Published April 28, 2011
Dwight Woolhouse proudly admits that he cried during each of the 133 space shuttle launches.
“It affects me very deeply,” Woolhouse told FoxNews.com. “I think it’s just the culmination of so many hours of hard work.”
Woolhouse was on the shuttle's original design team, helping NASA craft the space taxi nearly 40 years ago. Today, he works as the program manager of shuttle orbiter development at Boeing, where he oversees 300 engineers. But he remembers clearly the day his decades-long love affair with space exploration began.
“It was the Chicago Daily News, and the cover read, ‘Russia Sends Man to Space,’’ said Woolhouse -- who also happens to be a retired newspaper delivery boy. “I knew it then: That was what I had to do.”
After that, Woolhouse read anything he could about space exploration -- and annoyed his mother terribly when he would cut out space articles from newspapers. After graduating with an aerospace engineering degree from San Diego State University in 1968, he -- ahem -- landed a job at McDonnell-Douglas, where he helped design Skylab’s water system.
“Some people grow up wanting to be an astronaut,” he told FoxNews.com. “I was a little more realistic; I was fine with giving them a machine to do what they have to in.”
While working for McDonnell-Douglas, he heard that Rockwell International, another aerospace company, won the contract from NASA to build the space shuttle.
“That’s where I knew the future would be,” he said.
He applied for a job and was hired in 1972. Woolhouse was “at the bottom of the totem pole” as an engineer, but as time passed he grew in the company. Before long, he assumed important tasks, designing the orbiter’s side hatch and eventually the flight-control actuator, which controls the rudder on the wings and tail that steers the shuttle during reentry.
The nine-year design process was humbling, he said. During a normal day at the vast facility in Downey, Calif., engineers would hatch ideas, argue about why they wouldn’t work, bring it to the lab, refine the idea, go back to the drawing board and begin the process the next day.
NASA told the company it wanted a spacecraft that had a 100-flight lifespan. He said engineers delivered. These orbiters may be retiring, but they are in many ways in the prime of their career, Woolhouse believes.
As Endeavor's final launch looms, the shuttle fleet is one step closer to the pages of history books. And around Boeing's Huntington Beach campus, there is an underlying feeling of sadness among the 300 designers who, in many cases, worked with each other during the entire program.
“It’s a little sad for all of the design team,” Woolhouse told FoxNews.com. “We look at the shuttles like they’re our children.”
And like all parents, even if they don’t want to admit it, Woolhouse has a favorite: “The Discovery is one sweet machine," he said, with a tinge of excitement. “It’s just beautiful.”
Although most of the shuttles -- Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour -- contributed to the International Space Station, Woolhouse said the Discovery was the initial shuttle to put the Hubble space telescope into orbit -- and it was the first to launch after both shuttle disasters.
Woolhouse, 65, doesn’t know his job’s future at Boeing. But his love affair with space exploration will continue the rest of his life, even if it’s just talking with his wife Carolyn about the newest technology over breakfast.
So during Endeavor’s final liftoff Friday afternoon, Woolhouse will pull up a chair at his office, make sure all Boeing's components are prepared for launch and watch the liftoff one last time. Boeing has a strict, no-alcohol policy at the Huntington facility -- so the champagne will have to stay on ice.
Woolhouse will likely cry, again, when Endeavour lifts off. But he’s not worried about his colleagues being annoyed.
“They’re used to it,” he said with a laugh.