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Interview with Herb Baker. A real life Space man!


(Herb seen here with British astronaut Tim Peake)

Every child’s dream is to be a Spaceman. My son Phoenix is already obsessed with space and all things flying and his very first word, to my delight was Moon. His father is obsessed with space (and unlike me he actually understands it). We watch back to back space programmes in our house and so when I started talking to a Former Manager at the Operations Support Office at NASA online, I couldn’t believe my luck! A real live NASA employee was talking to me and explaining all things Space to me!

For children in the UK it seems too distant a dream to work at the world’s leading Space Centre, NASA. Tim Peake is one of our astronaut heroes of the moment, flying the Space flag for Britain - but out of a population of over 64 million surely there should be more UK Astronauts. There have only been 7 in total.

I know every little boy in my class at primary school wanted to be an astronaut but not one of them came even close to working in that area.

On chatting to Herb Baker, (see picture of him with Tim Peake above) I realised I had stumbled upon someone who would probably be one of my best interviews ever. A chance to ask the questions and open doors for all the children (young and old) who dream of being a Spaceman everywhere.

If you have a son or daughter and they love space, you will want to read this. If you love all things space, you will want to read this. If you care about the earth and want to be inspired, you will want to read this.

Maybe one day your child will be one of the few Brits working on Space Exploration or even travelling in to space and all because you read this interview. I’m hoping this will open the minds of all parents, so that they encourage their children to follow their dreams, even if it takes them to Mars.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you,

Herb Baker…. Former Worker at NASA Johnson Space Center

(Herb receiving NASA’s Exception Service Medal – he tells me this was one of the proudest moments of his career and of course it should be.)

In 1960 Herb Baker moved to League City a small town just outside of Houston, Texas. 7 miles away from his home town, a Manned Space Center was built. That Space Center is now the very famous, Johnson Space Center.

Herb went to school with the children of the original 7 NASA astronauts, also known as The Mercury Seven, they were, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.

Herb is not an astronaut himself but for 41 years he worked for NASA at the Johnson Space Center, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and NASA headquarters in Washington DC.

Herb has truly dedicated his whole life to Space, his mother even sewed a heat shield together for NASA when its Skylab lost a heat shield in 1973.

(Herb's mum with one of the Apollo Command Modules)

Herb covered the Apollo 11, 12 and 13 missions while he worked at ABC-TV and he even worked closely with one of the survivors of the Apollo 13 mission, Fred Haise later on in his career in 1987, when they both worked on the Space Station Program together.

When I asked Herb if he would do this interview, I didn’t dream in a million light years that he would say yes, but he did! So passionate is he about the Space Programs and all the wonderful and important things that NASA do, he was happy to give up his valuable time. He will perhaps even make one child’s dream come true with his knowledge of all things space.

This is for our children, so they can realise their dreams no matter how far away they might seem.

Herb, you are a father yourself. How did you inspire your children to follow their dreams?

"I hope that I was able to inspire my two sons (ages 24 and 27) to have big dreams, go after what they want, and not be afraid to fail along the way. I like to think that, for the most part, I lived my own life that way as an example for them. Of course, their mother’s inspiration and influence on them is one of the main reasons that they’ve become nice young men."

Many of the parents reading this will have children who are obsessed with Space. What advice would you give them about having a career at NASA?

"Let me start by saying that any opinions I offer about NASA are my own personal opinions and I don’t speak for NASA – especially since I retired a few weeks ago. One point I want to make about NASA careers is that while most NASA employees are engineers, scientists, or doctors, they also have people – like me! – who worked in Business/finance/accounting/human relations jobs. So, there are many ways to contribute to the space program. NASA has a very nice website that provides lots of good information on careers at NASA - https://www.nasa.gov/about/career/index.html

I’m sure it’s no surprise that it’s much harder to become an astronaut than it is to get a non-astronaut job at NASA. We recently accepted applications for the astronaut corps and received 18,300 applications – more than twice what we had ever received before. NASA will select about 14 people from that group to become astronaut candidates (or “AsCans” as they are affectionately called).

