part of the Space Program.

Semper Gumby

A twist on the Marine Corps motto meaning “always flexible,” I have lived my entire adult life by this saying. I heard this term for the first time from a Marine Corps officer in 2004 and it has stuck with me ever since. I consider this phrase a motivator to “embrace the suck” during periods of letdown, because something even better may be waiting just around the next corner. My first real test of Semper Gumby came in 2010. Following an incredibly brief military career in the pipeline to becoming a Naval Aviator (a story for another time), I found myself unexpectedly out of the military and wondering how to make it to the start of the next chapter. I felt like a failure, to say the least. My childhood dream was shattered, I felt like I gave nothing in service to my country and everything I had done to work up to this point was for nothing. I spent the summer looking for a new calling, trying anything possible to remain in a position where I could serve my country and make a difference. This was the toughest year of my life to date; a year filled with endless humble pie and those “dig down deep” moments. It was not the most ideal year to enter the job market either, particularly as a recent college graduate. I considered all possible routes, including taking the GRE and applying to graduate school for a master’s in aerospace engineering to attempt to keep my childhood dream alive, exploring commercial flight training routes and a career in the airlines to stay flying, and investigating the potential of serving in another branch of the Armed Forces. Each of these routes, however, kept coming to abrupt dead ends.

If you talk to a Naval Academy graduate, many of us often jokingly say it’s “a great place to be FROM, not a great place to be AT.” In September 2010, I was fortunate to truly understand the meaning behind this phrase. One of my own classmates had posted on social media about a contract that her government contracting firm, CenTauri Solutions, had just won. Knowing nothing about the customer or the company, I reached out to her and within 72 hours, met the managing partner, Jim Kelly. Shortly following, I had a job offer to come onboard as a software engineer, chiefly because of Jim and my mutual ties to the Naval Academy, and his belief in me as a fellow graduate. On the surface, this position made absolutely zero sense on what I felt was my intended journey, but something in the back of my mind told me that this was the path to the next chapter. By late September, I began at Centauri and spent my evenings with software development texts to bridge the gap from my coding experiences with MATLAB in engineering to Java and JavaScript. Over the next year, I relied on all my skillsets and experiences in life to do my best to excel at the position. Yet, in the back of my mind, I still didn’t feel this was the right position for me and contemplated exploring other opportunities.

In 2011, Jim reminded me of the value of loyalty and mutual respect; qualities I had almost forgotten on my journey to find direction from the previous year. Within CenTauri, I became a Program Manager and began to find fulfilment in a position where I could interact with clients, establish rapport, and be exposed to corporate leaders and initiatives. Sure, this wasn’t quite riding a rocket into space, but I felt like I was finally making a difference again in serving my country. Through continued corporate exposure, I eventually discovered I wanted to pursue a path within Business Development and combine my skillsets with a broad exposure to opportunities and programs across the defense industrial base. I progressed into a senior executive role and had the opportunity to work at great organizations on several incredible mission sets along the way (including space!).

Forward to the Future

Fast forward to 2023, I am now a husband and father of two and see much of myself in both of my children. As a parent, it’s like looking into a time capsule from decades ago witnessing the same drive, same tendencies, and occasional defiance. My wife and I continue to do our best to imbue our best qualities in each of them and warmly welcome what the future has in store for all of us. In my career, I’m incredibly fortunate to be a part of inspiring the next generation of leaders and truly hope I can create positive impact sharing the lessons I’ve learned (and continue to learn) during a voyage over a habitually bumpy, yet personally rewarding road. I also volunteer my time to the Naval Academy Alumni Mentorship Program, helping other transitioning veterans navigate the path from military service to civilian life, paying forward whatever I can contribute from my own experiences.

Looking back on my life to date, I am truly thankful for all the highs and the lows, the mentors, and the significant events that have molded me into who I am today. Becoming a government contractor was never a route I had imagined myself taking. Yet today, I cannot imagine having taken a different path. If I could summarize my ongoing journey, I would say to always remain open to possibilities; continue to plan for the future and work toward established goals, but don’t measure successes or failures solely on their surface values; enjoy moments of triumph but continue to stay humble and eager to learn; and never forget the values, traits, and characteristics that make you who you are.