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Center Snapshot: Carol Castle
Carol Castle. Image above: As part of NASA Langley's Day of Education, Carol Castle and husband Dave talked with 400 school children in Elkhorn City, Ky. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

Carol Castle was scared. This had started as a manageable talk with an elementary school class in Elkhorn City, Ky., but then the word got out and busses came from Feds Creek with other kids and now she was in a gymnasium, standing in front of 400 children, grades 3-8, speaking about NASA’s Langley Research Center as part of its Day of Education.

Husband Dave stood alongside. An engineer, he was more used to speaking to groups, though in a technical vein. Carol, who is in her 26th year at Langley, works as a secretary in the NASA Engineering and Safety Center. She is more used to speaking to Girls Scouts and Cub Scouts as their leader.

This was something else. Two projection screens. Speakers on each side of the gym. A microphone.

A television camera from a regional station and reporters from two newspapers. Days later, in the local hardware store, another customer came up and said, "Hey, ya'll were in the newspaper today."

It was daunting. "I've never done public speaking," Carol said. "Never."

But there was a driving force behind the effort.

"I love kids," she said. "Kids are my passion."

So, after telling the children how nervous she was, Castle spoke of careers and education to a group of 9-15-year-olds, the destiny for most of whom is that of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers: to work in the coal mines of Eastern Kentucky or to marry a coalminer.

Success is measured in a paid-for pickup and an ATV or four-wheeler to ride in the mountains around Elkhorn City. Saturday nights are to make it in to Pikeville for shopping and entertainment.

"They need to see more than just coal mines," Castle said. "Coal mining is a respectable job. I don't discredit coal miners in any way, shape or form. But the children or their families may not have the financial resources to visit outside their local area, to see other places, to see other things."

So she spoke of another world, of opportunity beyond the Appalachian Mountains to use math and science to do research, to work in a place with diverse careers in a job with a longer-term future, and with nights spent pondering the day’s work, rather than recovering from it.

Dave spoke of engineering, of preparing for the next step in man's exploration, of building the next airplane.

And then they introduced Charlie Camarda, an astronaut who showed a video of his flight into space, then spoke about what it was like by SKYPE.

"It was cool," Castle said. "With 400 kids, I was worried. Normally you would do an hour presentation, but because Charlie agreed to participate, we did two hours. They were still and paid attention the entire time."

She had prepped by tagging along with Mike Kelly when he spoke to students at Newport News’ Carver Elementary School, and with Chris Giersch when he spoke to students at Poquoson High School, but this was different. Some in Giersch’s audience had parents at Langley, and everybody there had been exposed to the center’s work in one way or another.

This was Appalachia, where much of what students knew about NASA involved a glimpse of a launch on television.

It came about, in part, because of Dave Castle's roots in the region near Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles the Virginia-Kentucky border. His family had come from Elkhorn City before his father left for a military career. Dave Castle had cousins and uncles and aunts there, but knew little about the place until about three years ago, when the family decided to investigate it.

"It's gorgeous," said Carol Castle, who arranged to rent a cabin that would allow the family – which includes 14-year-old Brett and 17-year-old Savannah -- to explore her husband's heritage.

Shortly thereafter, they bought a vacation home there. They visit for about three long weekends and a spring vacation each year. This was spring vacation for the Castles.

"I called the school and said, 'We're coming up there for spring break. Would you like us to do this?' " Carol Castle said. "I said to the family, 'everybody around here is doing Day of Education. Why don’t we go somewhere where they don't get to hear it?' "

It was a two-month-long process that changed in scope as word spread throughout the mountains around Elkhorn City (pop. 1,060). Castle got more nervous as word came that the crowd was growing.

They showed Langley's wind tunnels. Rockets. The International Space Station.

"You could see their wheels start to spin," Castle said. "They had heard about it, but this was seeing it."

Future airplanes. "You guys are going to be flying these future airplanes," she told them. "Not us. You're the ones who are going to be driving the future rockets to Mars or wherever the rockets can take us. But you need your math and science. We must have said math and science to them 20 times.

Imaginations were piqued.

"They were getting it by the end," Castle said.

So was she.

"If we impacted even 1 percent of them, it would be great," she said.

That would be four fewer coalminers. Four people for the aerospace industry or at the very least learn from what they saw at Day of Education and apply it to other things in the future.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman