Working in space exploration a dream for ex-Pasco man

It took Rob Williams more than four decades from the time the space bug bit him at age 4 until he finally went to work on the American space program in his late 40s.

While a kid living in Pasco, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut and exploring the deep black beyond the Earth. He even joined the Air Force out of high school, but he didn't have quite the right stuff for the academy, he said.

So Williams became an engineer. He lived his life. He got married. He took jobs that had nothing to do with space.

But he kept dreaming. He kept looking up into the sky and wondering what was out there.

"I was a mechanical engineer, but I could never seem to find a way into the space field," Williams told the Herald by phone from Florida. "It's sort of one of those patience things. I kept telling myself, 'It's not your time yet.' "

His time finally came a few years ago, when he got a job with a contractor at Kennedy Space Center working on a project that could be the future of American space exploration.

With the space shuttle program winding down, Williams said the timing couldn't have been more perfect.

"If I had been involved in the shuttle program, my job would be ending," he said. "I would much rather be involved in what I'm doing now."

He couldn't talk much about the details of his work, other than to say he works in fluid systems engineering, but it's work that sparks that spirit of exploration and imagination he first felt walking into the World's Fair in Seattle in 1962 -- the moment he became captivated by space.

But it makes him a little sad that once the space shuttle Atlantis takes off Friday for its last flight -- marking the end of NASA's shuttle program -- for a while at least, there will be no more space program.

"Most all of us who are living today have always had a space program," he said. "After the next launch on Friday, we won't have anything."

Williams has been documenting the final shuttle flights with pictures of the ramps, the flight preparations and the launches. A photo he took of the shuttle Discovery's final launch appeared in the Herald last Sunday.

He will be there with his wife and friends when Atlantis takes off for the last time.

Even though he said he never felt connected to the purpose of the shuttle missions -- which had less to do with exploration than preceding space missions -- he recalls growing up with the first manned space missions of the Mercury and Gemini programs, and then the Apollo program, which took us to the moon on July 20, 1969.

That date will forever live inside of Williams. He remembers that it was Water Follies weekend in the Tri-Cities, and most people were outside watching the hydroplane races.

Williams was inside, glued to a TV set. He remembers hearing loudspeakers announce outside that the Eagle lunar module had landed on the moon, carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin -- the first humans to make it there.

"I remember this roar of people cheering," he said.

When he went to work at Kennedy, one of the first things he did was to walk up the same ramp Armstrong, Aldrin and compatriot Michael Collins, who piloted the command module, would have used to climb up to the Apollo 11 rocket.

"It was an emotional thing for me," he said. "I was walking up the ramp where the guys who went to the moon were launched. This is the only place on the planet that ever happened. It was like I made it."

He is proud to be working on something that once again might take Americans to the stars.

The program Williams is working on will take time -- and continued money from Congress -- but he has hope for the nation's future in space.

"It's not just space flight, but aviation and weather studies," he said. "The intangibles are things like inspiring little kids like me to grow up and be engineers."