It is late June, 2022, and Tyler Restoff is up early to begin his first day on the job as a Propulsion Test Engineer with Relativity Space, a 2015 California startup launched with the singular focus of disrupting traditionally held ideas about rocket flight by doing it with fewer parts and greater simplicity. It’s a beautiful 73-degrees at breakfast, but will reach 95 by lunchtime at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi, home to Relativity’s factory and test facilities. Tyler, a Class of ‘22 graduate from The Grainger College of Engineering at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gets to be a part of this; part of an historic moment in aerospace science and, perhaps, an historic moment for human civilization.
Tyler is a product of his village, but also of his own hard-earned knowledge and accrued wisdom.
By Craig Williams
I first met Tyler as a fair-haired 10-year old boy who played baseball and basketball with my son. His was one of dozens of small, rural schools that served hardworking families across the bottom third of the Prairie State, far closer geographically and culturally to Kentucky than to Chicago. Including Tyler, there were just ten students in his 8th grade class and in order to form a field-or-court-worthy baseball or basketball team, his school had to co-op with another school, 8.9-miles away, as the crow flies across the cornfields. But no matter the class size or lack of population density, this was a solid outfit; a place that put a premium on hard work, honesty, humility, and fair play. That’s how Tyler grew up, and that’s who he became.
As he passed through the gates of NASA Stennis Space Center that June morning, he was a long way from the dirt diamonds and the farm chores in Tamaroa, Illinois, but he was well prepared for this next phase of life. Not in spite of the fact, but because of the fact that he grew up working with his hands and learning the value of tinkering and of hard work from his father, a soft-spoken man with an astonishing range of skills matched only by his humility, Tyler is ready. But— as it turns out— Nasa contractors and industry disrupting rocket builders like their team members to know the difference between a main engine nozzle and an orbital maneuvering engine, and to get skills like that, you’ve got to leave the farm.
With inspiration from his junior high school science teacher, Mr. Phil Hamil, and with the aforementioned penchant for tinkering, Tyler ultimately decided to pursue aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois after high school. He tells me that before his senior year, he knew very little about the strength of the program, and chose U of I largely because of financial incentives. He wasn’t crazy about being so far from home but was nudged through his reluctance by encouraging parents. I ask Tyler how parents can best support kids making this post-secondary transition and he offers that their encouragement was a big part of his success. He shares with me that kids need help with financial aid, ACT or SAT prep, help examining and exploring various career paths, but also just recognizing that there can be a lot of stress during this transition from high school to college. Any help removing or suspending unnecessary burdens from kids during this time is a huge help. This was something his mother treated as a priority.
We talk about how making the transition from a smaller, rural community to a large University setting can be difficult, but Tyler tells me that he really valued the opportunity to immerse himself in the cultural patterns of an institution that draws students and professors from all corners of the globe. “It’s helpful to have different viewpoints. It builds bridges to better understanding,” he says. When I touch the third rail and ask him about the growing politicization of college attendance that’s been unfolding in the American conversation, he tells me that he’s definitely seen it, but that he’s also noticed people have hyperbolized ideas of what both Republicans and Democrats actually look like, up-close. He’s decided that it’s largely nonsensical and that most of what he’s seen are people sharing a similar set of concerns and living closer to the center than at either extreme.
Tyler is certainly a product of his village, but also of his own hard-earned knowledge and accrued wisdom. I ask what kind of guidance he would share with his younger self, and as his eyes drift upward, searching for impact, and then back at me, he says, “Put a lot of thought into what makes you happy, but also accept that we live in a world where we need money to survive. Recognize that what you do in college does not define your life. There are loads of opportunities to pivot.” Tyler shared with me that his first year at Illinois was, in some ways, more challenging than he’d expected, and that he didn’t really learn to study until his sophomore year. “Fact is,” he said, “some kids don’t have to study much to do pretty well in high school and I was one of those kids. I’d finish my homework or study for a test 30-minutes before going to class and be fine. But, the reality is, college is far less forgiving than high school, and what I found was that self-discipline was a hugely important key to success.” He continues, “The best thing college-bound kids from rural areas can do during high school is learn to study, work hard, and recognize the value in self-discipline— just develop good habits.”
Tyler Restoff, Propulsion Test Engineer, generally nice guy, and University of Illinois alumnus has already made his family and community proud. It’s no stretch to imagine him making us all proud through his contributions to science and to the decency of the human spirit