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Eric Coffman with a full-scale mock-up of Orion’s crew module

Rocket Man

How Eric Coffman overcame a devastating accident and became the coolest spaceship designer you've ever heard about.

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A 31-year-old engineer named Eric Coffman rolled his titanium wheelchair into the Operations and Checkout Building at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center early one morning in the summer of 2013. For the previous six years, Coffman and his team of Colorado-based designers from Lockheed Martin had been working on a propulsion system for Orion, the focus of a multibillion dollar spacecraft program that someday will take humans some 33.9 million miles to Mars. Now, inside a makeshift glass room built atop the facility’s concrete floor, here it was.

Orion is the first deep-space vehicle NASA has created since the Apollo missions of the 1960s and ’70s. Orion’s diving-bell-shaped capsule, officially known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, stands almost 11 feet tall. Its heat shield, the thing that will keep the astronauts from having their blood boiled upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, is 16.5 feet in diameter and can withstand temperatures in excess of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

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After it is shot around the moon with a human payload sometime in 2021, Orion will be made to do everything from circling the red planet to delivering astronauts to an asteroid that has been “captured”—that is, intentionally locked into a stable orbit around the moon. To that end, hundreds of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians have worked on the craft almost entirely out of the public eye—in Colorado, Louisiana, Florida, and elsewhere—putting together a spaceship that someday could be the first step to making humans an interplanetary species.

When Coffman, one of the younger lead designers in the Orion program, arrived at the glass-encased room at Kennedy, the workers there helped him pull on a white smock with a hoodie that fit tight over his head. His chair wheels were wrapped in tape to ensure cleanliness. A glass door opened. Coffman rolled inside. “To see Orion that close, the size gets to you right off,” Coffman told me. “It’s something I’d been working on in a virtual world, with 3-D CAD [computer-aided design] models. I was used to viewing it on screens, like a cartoon. But seeing it in actuality? To see that hardware? Very cool. I couldn’t stop smiling.”

Coffman gave input on the module but mostly watched, taking inventory of the moment. At one point, he reached out a gloved hand and touched a piece of the olive green capsule. After a few hours, Coffman shared a car to his hotel with other Lockheed engineers. “Eric’s the guy who never treats this like a job,” one of his co-workers told me shortly after Orion’s test this past December. “He’s like, ‘Do you realize how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you know how lucky we all are?’ Eric knows.”

One night a couple of months after Orion blasted off on its test flight in December, I visited Coffman at his home in the Front Range foothills. We’d met before, in 2002, when Coffman was a sophomore at the Colorado School of Mines and I was a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. At the time, he was less than a year removed from a near-fatal snowboarding accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He’d undergone four surgeries by then—the first two to save his life, the subsequent two designed to get him walking again. Neither of the latter operations worked.

I found Coffman to be one of the most remarkable people I’d ever met, in large part because of his resilience. At 20 years old, he’d only recently relearned how to cook for himself, how to drive his modified Chevrolet Corsica, and how to use a bathtub without help. During months-long therapy at Craig Hospital in Englewood, he was notorious for his impatience. He’d tap on an imaginary wristwatch to signal he was ready to work. “I’ve got shit to do,” he’d tell his physical therapist. Even though he’d fractured his fifth thoracic vertebrae—which severed his spinal cord below his shoulders—and almost entirely torn his scalp from his skull, Coffman missed only one semester of school.

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He now lives alone just a few miles from Lockheed’s compound in Jefferson County, in a two-story house his mother bought shortly after his accident. There’s a wooden ramp friends and family built inside his garage; blackened wheel tracks mark the hallway carpet outside his first-floor bedroom. Since moving there in 2005 (he rents the house from his mother), Coffman’s been upstairs only a handful of times. “I hear it still looks nice,” he says. There are free weights in the family room next to several guitars, one of which he built himself. We settle in at the kitchen table, which is adjacent to a small bar stocked with rum, whiskey, and sweet vermouth. Across from us is a bookshelf that holds a photo of his dark blue BMW 335xi and his second diploma—a master’s degree in mechatronics and systems engineering from the University of Denver, which he earned three years ago.

It was already dark outside when I arrived, and Coffman turned on some lights. He pushed himself up from his wheelchair and wiggled his lower body. He doesn’t look the part of the stereotypical engineer: He has a mop of black hair and a beard that hides an angular, athletic face. His left eyebrow is pierced, and he often wears Adidas skateboarding shoes.

You can see hints of the six-foot-three point guard he once was on the Mines basketball team: He’s handsome, with muscular arms and a thick chest honed by lifting weights and the constant workout that has come from rolling his way through life. One humorous peculiarity of being paralyzed, he says, is the delicateness with which others sometimes treat him. “People walk up to me and ask, ‘HOW ARE YOU TODAY?’?” Coffman laughs. “Well, I’m paralyzed, I’m not deaf. Some people try a little too hard to be nice. But, you know, at least they’re trying.”

