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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Forged in the Stars

Air Date: Week of December 25, 2009

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Storyteller Jay O'Callahan (Photo: Charles Collins)

Living on Earth is proud to present storyteller Jay O'Callahan's new work "Forged in the Stars." O'Callahan was commissioned to write "a love letter to NASA" in honor of the nation's space agency's 50th anniversary. "Forged in the Stars" is the result of almost two years of research, including interviews with astronauts, engineers, and many other NASA employees.

Transcript

CURWOOD: From the Frasier Performance Studios at WGBH Boston, this is a special holiday edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

When NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – began its countdown to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the space agency made special contact with renowned storyteller Jay O’Callahan, and handed him this mission, should he choose to accept it. Write a love letter to NASA.

Well, enamored with space exploration, as many of us are, Jay was not only honored, but also game. He spent a year and a half studying astronomy and interviewing current and retired NASA personnel all across the country.
And now, Living on Earth is thrilled to present for our winter storytelling special, Jay O’Callahan and the broadcast performance of his love letter to NASA, “Forged in the Stars.” Welcome, Jay.

[APPLAUSE]

O’CALLAHAN: T minus five, four, three, two, one. [Whooshing sound]
Liftoff! We have liftoff! About eighteen months ago I was in a conference room at NASA Headquarters, Washington DC. I was excited because I’d been commissioned to create this story about NASA’s 50th anniversary. And Ed Hoffman who directs a leadership program, said, your job is to write a love letter.

How do you write a love letter to an administration? But still it was freeing. I flew off to Johnson Space Center, Houston – manned flight. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California – unmanned flight.

And I wondered, will they be patient for these interviews? Scientists, astronauts, engineers – they were not only patient, they’re in love with their work. They loved to talk. I came home with a thousand pages of interviews, emails. Taking this course in astronomy, reading 30 books, what's the story?

Then, I remembered one of the interviews at Johnson Space Center, with interns. These are young people – college students who are at NASA, college, all the way through. This fellow, Cecil Shy Jr. – he was wiry young fellow – he said, "When I was a kid I loved to make toy cars with motors. I was good at it.
[Engine noise]

When I was in high school there was a career night,” he said. “And there was a model of the Mars rover. And I said, 'I can do that.' Why not?" And then Cecil said, "I think of kids all over the world going to sleep looking at the stars thinking, 'I want to go there.' " And Cecil says, "Why not?"

And I loved that, "Why not?" Why not make a love story. Everyone I interviewed said they loved working at NASA. I thought, I'll invent two characters. They sprang to mind, Kate and Jack. In love, but something’s gone wrong. And they will tell true stories of NASA.

And so, my love letter to NASA is, “Forged in the Stars”.
The time, late October 2007. The place is Boston, Massachusetts. On a bright, windy Friday morning in late October, a young woman, Kate DeCordova was running down the sloping sidewalk. She had a Red Sox cap on, her black hair streaming out behind, she was singing, "Here comes the sun."
Checked her watch, eight-thirty.

As long as she made the next trolley to Boston, she'd be on time for mechanical engineering. No one was late for mechanical engineering. As she ran she smelled some of the salt air. It reminded her last night she’s been putting some salt in the boiling spaghetti water, her apartment mate, best friend, Cynthia Moss was listening to Blind Willy Johnson singing Dark is the Night, and the phone had rung.

"Kkkkate, iiit's Jack."

She was shocked, delighted. Jack Carver. Six months ago last April she had called their engagement off – here he was on the phone.

"Kkate, something exciting has happened."

Jack Carver, son of a Maine lobsterman, Jack, big powerful guy, getting a Ph.D. in astrophysics at MIT, but when he was nervous or excited he stuttered.
"Kate you know the MIT Sunday Science Series? A Russian scientist can't make it, so my thesis advisor thought you and I could do the program on NASA. It's their 50th. You know it’s our generation. You've been an intern four times, Kate, there and he's going to get the Globe."


Storyteller Jay O'Callahan (Photo:Susan Trotz)

"Jack, you don't have to talk me into this. This is great! When is it?"

"Sunday, three weeks from now."

"I can't, Jack. I've got the graduate record exams that Saturday. I’m sorry; I can't study, and prepare a program. Sorry."

As she ran this morning the trolley passed her by. It stopped twenty yards ahead. She had to get that trolley, so she lengthened her stride. Ten yards from the trolley a yellow maple leaf came down, she reached out, the wind took it up, and she took a chance. And she leapt way up and caught it! She sprinted but the driver was closing the door. Someone said, "Wait!" Kate leapt onto the trolley. She got out her cell phone, she called Jack.

