By Stacey Doud
On September 17, 2019, retired NASA employee Herb Baker gave a talk at University of Texas at Arlington about his 42-year career at the space agency. Most of his work was performed at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, but he also helped out at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, as well as NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.
Baker holds a business degree, not one in engineering. “I can assure you that you don’t need an engineering degree to work for NASA. They’re always looking for good people from a variety of fields,” he said.
Baker basically followed in the footsteps of his mother, who also had a long career at NASA. “My first involvement with NASA was as a high school student working for the TV networks covering the early Apollo mission doing mostly ‘grunt work,’” he said. “During those missions, my main job was to take reels of film and drive them up to Houston’s Intercontinental Airport from the Johnson Space Center campus twice every day, which is about an hour’s drive each way. Of course, this was a time before the Internet, so this was the only way to get things done. From the Houston airport, the film was sent to New York City so it could be used for the evening news,” Baker explained.
Basically, Baker was a “Jack of All Trades” during his 42 years at NASA. He worked as support on almost every flight from the first Space Shuttle flight to the International Space Station (ISS) to the Orion project, which is NASA’s hope to get men to Mars by 2030, to the attempts to develop commercial space flight.
He had some funny and interesting stories to tell.
He explained several superstitions that the astronauts and cosmonauts have developed over time. “Believe it or not, yes, those cosmonauts are urinating on the bus tires,” Baker said as he showed a PowerPoint slide. “They do this because Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin did this before his first flight, which was successful, and so they consider it good luck. This is the bus that will take them to the launch pad.”
Another popular ritual is for the astronauts to eat steak and scrambled eggs for breakfast on the morning of their scheduled flight.
While it may seem silly to some, NASA respects crew superstitions so much that when STS-13 (Space Transportation System, the way NASA used to identify shuttle flights) was the next number to use, they changed the name to STS-41C. However, the crew decided that they didn’t want superstition to rule their thinking, so they made their own patch that read STS-13 on a black cat, with a space shuttle flying under the cat, which was completely different from the “official” flight patch.
Baker also recalled that employees on the JSC campus were invited to come taste test astronaut food if they had a spare hour. He was given some “space guacamole” and was asked to rate it from one to five on a variety of aspects, such as taste and texture.
“I never pass up guacamole at restaurants,” Baker said. “But this guacamole tasted terrible.”
He went back a couple of weeks later and saw that a new version of guacamole was being tested. Again, he found it less than satisfactory. After one more go around, he said, “If you served it to me now, I’d say it’s okay. It’s tolerable. But when I came back a week later, it had been taken off the menu altogether. Do you know how hard it is to keep guacamole fresh? It kept turning brown quickly, as avocados generally do.”
Baker brought a mock-up of a space suit, and watched as students tried it on.
“I can’t believe how thick these gloves are,” said one student. “The rest of the suit is not so heavy, but I know it’s not technically a real suit.”
Baker was at UT-Arlington by invitation of the North Texas branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., which works with students as well as professionals in those fields.
Recently retired, Baker spends his time giving talks around the country, giving tours of Space Center Houston and performing with the Clear Creek Community Theater in Nassau Bay, Texas.