This morning, here in Houston, Texas where it’s in the upper nineties by lunchtime, I went to Johnson Space Center with Don Cohen who wanted to interview Dustin Gohmert. Dustin works in the Crew and Thermal Systems Division at the Johnson Space Center. Dustin is in his early thirties, crew cut, six feet, handsome and cheerful. We met his boss, Patricia Petete who told us they have gatherings of ìthe graybeardsî, the older astronauts. They ask them questions about their missions and listen and make improvements based on those meetings. They gather about seven astronauts at a time, a good number to get some sparks flying. I could get a lot of information in a gathering like that.
NASA had Lockheed design six seats for the command module's reentry and landing in water or on land. There is little space and the astronauts have to land lying on their back in a seated position. Dustin thought Lockheed had filled the specifications but something was missing and the seats were not as safe as they could be. He drew a sketch of a chair at a meeting and last Christmas time took ten days to build a seat at his home that was safer. His chair was adjustable for all sizes, lightweight and will be tested with dummies next month.
Dustin and Lockheed’s problem: how to protect six astronauts from a violent landing. He had his fiancee trace him on a sheet of cardboard and of course his bottom is curved; the computers models were rigid. The key to a safe landing is to see to it that every part of the body stops at the same time. If there is space between the rear of the seat and the rear end of the person the person’s bottom will ram into the back. The idea is to get rid of the dead space.
So Dustin built an aluminum chair in ten, ten to twelve hour days, then took it to different groups at NASA and they now call it Gohmert’s seat. He got Lockheed on his side and Lockheed is now using Dustin’s improvements. Several times Dustin emphasized how important cooperation is at NASA and said they all built on knowledge of the past. Twice Dustin mentioned the Challenger disaster saying that every part was studied so improvements could be made.
The other impressive thing about Dustin’s talk was that NASA went out to find answers. They went to racecar drivers, to NASCAR and Indy drivers and to drivers of monster trucks to see how they fared in crashes. They went to the Air Force to learn about the work James Brinkley had done on ejecting in the 70’s. They also searched for medical research on damage done to the lumbar area in car crashes. They found none. Dustin knew what he sketched would be ignored so he built this seat or chair on his own time with $200 of material from Home Depot.
Dustin grew up on a ranch in Texas, two hours from Houston, and was used to fixing things. He enjoys woodworking and hands on technology. Hands on; that was clearly a part of the Apollo program. The Apollo astronauts worked with engineers, they designed panels, ladders, the lunar module, and the command module. It was hands on. JC High Eagle said NASA was open to ideas. It was in this case. Dustin says we’ll go back to the moon in 2020 and wishes it was sooner. Doubtless there are frustrations working in a bureaucracy but if Dustin is NASA’s future, it looks good.
A last thought: themes that come up in the interviews: dreams, pioneers, mathematics, hands on, an agency where ideas are welcomed and an awareness that this is dangerous business. You try your best but space is dangerous.