The NASA Years
by Ellwood A. Johnson
The early days of
the Spacemobile Program can best be described as "The Wild West." I
sure do not mean that in the negative sense of the term; rather, events were
moving so fast in uncharted waters that innovation and flexibility were the key
operational words. We had to react to situations and circumstances. A lot of
what we were asked to do was because of political considerations; i.e., a
Congressman or Senator would call the office and asked us to support a classroom
presentation, a congressional visit to a district, or a local or national
conference. I can recall instances where a lecture was given in a location in
Florida, for instance, and we were asked to respond to a congressional request
in Illinois a couple of days later. Of course, the lecturer had to drive the
unit from Florida to Illinois, often driving through the night to meet that
event. At that time, the scheduling was handled out of headquarters and was not
under the scheduling arm of the NASA Centers.
Everyone did the
best they could. I don't think it could have been done by people married to
structure nor those without a vision of what it could be. It was a demanding
job. It was a fun job. It provided us with the environment to grow, to provide a
great public service to the children of this and other nations, and afforded us
the opportunity to meet the most competent, dedicated, flexible, loyal,
fun-loving group of people that have ever been "thrown" together in a
common purpose. I am so proud to have been a part of the program, and to this
date, continue to be in very frequent contact with the many friends I made in
There are many
lecturers in the post-early days that have no idea of some of the tasks and
events that the "space-science lecturers" were called upon to do. I
hope that I will be able to convey some of the challenges and excitement that
many of us were privileged to experience.
In the early 60s,
I was working as the Director of Education for the Elk River (MN) Nuclear Power
Plant. In this position, I delivered a lot of lectures to school children and
the general public on nuclear energy. The peaceful uses of nuclear energy were
new and people were either excited about the application or fearful of its
destructive potential. It was my job to educate the public on the peaceful
applications of atomic energy with emphasis on power generation. I had developed
a number of programs to take to schools and community groups and also conducted
programs and tours of the Elk River Facility.
In the fall of
'61, I received a call from Harold Plummer, the Science Supervisor for the State
of Minnesota's Department of Education. Harold was doing a series of programs on
nuclear energy for the Minnesota Public Television station. I worked with him on
content, visuals and contacts within the industry. I also appeared on camera for
several of the programs. Harold happened to be an educational consultant to NASA
and suggested to Ev Collin, in early '62, that I might be interested in becoming
a lecturer. Ev called me from Washington, set up an interview in St. Paul, after
which I was asked to report to DC on March 1, 1962. You can be sure my
co-workers and I were interested in watching John Glenn's flight on February
20th with great expectation. Keep in mind that my real first exposure to NASA
and space science was watching the flights on TV.
I reported to
NASA Headquarters on March 1, which was a Thursday. The NASA Educational
Programs Division of Public Affairs was located at FOB 6, on Maryland Avenue SE
The bottom four floors were occupied by the Department of Education and the top
three floors by NASA. There I again met with Ev Collin and a fellow named John
Sims as well as John Nesbit, a fellow lecturer and the National Scheduler for
Spacemobile Programs, at that time. They gave me some educational materials on
the space programs and said that I would start my training program -- on the
road -- with a lecturer named Jack Callow, who lived in nearby Falls Church, VA.
They then suggested that I go formalize the paper work with Herman Weinstein,
the director of Educational Programs with offices on 1730 Eye Street NW, who was
the prime contractor for the Spacemobile Program. This could have been the first
time I realized that I would be working for a contractor and would not be a
direct employee of NASA. It didn't matter. I joined the program with a salary of
$9,000 per year (I was making $4,800 at my former position) and would also
receive $12 per diem for every day I was on the road. I had found the Holy
That day, I
called Jack Callow who was at home in Virginia. He suggested that I register at
the Iwo Jima Motel, which was just across the street from the Ft. Meyer Army
Base, and pretty close to his home. He recommended that I do some reading on
Saturday and that he would pick me up that evening for dinner at his place and
to meet his family. Sunday morning we headed for Morgantown, West Virginia and
my first look at the Spacemobile truck. We were to spend a week in West Virginia
lecturing to high schools throughout the State. I expected to have a week to
just listen and try to understand what the NASA programs were all about. Wrong.
