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September 29, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 9


When a master storyteller took on NASA as his subject, he found a multitude of talented individuals united by their passion for space exploration.

Jay O’Callahan stood alone on the empty stage of the von Karman auditorium at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was ready. After a solid thirty minutes of “mi-mi-mi-mi-mi” and motorboat noises, he took center stage, dressed in a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans, his arms to the side and his chest out. He looked out on a full audience surrounded by large-scale models of the Cassini probe and the Voyager spacecraft. “This is the story,” he began, throwing an imaginary ball up into the air and then catching it. “Gravity.”

Two years earlier, Ed Hoffman, Director of NASA’s Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL), approached O’Callahan to help celebrate NASA’s fiftieth anniversary. “I want you to write a love letter to NASA,” Hoffman said. O’Callahan accepted the challenge with enthusiasm, but then wondered, “How do you write a love letter to an administration?”

O’Callahan spent months interviewing scientists, engineers, administrators, historians and astronauts. He read thirty to forty books and took a course on astronomy to capture the spirit of NASA. “I had never really taken the time to read about the planets,” he admitted. “I never felt close to Jupiter. Now Jupiter is like an old friend, Jupiter with the red spot.” He traveled across the country, visiting Johnson Space Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and NASA headquarters. By the end he amassed over a thousand pages of interviews that told stories of success and failure, of the constant struggle to push beyond the limits of gravity as well as non-Newtonian forces like fear and adversity. Now all he had to do was condense one thousand pages and write the story Hoffman requested.

The spark came to him on a hot summer day in August of 2008, when O’Callahan was pushing his lawnmower at his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts. “I stopped and thought, ‘This is the way I’ll do the story,’” he said. Inspired by his discussions with three interns at NASA, he decided to tell the story through the eyes of a young couple who share a sense of wonder about the stars. “They came to mind pretty quickly,” he said. “It’s their generation telling the story. I think that’s because I was so impressed by the interns at NASA,” O’Callahan said. He wanted to convey the idea of the next generation at NASA carrying the organization forward in the story, and he used one of his fictional protagonists to tell three true stories about human space flight: former mission control engineer J.C. High Eagle’s unusual start to his 40-year career at NASA, the final 50,000 feet of Apollo 11’s descent onto the Moon, and the story of Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger accident.

With such a wealth of history, O’Callahan found it difficult to choose which stories to tell. “In a way the events chose me,” he said. O’Callahan’s first interview was with J.C. High Eagle, also known as Jerry Elliot, in his mother’s living room in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. O’Callahan was intrigued that High Eagle had been with NASA for forty of its fifty years, and that he is a Cherokee Indian. “There was this sense of the earth, of his background, his people,” explained O’Callahan. “I was struck by that.”

He was also struck when he interviewed Judy Robinson at Johnson Space Center (JSC), whose mother survived Kristallnacht as a fourteen-year-old and later immigrated to America. Robinson wanted to repay the country that took in her mother, and found her path to public service at NASA. Others had equally compelling personal narratives about how they arrived at the agency. The humanity and accessibility of people at NASA amazed O’Callahan. “It’s as if NASA isn’t coming out of nowhere, it’s coming out of the earth in a sense,” he said.

O’Callahan initially felt a sense of reluctance about weaving a story of Armstrong and Aldrin’s Apollo 11 lunar descent into his larger narrative. “Originally, I wanted to stay away from that because I thought, ‘We know the story,’” he explained. “But really, I don’t think we do. I don’t think we know how difficult it was.” Ultimately, he said, “It just seemed so important to do the moment when a human being stepped on the Moon.” The intensity of the few minutes before touchdown was tangible, but a sense of weightless humor wove its way into the story, bringing out smiles and laughter from the JPL audience.

The Challenger story was the most difficult to tell. “I was leery of doing that because I thought NASA would be upset,” he said. “I lived through that, as many people did. I’ll never forget that moment.” He recounted how Ed Corrigan held his wife, Grace, as they stood in the stands to watch their daughter, Christa McAuliffe make history. “She’s gone,” Corrigan said at the end of the story. The von Karman auditorium fell silent.

Ronald McNair, a Mission Specialist on the final flight of Challenger, once said in a television interview that human space flight “…is something we must do. I see it as something that’s part of man’s nature to explore.” However, death is part of our adventure out into space, said O’Callahan, and a lot of astronauts have died. “I didn’t feel they should be left out of this story and Christa is my representative of that,” explained O’Callahan, “That was one of the hardest things to do and yet it seemed right.”

Having brought the audience to the emotional depths of the Challenger accident, O’Callahan shifted points of view to his other protagonist to tell the story behind the Voyager missions. He described the twin spacecraft exploring Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, while back on Earth the Berlin Wall fell, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Hubble launched, Princess Diana died, and Spirit and Opportunity touched down on Mars. Deemed “a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, our feelings” by former President Carter, the golden record onboard Voyager continues to say “hello” to whomever may be listening, embarking upon a journey into interstellar space without looking back. “I loved that sense of stretching out, of humanity dipping its toe into the universe,” said O’Callahan.

The sense of constant forward motion stuck with O’Callahan. “I had a real sense of failure and learning from failure,” he said. “I liked that because it wasn’t hidden from me. People talked about it.” During interviews, he was touched by the overwhelming number of employees who said that they love working at NASA and feel lucky to be there.

After a maestro-like bow, the packed audience responded with a standing ovation. As people started filing back to work, O’Callahan said he hoped that they left feeling exhilarated and pleased about their contribution to society. “As I worked on the story, I was struck by all that NASA had done. I’m amazed to be alive at a time when we can see the rings of Saturn as clearly as the grooves in a record,” he said. “I’m excited that we’re stretching out…with the Voyagers leaving the solar system. Just talking about it, it just fascinates me that we are doing this at this time.”

Article by HS

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