Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Mississippi Marine Missile Men

From the melting snows of the Alaskan wilderness to the sweltering shores of Florida’s Space Coast, my weekend was quite a juxtaposition jaunt. As my outlaws, Miss Brenda, and I concluded our eight-day excursion through a slice of Alaska last week, I parted company with them a day early and caught the red eye from Anchorage to Orlando (via Seattle) Thursday night (actually early Friday morning). I linked up with my business partner and his family in Orlando Friday evening, and then, Saturday morning, escorted a couple of clients over to the Kennedy Space Center to see the launch of STS 124 to the International Space Station.

Thirty-three years ago, when I was a rising sophomore (and 3rd Class Midshipman in the Naval ROTC at Ole Miss, I welcomed aboard a freshmen class (4th Class Midshipmen) of a half dozen new aspirants to commissions as Marine officers. My fellow “old hands” and I were given the responsibility of showing these new freshmen the ropes and helping them make the transition from high-schooler to college man, and, more importantly, help them assimilate into one of the more exclusive fraternities on campus—the Ole Miss Marines.

That small, tight-knit and tightly wound fraternity, particularly the year groups that graduated in the late 70’s has some remarkably accomplished alumni (present company excepted, of course). Three of that half dozen future Marine officers in the class of ’79, Dan, Joe, and Bill are a group I refer to as the Mississippi Rocket Club. Dan and Joe, like me, were liberal arts majors, had therefore more prospects as career military men than as businessmen, and made 20+ year careers out of our commissions as Marine officers. Bill, on the other hand, had an engineering degree, and left the Marine Corps, shortly after his service obligation was up, to put his degree to work at something a little more useful than determining the range and elevation of an infantry weapon system. Soon enough, Bill was hired by NASA, and, due to his leadership and management expertise, began a rather rapid rise up through the leadership of mankind’s most ambitious agency.

When Dan retired from the Marine Corps in 1999, he joined Bill at NASA, serving at the Johnston Space Center as the public affairs officer and then as Executive Assistant to the Director of JSC (yet another Marine).

As the rest of us proudly kept track, Bill continued to move up into successively greater positions of authority--Director of Operations at the Stennis Space Center (rocket test center) on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and then Director at Stennis. When the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry and NASA plunged into its greatest self-examination since the Space Shuttle Challenger's launch failure, Bill was hand-picked to shepherd the shuttle program back to successful flight status. Upon successful completion of that mission, Bill was reassigned from his post as Shuttle Program Director back to his post as Director at Stennis. Shortly thereafter he was reassigned to the Kennedy Space Center as Assistant Director. A couple of years ago he was appointed Director at KSC.

Joe commanded the First Marine Regiment in the Race to Baghdad in 2003 and then retired from active duty as a colonel, a couple of years later. When Bill took over as Director at KSC, he brought Joe on as his de facto chief of staff to exploit Joe's talents at teaching staffs to lead and manage. One of Joe's current responsibilities is oversight of the public events at KSC surrounding a launch. I shamelessly exploited that connection to get me and some clients invitations to view the launch from the closest public vantage point--three miles from the pad.

Another accomplished alumna of that Ole Miss Marines class of '79, Dana--now running a collection of VoTech schools in California--joined us for the launch. To complete the Mississippi Marine rocket reunion, the senior member of what he refers to as the "Mississippi Club" (Marines with a Mississippi connection), Major General Tom "Tango" Moore, helicopter pilot-extraordinaire and current Chief of Staff at CentCom) was on hand. Tango is not an Ole Miss grad--Delta State, instead. But, the Mississippi connection is clearly there. Both Joe and I served with him and consider him a mentor of the first rank.

There was entirely too much Marine testosterone gathered in one place! The brilliance of that collection of egos was eclipsed only by the bright flare of Discovery as she leapt from the pad right on time.
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