I listened to Jack give two lectures a day on Monday and Tuesday, then I gave
the first half of the lecture on Wednesday morning, the second half on Wednesday
afternoon, and then full unassisted lectures on Thursday and Friday. On Friday
evening, I gave a presentation at the television station in Elkins, W.Va. I
forgot to mention that it snowed most of the time and I remember going down a
hill in Morgantown with the truck in reverse -- snow and ice don't mix well. .
ON THE ROAD
Monday morning I was back at NASA headquarters. There they advised me that I was
to be in Los Angeles the following week and that I was to pick up "my"
unit from Al Hulstrunk at the airport in Pittsburgh, PA. That afternoon I flew
to Pittsburgh, picked up the unit, and headed for the West Coast. I was to
report to the NASA's Western Operations Office in Santa Monica, CA. Stan Miller
assisted by Bob Button ran the office. They had scheduled my lecturing week and
set me up to stay at a plush hotel near the beach -- I had my own cabana during
the five-day stay in the Los Angeles area. They were able to negotiate a rate
within my per diem rate, which was a happy surprise.
On Monday morning
I reported to their office. They had me scheduled for a visit to North American
Aviation in Downey, CA to see the work being done on the Apollo Spacecraft.
Awaiting me was a helicopter from the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory of
Pasadena, CA to fly me from Santa Monica to Downey for the visit -- a first for
me. During the remainder of the week, I lectured at several local schools
including Hollywood High, and appeared on a local television station -- the
first to carry color in the area, Channel 13, I believe.
week I was scheduled for a week of lecturing in Las Vegas followed by a week in
the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
I then headed up
to Seattle. In the mid-62s, the biggest financial commitment for NASA Public
Affairs Office was the support of the NASA Pavilion at the Seattle World's Fair.
We had a big NASA Pavilion with exhibit space and a 150-seat auditorium for
Spacemobile demonstrations. If I recall correctly, we had six lectures scheduled
for weekdays and this was bounced up to nine for the weekends. The fair lasted
six months so we had lecturers fly in and out for their stint at the Fair.
lecturer at the Exhibit was Herman Oberle -- a former science teacher from
Arlington, VA. Herman had some exhibit type experience with a museum in Paris,
France which NASA supported and was ideal for the position. When I arrived we
stayed in a hotel. This was getting expensive as the costs for all housing went
up appreciably with the coming of the fair. We looked around and found a house
for rent by the airport. Herman then checked with the management in DC and came
to an agreement that all Spacemobile personnel assigned to Seattle would be
required to stay at the house. This agreement made the rent very affordable
within the confines of our per diem allowance. We were assigned an automobile
for transport from the house to the fair and to pickup supplies, etc. We also
used a Spacemobile if one came into the area.
A lot of
celebrities moved through the exhibit and watched the presentations. I remember
talking with Jack Lemon and his two boys after a presentation. Also, at that
time, Elvis was shooting his World's Fair movie. The movie crew was using our
staff room as a hang out and a place to go when they had to. I remember going
into the staff room one day and looking over to the next stall and there was
Elvis. So, I pittled with Elvis. Those that got to know him said he was a nice
fellow and easy to get along with.
I did not spend
all my time at the Fair. I would frequently get in my Spacemobile and drive to
colleges in western Washington and Montana to provide support for the NASA
teacher workshops. I recall doing a workshop at the University of Montana with
Ev Collin and then driving down to Dillon, MT for another workshop. There was
nothing to do in Dillon over the weekend -- for some reason I could not get a
motel room in Butte which had a theater -- so I wrote an updated version of the
Spacemobile lecture and sent it off to Washington.
