Monday, July 9, 2012

Going Back with the Old Mac Team

Wednesday, June 20: It was the first summer day, and it began with blue corduroy jackets. 

I have come to enjoy my trips down to Jasper, IN for the Grissom Memorial Golf Outing and Scholarship Banquet – the drive down, and the interactions with the Purdue alumni, are all valuable reminders of the ways in which my role connects with the people of Indiana.  And because this is Indiana, I have begun to appreciate some of the habits and symbols that are so important here in ways that were foreign to me growing up.  One of the most visible and vibrant of these symbols, driving through the Purdue West Lafayette campus, was the iconic blue jacket of student FFA representatives here for the state conference.   For me, it was like swallows to Capistrano, or baseball fans to the ballpark. 

However, I was going to Jasper a day early—the golf outing wasn't due to start until Thursday at noon.  Today was special.  I was invited down by Kent Olinger and Craig Kneis a day early, to visit and share dinner with this year's special guests of the Grissom Classic.  Over 50 years ago, a group of young engineers from McDonnell Aircraft Corporation were given a unique assignment.  Take a ballistic missile design which was not yet reliable, instrument it with electronics and control systems that had not yet been designed, and modify it for human habitation in an environment that many believed was not survivable.  This was Project Mercury, and four of those young engineers (Norm Beckel, Dean Purdy, Jerry Roberts, and Bob Schepp) had agreed to come to Jasper and relate some of their stories and experiences.  For me, growing up in the era of moon shots and space races, this was an unbelievable opportunity to sit and talk to the men who had created the history that has defined my life and career.  (It's kind of like a musician being invited to an intimate little occasion where a few old veterans—say, Paul, Mick, Keith, and Ringo—got together and talked about their first meetings, and playing R&B in clubs in Liverpool and London from 1959 to 1961.) 

It was only with a great deal of effort and discipline that we finished dinner at the Schnitzelbank Restaurant and went back to the hotel; it was with even more effort and discipline that we ended the conversation and went to bed to get ready for golf and a discussion panel the next evening.  The next day was hot, the golf challenging (I am getting better, but I am a long way from good), and unfortunately, a flareup of an old injury kept Bob from the evening banquet (and required a bit of last minute replanning).  However, there were great surprises and sharing of experiences as well.  Lowell Grissom, ever the modest one, gave us an understanding of the culture of McDonnell in St. Louis, and the loudspeaker talks by "Old Mac" to "the Team".  This was followed by stories from the guys who "volunteered" to move down to Florida for a "brief" assignment.  (It is also an interesting story to talk to Mrs. Beckel, Mrs. Purdy, and Mrs. Roberts about what it was like to live and try to raise children in Titusville and Cocoa Beach in 1960, long before the buildup of tourist attractions and upscale housing.) 

It so happened that I had been given a digitized copy of the Mercury Program Familiarization Manual as a Christmas gift (yes, I am that kind of geek), so when the guys said that they weren't sure if they remembered, I promised that I could refresh their memories.  In the end, that was more than just a lighthearted joke:  the manual was dated December 1959, and these panelists had literally been the ones to "write the book" on the origins of American human spaceflight.   I admit to being a bit of – no, very much – a fan of the history of technology, so I asked everyone to sign copies of the cover of the Manual as mementoes of the event.  (One of these is now in a frame in the INSGC Central Office.) 

I really wish I had learned history this way.  What is also interesting is the email I received later encouraging us to continue such stories, and maybe even collecting them for publication.  An interesting idea, I must confess.

Oh, and yes, the Scholarships.  Once again, INSGC was pleased to be able to supplement the Grissom Scholarship awards with INSGC Scholarships.  It is impressive to listen to the four young women's accomplishments to date: community service, internships, academic awards, and a real passion for their subjects.  (I did get to speak with one whose eyes sparkled when she talked about soloing in a Cessna, and looking forward to getting her first set of aviation technology tools.)  I'm glad I didn't have to go through the difficulty of selecting these students from the many qualified applicants.  I just had the easy part of announcing the INSGC awards, and posing for pictures.

Let me just say that this was another time for me to simply be thrilled to be Indiana Space Grant Consortium Director.  Earlier in June, I had the opportunity to speak with the new NASA Program Manager for Space Grant, and spend some time discussing the range of activities and initiatives that INSGC does as "the face of NASA" for many in the State.  I enjoy talking about my pride in being part of the "NASA Team" – maybe I'm not yet at the level of historical contribution represented by the "Old Mac Team" members in the picture, but I do want to contribute how I can. 

I even got to spend Friday evening, after my return from Jasper, watching the Indianapolis Indians baseball team win their game—after all, it was summer, and a good time to watch the local team at the ballpark.   Thanks once more to everyone in Jasper who manage to help me feel welcomed and appreciated.  That means a lot to me, and is simply one of the best reminders and gifts associated with being part of INSGC. 

No comments:

Post a Comment