PENDLETON — Before introducing retired NASA engineer Jim McBarron to the students assembled in the Pendleton High School auditorium Monday, organizer James Loftus said there were two types of people in life — those who looked at the sky and those that looked at the ground.
It was meant as a metaphor, but McBarron did spend a chunk of his life looking at the ground.
McBarron spent his career working on equipment for some of the country’s most important space missions, culminating in a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon in 1971, but his undergraduate degree isn’t in aeronautics or engineering, but geology.
The son of a restaurant owner and a nurse, McBarron grew up in Lima, a small town in Northwest Ohio.
When McBarron went to school an hour south at the University of Dayton, he originally majored in physics before his struggles in applied math caused his academic advisor to suggest switching to geology.
During high school and college, McBarron worked a series of odd jobs — car washer, Christmas tree lot salesman, movie theater usher, and bartender.
When he caught on as a test subject for the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Aeromedical Laboratory in 1958, the work was a lot more exotic and much more grueling.
To simulate the extreme conditions of space travel, McBarron was ordered to do tests like sitting in a hot box that could reach temperatures of 200 degrees or dip into an ice water tank that averaged minus-20 degrees.
McBarron did all this for $1.85 per hour, $3 per hour for hazardous tests, but he had found his career path.
NASA offered him a job as an aerospace technologist in 1961, changing his life trajectory.
If he hadn’t joined NASA, McBarron told the audience he would likely take over his family’s restaurant, an offer he declined once he found his passion for space engineering.
While McBarron would go on to lead a distinguished career at NASA, it almost ended before it began.
McBarron was working with a team of engineers on the space suit for Project Mercury, America’s first human spaceflight program, when they noticed a faulty zipper.
McBarron acted quickly and sent the suit to NASA’s contractor to get it fixed, but when his boss found out that he did it without the proper authorization, he threatened to have McBarron arrested.
“Every decision you make has a consequence,” he said as a word of advice to his young audience.
McBarron never ended up in jail, and he contributed to the Apollo program and the International Space Station over the course of his 39-year career at NASA.
At 81, he still lends his expertise to NASA as a consultant on Project Artemis, NASA’s program to get Americans back on the moon by 2024.
McBarron came to Pendleton as a part of a tour of Eastern Oregon organized by Loftus, NASA, and the Pacific Power Foundation.
The director of the Joseph Phillip Loftus Jr. Mobile Museum in Stayton, Loftus said the idea originated from a similar trip former NASA engineer Norman Chaffee made to Pendleton in 2017.
Loftus said the hope is to do a trip to Eastern Oregon every other year. McBarron will visit La Grande and Baker City before concluding his trip in Wallowa County.
Pendleton School District Superintendent Chris Fritsch said the school invited students from Umatilla and Ukiah to participate in the event.