GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 7)

We’ve said it before (like HERE and HERE), and we’ll say it here again: Science writing isn’t only about the experiments and technology. It’s about the story and the people. The people we’ve met during our travels to the Space Coast have been amazing. Our latest geek connection is with Kimberly Guodace, a shuttle vehicle engineer until recently.

Kimberly Guodace, Suited Subject (engineer, not astronaut)

As part of the massive layoffs that mark the end of the space shuttle program, Kimberly Guodace was let go from her job at United Space Alliance just 9 weeks short of completing 15 years of work for NASA. In the current economy, nightly news reports and daily articles reveal the bitterness (with good reason) of the laid-off and the jobless. Somewhere on the Space Coast, we’re sure that there are some angry and disenchanted space workers. But after weeks of on-the-record interviews and informal chats with laid-off shuttle veterans, what we have found is optimism and pride at having worked on a program of national significance, people who fervidly believe in America’s future in space, whether it’s carried out by commercial companies like SpaceX or NASA.

Fifteen years ago, Kimberly Guodace began her career as an engineer working on the shuttle’s electrical systems and control panels. She spent half her time then near or in the orbiters. After that, she moved to fuel cells and potable water systems, including the shuttle’s potty. Her more recent responsibilities, which emerged from her years of intimate engineering knowledge of the orbiters, included serving as a go-between or translator between engineers and administrators. She beamed when telling our busload of Tweeple about helping to oversee the installation of two miles of wire in Endeavour—or 105, as the engineers refer to their orbiters by their number designation—for its wireless video system. This past year, knowing that shuttle was coming to a close, she did her best to be near or in Endeavour’s bay every single workday.

One time, NASA needed “suited subjects” for a flight safety test. Kim donned an orange Launch Entry Suit that astronauts wear. Her six-hour participation in the test ended with an emergency exit procedure during which the fire suppression system was on, dousing her with water and adding an additional twenty or thirty pounds to the suit. An exhausting experience she’d not want to trade.

Years earlier, on April 12, 1981, when she was just eight years old, Kim recalls that the first space shuttle launch, STS-1, was the third story on the local Philadelphia (her home town) news: “I said to my mom, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.” A few years later, when she watched the news about the Challenger accident, she said, “If it’s up to me, that’ll never ever happen again.”

Doug inside the VAB with Endeavour

Of course, an accident did happen again. In 2003, Columbia disintegrated as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere. By then, Kimberly Guodace was part of the space shuttle program. She did 5-½ weeks of recovery work, looking for debris of Columbia near Corsicana, Texas.

Kimberly Guodace has sat in the pilot and copilot seat on every orbiter except Challenger. We’ve heard astronauts say that the orbiters are flawless and like new, and Guodace agrees, “They are pristine.” She points out that they each have their nicks and scrapes, but she says, if she were sitting on the wing, “I would eat off of them.”

Our video interviews with shuttle astronauts also indicate that there’s disagreement as to whether all the orbiters are exactly the same or whether they are each distinct. To Kim, “Columbia was like parent. She was aged.” Discovery, she describes as an older sister and, as do many at NASA, as a workhorse. Kim says that Atlantis was the quiet child in the brood and didn’t get into much trouble.

Endeavour, Kimberly Guodace says, is “my baby.” OV-105 is the orbiter with which Kim spent the most time, in which she had fun just being in the bay. In response to a question about what mementos of the space shuttle program she and her co-workers kept, she said they took no secret keepsakes. Stealing government property like that would be a felony so she doubts any employees swiped mementos. Instead, she claims her memories. And at her NASA crewmates’ request, she shot more than 5000 photographs of Endeavour last year to document 105’s final flow.

Surely, Kim is not thrilled to have lost the job that she began preparing for at eight years of age, but since her layoff, she’s become a NASA docent. She showed up on Saturday morning (after getting up at 2:00a.m.) to serve as a guide for the NASA Tweetup participants on what was indeed launch day for GRAIL. That’s how Doug met her and heard about her lifelong dream of working on the shuttle. Evan after being let go from her job, even as the orbiters are being prepared to become museum artifacts, Kimberly Guodace is still at it.

After a decade-and-a-half career on the frontlines of space systems engineering and an education that includes a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, two M.S. degrees in areas related to space systems, and beginning a Ph.D. in Space Physics, she’s ready to shift gears. She’s making plans to transition to Public Relations, in part to engage with the public on the importance of science and engineering education.

Another tweep on the Tweetup bus asked Kim, what’s next? Kim answered that she gets this question quite a bit, and her answer is to shrug her shoulders. She doesn’t know what the future of United States human spaceflight will be. That said, she has made her own plan for the future: to visit each of the remaining orbiters in their museum homes every year. She says, “Not going to let my babies go.”

TO READ the previous segments in this series, “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest,” click on the following links:

Part 6: LAUNCH PHOTOS!

Part 5: U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum

Part 4: Charlie Bolden, Nichelle Nichols, Neil deGrasse Tyson, GRAIL Scientists

Part 3: Tweetup, Vehicle Assembly Building, and More

Part 2: What is GRAIL?

Guest Blog: David Stack, NASA Intern

Part 1: Why This Lofty Quest?

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