Coffman didn’t always think that way. In the years after his accident, he felt like a newborn trying to navigate a world you take for granted when your legs work. Prosaic things like stairs, showers, and curbs became obstacles. He often refused help; he’d stare at people who opened doors for him. “It was a very difficult transition,” his mother, Bonnie Killin, says. “To see your child struggle like that is heart-wrenching. He had everything going for him, then he pretty much had to start over.” To go from running baseline-to-baseline sprints at basketball practice to suddenly not being able to walk across the street seemed unimaginable. “I was pissed off a lot of the time,” Coffman says. “But I needed to learn things on my own. What good would it have been for me to just sit there in a chair and say, ‘Well, I guess I can’t do this anymore.’ I sure as hell wasn’t going to be that person.”

The one thing he never had to relearn was how to be a student. He threw himself back into his classwork at Mines and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2004. He got a job—first at an environmental engineering company that monitored air quality, then at a company that designed and built water-park structures.

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In 2007, he took a position with Lockheed and immediately started on the Orion project. It was a dream job for a math whiz who’d grown up shooting off miniature rockets in his backyard. By 2013, he was named the design lead for the spaceship’s propulsion system—the series of small thrusters ringing the crew module. The system is in charge of directing the capsule butt-first into Earth’s atmosphere, then guiding it through a lung-crunching 20,000-mile-per-hour fall toward a target somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Coffman often spends up to 12 hours a day in his Lockheed office or at his kitchen table working on specific aspects of Orion. If one rocket misfires—even by a fraction of a second—the capsule could hit the Earth’s atmosphere at an angle, rendering the heat shield useless and sending the astronauts into a spin. If everything goes right, it’s a little like shooting a bullet through a straw from 3,600 feet and nailing the bull’s-eye.

After the module came to rest in the Pacific Ocean following December’s test flight, Coffman sent a text to his mother: “Fucking nailed it.” The mission had been televised around the world. He started getting congratulatory messages from dozens of friends and several ex-girlfriends. “I think they wanted to get back together,” he says. “Their loss, you know?”

It was windy and overcast on May 27, 2001, when Coffman and a friend went up to St. Mary’s Glacier for a final day of snowboarding before summer. Snow on the glacier had melted, then turned to ice overnight. But these were teenagers doing what teenagers do: They built ramps out of snow and jumped their boards for a few hours. Around noon, they hiked to the top of the glacier. Wearing a black stocking cap—his helmet was in his backpack—Coffman was the first to drop in.

“I was coming down,” he says, “and the snow seemed particularly bad. I made a few cuts, but then I missed a turn. I couldn’t stop. That’s when I ate it.” Coffman rocketed off the edge of a cliff, then dropped 20 to 40 feet. By the time an off-duty ski patroller arrived 10 minutes later, Coffman was atop a bunch of rocks. His head was ripped open like a sardine can; his left hand was smashed. His legs were folded, one on top of the other, in an unnatural position. Even though he was barely conscious, Coffman says he knew what’d happened. He couldn’t move his legs.

He spent two weeks at a hospital in Denver—where doctors told his parents he’d probably never walk again—then was flown to Tel Aviv, Israel, where he underwent an experimental surgery. During the first procedure, doctors took a strip of flesh off of Coffman’s left arm and incubated it with monocytes (a type of white blood cell) that had been separated from a sample of Coffman’s blood. This produced activated macrophages—which work to remove growth inhibitor—and during a second operation, the macrophages were injected into Coffman’s damaged spinal cord in an attempt to regenerate nerves and get him walking again. Coffman spent the next three months in the hospital and started a rehabilitation plan, but he never regained feeling in his legs.

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When he returned home in September 2001, he continued his rehabilitation. Even with his family, therapists, and doctors constantly around, it was a lonely period for him. “A lot of times, Eric didn’t want to live,” Killin says. “It was emotionally painful, physically painful. For a while, all he could do was lie there and have people take care of him. He had to learn to be independent again.”
In many ways, rehab helped because it gave him a challenge. It started off simply, with a question: How do I get into a car by myself? He learned how to use his leg braces, how to take apart his wheelchair, how to open doors. He learned how to slide himself into the shower. “My mental and emotional state improved when my physical state did because it kept me occupied,” he says. “It gave me something to focus on. It was better than wallowing in self-pity. I had to have a very honest conversation with myself: I’m paralyzed. I have to figure out how to do life differently.”