I also flew to
Houston to do a couple of lectures. The Manned Spacecraft Center was just being
built in Clear Lake and the Public Affairs Office was in the Honeywell Building
on the south side of Houston. There I met Bob Gordon, Bob Workman, and Shorty
Powers. There was a major space center promotion at a couple of the big shopping
centers and we were asked to give demonstrations in support of the event. There
was also a debriefing and news event at the Rice Hotel in downtown Houston for
Scott Carpenter and his 3-orbit flight of Mercury's Aurora 7 spacecraft flown on
May 24, 1962. There were 1500 dignitaries including members of the U.S. Congress
and the Governor of Texas attending. I gave a 45-minute space science
demonstration. I then returned to duties at the World's Fair.
When my stint
with the Fair was over I drove the unit to Fargo, ND and left it at the airport
to be picked up by another lecturer. I then went to Washington for special
assignments. I rented a small apartment in Arlington, VA in the same building
that Lloyd Aronson lived. Lloyd and I did some lecturers around the area and
developed the first school district teacher workshop for elementary school
teachers (workshops before then were primarily conducted at colleges during the
summer). We held these series of workshops at Roanoke, VA in the fall of '62
with special emphasis to help elementary school teachers become more comfortable
with teaching space science.
I also worked on
special projects with Stewart Tinsman and Myles Doherty. At about that time, the
Education Programs Division moved from FOB 6 to the Universal North Building off
Connecticut Avenue in NW Washington. We also moved with them. I remember that
our offices over looked the building site for the Washington Hilton (this was
the hotel area where Reagan got shot). Parking was available in the basement at
a cost me $28 per month. At the
time, I was appalled at the high cost of parking in DC.
Around January 1,
1963, Stewart Tinsman and I rented a one-bedroom flexible apartment on the top
floor of 301 G Street SW overlooking the Capital -- I think we paid around $225
a month for rent. This apartment was used as a collection point for all
International Spacemobilers. At times, we had four or five people temporarily
living in the unit.
In the fall of
"62 and early '63, there developed a great interest in the Spacemobile
going overseas. The first overseas assignment, other than the Paris Museum, was
for Venezuela. John Nesbit, who was the National Scheduler at that time, was
selected to be the lecturer on site. He could speak Spanish fairly well and he
was supported by a lecturer (whose name I forget) who was born and raised in
Puerto Rico and was fluent in Spanish. The effort in Venezuela was in support of
a museum in Caracas. The Spacemobile unit was a four-wheel drive unit for the
rugged terrain. (John was later to take this unit to Mexico City for the program
in that country.) As I was slated
for the next International assignment, they flew me down to Caracas to monitor
the program and gain insights on how set up the programs in a foreign country.
The effort in
Venezuela was under some strain. It was at a time of violent student
demonstrations and terrorism. The students would come out of the campus to do
their thing, and then rush back to the safety of the campus, which was a
sanctuary for students and according to law could not be penetrated by the
national police. The Embassy was under high security surveillance. We had
several meetings there discussing security of the NASA program and personnel.
It was a tense situation for all.
NASA received a
request for support of the 1st International Space Exposition to be held in Sao
Paulo, Brazil. The sponsoring agency was the Santos Dumont Foundation (Santos
Dumont was a Brazilian who made a flight in France shortly after the Wright
Brothers) and had the endorsement of the Brazilian government as well as a sign
off by our Embassy. The Exposition was to be held for four months at a major
recreation and park site -- Ibirapuera Park. Great Britain, France and the
Soviet Union were also to participate.
NASA wanted to be
a major player in the Exposition. They secured Wally Schirra's Mercury
Spacecraft, a full-scale model of the X-15 research rocket plane from the U.S.
Air Force, and an array of exhibits that were developed for the exposition. We
had a big photograph of John Glenn to welcome the attendees -- I was at
Headquarters with John Glenn when he signed the photo. The Foundation agreed to
hire six local lecturers, whom I would train, to deliver the space-science
demonstration lecture during the course of the Exposition.
discussions about the assignment in DC, it was suggested that I would be dealing
with some very high officials of the Brazilian government as well as local
dignitaries. It was suggested that I needed an official title to put me on some
par with the locals. John Sims came up with the title of “Director, South
American Section, Educational Programs Division, NASA.” After that, I think
that all of the international lecturers had some similar title to take with
Prior to leaving
for Brazil, I flew to Brooklyn to sign off on the models to be used in the
Exposition. The models would arrive in time for the Exposition and my training
of the local lecturers. The Brazilian Space Agency had agreed to hire two of the
six lecturers for a tour of Brazilian schools after the Exposition. A four-wheel
drive Spacemobile would arrive at the end of the Exposition and in time, we
hoped, for the tour.
