Houston, May 19-23, 2008



Judith Robinson
Judith Robinson
Johnson Space Center

In three days I did fourteen interviews and by Thursday night was so overloaded I didn't have the energy to drive to the Outpost and have a beer with Milt Heflin and other Flight Controllers. The days were crowded and there were several themes that reoccurred. People were happy to be working at NASA and often spent their whole careers there. I found there was a passion to do the work and to do it well.


Zeeaa Quadri set up the interviews and Ed Hoffman and Don Cohen joined me all day Wednesday and Ed was at the interviews for part of Thursday.


There was a clear sense that "we're going back to the moon in 2020 and then on to Mars." I found many people came to NASA by chance, but then they stayed. Why? NASA is open to ideas and committed to doing a job well. Tuesday Don Cohen and I interviewed Dustin Ghomert who over Christmas Vacation had built a metal seat for Orion, the new command module, for the return to the moon mission.  Dustin found imperfections in the Lockheed design and took it on himself to improve the design. He worked twelve to fourteen hour days and on New Years Eve around ten o'clock his fiance said, "Are we going somewhere tonight?" Everyone we talked to is committed and we got a sense of the extraordinary variety of jobs that have to be done to put people in space.


Vicki Kloreis who said that after finishing graduate school she "wanted to make a difference" and found NASA the place where she could do that. Vicki has spent her career experimenting with the food that the astronauts take into space. "We used to have individual menus for the astronauts but now we're looking at long stays on the moon, and the Mars mission may take three years." Three years, what an extraordinary commitment on the part of astronauts that will be. Three years . . . that's a lot of water, freeze dried foods, desserts, and peanut butter on tortillas. Vicki said the space station was manned by fifteen nations and that made food preparation more complicated. "The Russians wanted soup for lunch. They ate fish for breakfast and they don't do vegetables. They don't know what to make of some peas sitting all by themselves on a plate." Gary Lofgren, Lunar Curator, told of the excitement there was when the moon rocks were returned from the Apollo missions. Gary, just out of graduate school, was put in a room for three weeks with a diamond studded blade and told to cut up the rocks into specific measurements. These rocks would be sent to different scientists around the world. Gary said that he'd blow his nose and get lunar dust up his nose. Here was this young man doing something no one had ever done; working in a room with moon rocks. Gary helped to train the Apollo 13 crew to see as a geologist sees. "Tell me what you see," Gary would say. The astronauts were taken to desert areas and even to Hawaii and taught to see.


Lofgren was a teenager when his parents were driving through the Badlands and there he picked up rocks. In high school he did a paper on Sputnik. It was also in high school that he had to do a term paper on a possible career. Gary picked up a pamphlet on geology, opened it and found a picture of "a guy on a horse collecting rocks." That impressed him and Gary went on to Stanford on a football scholarship, majored in science and got his Ph.D. in geology and he wound up spending his life studying and caring for moon rocks.


Louis Parker in public affairs told of astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, going to speak at his daughter's second grade class. Cernan asked Louis to come and bring a space suit to show the children. So Parker arrived and had to hold up a two hundred pound space suit for the children. I imagined him groaning through the class.


We went on to interview Mike Gentry in the photo lab. Mike has spent forty years at NASA. As he talked of his work he said, "Christa McAuliffe came by with her backpack full of books. 'Mike,' Christa said, 'can I leave this stuff here?' 'Sure,' he said." Christa died shortly afterwards in the Challenger explosion. Six months later, Barbara Morgan, Christa's backup, came to get the backpack. "That was closure for me," Mike said.


Mike grew up in Gainesville, Texas and wanted to be a clown, but worked instead as a reporter for small town newspapers. He's an easygoing, thoughtful man and when he came to NASA he felt a rebirth. When I asked about a high moment at NASA he said, "When I saw the parachute open for Apollo 13."


Lives are all interwoven here at NASA. We spent an hour with Mike Gentry and here a moment with Christa McAuliffe and another about a parachutes opening for Apollo 13. Death and life.

Co-op students  Johnson Space Center

Co-op students

Johnson Space Center


The next interview was with three co-op students and that interview was a highpoint for me and I'm sure for Don and Ed. The students were Daniel Araya, Cecil Shy, Jr., and Sarah Rieger. The three of them are attractive, intelligent and fun. Cecil Shy said, "NASA people got passion." Cecil, home schooled, loved to play with toy cars and in  high school he went to a career fair to learn about the Mars Rover and thought NASA was for him. Maybe he could build the next Mars Rover.


