A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

or Aerospace by the Mile
by Gordon Eskridge (Apr 2009)

Once there was a middle age, middle school, Earth Science teacher, who said, “While I enjoy teaching, I don’t seem to fit in here”. Then he got the CALL!!! from Charles Anderson, ‘Do You know anyone who would like to work for NASA and travel all over the United States giving live performances about what NASA has done and will do?”  I carefully weighed the two options, “Work with 8th graders for the rest of my life” or “go to work for NASA’?

Well, NASA did not need to look any further.  I called OSU and returned the application in the mail the same day that I received it.  Later, I received a call to come for an interview with Dr. Ken Wiggins, the Director of NASA’s Aerospace Education Project.   He informed me that NASA had an opening at the Johnson Space Center and the main concern would be getting along with their educational specialist whose name was Jim Poindexter.

OSU, who held the contract with NASA then sent me to Houston, Texas.  I picked up the tickets from the AESP Office, which was located on the first floor over the automatic chicken plucking machine, which was located in the basement of the poultry science building.  (The office smelled, during the long hot summers of Stillwater, Oklahoma, of steamy hot chicken feathers and boiling chicken meat.  The machines were noisy and shook the whole building.) The schedule on the tickets stated that I would have a long layover in Dallas, so I picked up some reading material in the teacher education room next door to the AESP office.  These were education briefs from NASA that highlighted what happened on each flight of the space Shuttle. 

I flew from Oklahoma City, to Dallas, Texas, which took only twenty-five minutes, and there I had a two hour layover, so I read the STS (Space Transportation Systems) Briefs. 

Well, the job interview was with a short man with a Napoleon attitude who said “what is an electrophoresis machine and what was it used for on the last STS flight?  Amazingly, that was one of the briefs that I had been reading on the plane.  My answer was that the “electrophoresis machine is an electronic-filtering machine and it was used to separate the Beta Particles out of solution to help in the study of a cure for diabetes by the Johnson and Johnson pharmaceutical company.  Jim response was, “You are really up on this stuff”.  I said “Yes Sir”.  The interview was short and sweet and ended with Jim saying, “How would you like to come to work here?”  I answered that I would like to very much.  He then called OSU and talked with Dr. Wiggins.  He said, ‘I think we have a winner”.  Well time was running short to make the flight back to Oklahoma and the next thing I remember is that Jim said “I know a short cut to the airport and I can get you there in no time”.  Well, I missed the plane and had to sit in the airport and wait on standby for the next flight. 

The next week OSU called and said that I needed to meet with the people from NASA headquarters and they were meeting with the AESP group in New Orleans the following week and “could I go the next week?”  I said, “Sure,” and off we went.  Well, I thought part of NASA’s hiring strategy must be current event questions about NASA so every evening after we returned to the hotel room I studied about NASA. 

Not one single person from NASA headquarters approached me for “the interview” during the four days of the conference.  Then, as we were standing in the line to checkout of the hotel, Larry Bilbrough came over to me and said, “We need to talk”, and I thought “Well here it comes, they found someone else to a take the job, and he is going to let me know now”.  He said, “What does your wife thing about taking this job?” I told him that “We already have five daughters and she wants me on the road.”  He laughed, and said” “You’re Hired”

For fifteen years I have lived in motels over half of each year, and I still remember a few special ones.  Moriarity, New Mexico, after having driven through a snowstorm for over 15 hours to travel 300 miles, is one evening I have not forgotten.  I arrived at the quaint little drive in motel exhausted from following trucks through the snow. 

The little old gentleman, at the desk at 2 A. M. , said, “I was holding this room just for you”.  The motel had been built in the nineteen twenties and you could drive up and park beside the room in the cute twin covered arched parking spaces that divided the cottage styled rooms from each other.  “Great”, I said and drove into the space provided and got out of the snow.  The space was very narrowly built for the cars of an earlier time.  I could not get out of the driver’s side of the door that slid to the side.  So I climbed over my things, opened the door of the van on the rider’s side and inched around the screen door to open the main door with the skeleton key provided. 