In late January
1963, I left for Sao Paulo, Brazil. The travel agency booked me into the
international airport of Sao Paulo. Unfortunately, it was 40 miles out of the
city. I arrived at midnight and was met by the U.S. Consulate's Cultural Attaché
and his wife and driver. The Embassy car they sent was a Jeep Station Wagon.
Apparently they forgot to repair the suspension, as it was sure an uncomfortable
ride across a not well maintained road to the city. Finally, got to my hotel
about 3 in the morning.
The Consulate was
located in a hotel complex not far from downtown Sao Paulo. I was greeted by the
Minister-Counsel and introduced to the staff, and shown my office. It was pretty
heady stuff. They had a tremendous staff, very supportive, and right off made me
feel like one of the family. The first weeks were spent working with the
Foundation on promises to keep and in hiring and training the local lecturers.
We had set up a month's training program. A lot of time was spent trying to
figure out what the Russians were going to do; when push got to shove, they
decided not to participate.
Finally, an U.S.
Air Force cargo plan arrived with Wally Schirra's Sigma 7 Spacecraft. a full
scale model of the X-15 research plane (50' long, 22' wide) and the exhibits.
The X-15 was accompanied by an air force exhibit team who remained with the
plane model throughout the exibitition. We set up everything at the exposition
and were ready for the opening. Incidentally, the Brazilians were sure that the
Sigma 7 was a model and that the X-15 was for real.
opening there was Mardi Gras. Many of my friends at the Embassy wanted me to
join them for the celebration in Rio. However, I was in the middle of training
the lecturers and getting the exhibits ready for the opening. I decided I
could not take the time. However, Mardi Gras is Mardi Gras and a friend
asked me to go down to Santos -- the Coffee Capital of the World, and about 40
miles from Sao Paulo -- to celebrate with her family. I took her up on the offer
and had a good time. It was not as good as Rio would have been but it did fit in
with my work schedule.
On the eve of the
exposition, I put on a buffet for the Consulate Staff, the Air Force contingent,
several local supporters, and the trained lecturers. It was catered by Sears --
yes, the same Sears that you and I frequent -- and if I remember it correctly it
cost me around $200 for food and drink for about 100 people. Not bad, and we
made a lot of friends. I said it cost me about $200. Yes, I paid for it with my
own personal funds as I took this as a very personal gesture. We had good
friends getting together for a special occasion. After the buffet, the guests
were invited to a special Spacemobile demonstration given by one of our local
lecturers in Portuguese. A great night for all.
After the opening
and shake down, the tasks became pretty routine. I still checked in with the
Consulate every day. I also met with the Brazilian Space Agency to set up the
tour of schools in Brazil after the Exposition. The Agency was located on the
campus of San Jose College outside of Sao Paulo -- about 100 miles if I remember
and on the road to Rio. The road was quite hilly and was a busy transportation
link to eastern Brazil. It was loaded with diesel trucks and I remember that
they had their exhausts at almost ground level and when they passed pedestrians
they got covered with diesel smoke -- not a very good design or good manners.
Also, a lot of VW buses were on the road and they were involved in a lot of
accidents. The locals called them -- I forget the Portuguese name but literally
translated in English meant, "Jesus is Coming." They would run into
the backs of trucks and got cut off at the knees. It was not a pretty sight if
one came upon an accident with one of those vehicles.
