IUP safety alumni, from left, John Kracsun, Greg Oblom, Christine Brown, Mike Kuta, Tom Goodenow, and Ken Bair, in front of Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Atlantis’s last mission, in 2011, concluded NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program. Credit: Rory Duncan
Safety Alumni Mark More than 30 Years of Support for Space Program
It was during four summers in the early 1970s, while working in a steel mill blast furnace, that Ken Bair, a native of Churchill in suburban Pittsburgh, got interested in what was then a relatively new field, safety sciences.
At a career expo in the old Civic Arena, Bair met a representative from IUP who told him about a new safety management major. Bair already had a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, so it took him only two years to add a safety management degree from IUP.
In the department office, he saw a job placement bulletin from Rockwell International for a position in Kennedy Space Center’s Space Shuttle program.
“I didn’t know anything about launching spacecraft, but it sounded interesting, so I applied,” Bair said.
He got the job and started at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, NASA’s launch operations center, in August 1981. To his knowledge, he was the first IUP safety graduate to work on Florida’s Space Coast—the region surrounding Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Pad leader Guenter Wendt, seated, in 1969. Credit: NASA
In the next few years, more IUP alumni with safety management and, by mid-decade, safety sciences degrees arrived at Kennedy Space Center. Bair said they were among the first formally trained safety professionals to work there, and he estimates at least 25 have joined him over the years. They would also be eyewitnesses to some of NASA’s most inspiring achievements in manned space flight—and to some of the agency’s most heart-rending tragedies.
A year after Bair was hired, Mifflinburg native Tom Goodenow, a 1981 safety graduate, also landed a job at KSC. Both Goodenow and Bair were interviewed for their jobs by Guenter Wendt, the German-American engineer who was a legendary launch pad leader during much of America’s manned space program. Wendt supervised spacecraft launch preparations to ensure the safety of everyone involved, and he was the last person the astronauts saw before the capsule door was closed and they were sent into orbit.
Tom Goodenow tried out Atlantis’s flight deck commander seat in December 2010. Courtesy of Tom Goodenow
“I didn’t know I was talking to someone so big in the space business,” Goodenow said of his job interview.
“We are still attracting record numbers of people who come to view a launch. I’m very encouraged that people have not lost interest in space travel.”
Many people working at KSC are employed by commercial contractors supporting NASA, and their employment often depends on the length of their company’s contract. Many professionals with long careers at KSC have worked for several of the largest aerospace companies.
“When I started, I was a safety operations guy in the field,” Bair said. His job included reviewing safety warnings written by engineers before work was done on the shuttle orbiter, the plane-like component that houses the crew.
Florida’s Space Coast includes and surrounds Kennedy Space Center, on Merritt Island, and neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
He transferred to McDonnell Douglas in 1984 and helped prepare the payloads, including the Hubble Space Telescope, for shuttle flights. Bair now works for CSS-Dynamac at Space Life Sciences Lab.
“We’re right outside the gate of the Kennedy Space Center. It’s called Exploration Park,” he said, and companies are doing research there. “A lot of stuff that goes up to the International Space Station on commercial rockets gets processed in our building.”
In growth chambers in the lab, experiments are being conducted on food plants grown in space and brought back for testing to be sure they are safe for astronauts to eat. Bair said plants that produce oxygen and safe food will be especially important on manned flights to Mars.
“It’s a six-month trip each way,” he said. “You can’t take enough food. You’ve got to grow your food.”
In the Space Life Sciences Lab, where Ken Bair works, scientists study food sources for deep space exploration, such as a mission to Mars. Credit: NASA
Bair also worked at Edwards Air Force Base in California when the orbiter landed there.
