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NASA Expert in New Space: Broward’s 2007 Senior Volunteer of the Year is a Former NASA Engineer Who Loves to Share His Passion for Science With Students

May 27, 2007

After years as a NASA engineer, Earl Driscoll left the space program and never looked back. He was content taking over the family janitorial business — a job where his mistakes didn’t cost lives.

But space exploration found Driscoll again.

While working at Crystal Lake Middle School in Pompano Beach, he befriended a science teacher with a love of space and engineering. She got him talking to students about his experiences at the space agency.

Then Driscoll, 63, of Margate, loaned his NASA memorabilia to the school, creating a makeshift museum of the 1960s space race, with items ranging from pictures to clearance badges.

Now, Driscoll has been named Broward County Public Schools’ 2007 Outstanding Senior Volunteer of the Year.

“It’s a marvel,” Driscoll said of his work with students. “And I love what I do.”

Still reovering from a broken leg, Driscoll is doing as much as he can before moving back to the Space Coast.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has plans for going back to the moon again, and Driscoll said he wants to help.

Driscoll moved to Broward when he was 14 and graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale. While studying at the University of Miami, he took a test for NASA and did so well the agency hired him while he was still in school, he said.

SAFETY OFFICER

By 1966, he worked in astronaut safety through a contract with Boeing, he said. From when the first parts came together until the rocket cleared the top of the tower, Driscoll made sure the vehicle was safe.

He still tells students he shoulders some of the blame for Apollo 1, when a fire killed three astronauts in a space capsule on the launch pad in 1967.

It’s a lesson he tries to instill in the students he mentors, including the school’s Civil Air Patrol unit, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force that gets about half its membership from cadets between the ages 12 and 21.

“Something this big,” said seventh-grader Casey Martin while holding up two fingers, “can cause a failure.”

Driscoll left NASA in 1979, taking over the family janitorial business in Broward until 1996, when he thought he was retiring.

Then a friend with the school district said she had a school job for him.

So Driscoll gave her a resume. The Crystal Lake Middle School principal interviewed him, then said he wanted him to meet one teacher — Kathleen Foy, a seventh-grade magnet science teacher.

Driscoll started work as a custodian at the school. But he also would talk to students about NASA.

Then came his space memorabilia. At first he told Foy: “I have a few things at the house.”

A few things became more than 1,500 pieces of NASA history. Autographed photos. Access badges. Launch procedures.

The history emerged after years in a footlocker that doubled as a living room cocktail table. Driscoll threw everything he could into it. He knew the moon trip would be one of the most important moments of his life, and he wanted to preserve it.

BIG COLLECTION

“Everything I had I threw in this big footlocker,” Driscoll said. “I just kept it and kept it and kept it.”

They come alive in Foy’s classroom, filling mounted display cabinets and hanging from the walls. A collection of books written by astronauts lines one countertop.

Driscoll speaks in front of the museum. He opens with a model of the Saturn 5 rocket, the astronauts’ ride to the moon, showing how each part of the massive machine fired its rockets, got the astronauts closer to the moon, then fell away.

“When Earl explains, then they really get into it,” said Foy, who is also a major with the Civil Air Patrol.

Then come the questions. Among the more popular: Why were there no women astronauts in the 1960s? And how did they go to the bathroom?

KNOWS ANSWERS

Driscoll knows the answer to both, which actually are connected.

Women weren’t among the first astronauts because there was no way before the shuttle’s creation for women to use the bathroom, he said. The “bathroom” for the original astronauts involved little more than a tube and bag — with no privacy.

Although the museum is at Crystal Lake Middle School, Driscoll will speak wherever there are eager listeners. Since 1980, he has spoken at about 400 schools and libraries, he said. At Crystal Lake, he has talked to more than 4,000 students.

And the entire experience, dubbed SPACE Mission, will live on even after Driscoll departs. Foy said people are working on taking some of the memorabilia along with activities about space exploration and Project Apollo on the road, traveling to different schools.

The work means a lot to Driscoll, he said, because of the help other people with NASA gave his three children while they were growing up in Titusville.

Now, Driscoll hopes he helps at least a few students to go into engineering. Maybe one of them will go to Mars or the moon.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Miami Herald

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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