HAZARD — The Challenger Center is known for creating the illusion that visitors are actually part of a space mission. For students of Stinnett Elementary, this illusion was enhanced even further on Wednesday, when they were joined in the Challenger Center by Steven Amsler, a retired NASA engineer, who worked in mission control for all of NASA’s Apollo flights.
Amsler is originally from Tampa, Florida but now resides in Lancaster, Kentucky. When he discovered the Challenger Center, Amsler was eager to take the drive to Hazard and lend a helping hand for the day.
“When I was driving in here today, I was thinking about how good it is for a small town to have a place like this,” Amsler said, “There are a lot of opportunities for careers with the space program. Everybody usually thinks about the astronauts but there is much more. I loved my career with NASA, but in all my time there, I never went into space. So, when I talk to kids like this, I try to show them that, if they are fascinated by the space program, they can have a really good job and contribute to it by doing what it is they are naturally good at.”
Amsler might not have gone into outer space himself. However, the impact he had on the Apollo Program is spectacular. During the Apollo 11 mission, which was the first to land on the moon, Amsler had the responsibility of checking out the spacecraft’s communications systems prior to launch. Thirty minutes before liftoff, Amsler discovered that there was a malfunction with the communications feed that would have allowed the astronauts to communicate with the media. So he issued a delay in the launch to fix the problem.
“I was surrounded by a lot of military guys,” Amsler said, “So, things operated with that kind of military mindset. When I delayed the launch, my supervisor came down and jumped all over me because I was supposed to seek approval from higher up before doing that. When I told him I thought it was important because we had never had a mission like this with the whole world watching before, he thought about it and then softened up a little.”
The move proved to be a good one on Amsler’s part because, without it, the world never would have heard Neil Armstrong proclaim the mission to be, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
Another famous quote from an astronaut that Amsler helped make possible came from Commander Jim Lovell on the Apollo 13 mission, when he declared, “Houston, we have a problem.” Amsler, in essence, was Houston and, according to the engineer, the problem was every bit as dramatic as the Tom Hanks movie portrayed it to be.
“Apollo 13 was crazy,” Amsler said, with a smile on his lips, but also a look in his eyes that indicated he still embraced the intensity of the moment.
Amsler gives a presentation to students, when he talks with them, that shows several pictures he collected of the space program in motion. He also presents interesting facts about the space program, such as the fact that the rocket, which propelled the Space Shuttle into space was longer than a football field and weighed more than one million pounds. Amsler also inspires the students to shoot for their dreams despite circumstance by telling of his humble life as a shy child from a poor family.
“Anything can apply to anything else,” he said, “I couldn’t fly a jet, but I was good at math, so I ended up having a career with NASA. The same thing can be true for whatever these kids are good at.”
The Challenger Center offers programs and organizes events throughout the year. More information can be found on the Challenger Center’s website, clcky.com.
Sam Neace can be contacted at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.