He launches rockets

The Space Shuttle program sent orbiters into space 135 times, and this Kiwanian was there—working—for every single one.

Story and photos by Kasey Jackson
huttle launch photo courtesy NASA

April 24, 1990: The Space Shuttle Discovery soars into the morning skies above Florida, carrying a crew of five and the Hubble Space Telescope. Fun fact: This mission, STS-31, included current NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., who served as pilot.

It’s Florida, so the bugs are buzzing and the heat is rising, causing a hazy effect as we stand on the back porch of a Titusville restaurant situated smack-dab across the Indian River from NASA’s picture-perfect Vehicle Assembly Building, known affectionately as the VAB. Rockledge Kiwanian Ted Hartselle is explaining in great detail several snapshot-worthy memories of his years and years spent working on and around some of the most famous launch pads in the world.

“I have been attuned to space and technology as long as I can remember,” he had written in an earlier email. “I decided I would launch people into space when I was in the ninth grade, watching the first launch of the Saturn V from my playground.”

He made his dream come true by working his way through college and earning a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Florida. It seems he was destined to work on the Space Shuttle program; he certainly was in the right place at the right time and loaded with the knowledge and determination needed to join thousands of contractors and NASA employees set on one sight: getting the Shuttle program literally off the ground.

The year was 1980. He drove over to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to talk to some people about possibly getting a job there. He was asked to come back the next day. He did.

“That morning, a security officer drove me to Launch Complex 39A,” he says. “As we passed the Vehicle Assembly Building, I saw something coming out of the door. It was the STS-1 being rolled to the launch pad.”

STS-1 stands for Space Transportation System 1, and it was NASA’s first flight of the Space Shuttle program. The orbiter he saw rolling out that day: Space Shuttle Columbia.

Hartselle got the job. He’d serve as launch pad liquid oxygen engineer, processing and fueling the external tank and main engines. After four months of preparation and tests, STS-1 launched on April 12, 1981.

Hartselle was hooked.

The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is the largest single-story building in the world, boasting a remarkable 129,428,000 cubic feet of space—big enough to house a Saturn V rocket.

As he shares countless stories, I can hear the excitement in his voice. His eyes sparkle. He stops every now and then and just looks out at the VAB as if he’s reliving those moments, step by engineered step, in his mind. He has a well-traveled binder he carries with him. We’re looking through it together, page by page. On the side, a peeling Kiwanis logo sticker finds its place among shuttle memorabilia. It’s part scrapbook, part portfolio of his work. And it’s an exceptional piece of personal history. In it, proud moments and awards from his work on every Space Shuttle mission—all 135—including a certificate naming him a “KSC Shuttle Legend” after he had worked 30 years at Kennedy Space Center.

While waiting for a launch, he often sketched his surroundings in a notebook.

He had quite an impressive title for 58 of those shuttle missions. He was known as the “CLOX,” meaning he was the Launch Control Center Firing Room Lead Console Engineer for Main Propulsion Liquid Oxygen. He led the team and operation of the computer systems doing the launch work that controlled the fueling and firing of the main engines. For his work serving such an important role for 58 launches—the most of any CLOX in history—he became a member of the Space Shuttle Fleet Prime Launch Team, a distinguished NASA Career Achievement Award. No other CLOX performed more than 16 launches. There’s a page for that in the book too.

As with most things, there’s an end to this chapter of his story. Hartselle, along with thousands of contractors, lost his job at KSC when the Space Shuttle program ended. He is now a professor at Eastern Florida State College. He served an important role in the history of space flight. He serves an important role now as an educator. And he isn’t finished just yet.

“Humanity’s future is in space,” he says. “My efforts will get us there. I still have plenty to do.”

Hartselle’s expertise is in chemical engineering and these: the massive external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, shown here as a display at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Ted Hartselle on STEM

On the fascination with space travel: The fascination is that the space program is real. Space programs are the ultimate interactive technology. You can see and hear results. The environment up there is a place entirely different from here. Through television and IMAX 3D you can pretend to be there. TV and movies ask us to suspend our disbelief and enter a made-up world. The space program is one of the few real things we can participate in without completely faking it.

On the importance of playful learning: We must transform STEM teaching to prepare students not just for college, but for the future economy. Even college graduates must learn a new technology every seven years. That is how long it takes for a new technology to destroy old jobs. Knowledge doubles every two years. To keep up, everyone must learn at a faster pace. The real value of college is you learn how to learn. This means read, read, read, practice, practice, practice. So learn to learn, then use it! Give kids a safe place to do things. Teach everyone that technology is play by letting them use it. Give them the tools to build things. Learning should be playful.

On giving advice to a young person wanting to explore space: A young person still in school has an advantage over everyone else; they have a clean slate to begin writing their own story. Learn how to work hard. Learn the hard stuff. Don’t settle for easy stuff. It’s time to build your brain muscles. Space is a good place to learn to use what you have learned. Unused knowledge is useless knowledge.

Hartselle spent many hours on and around the famous launch pad 39A, right, when working on the Space Shuttle program.

On his memories of years of working with the Shuttle program: It isn’t the fierce sound of a liftoff, the pain of losing a launch or the thrill of the final countdown. It’s the quiet of walking alone across the launch pad at midnight, the last person on the launch pad. Pushing the up button on the launch tower elevator and looking down on my rocket, days from launch, hearing the roar of ocean waves crashing on the beach and the wind in the beams around me. This was my moment with “the lonely sea and the sky.”

On Kiwanis’ role in STEM education: I believe children can best be served by changing their future while they’re young enough to benefit from the little things like a hug, sitting and talking with an adult and getting good nutrition. Let’s get the kids STEM-ready. We can affect public policy at all levels. We have a right and a responsibility to lead (governments) to do the right things for our kids. Create more SLPs. Be involved directly with everything in schools. The kids deserve our best efforts.

On the most exciting prospect for the future of space exploration: When people leave the planet to live in the sky. Exploring and civilizing the solar system should keep us pretty busy for a couple hundred years. Imagine what we will learn and how it will change us.

About Ted Hartselle


When the Space Shuttle program ended, Ted Hartselle said he “needed to do something as good as launching shuttles.” So he ran for election to the Rockledge, Florida, City Council and won. He served twice as Kiwanis’ Florida District Division 11 lieutenant governor, and he became a full-time instructor at Eastern Florida State College, teaching aerospace technology students in materials and processes used in aerospace.

So what is “STEM”?


The disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been popularized by the acronym STEM. With research showing jobs in the STEM fields are expected to grow at a rate of nearly double that of other fields by the year 2018, many experts believe it is imperative that students gain the necessary skills to fill these jobs. Many schools, especially in North America, have lessened the amount of time students are spending in science classes, and far too many schools have all but killed their physical education, art and music classes. Many educators, experts and parents believe STEM classes must be paired with the arts (another acronym, STEAM, has become popular) to develop well-rounded educational opportunities for our children. Read on to learn how these three professionals were molded by STEM, and hear what advice they have for the next generation.

Start a STEM project in your area


  • The Kiwanis Club of Umatilla, Florida, stages a science fair and rocket launch. The club judges fairs at two elementary schools, one middle and one high school. The club also stages the rocket launch and sponsors two Lego League robotics teams.
  • The Kiwanis Club of Welland, Ontario, donates science and technology kits. Each kit has more than 30 hands-on educational tools—including stethoscopes, a camera and compass and magnets—all geared to three- to six-year-olds.
  • The Kiwanis Club of Eastern St. Andrews, Jamaica, renovated the science laboratory at Holy Trinity Comprehensive High School. It is the only science lab available to the 1,500 students at the school.
  • Danville, Virginia, Kiwanians donated US$50,000 to the Danville Science Center.

This story originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Kiwanis magazine.


2 thoughts on “He launches rockets

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  1. Thank you for the great article about space and the need for expanding the STEM program. Bob Marko. Kiwanis Club of Glenshaw and Sewickley, Pa.

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