Center Snapshot: Keith Henry
Image above: Many of Keith Henry's early memories at NASA Langley involve his 1979 MG Midget that he purchased one month before his beginning his public affairs career at Langley. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith
By: Denise Lineberry
In 1979, Keith Henry drove his MG Midget through the NASA Langley gates for the first time. His mechanic called it a "throw away car," explaining that he shouldn't expect it to last more than a few years.
More than 170,000 miles and 31 years later, that Midget still makes the occasional drive through the gates.
"I drove that car every day for the first 22 years of my career here," said Henry who ends his public affairs career on December 30.
Much like with his car, Henry wasn’t sure what to expect of his career. Its longevity. Its support of successes and failures. The people he would meet and the history he would play a part in.
He went confidently along for the ride.
After graduating from Iowa State University and after a false start in newspaper advertising in Oregon, Henry let wife Mary take the lead when she applied and received an internship in computer programming at Fort Monroe. "You followed me the first time, I'll follow you the second time" he told her.
Things seemed to happen all at once - the purchase of his Midget, his new career at Langley and the birth of his daughter Jessica.
Henry also received an internship in public affairs at Fort Monroe, followed by a permanent position. When he heard about an opening at NASA Langley from fellow church choir member Jean Lynch, he went for it. Henry became the third member of Langley's public affairs team.
At his retirement party earlier this week, Henry was reunited with Lynch and other friends. And there was plenty to celebrate and reflect upon.
Including his first assignment, a fact sheet – which he had to rewrite more than once - for large space structures in the late '70s and early '80s.
"We were trying to determine how to get things into Earth’s orbit that were going to be much bigger than satellites," Henry said.
"It wasn't long after arriving that I found out in different ways that 'no Keith, you don't really know as much as you think you know.' "
But with each experience, he learned.
"When I first came, and I still feel the same today, the people out here doing the research -- engineers, scientists, technicians and folks who support all that -- are really awe inspiring," Henry said. "I felt very fortunate to know and work with them. And representing them challenged me and made me a better person."
An early example is the F106 Storm Hazards Project that he worked on with Norm Crabill and Bruce Fisher. The airplane was flown into thunderstorms looking to be struck by lightning. "The plane was struck more than 700 times," he said. "Now, it is hanging in the Virginia Air and Space Center."
Another highlight of his career was the record-breaking X-43A project.
"It was fun because Langley had overall leadership of the project and there was a lot of planning and preparation with my Dryden and headquarters counterparts. And it was exciting to see them take a small, but fully functional scramjet engine and put it on a small airplane for test purposes," he said of the flight he witnessed at Dryden. "They flew it under the wing of a B-52 out over the Pacific, off the California coast and dropped it and let it zoom to Mach 7 before falling into the water."
"That flight set a world record for the fastest flight by a jet-propelled airplane," Henry said. "And later that year, in November 2004, Flight Three was at Mach 10."
By that point, Henry was so knowledgeable of the project that he was asked to be the NASA-TV coverage commentator.
He played an important role in another campaign that was not planned -- responding to the space shuttle Columbia accident when it exploded at launch in Feb. 1, 2003. Henry was the lead public affairs officer when the Challenger exploded in 1986, so he was a shoo-in as the "go-between" person for Langley and the media.
"The regional media looked at us as NASA and expected us to speak to it for them," Henry said. And when the media wanted to know if one of Langley's engineers had knowledge related to the accident beforehand, Henry was there to un-twist the information that had gone national.
"There was an unending lineup of news media, including a New York Times reporter, who I will never forget, who encouraged me to reveal 'inside information' to him. I remember telling him 'Sorry, I'm not ready to retire yet.'
"Of course, I wouldn't have told him anyway, but he was an aggressive reporter who wanted me to spill the beans," Henry said. "But there were no beans for me to spill."
More than a decade after that campaign, at the "not-so-tender age of 67," Henry can say he is ready to retire. And he prepares to do just that.
He plans to return to step in for his softball team that he has been a member of for about 15 years, when needed. He plans to be closer to family. He plans to practice racing on his recently finished two-person racing game station he assembled at his dream home, complete with two real racing seats, wheels and pedals, two matching computer and flat screens in a video cabinet.
He and wife Mary plan to become more active in local British car clubs, taking caravan trips for parades or into the mountains for wine tastings.
He also plans to attend his 50-year high school reunion in Iowa. At the first reunion he attended early in his career, Henry received an "audible gasp" from the audience when he shared that he did public affairs at NASA.
Henry will admittedly be sad when turning in his NASA badge. "I've really enjoyed being a part of something as important as NASA, even if it was in a small way," he said.
"It's been a wild ride"
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