“They were always worried about the tires exploding from the heat, so they’d wait about 30 minutes before anyone could approach the orbiter,” he said. “I’d go out in a SCAPE [Self-Contained Atmospheric Protective Ensemble] suit, a rubber suit with an air pack on my back. I was pushing a cart, and a tech would have a wand, and we would go into the orbiter [searching for toxic vapors]. I’d be on a headset with the control people, and I’d say, ‘Yeah, we’re getting zero readings here.’ I did that for the first six or seven flights.”
In 1985, Homer City native Mike Kuta began working for Lockheed at the Kennedy Space Center. A three-year letterman on the IUP baseball team, he received his safety sciences degree the year before starting his job.
From a Launch Control Center firing room, Mike Kuta looked out toward two shuttle launch pads. Credit: Rory Duncan
After the accident that destroyed the shuttle Challenger in 1986, things at KSC slowed down. Kuta for a time worked on research and development of the Navy’s next generation of submarine-launched missiles before going to the shuttle program in 1990.
“I’ve been in the crew module of all five of the space shuttles,” he said. “Early on, I was a safety engineer, supporting hazardous operations on site, doing atmospheric monitoring, monitoring for toxic vapors, determining levels of hydrogen and other hazardous commodities.”
He assisted with the mating of the shuttle to its external tank and as it rolled out to the launch pad. “We would do all the test checkouts and all the launch count-down preparations,” he said.
“The overall experience is something I don’t think will ever be matched, being part of a team that flew a spaceship.”
“When [the orbiter] landed in California, we would have to piggyback it on a 747 back home. We would get some of the hazardous commodities off, get some of the science off from the mission, and start preparing it for lift and mate to the modified 747, the shuttle carrier aircraft.” Kuta would be in a pathfinder aircraft flying in front of the shuttle and carrier to monitor the weather.
Of 135 shuttle flights, 54 landed in California.
Kuta is now senior manager of the launch operations and support group for Jacobs, the company that won NASA’s test operations support contract.
“We’re getting ready for the next launch vehicle, the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle,” he said. The Orion is being developed by NASA to carry astronauts to Mars or asteroids and to deliver supplies and crews to the International Space Station.
John Kracsun at a firing room console. All activities involved in preparing rockets, spacecraft, and payloads for space can be controlled from the firing room. Credit: Rory Duncan
A native of Forest Hills, Allegheny County, John Kracsun was a student at IUP when the shuttle Challenger disintegrated.
“Knowing IUP had a great safety program, I decided to change majors,” Kracsun said, and he graduated in 1988 with a degree in safety sciences.
The following year, he went to work for Lockheed at KSC, and some of his best times there, he said, were during “full-on processing” of a shuttle, including a final inspection of the orbiter while it was perched on the launch pad.
“We’d be looking for anything that would be considered an anomaly,” Kracsun said, and he would report anything suspicious to the control, or firing, room.
In 2000, Kracsun accepted a position as an orbiter test conductor, and in 2003, he advanced to chief test conductor. In those positions, he coordinated and managed all testing from the firing room in the Launch Control Center.
After the shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry in 2003, Kracsun spent four weeks in Lufkin, Texas, flying with helicopter crews searching for and recovering shuttle pieces.
“I hated the reason for being there,” he said. But it was cathartic, “something I had to do. I was trying to find answers to get the program back up and running.”
Kracsun was the orbiter test conductor for the final launch of Discovery in February 2011.
“The launch OTC is the last person to talk to the astronauts prior to liftoff,” he said. His final words to the astronauts were, “Close and lock your visors and initiate O2 flow.”
Mike Kuta assisted with ferry flights to return the shuttles from California to Kennedy Space Center. Kuta was flying in front of the Endeavor and carrier to monitor the weather in this 2008 photo. Credit: Courtesy of Mike Kuta
After that last flight, Discovery went on display in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s annex at Washington Dulles International Airport. The recording of Kracsun’s final instructions to the astronauts can be heard with a video of Discovery’s launch on display in the center.
“I tell people I’ve been Smithsonianized,” Kracsun said.
