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They Came From Outer Space

Space luminaries gather to bolster world renowned education program at Boeing's Museum of Flight

Last Saturday, a legend from the U.S. space program took the controls of a legend in the making.

On the flight deck of a 787 Dreamliner flight simulator in Renton, Wash., was Gene Kranz, retired NASA Mission Control flight director. Kranz is best known for leading the successful team effort to save Apollo 13, inspiring the title of his book “Failure Is Not An Option.” Kranz peppered his hosts with questions, noting that the 787 simulator’s sophisticated, realistic training capabilities compared favorably to the thorough training that prepared Apollo crews to go to the moon.

“My jaw hit the floor when he likened the 787 simulator to training Apollo crews,” said one of Kranz’s hosts, Capt. Jim Wilkerson, instructor pilot for Boeing Flight Services.

A space fan since childhood, Wilkerson found it meaningful to host Kranz because, “Those early memories got me into science and technology and what I do today. Inspiration works.”

Fostering such inspirations in a new generation is what drew Kranz, and at least 40 U.S. and Russian space pioneers and luminaries to Seattle last weekend. The contingent, whose historical footprint reaches from the days of the X-15 rocket plane in the 1950s to today’s International Space Station and beyond, participated in the Museum of Flight’s Wings of Heroes Gala. Boeing was title sponsor of the event, which raised more than $1 million for education programs. Astronauts and other icons of the space program donated artifacts to be auctioned.

Boeing’s space age prominence is well established. With heritage companies McDonnell-Douglas, North American and Rockwell, Boeing’s involvement includes the X-15 rocket plane, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules; the Apollo-Soyuz capsule-adapter; the Saturn V rocket booster; Skylab; the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. The famed dune-buggy-like Lunar Roving Vehicles used on Apollo missions 15, 16 and 17 were made by Boeing in Kent, Wash.

Kranz said the education focus shared by the museum and Boeing dovetails with the need to continue to explore space.

“For the young people today I would say, ‘Roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty. Understand the hardware. Once you’ve got the understanding of the hardware, then move into operations,'” said Kranz.

There are big shoes for the next generation to fill, and Boeing continues to be positioned at the forefront of the nation’s next space exploration programs. The company is the prime contractor for the International Space Station (ISS) and continues to maintain and upgrade the ISS, the world’s only manned, on-orbit research station. Boeing is also building a commercial space transport to shuttle cargo and crew to the space station. And Boeing is prime contractor for the Space Launch System, the nation’s next heavy lift rocket that will take people beyond Earth orbit.

Getting there requires that tomorrow’s space program leaders receive the torch from their predecessors, many astronauts said, with institutions ready and willing to help them.

“Companies that support education are responsible for getting the next generation of astronauts into space,” said Barbara Morgan, a Space Shuttle Endeavour astronaut who began her career training with Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger crew in 1985.

“Boeing does great programs,” said Morgan, now a Distinguished Scholar in Residence in engineering and education at Boise State University.

“One of the things that I love best is that you focus on K-12 teachers and giving them the kinds of experiences that allow them to really get a little ‘stardust’ on them and then they’re able to translate that onto their students. And it’s huge!”

Morgan said the importance of Boeing and its heritage companies to the space program was obvious while she flew on Endeavour in 2007.

“We couldn’t do it without you guys,” she said.