Photo: Steve Gonzales, Staff / Houston Chronicle
The story of spatial history comes John Charles's tongue as easily as an adult reciting the alphabet.
"Apollo astronauts began to wear red stripes on their spacesuits so they could later identify themselves in images."
"About two gallons of vascular fluid, such as blood and lymph, move from the legs of an astronaut to their head in outer space . "
" NASA could install an entire wall of vegetables on the spaceship to Mars so that the astronauts have fresh produce during the nine-month journey. "
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A self-proclaimed "space nerd," Charles's knowledge of NASA's 60-year history is vast and seemingly endless – making it the kind of people to tour the Space Center Houston, the museum site of NASA, wants to run Joh nson Space Center.
That's why his new appointment as the "scientist in residence" of the museum fits in perfectly.
"I want people to know more about how people are affected by space, and I hope to make space travel more accessible to guests," said Charles, a retired NASA scientist. "The information we give today [at the museum] could help make it the next Buzz Aldrin or the next Neil Armstrong."
In this new role, Charles will be the first person guests interact with. They will help to interpret space research through presentations, exhibitions and activities in educational programs and guest experiences.
This kind of position is a first for Space Center Houston – actually it was Charles's idea – but museum officials
"He will be an incredible asset when it comes to a lot of research from the JSC to interpret and do the amazing work they do, "said Phyllis Friello, the museum's education manager. "He will pick up this information and help make it meaningful to everyone."
"That was so cool"
When he grew up, Charles wanted to be a cowboy, driving oxen on the open track. He wanted to be a clown and make jokes through a white-striped face from a circus tent or at a kid's birthday party.
But mostly, he said, he wanted to become an astronaut. When John Glenn became the first American to circle Earth in 1962, Charles, who was then about seven years old, was in a playground pretending to be the famous astronaut.
Now, 63 years old, Charles remembers thinking one thing: "I want to do that someday."
Unfortunately, height restrictions quickly crushed those dreams. In the early days of space travel, astronauts could not be taller than 5 & 11; "At 6 & 7;" Charles towers above this limit. However, he was unperturbed, instead opting for a behind-the-scenes look at approaching a career in space exploration by focusing on the scientific side of things. In particular, the effect of weightlessness on the human body.
In 1983, he joined Johnson as a postdoctoral fellow after obtaining his doctorate in physiology and biophysics from the University of Kentucky.
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Charles spent much of his 35-year career with Johnson studying orthostatic intolerance, which is the feel of astronauts as they return to earth. In fact, he helped develop a technique of drinking one liter of water and consuming eight salt tablets to restore body fluids when re-entering the atmosphere.
One of the coolest things, however, was working as a mission scholar in coordinating NASA's John Glenn's Space Shuttle flight in 1998 – more than three decades after Glenn inspired Charles' love of outer space
] "He called me once on the phone and asked me by name," Charles said cheerfully. "He knew who I was, that was so cool."
He also served as chief scientist for Johnson's Human Research Program, a role in which he worked with NASA colleague Jennifer Fogarty.
In this role, he helped researchers like Fogarty get funding for their projects. Fogarty said he was always patient and willing to help the scientists prepare their proposals.
"He was always willing to spend time with someone, be it a phone call, a conversation or an education on a topic," she said. "He is incredibly knowledgeable."
Prior to retiring in February, Charles worked on NASA's one-year mission, which followed Scott Kelly's one-year trip to the International Space Station in March 2015. Nobody had spent so much time in space before. NASA closely tracked Kelly's body changes over time and compared them to his twin brother Mark Kelly, who is also an astronaut.
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It was through the one-year mission research that Charles hit the Houston Space Center Phyllis Friello for the first time and the Idea of "scientist in residence" was born.
Scientist in residence
Over Over the past 35 years, Charles's unofficial tours of the Houston Space Center have become legendary. Family, friends and neighbors gather around his detailed descriptions of all the artifacts and exhibits on the city's 250,000-square-foot facade
"I'm a big fan of Space Center Houston," he said. "I wish I had this opportunity when I was a kid."
So, when Charles met Frollo last fall on a presentation on the Twin Study – just months before his retirement became official – it made sense to pitch his tour leadership as an official job.
Friello loved it, she said.
"He said he retired and was interested in seeing what he could do here at the Houston Space Center," she added. "It's an incredible opportunity for us to have such an amazing expert in the field to help us."
Charles is the first "scientist in the residence" that employs the museum so that his daily duties are still being worked out, but he has a one-year contract with the center. Friello already has some ideas on how to use Charles's expertise.
For example, Charles will give lectures to teachers participating in programs such as the Space Center University, who teach educators ways to get their students excited about science and technology, technical and mathematical (STEM) fields. It will also develop ways to contextualize exhibits, make them more digestible for visitors, and develop labs and activities so that visitors can experience what NASA is doing.
In addition, he will help to write the scripts of staff give tours to ensure that they are up to date and contain the most important and intriguing information.
"The culmination of all of JSC's experience really lends itself to this next step, bringing that experience and knowledge to the public," Friello said. "He has so much knowledge, he's an incredible space nerd."
For Charles, it's a way to continue working in his field of passion, while the three-day work week gives him time with his wife in their new camper to travel.
"My wife thought I would never retire," Charles laughed. "But now, with my passion, I can inspire the next generation."