It was not all
work and no play. I made friends with officials from VASP airlines -- the
official government airline. They made arrangements for me to take a one-day
flight to Brasilia. The new capital city was in the process of being built but
the business of the government had not, as yet, moved from Rio. A lot of the
buildings were completed: the House and Senate, the President's residence,
several agency buildings and infrastructure like hotels and restaurants and
grocery stores. The sports arena was in the mid-stage of construction. Got some
I also made a
weekend trip to Rio. The consulate personnel, when they visited Rio, stayed at
an ocean front hotel of modest means. It was clean, comfortable, and
importantly, most of the staff spoke English. (I might add here that the
Consulate had me attend a Portuguese language class -- the classes were an hour
a day. I lasted less than two weeks.) I got to walk the Copacabana beach, took
the cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, and walked around the downtown
area. I nice break from the demands of the Exposition.
During the end of
the Exposition, most of my time was spent working with the Brazilian Space
Agency and getting ready for the tour. We had already selected two of the
lecturers to make the tour and they agreed to the financial arrangement between
them and the Agency. Both were science college students interested in space and
were pleased to get the exposure to the space scientists of the Agency. The tour
started at secondary schools in Sao Paulo and then spread out to communities
within the State of Sao Paulo and beyond. I stayed with the unit until I was
satisfied that things were working well and they probably would not need my
support. The living conditions in the communities outside of the main cities
were less than desirable. I was glad to get back to the city
My immediate work
in Brazil was completed. I boarded a plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina to
negotiate the Spacemobile program with the Argentina Space Agency. I advised
them of the current program in Brazil discussed a timetable and the
responsibilities of the Agency. My work was concluded in a couple of days and I
returned to Brazil to tie up loose ends and then headed back to the States.
I took some time
off, going to home in Minnesota to pick up my auto that I had stored at my
sisters. Coming back to Washington we began working on the plans for the having
the Spacemobile Program operating out of the NASA Centers. It would seem like a
simple process; however, some centers were reluctant to take on the additional
responsibilities. It would take some time for them to evaluate the benefits.
then received a call from the State Department. Seems they had a request from
the government of Surinam -- located on the northern coast of South America, and
formerly called Dutch Guiana -- for support for a space exposition. NASA advised
them that they did not have any money to support the activity so State said they
would pay for it. I got the call and was soon on my way to Paramaribo.
was to be held over a month's period of time. I did not have much time to train
a Surinam lecturer, as all lectures had to be given in Dutch. The Dutch Army
found me a man who was a quick learner and also interested in science and space.
So, within a week, we were ready to go. The exposition was held at the local
fair grounds. We were located in a tent, and in Surinam it becomes very warm --
maybe hot -- to conduct the lectures. However, the lectures were well attended
and welcomed by the Surinam people.
There was not
much to do around Paramaribo. I did see a regular movie about the X-15 at the
local theatre. They had sub-titles in Dutch. I stayed at the "good"
motel that catered to foreigners and had a casino on the premise. Fortunately, I
am not a gambler so just checked it out to see what high rollers looked like.
The Dutch Army was on maneuvers and asked me if I wanted to take a ride down the
Saramaco River. We took the Army boats and headed for a native village.
Interesting. We encountered locals on the river riding in a dinghy that they had
cut out of a tree trunk. On the back of the dinghy was an outboard motor --
strictly out of context. The locals lived in thatch huts, washed their clothes
in the river -- I did notice plastic bottles of Ivory -- and were only wearing
loincloths. It was like visiting a site in the National Geographic.
conclusion of the Exposition, I flew over to Georgetown, Guyana -- to the west
of Surinam. This was a very interesting assignment. I lectured at several
schools in Georgetown but the highlight was an open lecture in the city library.
The "auditorium" was just a bit bigger than classroom size and it was
packed with the spillover in the hallways and the main library. Needless to say
I had to talk very loud, as they did not have an amplification system. The
elected government was very sympathetic to Russia and the Communist Party and
they had planted some Communists in the front seats to bait me and generally
create trouble. I answered their questions or rather statements the best I
could; most of which were centered on Russia beating up the US on space
exploration. I replied that I had told them about our program of exploration but
that I, or no one outside of Russia, had any idea on what the Russians were
planning to do. It was impossible to make any comparisons as no information got
out to the free world. That drew a standing ovation from the entire audience and
the sympathizers stormed out amid laughter. It was a good day for America.
