Awakening to ‘The Force,’ A Long Time Ago

From the December 2015 issue of Goddard View

Across the country and worldwide, millions of moviegoers are lining up to catch “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

For some, the film is merely entertainment. For others, including many at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the seventh installment of the iconic space fiction series is the latest chapter of what has been a lifelong fascination with Star Wars, space technology, and the exploration of galaxies far, far away.Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 9.20.47 AM

Just like how “the Force” has guided the fate of the Jedi, several of Goddard’s own have credited the Star Wars franchise with helping guide their career trajectories.

“People who become astronomers have a very common story. We can’t remember any time when we weren’t fascinated by stars and space. It’s not something you accidentally get into,” said Michelle Thaller, former Goddard assistant director for science communication and current NASA deputy director for science communication. “Star Wars was all wrapped up in that: science fiction depictions of space.”

One such enthusiast is Dennis Woodfork, assistant division chief for technology in the Goddard Mission Engineering and Systems Analysis Division.

He recalls how – in 1977 – NASA helped launch the Voyager spacecraft, which would eventually encounter Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In the same year, George Lucas released the first Star Wars film.

“Growing up, Star Wars and the exploration of new planets had such a profound impact on me,” Woodfork said. “I thought, ‘I have to go do that.’”

The series’ themes of temptation and self-discipline would later become instrumental to Woodfork’s time in the U.S. Navy. “You can take these themes from the movies and use them as a way to teach kids,” he added. “Themes like: You have to try really hard. Otherwise, you won’t reach your full potential.”

Similarly, Andrew Maynard was a child when NASA began the Space Shuttle Program. In 1980, when he was 6 years old and about a year before the first shuttle launched into space, he saw “The Empire Strikes Back” – the second release in the Star Wars franchise.

“Star Wars definitely informed my belief system that there is something else out there,” he said. “I wanted to live in the Star Wars universe. It was so interesting and gritty and real. Part of what I looked for in a career was being able to find those people because they could be cool. They also could be terrifying.”

Today, Maynard is the head of the propulsion branch in MESA. And while Goddard’s brightest minds now work on some of the most complex missions in real-life space exploration, the perpetual excitement over Star Wars makes it seem as if their childhoods never ended.

MESA mechanical engineer Allison Evans first learned about Star Wars during an episode of “Reading Rainbow.” After watching the series on VHS, she kept trying to use “the Force” to move teddy bears around her room.

“I was 8 years old, and I felt like it was such a grown-up show,” Evans said. “My dad and I were on the couch eating popcorn. It was a nice bonding activity.”

Decades later, she now searches Goodwill and antique shops for vintage trinkets along with her husband. Thaller, meanwhile, says she’s lost track of how many Star Wars costumes she’s collected over the years.

Mike Marosy, a graphics designer in the Goddard Technical Information and Management Services Branch, still owns most of the figurines and toys from his childhood. And he has designed five pins, which have helped raise more than $23,000 for local children’s charities though a Washington, D.C.-area Star Wars collecting club.

For several years, he’s been working to add another toy to his collection: a full-size model of the character R2-D2. “R2’s always been a character I enjoyed,” he said.

The body parts have all been collected and are ready for painting and eventual wiring. Its dome is functional and has been signed by actor Kenny Baker, who portrayed the robot in all the films in the series.

With two kids and not much spare time, Marosy’s not sure when he’ll finish the project, which he began in 2006. The delays notwithstanding, he is ensuring that his children will nonetheless share in his passion by taking them to see “The Force Awakens.”

Woodfork also took his wife and children to see the film on opening weekend. Meanwhile, Maynard took his wife and kids to the theater while dressed in their Star Wars pajamas.

“We celebrate our nerdity in our household,” Maynard joked.

Nearly 40 years have passed since the first Star Wars film made its debut in theaters and captured the imaginations of legions of faithful followers. But with the franchise still going strong, and at least two more film releases scheduled, “the Force” will likely remain with future generations.

“Watching it with my kids, I can see the thrill they get that I got back with the original movies,” Marosy added. “It’s neat to experience.”

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