The first thing that I noticed was that the room was cold and then I found out why.  The window would not shut all the way and the newspaper that had been stuffed into the opening had been blown out by the snowstorm.  So after replacing the newspaper in the opening I cleaned up the two inches of snow that was piled on the floor.  I turned up the gas flames in the free standing stove with no grates, and the room began to quickly warm up.  I went to the bathroom and found the commode had no seat on it.  I turned the water on, at the sink; and it was brown for some time.  I got ready for bed and pulled the string to turn off the bare light bulb hanging from the wire over the bed.  Then I lay down on the bed and was folded up by the sag in the middle of the mattress.  After pulling up the WWII army blankets I dropped off to sleep the four hours until time to get ready to present a program at a nearby school. 

As I unfolded myself the next morning and got ready to take a shower, I replaced the newspaper back in the window that had blown out during the night and went to the bathroom.  The shower was a pipe without a shower head on it and a plastic curtain that you pulled around you and a plastic curtain that you pulled around you.  I turned the water on to let it turn semi-clear only to find out the hot water side did not work.  The drain was a four-inch hole in the center of a three foot square cement box in the floor.  Total cost for these deluxe accommodations was thirteen dollars including tax. 

I arrived at the café at seven A. M. to find several men dressed in heavy clothing and bib overalls.  I ordered breakfast and while I was waiting a man entered wearing a three-piece suit and an overcoat. He introduced himself as the principal of the school that I was to visit that day and told me that school was closed because of the snowstorm.  The reason the school was closed was because the bus drivers could not get the buses out of the bus lot.  We rescheduled the school visit for the next year.

As part of this Aerospace Specialist job, I have driven a van filled with all types of aerospace related equipment such as spacecraft, a spacesuit, models of a space station, space food, sleep-restraint, airplanes, world globes, satellite communication simulator, satellites, the NASA rocket family, a model of the Space Transportation System, projectors and computers, clothe covers for tables, a bicycle wheel gyroscope, microphones, cables, speakers, amplifiers, tape-players, CD payers, Laserdisc players, 30 X 40 pictures of the Sun and other planets, telescopes, classroom demonstration equipment, publications of NASA curriculum and enough personal equipment to keep me on the road up to five weeks at a time.    

I have unloaded, hauled the stuff upstairs and down, setup, demonstrated, entertained audiences, young and old, put the equipment back in the boxes, hauled them back to the van, reloaded them in to the van so they all fit close enough to close the doors, enough times to build muscles  enough to look like Charles Atlas, but I don’t.

I have traveled a distance equal to several times around the world, and I have the second largest phone bill in the U. S. A.  I have met millions of school children and teachers.  I have done many things that I never would have been able to do without this kind of job.  While on a community involvement program in Rapid City, South Dakota, we were able to climb up on top of Mount Rushmore and look down at the people looking up at the carvings of four of our presidents.  While in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was able to fly in a hot air balloon and talk to the people on the ground as we flew over them.  That was really neat.

I attended two Space Transportation System (Space Shuttle) launches that stand out as the really Earth Shaking events in my time with the Aerospace Education Services Program.  The daytime launch was several days of getting up early, 3-4 A. M., riding in a bus in stop and go traffic only to stand for hours and having an OBAPU malfunction at T-9 and counting, which scrubbed the launch.  Then on the day it flew, we were able to see the rocket motors fire up then hear them, then feel them. We watched the STS leave the launch pad across the Banana River from the viewing stands.  The STS jumped into the air and then made a roll maneuver and as it streaked up range it made a terrific sight that most of Florida could see. 

The nighttime flight involved going to the pre launch viewing of the STS on the launch pad 39 A the night before the launch. Then the night of the launch we were able to go to the Kennedy visitor’s center and get a preview of who was on the flight and what was going to happen during the flight.  We were then bussed out to the launch –viewing area.  We could see the Shuttle across the river bathed in the spotlights and see a close up view on the monitors in front of the stands.  When the clock started to count down from – 10 seconds, the crowd started to chant the numbers 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2,1, lift off.  The liquid engines lit and they turned the night into an artificial dawn.  There was a shout of happiness and we could see and hear the engines.  When the solid fuel engines were ignited, we could not only see and hear them but very soon we could feel them as the vibration of the sound shook the clothing on our bodies and the light turned the dawns light of the liquid engines to the noontime light of the solid engines glare.  The shuttle rose quickly on a tail of fire, smoke, and steam into the night’s sky.  It passed through a small cloud and changed its color from gray to orange, then back to gray.  The light around us dimmed and the sound faded and returned to the night time’s darkness and quiet.  But you could see the light from the shuttle’s engines for a long time.   You should have been there.  

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