"Jack, it’s Kate. I've changed my mind. I'll do the program at MIT."
"Great, great great! What happened?"
"I caught a leaf. Never mind. We’ll get Cynthia to come."
“Don’t get Cynthia, she’ll cause trouble. She still wearing the green wig?”
“She wears it to earth science class. Jack, listen, what am I supposed to do?”
"All right, my thesis advisor saw that play you wrote. He said you come at a slant. You do three twelve-minute sections, manned space. I will finish with a lecture, twenty minutes, unmanned space."
"All right, Jack. Next three Thursdays, come to my apartment, seven o’clock. We'll run things back and forth."
"Thanks."

Then she thought of what Jack said, that he would give a twenty-minute lecture. One of the reasons she cut off the engagement is because Jack had turned into a critical bore. Just around the time he got that tweed jacket. She hated that tweed jacket. She got busy emailing friends, professors, NASA colleagues – asked one question: What do you remember most about NASA?

Thursday night came; Jack was coming up three flights of stairs. An apartment in Jamaica Plain. Kate was nervous in the kitchen because Jack could be so critical.

“Oh, Jack, I’m in the kitchen”
Oh, how do you greet your former lover? Peck on the cheek? A hug?
“Jack.”
There was Jack. His old windbreaker. Luckily, he brought supper; there was a pizza box between them.
"Thank you, Jack, thanks. Sit down. We’ll have the pizza later, Jack. I want to start right away.
So, imagine, Jack, I’m looking at the audience, I’m going to say to them:

I'm an engineering student. I'm going to get a Ph.D. and I hope to work for NASA. I grew up in Oklahoma. When I was five years old, my dad and I were standing under the stars. And my dad, usually a very practical man, he ran a hardware store, he said, "Kate, the blackness and the stars are not just above us, Kate, they're all around us, Kate. The earth's just a ball moving in the blackness. The stars are all around us." Well I've never forgotten that moment. I'm going to tell you three stories of NASA. This is the first story.

In 1948, in a working class neighborhood in Oklahoma City, a five-year-old boy ran into the kitchen. "Mom, I heard a voice. Coming from way up by the sun."
"What did it say?"
"It said I'm going to help people get to the moon."
She said, "That's a vision, J.C."
And she said that's a vision because they were Cherokee, Osage. Their story was they had come from the sky to the earth.
"You'll have to work for it, J.C."

His Cherokee name was J.C. High Eagle. His name in the white world, Jerry Elliott. Working for the vision meant being good at physics and mathematics. He did very well in high school. 1961, eighteen-years-old, J.C. High Eagle went to the University of Oklahoma. He was excited – physics and mathematics. And he found that many of the students didn't want him there.
"What's the Indian kid doing here?"
Many of the professors did not want him.
"Listen you're a fine young man and it's not your fault. What nature hands out, gives indiscriminately, and your people don't have the mental capacity to be engineers and scientists."

That hurt, but he had the vision, he stayed with it. He did well. 1966, he decided to go to graduate school, but there was no money now. His stepfather had died. So, this young man, J.C. High Eagle went down to the police station in Norman, Oklahoma and said, "I want to be a policeman." They gave him a test. He scored as high as anybody's ever scored. He became a fulltime policeman and deputy sheriff, which meant he could take two courses a semester.

Nine in the morning, ten in the morning was electrical engineering. He would wear his uniform to class with a loaded gun. But it was Oklahoma.

One day his mother called, "There’s a telegram for you."
"Open it."
"The draft board. You have to report for the physical."
He passed. Another telegram.
"Open it, Mom."
"You have to report to boot camp in fifteen days. That means Vietnam. Call your grandfather."

He called his grandfather, a wise old man at his wheat farm, "Granddad, it’s J.C. I'm going to boot camp in fifteen days."
"They won't take you."
"No, I've got the piece paper."
"I don't believe in paper. They won’t take you. Had a hard time getting the calf born last night. I had to hitch the tractor up to get the calf –"
"Granddad, I'm going to boot camp, fifteen days."
"They won't take you. Let me tell you about the calf."
He went on and on about the calf. J.C. was furious, he said to his mother, "He said they won't take me, went on and on about the calf."
"He's my dad. I'm with him."

Fifteen days turned into fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten. Nine days, J.C. finished electrical engineering, coming down the corridor; students were outside the dean's office in a line. And there was a sign: NASA INTERVIEWING TODAY. NASA!
He got in line and said to the student in front of him, "What ya got?"
"You've got to have a NASA application, government application and a resume or they won't talk to you."

He’s got none of that. The line melts; he steps in in his uniform. The NASA man says, “I got a plane to catch, what do you want, officer?"
“I want to put people on the moon."
He looks at this cop.
"I'm working my way through grad school."
"Write down your name, your address. Don't call us, we'll call you," the NASA man is gone.
Seven days.

 

 

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