BONNE TERRE – Charlie Walker is not only a former NASA astronaut, he’s a nice guy and an excellent communicator, as well.
Walker was the special speaker Saturday morning at an uncrating celebration of more than $16 million in space shuttle main engine components that are making their new home at Bonne Terre’s Space Museum located at 116 E. School St.
An engineer who flew on three space shuttle missions in 1984 and 1985 as a payload specialist for the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, Walker was the first non-government person to fly in space.
“This is my first visit here and, after seeing inside, I believe this is THE Space Museum,” said Walker as he stood before an outdoor crowd of approximately 150 people — some sitting, many standing — who came to watch the uncrating of the components. They were snagged by the small Bonne Terre museum through the assistance of the Missouri State Agency for Surplus Property at a cost of only $1,600 and a $500 transfer fee.
The former astronaut continued his talk with a little information about his background.
“I was born in Bedford, Ind., just 12 miles from the Gus Grissom family,” Walker said. “He was a hometown hero to everyone of us who lived there.”
Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom was one of NASA’s seven original Mercury astronauts and the second American to fly in space. He was one of three astronauts killed in January 1967 during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — then known as Cape Kennedy — in Florida. Grissom’s brother, Lowell, was also present at Saturday’s event, representing the Apollo 1 Memorial Foundation.
“I wanted to emulate him, but there could only be one Gus Grissom,” continued Walker.
The former astronaut told the crowd that he graduated in 1966 from Bedford High School and in 1971 received a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Purdue University. He went to work for McDonnell Douglas, a major American aerospace manufacturer and defense contractor based at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
“I told them I wanted to be an engineer for their company, but eventually wanted to move into management,” Walker said. “In-between, I said I wanted to go into space with anything that I’d engineered and developed for NASA. I’m thankful they didn’t kick me out on the street.”
He said that McDonnell Douglas ended up paying NASA to do just that. Walker's flight was part of a NASA effort in the 1970s and early 1980s to fly civilians on the shuttle. Although Europeans were training for Spacelab Payload Specialist duties, he was the first non government-affiliated person in space.
Walker remained a McDonnell Douglas employee and commuted between company headquarters in St. Louis and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Tex. Training included a flight on a Northrop T-38 Talon jet trainer aircraft, and about 40 flights on the "Vomit Comet." He later stated that his experience showed that a "working passenger" could fly after an abbreviated training program of only a few months.
Although Walker believed at the time that STS-41-D would be his only flight, he also accompanied the CFES equipment on STS-51-D, and STS-61-B, accumulating 20 days of experience in space and traveling 8.2 million miles. Aboard these Space Shuttle missions Walker also performed early protein crystal growth experiments and participated as a test subject in numerous medical studies.
He began training fellow McDonnell Douglas employee Robert Wood to fly on STS-61-M in 1986, and expected to fly at least once more himself — perhaps on Space Station Freedom — before the destruction of Challenger in January 1986 ended commercial shuttle payloads.
Speaking of the space shuttle, Walker said, “It has had a significant impact on space history and human history. The space shuttle is going to go down in history as a magnificent and unique flying machine. Only the United States could have built and flown such a magnificent machine.”
Walker described the shuttle as “a million moving parts moving in one direction — you hope.”
“The shuttle was uniquely big,” he continued. “People have asked me why was it so big? I tell them that we thought we were going to build a space station...and we did. The U.S. Defense Department was also whispering in NASA’s ear, ‘You want us to help you? Make it big enough to hold something that if we told you what it is we’d have to kill you.’”
Walker was not only a hit with the crowd as a speaker, but won their hearts with his approachable and friendly personality. He spoke one-on-one with everyone who stopped to introduce themselves or ask a question and willingly posed for more than a few photographs.
Lowell Grissom told the crowd he wants to see a renewed emphasis on space exploration by the United States, an opinion echoed by the Space Museum’s president and founder, Earl Mullins, who said a mission to Mars would create untold numbers of new jobs and build a sense of pride in Americans for their country.
Other speakers at the ceremony included Lee Ann Braun with the Missouri State Agency for Surplus, Missouri Sen. Kevin Engler and Rep. Linda Black and Chuck Voelkel, president and CEO of Semco Plastic Co. Also in attendance were McDonnell Douglas engineers Dean Purdy, Lou Mavros, Jerry Roberts, Earl Robb and George Ballwin, who were on-hand to answer questions about the engine components.
The special program began with the presentation of a scholarship to 16-year-old Jason Branham, a member of the Space Museum Board and its secretary. In presenting Branham with the scholarship, Mullins told the crowd that Branham is a junior at Mineral Area College who will soon be transferring to Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.
“The Space Museum had been wanting to do a number of things that with Jason’s help we were finally able to do in the past year,” said Mullins.
Following the ceremony, the crowd surrounded three large crates that had been unloaded in the street and watched as Mullins and board Vice President Christine Nobbe cut the packing straps and, with the help of several others, removed the crates to reveal their contents.
Mullins said, “Jerry Philips from NASA indicated that this is about as complete an engine as anyone outside a federal installation will receive. The nozzles have been retained for potential future NASA flight projects.”
The SSME components include the high pressure liquid oxygen pump, high pressure liquid hydrogen fuel pump, combustion chamber and injection head assembly; all produced by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.
According to Mullins, it’s hoped The Space Museum’s next success will be to “rehab the annex.” They are raising funds to prepare an additional 5,000 square feet of space for the museum that Mullins says “will permit the better realization of our mission by providing much needed space for additional displays, curatorial services and educational facilities that will include a computer resource center, theater and interactive displays.”
To make this dream a reality, the board has undertaken a “25 For 25” program in which it is asking area businesses to commit the investment of $25 per month for 25 months “to assist the ongoing work of The Space Museum and the betterment of the region.”
Kevin R. Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 114 or at email@example.com.
Key Words: The Space Museum Bonne Terre astronaut Charlie Walker space shuttle engine components