Sarah Rieger said she saw the movie Apollo 13 when she was eight and wanted to be an astronaut. Rieger is now at Georgia Tech and as a coop at NASA is working on the Lunar Lander. "The next Lander," Sarah said, "will be heavier so the design is new. I'm working on something that no one's ever done before. It may have two motors. That may be too heavy. It's all new." Her blue eyes were alive with excitement.


Daniel Araya, an elegant young man, said that at NASA, "You can test the waters." He found that everyone was motivated so he liked being there.


Cecil Shy said, "There are endless possibilities. I imagine a young boy or girl looking at the stars saying, 'I'm going to go there.' Why not?"


When we left that interview I felt we'd been in the womb with a wind that swirled about the room and left us feeling that we could fly. Why not? The last interview on Wednesday was with Judy Robinson who told us of her German ancestry. Her ancestors, grandparents and great grandparents were doctors and professors and then came the Nazis. The U.S. had a quota system and you had to have eight thousand dollars but her parents were able to get into America. Judy said, "This country opened its arms and I felt the need to give back. I went to City College in New York and later to Columbia and now I'm here at NASA. I'm an advocate and a steward for the crew." Judy talked about the risks of going into space and said that part of her job is to learn to manage those risks. Some of Judy's family had died in the Holocaust and I thought she was a perfect one to be an advocate for the crew. She has a lively sense of humor and is passionate about her work.


I'd asked for dark moments as well as bright moments and Judy said that rarely in top management do you find a woman. Instead the women are "organization wives." She lamented the fact that there were no Latinos in senior management positions. As for NASA heroes, Judy said, "Neil Armstrong . . . all of the astronauts because they're willing to sit on top of a bomb." And another hero of hers was Shannon Lucid because Shannon Lucid persevered; Shannon was one of thirteen who were trained to be astronauts but were turned away because they were women. Shannon persevered and in 1978 became an astronaut and got to fly in MIR.


Thursday we got to talk to Milt Heflin who was a flight controller at NASA. Milt talked to us in the Flight Control room that was used for the Apollo 11 moon landing and for all the Apollo landings. He called the room "the cathedral." The room is bigger than I had expected and far grander. There's a solemnity in the room; it's wide and the ceiling is high and it could be a university classroom. You could feel that history has seeped into this room and sits in this space. I felt a sense of awe and purpose standing in this room.


The Flight Control room was designed so the Flight Controller could make use of his team. Just as with a football team each person has a different responsibility and the Flight Controller calls out to each and as we all know they say "go" or "no go."


Heflin said that Apollo 8 was "the gutsiest thing down in manned space. Atop that huge Saturn rocket," he said, "the astronauts left the earth to go to the moon." Arthur Fox also felt that Apollo 8 was the most important of the Apollo missions.


I interviewed Joe and Jean Engle. Jean is Chief Knowledge Officer and Joe an astronaut. Joe was on the backup crew for Apollo 14 and was supposed to fly Apollo 17 but geologist Jack Schmitt replaced him. Joe has an ease and playfulness about him that may come from being a test pilot. He's flown the X-15 and is passionate about flying.


Jean's job as Chief Knowledge Officer is to pull together fifty years of NASA experience. The two of them have a spark about them.


Steve Altemus  Director of Engineering JSC

Steve Altemus

Director of Engineering JSC

Steve Altemus has a cheerful fire about him that's magnetic. At forty-give he's Chief Engineer. Steve has a sense of history and told me about his great great grandfathers who were the stonemasons who built Lehigh University. He comes from Polish ancestors, bricklayers and carpenters who he said built the info structure before space. Altemus feels that he's standing on the shoulders of these men and women of character and force.


He's in charge of the design of the spacecraft that will return to the moon and also for the manned space mission to mars. "It's all about mass," he said. "It'll be a bigger vehicle but it will look a lot like Apollo and yet it will be much more complex." At forty-five he's the youngest Chief Engineer. Steve reminded me of the coops. He's older but has that same optimism, fire and enthusiasm.


In summary the lifeblood of NASA now seems to be returning to the moon and having a permanent station there. And then sending the first manned mission to Mars.