Even though I was not an astronaut, I was lucky enough to meet and work with many of them and, I suppose because of that, I was often asked: “How do I become an astronaut?” There’s no checklist of things you need to do to become an astronaut. As long as you meet the basic physical, age, & education requirements, it’s wide-open. They select engineers, scientists, pilots, doctors, and other occupations. There is no college major for an “astronaut degree.” What’s important is to pick a field that you’re passionate about and do it well. It also helps to have an outside interest. One of the most important questions astronaut applicants are asked is “What do you do for fun”?

I should also mention that NASA is a U.S. government agency so you must be a U.S. citizen to work directly for NASA. But many other countries have space agencies (e.g., Japan, Canada, Russia). And of course, the wonderful Tim Peake, who I had the pleasure of meeting, works for the European Space Agency."

I know you love sharing with people all the wonderful things that NASA has done for the world. Are you allowed to share with us some of those things?

"In addition to helping to satisfy the basic human desire to explore, and inspiring people to become interested in subjects like science, engineering, and math, NASA technology advancements have helped make our everyday lives on Earth better. Just a few of the many examples are things like smartphone cameras, better water purification, development of “memory foam,” better firefighter gear, freeze-drying of food, harnessing solar energy, improved radial tires. I could go on and on…

Many people think NASA developed Velcro (which is used in space A LOT!) and Teflon. That’s not true but NASA did make them much more popular."

What was day to day life like working at NASA?

"For me, it was as awesome as you think it would be. I can’t think of a better place anywhere on Earth to work than the Johnson Space Center (JSC). I never took for granted getting to be around and work with some of the smartest, most brave, and most dedicated people on Earth, including astronauts. We got to do so many interesting things and had so many cool facilities that visitors from all over the world pay to take tours to get a glimpse of the things we see and do every day. It’s the most popular tourist attraction in Houston. Every time I took visitors into Rocket Park (where we have a Saturn V rocket like the ones that took our astronauts to the moon), I heard at least one person speaking a foreign language. Every single day was new, interesting, and challenging. I always felt that what I was doing was contributing to something important and much bigger than me. Our goal at JSC was to lead human space exploration and I always felt like every single co-worker there was dedicated to doing just that."

(Herb standing next to Space Shuttle Endeavour on top of the 747 that was flying it to a museum in California).

What was it like working with Fred Haise? Are you allowed to tell us what he said it was like to be one of the astronauts on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission?

"For me, getting to work with Fred, who was the Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 13 mission – which many people call NASA’s most successful failure – was one of the highlights of my career. I remember going to dinner with him one night in 1987 soon after we had started working together. This was 17 years after the Apollo 13 mission. He had retired from NASA and was working for Grumman Aerospace Corporation as the President of their Space Station Support Division. This dinner was one of the first opportunities I had to chat informally with him in a social setting after a few weeks of negotiating with him on a billion dollar contract between NASA and Grumman. As you can guess, I wanted to talk with him about Apollo 13 but it soon became clear to me that he did not want to talk about that. He was much more interested in talking about his days as a test pilot and one of the times he survived a plane crash. At one point, he rolled-up a sleeve to show me the burn marks on one of his arms. I finally realized that he was probably very tired of constantly being asked about Apollo 13 so I never brought it up again. We worked together for a couple of years before my job changed within NASA. I’ve seen Fred just once or twice since that time but we’re Facebook friends!"

Haha! I love that astronauts are on Facebook! Do you think we will ever fly to the moon again?

"Yes, I do. There are lots of different opinions about this, but I’m one of those people that would love to see us go back to the Moon. Most people may not remember but back in 2005-2009, NASA was working on the Constellation Program which had a goal of returning to the Moon no later than 2020 with an ultimate goal of sending a crewed flight to Mars. Back then, I was supporting an office that was working on a new Lunar Surface Access Module (Moon lander). We even had a name for the vehicle – Altair (named after one of the brightest stars in the night sky). Unfortunately, the Constellation Program was cancelled in 2010 due to budget concerns. I was heartbroken when I learned that our plans to send astronauts back to the Moon had been cancelled. A reduced and revised version of the Constellation Program lives on today in the development of the Orion spacecraft (crewed space vehicle) and the Space Launch System (the rocket to be used to launch Orion) that NASA is currently working on."

