Charles Bowen’s lifelong pursuit of knowledge has taken him on a whirlwind of adventures, from his childhood in the rocky red hills of New Mexico to problem-solving for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
His passions — a mix of engineering, discovery and art — were instilled in him from an early age by his parents. His father, who was always taking apart, fixing and reassembling household machinery, was deeply interested in aviation and taught Charles and his brother the secret to building the fastest hand launch gliders in the neighborhood.
“Normally, gliders are designed like a Cessna, with a big set of wings up front,” Charles explained. “But [he taught us to use] an alternative layout used early on in aviation called the canard configuration” — canard means duck in French — “with the wings toward the back and the ‘head’ stuck way out in front. They always flew very, very well,” he continued. “So I was always interested in learning about the differences of those configurations — and what made some fly better than others.”
Charles’ mother, on the other hand, was an artist — painting, carving and using woodburning techniques to create beautiful works of art, fanning creative fires in both her sons. Charles became interested in textile art in the 1970s, and his passion for weaving has followed him ever since. In his apartment at Ardenwoods, Charles keeps a separate bedroom just for his loom and weaving supplies. “I have a studio,” he mused, laughing.
The family moved around quite a bit while the boys were young, giving Charles the opportunity to explore new and exciting landscapes all over the Plains and Southwest. By the time he was in second grade, Charles had lived in three states and five cities: Oklahoma City, northwest Texas, eastern New Mexico, Albuquerque and, finally, Houston.
“For the four years we lived in Albuquerque, the school system was very heavily biased toward technology, math and science,” Charles said. “You had the air force base and all these labs that were studying nuclear energy around there, and all the parents were working in technical fields and wanted their kids to be educated like them. So we had superb science, math, history, archaeology — and superb teachers who really challenged the kids. No one walked out of those classrooms bored.”
With a budding passion for science, Charles went on to study at the University of Texas in Austin, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1969. He was then hired at Texas Instruments to work on the electronic filters, power supplies and instrument panels used in seismic sensors, which detect earthquakes and other tremors or vibrations below the earth’s surface.
“After two decades, I was a little bit restless,” Charles explained. “I wanted something different. So I moved to a small company that made peripheral equipment for the seismic recording systems. I worked there doing design engineering for — oh, I can’t remember how long — but, in 1980, big groups of us were laid off.” Hoping for a bigger change this time, Charles enrolled in graduate school, eventually receiving a PhD in industrial engineering, with a specialization in human factors engineering.
“Human factors engineering,” he explained, “is a blend of engineering, science, psychology and biology, using insights into how humans process information” — designing tools that work with our bodies (and brains) on a neurological level.
From there, Charles’ designs and ideas reached new heights. He was hired by an aerospace contractor that worked with NASA at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and began collaborating with NASA on lighting for the International Space Station — studying how vision is affected by the station’s orbit.
“The Space Station circles the world every hour and a half, so you go all the way from sunrise to sunset — all through the night and back to sunrise — in 90 minutes,” he explained. “The lighting conditions from the sun vary continuously during that process, so, to be able to see what they’re doing, the astronauts have to have other light sources both in the space station and on the helmets of their space suits.”
Simulating the living conditions inside the Space Station, Charles and his team at Johnson Space Center worked out different issues that come from various types of light — “the spectrum of light from fluorescent tubes is very irregular, much different than what you get from an LED,” he said. “I had a lot of fun taking part in the development of the LED helmet lights that are flying now. We worked on those in the lighting lab, which was this room painted entirely black, and we made measurements of beam patterns and so on.”
In 2011, Charles retired and left his position at Johnson Space Center, freeing him up to spend more time on another of his lifelong passions: travel. During his schooling and career, from about 1964 to 1980, Charles traveled the country on a motorcycle — riding it to camp out beneath the clear starry skies of the Western U.S.
“I spent a lot of time in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah,” he explained. “But I managed to make it out to the West Coast, to San Francisco, the Olympic Peninsula and British Columbia just on a motorcycle. That trip, in particular, came out to 4,000 miles in 19 days. I was whipped after that,” he said, laughing. “But I covered a whole lot of territory, coming back to Houston through Montana, Wyoming.”
Originally, Charles had envisioned that he would retire in the Southwest, but a friend invited him out to explore the East Coast, and he soon fell in love with the Appalachians. “We both just loved these old mountains here,” he said. “Everything was so green and peaceful compared to the Rocky Mountains, you know? I was just enthralled with this part of the country, and I started changing my thinking on where I’d like to retire.”
The year that Charles retired, he packed up his home in Houston and resettled in Hendersonville — which led him to pick back up his artistic hobby of choice: weaving. “This part of the nation is steeped in the textile industry, and there are lots of handweavers here, so that means lots of opportunities to learn more about weaving, get quality supplies and pursue that hobby. So that’s what I’ve been doing primarily since I retired.”
Just as Charles played with light in the lab at NASA, he also gravitates toward playing with light in his woven designs, choosing patterns that appear to change in color depending on the lighting or angle that they are viewed.
On his commute to volunteer with Asheville Humane Society, where he looks after the kittens in the adoption center, Charles would pass by Ardenwoods and soon grew curious about the community.
After taking a tour around the grounds, he fell in love with all that the Ardenwoods community has to offer, and in 2020, he moved into a two-bedroom apartment, using one room for his loom and weaving supplies. “I moved here just as everything went into lockdown, so I didn’t know what normally went on around here anyway,” he said, laughing. “But weaving was a great escape from COVID. I had this hobby that I could rely on to really entertain me.”
When asked what he sees as his life’s biggest accomplishment (thus far), Charles paused, then said: “Oh gosh. I can’t really name just one. I’ve been so fortunate my entire life, having such interesting things to do and interesting people to work with. There’s not one thing I can point to. Everything just all came together, and I’m proud of that.”