Now employed by ERC, Inc., an engineering and scientific services firm, Kracsun is working on test operations and support for the space launch system that may next take American astronauts back to the moon or to Mars.
“It’s been so much fun,” Kracsun said of his first 26 years working at KSC. “It’s been a hell of a ride.”
Greg Oblom’s journey to KSC in many ways mirrored those of other IUP graduates. An Erie native, Oblom received a master’s in safety sciences at IUP in 1990 and saw a notice for a McDonnell Douglas safety and health position at Kennedy Space Center.
“I have always been sort of a space-airplane-flight-type geek, so it intrigued me, and I applied for it,” he said.
Oblom arrived at KSC in the early 1990s, worked for several contractors, and now is employed by InoMedic Health Applications. As an industrial hygienist and program manager, he’s involved with the support contract for medical, environmental, and health services for the entire space center.
“We have physicians and medical professionals processing astronauts before and after flights,” he said, and providing physicals, blood screenings, and similar tests for the whole workforce on KSC. “I get involved in reviewing procedures, reviewing chemical usages, proposed construction—all kinds of things that could have a safety and health impact.”
Greg Oblom, center, during a bio-threat exercise at neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Matthew Jurgens/Courtesy of Greg Oblom
But he considers being involved with the space shuttle flights the highlights of his time at KSC. Oblom was in the line of vehicles that drove up to the shuttles after they rolled to a stop.
“We were in that train with our monitoring instruments to ensure that fuels and stuff were not going to be exposed, to monitor real-time any hazardous commodities,” he said.
Work on the front line can bring an up-close look at tragedy as well. Goodenow and Bair were eyewitnesses on January 28, 1986, to one of NASA’s darkest days.
“We were all standing out there watching the Challenger,” Goodenow said. “It went up, and you saw what happened. Anybody who worked there knew something wasn’t right. And it touched everybody, of course.”
Goodenow once met Dick Scobee, the commander of that Challenger flight.
“I remember when he came in the firing room, he was such a nice guy,” Goodenow said. “He comes walking up in his blue astronaut suit, and he stuck his hand out and said, ‘What’s your name?’ All those astronauts, when they came by, they related well to the workers.”
The IUP graduates are also witnessing a transition at KSC, an evolution of the space program away from large government involvement to the privatization of space exploration.
“The government is trying hard to get other private users to come in and use the shuttle landing facility runway,” Kuta said. “We’ve got a lot of hangars and areas in which we process space shuttles and external tanks and solid rocket boosters. They’re trying to make it attractive to private industry to come to Kennedy Space Center and use the infrastructure we have.”
Oblom has had mixed feelings watching the transition. “For someone who’s been there for a while, it’s both energizing and depressing at the same time,” he said. “I’m seeing facilities that are no longer needed being mothballed,” although some are coming back on line.
The space shuttle flights ended four years ago, and space exploration seldom makes front page news outside central Florida. But the IUP alumni are optimistic that preparations for manned flight beyond low earth orbit beginning in 2021—and even the fall release of the film The Martian—will reinvigorate Americans’ interest in space exploration.
“I’ll give you a personal observation,” Oblom said “We are still attracting record numbers of people who come to view a launch. I’m very encouraged that people have not lost interest in space travel.”
“I imagine when SpaceX [or another commercial aerospace manufacturer] sends up the first manned rocket from the Cape, that’s going to be huge, and it’s just going to be crazy down here,” Goodenow said.
Opportunities he and the other IUP safety graduates have had on the Space Coast are the stuff most Americans can only dream of, he said.
“There was nothing like going out to the pad, and right there was the orbiter,” Goodenow said. “We used to be sitting out there on what’s called the engine service platform, and you’d look up and you’re right underneath the engine nozzle. You see the tour buses going around outside the pad perimeter, and you’d think, ‘Those people would give their lives to be coming up here where I’m sitting right now.’ The overall experience is something I don’t think will ever be matched, being part of a team that flew a spaceship.”