What is the best tip you can give to other parents?

"This is much easier said than done, but parents shouldn’t try to fix everything. We should give our kids a chance to solve problems on their own. It comes in handy later in life when we’re not around."

(Herb flying the Space Shuttle Mission Simulator that all of the Shuttle Pilots trained on to fly the Shuttle).

I think that’s the best advice I’ve had for that question so far!

You have been part of some truly historical moments – what is the best thing you have ever done?

"The best thing I ever did, by far, was marry a wonderful woman and have two awesome sons – but I don’t think that’s the answer you’re looking for, is it?

It’s hard to pick the “best” thing I did during my NASA career. I was part of the team that bought the Space Shuttle Orbiter vehicles from Rockwell International (now part of Boeing) in the late 70’s & early 80’s and I worked in the Space Station Program as early as 1985 – 13 years before the first Station module was launched into space. Those were very exciting times for me.

But if I have to pick one thing as my favorite, it would have to be the recent purchase by my office of an airplane that will be used to fly our astronauts directly to Houston from Kazakhstan, where the astronauts land when returning from their missions on the ISS. It was one of the last things I did before retiring. What makes it special is that we were challenged to buy the plane in an almost impossibly short time (for reasons I won’t bore you with) and the fact that it had been close to 15 years since the Johnson Space Center had bought an airplane – so most of us had no experience doing that. I was the “Source Selection Official” which meant I got to pick the plane we bought from those in the competition. The Gulfstream V plane we bought – a used plane, by the way – is larger, faster, more economical, and has a longer range than the plane it is replacing. This means that the astronauts can return to Houston more quickly and with fewer stops than before – which is important for scientific reasons as well as comfort reasons. The plane had to be reconfigured for things like adding beds to the cabin for the astronauts to sleep on so the first planned “direct return” trip from Kazakhstan to Houston is planned for next month (February). Even though I’ve now retired, every time I hear about our astronauts returning home from a visit to the ISS, I’ll have fond memories of my contribution to that."

(Herb with the Gulfstream V Plane he helped by to transport astronauts from Kasakstan back to Houston)

What message would you like to give us all about life and NASA?

"One of the Apollo astronauts said something like: “When we originally went to the Moon, our total focus was on the Moon, we weren’t thinking about looking back at the Earth. But now that we’ve done it, looking back at Earth may well have been the most important reason we went.” Astronauts that have an opportunity to view Earth from space talk about the “amazingly beautiful blue ball” and are awed at how beautiful and fragile it appears to be and how thin the atmosphere – which is important to all life on the planet – appears to be. Many of them spend much of their free time in space looking down at our planet (they call it Earth-gazing). The only boundaries you see are those that are man-made. So, especially with all the things that are going on in the world today, I think it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together."

Herb Baker. A wonderful man. Clever, kind and magical. The last question he answered actually made me cry as I read it. We truly live on a wonderful planet. We need to remember it’s fragility and take great care of its beauty so that our children and our children’s children can enjoy it forevermore.

One of the things Herb first taught me about space was about how magical the Earth, our planet is. Just as magical, if not more so than the Universe it resides in.

I asked him if from the moon, the earth was always full? I wanted to know whether it has phrases like the moon does for us here on earth. He told me that it did. That from only one side of the moon the earth could be seen and that whatever the moon was doing here as we looked up and marveled at it in the nights sky, the earth was doing opposite there. So on a night where the moon is almost full moon for example, looking back from the moon, the earth is a waning crescent. How utterly beautiful and magical it must be to see the crescent earth.

Maybe that’s the best lesson space science can teach us, just how wonderful the earth is. How fragile it is and how we must treasure it and look after it. I know Tim Peake said recently in an interview that one of the main reasons he wanted to go back out to space, was because he missed looking back at the earth.

I think you’ll agree that Herb is a wonderful man and I probably won’t do a more inspiring interview ever again. An interview that makes you cry with the wonder and majesty of its content. An interview that might help to make school boy or girl dreams come true.

If you want to here more about Herb and NASA you can view his Facebook page by clicking on any of the pictures.

(The crescent earth - elegant, magic and pure and all ours)

#spacemanHerbBaker

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