National News


Posted January 3, 2018 4:55 p.m. EST

John T. Jackson has stacked all his mementos in a box and carted them out to the trunk of his SUV, making it a treasure chest for collectors of NASA memorabilia.

There are signed photos of astronauts, a picture of Jackson flying an F-111 tactical fighter bomber and a proclamation from former Mayor Lee Brown declaring a day in Jackson's name as a thank you for his contributions to the city and the space agency.

After more than 50 years at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Jackson will formally retire Friday at age 91.

"NASA's been good to me," Jackson said. "I've worked on a lot of different things."

Jackson started his career at NASA in 1966, five years after President John F. Kennedy announced his commitment to landing on the moon before 1970. He started out in the Apollo program, but has since worked all over the Johnson grounds.

He was an environmental control engineer, worked with Skylab space station and helped write a book outlining human body proportions in relation to the design of clothing and equipment for human space flight. He even managed a program where student experiments were sent into space.

Astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, said Jackson's knowledge and expertise have transcended his changing job titles: he knows everything and everybody.

"If you need something and you phone him and ask him, he knows it and it's accurate and if it isn't in his field, he can tell you who does know and he'll call them," said Bean, who first got to know Jackson when they lived a block apart in Nassau Bay.

"He's a special kind of guy. He just knows people and he's likeable."

Well into his 10th decade, Jackson is sharp and capable. He still drives - his license is up for renewal in January - and his recall of facts, dates and conversations is better than that of many 20-year-olds. But he's decided to finally hang up his space agency hat - and his distinction as the oldest full-time employee at Johnson.

"I've been there long enough," Jackson said. "I'm beginning to feel aged ... and it's time I go."

Jackson's life adventures can be summed up by a simple phrase: "I said, 'Well, OK.' "

His ready-for-anything attitude started in 1944, when he joined the Marine Corps at age 17 right after graduating high school.

Less than two years later, Jackson left the military for college. The war was over, he said, and he was ready to move on with his life - a career in the military was never his dream.

'The thought of man in space'

His real dream was to study engineering, but he said Texas Christian University in Fort Worth didn't have a program at the time.

"Well, OK," he said, switching gears to study psychology.

He was working on the flight line at Bell Helicopter while earning his master's degree, he said, when the Fort Worth-based aerospace manufacturer asked him to step in as an electrician.

"Well, OK," he said. "That's great, more money."

He spent time as a probation officer in late 1950s, he said, and then worked at General Dynamics on the Atlas rockets - which helped launch four Mercury astronauts into space, including John Glenn - in California and the F-111 fighter jet in Fort Worth.

America had entered the 1960s by then, a time ushered in by the space race and Kennedy's push to land a man on the moon.

"It was an exciting time," said Jackson's son, who's name also is John. "It was interesting; it was the thought of man in space that drew (Dad) in."

Jackson was approached about working at NASA in the mid-1960s, and gave his typical response.

"Well, OK," he said.

Bees, rats and eggs in space

Jackson's file of the student space experiments he led in the 1980s is more than an inch thick.

His favorites are the ones with funny stories attached, told so often the lines are worn like the pages of a well-loved book.

There was that one time his students sent bees into space on the Space Shuttle, pleading that astronauts not use the fly swatters stashed onboard to ruin their experiment.

Another time, Kentucky Fried Chicken sponsored a student experiment on how eggs fared in microgravity.

And how could Jackson forget the battle he had to wage to get rats on the Space Shuttle for an experiment?

For Jackson, this was the most rewarding part of his time at NASA - not the astronaut training, not his work with Skylab and not the Houston parade he orchestrated for John Glenn following his 1998 Space Shuttle Discovery flight.

The student program "was wonderful," he said. "I'm very much behind the educational aspect of NASA."

Bill Seitz first met Jackson in the late 1980s, during the throes of this student program. Though they didn't directly work together, Jackson's passion for the program was obvious, Seitz said.

"He was always running around and getting things done" for the students, he added.

It would be 20 years before the two actually worked together, but Seitz said it was worth the wait.

As chief of Johnson's Habitability and Environmental Factors Division, Seitz noticed Jackson's ability to get along with everyone and make people happy. He knew the perfect job for someone with that set of skills: Facility Manager for the building they shared.

Essentially, Jackson has been responsible for maintaining the facility, including building systems such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning, electrical, and plumbing, and managing building services including custodial, electrical and handymen.

"People loved him," Seitz said. "He took a lot of initiative."

And it was amazing, Seitz said, to see a 91-year-old zooming up and down the halls, getting things done and telling stories of the old days at Johnson.

Seitz retired from Johnson in March - he just couldn't wait for Jackson to bring his career to a close any longer, he joked.

But Jackson finally is ready. After he removes the last piece of history from his office Friday, he's not sure what he'll do.

He hopes to read more, and watch some TV.

But he also hopes to travel. He's still got a lot of adventure left.

"His sister lived to be 103," his son said. "He's got time left."