His parents had his Chevrolet fitted with hand controls, and Coffman made his first solo drive in early winter. “Some people might quit under his circumstances,” Coffman’s father, Brian, says. “Eric didn’t. He kept setting bigger goals for himself.” Eight months after his accident, Coffman re-enrolled at Mines, got an apartment, and prepared for classes. He worried about how his friends would receive him. “I didn’t want them to feel weird around me,” he says. To Coffman’s relief, his friends hardly mentioned his absence. “We were picking him up in his wheelchair to get him up to parties,” says Matt Meyer, Coffman’s friend and former basketball teammate. “After a while, it was almost like we forgot about what’d happened.”

A year after he started at Lockheed in 2007, Coffman developed an abscess near his left upper thigh that became infected. Because it was internal, it took doctors a week to find it. An infection spread through part of his lower body and looked as if it might be fatal.

It wasn’t. He survived two more surgeries, one of which included scraping out pieces of infected bone and dead tissue near his thigh and left buttock. He was in and out of the hospital for the next three-and-a-half months; at one point, he was made to lie on his back for five weeks straight while the wound healed. His mind often wandered—back to snowboarding, back to that glacier. “You start to wonder if this is all worth it,” Coffman says. There was no epiphany, but over the next several months he resolved to fight, to get better, to go back to work.

Coffman returned to Lockheed in August 2008. Five years later, he was promoted from propulsion designer to design lead and found himself in charge of one of the most important aspects of Orion. Designing and then manufacturing the parts for the first propulsion system had taken six years—and now the project had Coffman shuttling between his office and Florida, where the parts were being built and tested.

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At his office, Coffman knew his wheelchair drew attention, especially among new co-workers. One day, he gathered several engineers for a meeting. “Something wasn’t moving fast enough for him,” Bill Skaff, an engineer who was there, told me. “Then Eric says, with a totally straight face, ‘Bring so-and-so guy over here, and I’ll run over his toes.’ Who has that kind of humor? Eric has this way where he can take a thing that’s so awful and turn it on its head.” Coffman says his attitude might be a defense mechanism, a way of downplaying things. “I don’t want people to worry,” he says. “What good is it if your stories bum people out?”

He opens up to his parents, often in phone calls. With his father, he’s discussed the stresses of his job, the fact that he’s a young man with so much responsibility. With his mother, the conversations are more intimate. He apologizes for not being married, for not giving her grandchildren. “I tell him it’s no big deal, but I know he thinks that’s the way to make me happy,” Killin says. “But he’s made me prouder than I could have imagined. He’s such an amazing man. I want him to know how amazing he is. I feel lucky just to have him.” Still, she says, she often thinks about his future. “I know his life would be different if this wouldn’t have happened to him,” she tells me later. “He probably would have had a wife by now, maybe children. But you can’t think like that. I don’t want him to think about the what-ifs.”

He dreams he can walk. Actually, it’s more of a limp. He’s always dragging one leg behind him. He limps to the store, to the kitchen, around his office. “I’m really getting somewhere,” he says. Then his alarm goes off.

At his house one evening this past spring, Coffman invites me to his basement. He hasn’t been down there in at least a year. He opens the door, gives me his chair, then sets a black padded seat on top of the carpet. He straps himself onto it and pulls on a pair of gloves. He scoops up his left leg with his gloved hands and puts it on the first step. He does the same with his right leg. He grabs the stair railing with his left hand, then drops himself down. He does the same with the second step. Then the third. I bring the chair down and set it at the base of the steps. Coffman slides into it.

We make our way to the back of the basement—past his comic book collection and old family photos—where boxes of his college stuff are stacked in a corner. Coffman points to a white sheet covering something. He tells me to remove it. “That’s it,” he says. I lift up a snowboard and set it in Coffman’s lap.

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He bought it four months before the accident. Saved up every penny for it. It’s extra wide—to support his big feet—and he got special bindings and grayish-silver boots to go with it. “Man,” he says, “this was so sweet.”

The board’s scuffed around the edges. There’s a massive gouge on the bottom. There’s a bloodstain the size of Coffman’s head on it. One boot is still in its binding. There’s an envelope taped at one end of the board with writing in black marker. It’s from the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office.

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Coffman insisted on getting the board back, even though his mother never wanted to see it again. Coffman’s not sure why he wanted it or why he still has it. Maybe he’ll bring it upstairs and mount it on a wall someday. Or maybe he’ll never look at it again. He runs his hands across the board’s top, around the chipped edge.

“It’s like an artifact,” he says. “It’s like going up Everest and finding George Mallory’s shit.”

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We stay in the basement for what seems like hours. He’s feeling nostalgic. He finally hands the board to me. I return it to the corner and pull the white sheet over it. The room is quiet. “You would have thought my accident would have changed everything,” Coffman finally says. “But in a lot of ways, I’m exactly where I dreamed I would be.”

He rolls to the stairs, straps on the black pad, pulls on the gloves. He sits on the first step, grabs the railing, and pulls himself up.

—All photography courtesy of Matt Nager

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