I then made a
side trip to Mackenzie. This was a town south of Georgetown that was a company
town of the Canadian Aluminum Company who was mining the mineral used in making
aluminum. It would have taken several days to drive down there on some very bad
roads so the CAC flew me in on a company plane. I lectured at the local high school and gave a talk to the
local Rotary Club, then flew back to Georgetown and on to Paramaribo and
returned to the States.
Shortly after I
got back from Guyana, the Spacemobile tour of Brazil was winding down. NASA
wanted to make sure that the documentation was as complete as possible so I
returned to Sao Paulo to meet with the space agency, the lecturers, and USIA.
They had a successful tour with little or no problems and everyone seemed
pleased with the outcome.
program met with great success. Other
than the Paris museum which was supported by Spacemobilers Stewart Tinsman and
Herman Oberle, Myles Doherty conducted the first International Spacemobile
Project; that was in Pakistan in April 1962. Myles also went to England, France,
Nigeria and India as well. I had mentioned previously that John Nesbit supported
the program in Venezuela and Mexico. Frank Lucarelli went to Australia and New
Zealand. At the moment I cannot
recall the names of the other lecturers who were assigned to other countries but
the numbers were significant.
All of the
overseas programs were not totally directed to the educational community. In
several countries, we had, with the blessing of the governments, installed
tracking stations to follow particularly the manned flights. Troublemakers in
some of the countries were suggesting to the population that the tracking
stations would cause sterilization and they put a lot of pressure on the
government for removal. The Spacemobile educational programs were, at times;
focused to dispel those rumors and our personnel were aware that their influence
with local contacts would be beneficial to the program. For instance, in October
'62, Myles Doherty and John Twitty were sent to Nigeria with that sensitivity in
mind. The tracking station continued to operate.
COORDINATION TO NASA'S CENTERS
In 1964, NASA was
turning operations of the Spacemobile Programs to the NASA centers. I was
assigned to become the Spacemobile Coordinator for the Manned Spacecraft Center
in Houston. I was working under the direction of the Educational Officer of the
Public Affairs Office. We were responsible for an 8-state area: North Dakota,
South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. At
that time, the actual state scheduling was conducted by the State Office of
Education, generally the Science Coordinator.
Each state was allotted a certain block of time to schedule the units to
schools during the school year and the Centers were generally responsible for
scheduling during the summer months. At MSC, we were responsible for four
Spacemobiles and from four to eight lecturers.
I can't remember
all of the lecturers who were assigned to be coordinators but do remember the
following: Bernie McColgan to ERC in Boston, Herman Oberle to Lewis in
Cleveland, Elva Bailey to Goddard, John Nesbit to Marshall, Garth Hull and Mike
Donohoe to Ames, and Ben Casades to JPL.
I became the
coordinator of Spacemobile Programs in early 1964 till June of '65. Then we had
the famous Langley Conference, a change in contractor, and many of the "old
timers" were not asked to join the new contractor -- basically a changing
of the guard.
My life with NASA
did not end with the Langley conference. I worked for a couple of more years at
NASA Houston exhibits where among other things we gave presentations of the
results of Gemini flights at the Center's Open House on weekends. I also became
the on-site Director of the Apollo 11 Fifty State Tour in 1970. Then, on to
My days with
Spacemobile were unique and rewarding. I like to think that we were major
influences to schoolchildren both in the US and in foreign countries. I remember
being approached at an airport by a young fellow who asked if I worked for NASA.
I said, "at one time," and discovered that I had, indeed, given the
demonstration at his school. He said that the talk changed his direction in life
-- in a positive way. Made me feel good.
I am working on my full autobiography and will be adding recollections as they
are written. I had been asked previously to write about my NASA days. In
reviewing the above narration, I remembered that there were other situations
that might be interesting -- that to follow later.
EAJ NOTE: I am working on my full autobiography and will be adding recollections as they are written. I had been asked previously to write about my NASA days. In reviewing the above narration, I remembered that there were other situations that might be interesting -- that to follow later.