NASA Engineer Describes 'Space Race' to STARBASE Students

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The space race of the 1960s is a period the in the history of the United States that left an aura of passion and discovery. It spawned famous books that have become part of the fabric of the country, such as Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, published in 1979, which provides a co-pilot’s view of the most famous seven astronauts who went into orbit and eventually landed on the moon’s surface.  


Across its pages Air Force legends are cemented, most notably Chuck Yeager, the storied test pilot who broke the sound barrier but couldn’t break into the astronaut ranks because he didn’t have his college degree. As well as the Apollo moon landing with its timeless video of Buzz Aldrin saluting the U.S. Flag on the surface of the moon in 1969, where it still stands today.   

The topic may be resurgent as the Air Force prepares to launch a new space force and China says they’ll place an astronaut on the moon as well. A group of students at Kingsley Field’s STARBASE program had a first-hand introduction to this era when retired NASA propulsion engineer, Norman Chaffee, visited them. He described for them his career in the heyday of the space race, which included helping design and build the very thruster rockets that helped Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong safely land on the moon for the first time—and get them back into orbit for the ride home. In fact, he brought one of them to show the students what they look like and let them hold it to see how heavy it was.   

“You look like you might be about a hundred pounds,” he said gesturing to a student standing next to him. “This is a hundred-pound thrust rocket, so if you held on to it tightly on the surface of the moon it could very slowly lift you up.”  He gestured toward another younger, slighter student and said, “If you were to do the same thing, I think you may weigh about 60-pounds, this rocket would throw you up really, really fast,” he said with a big smile on his face as he handed the rocket to the student.   

Since retiring in 1998, Chaffee is part of the Johnson Space Center Education Office specializing in STEM for middle and high school students, which is the focus of the Kingsley Field STARBASE program.   

His areas of focus while employed at NASA included propulsion and power systems, robotics, biomedical engineering, and systems engineering and integration. This visit is an example of how he still supports those endeavors through telling stories of how he came to love science, many of which are fairly humorous.   

At one point he describes using a toaster to hold a beaker upright while heating it up, naturally that worked quite well until it ‘popped’ sending a flammable liquid onto the kitchen curtains and walls resulting in a house fire. Another time he created a mixture that reacted—bursting from the test beaker and leaving a dark purple stain on the kitchen counters and carpet. 

He later became interested in astronomy, and Chaffee said his parents rested more easily as a telescope does not burn or stain its surroundings. Following the visit, Alesha Earnest, the Kingsley Field STARBASE Director, said it peaked the interest of many of the students in attendance. “A couple of them said they are going to Mars,” she added.   

This is something Chaffee said was very likely adding, “I wouldn’t doubt if a number of you do go to Mars and if not you—your children will.”  Earnest said her favorite part was his enthusiasm for inspiring kids to pursue STEM, “to see his eyes light up when he was teaching the kids, his zeal in sharing his own discovery and wanting to pass that along to these students was my favorite part of his visit.”