Photo: Steve Gonzales, Staff / Houston Chronicle
Space history tidbits roll off John Charles’ tongue as easily as an adult reciting the alphabet.
“Apollo astronauts started wearing red stripes on their space suits so they could identify themselves later in pictures.”
“About two-liters of vascular fluids, such as blood and lymph, shift from an astronaut’s legs toward their head in space.”
“NASA might install an entire wall of veggies on the spacecraft headed to Mars so astronauts have fresh produce on the nine-month trip there.”
A self-proclaimed “space nerd,” Charles’ knowledge of NASA’s 60-year history is vast and, seemingly, endless — making him exactly the type of person you’d want leading a tour of Space Center Houston, the museum side of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
That’s why his new appointment as the museum’s “scientist in residence” is such a perfect fit.
“I want people to know more about how humans are impacted by space, and I hope to make space travel more tangible to guests,” said Charles, a retired NASA scientist. “The information we give someone [at the museum] today could help make them into the next Buzz Aldrin or the next Neil Armstrong.”
In this new role, Charles will act as the first person from NASA guests interact with, and he’ll help interpret space research into education programs and guest experiences, through presentations, exhibits and activities.
This type of position is a first for Space Center Houston — in fact, it was Charles’ idea in the first place — but museum officials couldn’t be more excited for him to come aboard.
“He’s going to be an incredible asset in interpreting a lot of research coming out of JSC and the amazing work they’re doing,” said Phyllis Friello, the museum’s education manager. “He will take that information and help it make sense to everyone.”
‘That was so cool’
Growing up, Charles wanted to be a cowboy, roping steers on the open range. He wanted to be a clown, cracking jokes through a white-painted face from inside a circus tent or at a child’s birthday party.
But mostly, he said, he wanted to be an astronaut. When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, Charles, who was about seven at the time, was on a playground pretending to be the famed astronaut.
Now 63, Charles can remember thinking one thing: “I want to do that someday.”
Unfortunately, height limitations quickly squashed those dreams. In the early days of space travel, astronauts could be no taller than 5’11.” At 6’7” Charles towers over that limit.
He was undeterred, however, choosing instead to take a more behind-the-scenes approach to a career in space exploration by focusing on the science side of things. Specifically, the effect of weightlessness on the human body.
He came to Johnson in 1983 as a postdoctoral fellow, after earning a doctorate in physiology and biophysics from the University of Kentucky.
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Charles spent much of his 35-year career at Johnson studying orthostatic intolerance, which is the faint feeling astronauts experience when they return to Earth. In fact, he helped create a technique of drinking a liter of water and eating eight salt tablets to restore body fluids during atmospheric re-entry.
One of the coolest things he did, though, was work as mission scientist coordinating all NASA-sponsored science investigations for John Glenn’s Space Shuttle flight in 1998 — more than three decades after Glenn inspired Charles’ love for space.
“He called me on the phone once and asked for me specifically by name,” Charles said gleefully. “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 employee Jennifer Fogarty.
In this role, he helped researchers like Fogarty acquire funding for their projects. Fogarty said he was always patient and willing to help scientists work through their proposals.
“He was always willing to take time with anyone, whether it be having a phone call, a conversation, or educating them on a topic,” she said. “He’s incredibly well informed.”
Before 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. No one had spent that much time in space before, so NASA closely tracked Kelly’s body changes over time, comparing them to his twin brother Mark Kelly, who is also an astronaut.
NASA hopes to use the findings to better understand how to prepare astronauts for a three-year round trip to Mars someday.
It was through the One Year Mission research that Charles first met Space Center Houston’s Phyllis Friello and the idea of “scientist in residence” was born.
Scientist in residence
Over the past 35 years, Charles’ unofficial tours of Space Center Houston have become legendary, with family, friends and neighbors flocking to hear his detailed descriptions of every artifact and exhibit in the 250,000 square-foot facility.
“I’m a big fan of Space Center Houston,” he said. “I wish I had these opportunities when I was a kid.”
So, when Charles met Friello at a presentation on the twin study last fall — just months before his retirement became official — it made sense to pitch his tour guide prowess as an official job.
Friello loved it, she said.
“He said he was retiring and was interested in seeing what he could do here at Space Center Houston,” she added. “It’s an incredible opportunity for us to have such an amazing expert in the field to assist us.”
Charles is the first “scientist in residence” the museum has employed, so his day-to-day responsibilities still are being worked out, but he’s on a one-year contract with the center. Friello already has some ideas for how to take advantage of Charles’ expertise.
For example, Charles will be giving presentations to teachers participating in programs like Space Center University, which exposes educators to ways to get their students excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. He also will develop ways to put exhibits in context, making them more digestible for visitors, and come up with labs and activities so visitors can learn about what NASA is doing.
Additionally, he’ll help write the scripts of employees to give tours to ensure that they are up-to-date and include the most important and fascinating information.
“The culmination of all his experience at JSC really lends itself to this next step, bringing that experience and knowledge here and disseminating it to the public,” Friello said. “He just has such a breadth of knowledge. He’s an incredible space nerd.”
For Charles, it’s a way to continue working in his area of passion, while the three-day work week gives him time to travel with his wife in their new RV.
“My wife thought I would never retire,” Charles said with a laugh. “But now I can use my passion to inspire the next generation.”