Mobile museum: NASA collection, talk, tour rural schools

November, 2018 Posted in Nature, School

By Melissa Wagoner

Joseph Phillip Loftus Jr. spent 47 years working for NASA, amassing a treasure-trove of artifacts and documents, which he passed on to his son, James Loftus.

“My father is a retired astronawut,” James said proudly. “He was the chief planner for the Apollo Missions.”

In an attempt to keep his father’s legacy intact – and in his possession – James opened JPL Museum, a mobile micro-museum located inside the Gardner House Café and Bed and Breakfast in Stayton in 2015. Although the space is small, the unique mobile museum allows James to share his father’s legacy with a wider audience including students in schools around the state – especially in rural and outlying areas.

“What really bothered me was the economic isolation and depression in these rural communities,” James explained. “I started calling around to these rural schools and said, ‘Would you like me to come out?’”

Then, in April of 2017 during a trip to Houston with a group of Robotics students from Bend, James had another big idea. He contacted Norman Chaffee – a retired NASA Engineer – and asked him for a favor.

“[James] asked if I would take over 220 students, teachers, and chaperones on a personal tour of Johnson Space Center,” Chaffee reported.

Chaffee was so impressed with the students and teachers who attended the tour that he eventually invited a group of nine students and a teacher from Oregon to participate in the International Space Settlement Design Competition, 2017 World Championship – a competition of the best space settlement designs, judged by NASA. And then in October of that year he and James began a program they called the Rural Schools Education Initiative – a way to reach students in the outlying schools of Oregon, providing a unique insight into what it takes to become a NASA Engineer.

“He shares some stories about growing up in rural Oklahoma,” James said. “He got a chemistry set when he was eight or nine and became fascinated that you could combine elements and make new elements. One of the things I love about when he’s talking to the kids is the trial and error and working through mistakes.”

Last year James and Chaffee traveled for 10 days throughout Eastern Oregon, visiting small towns and speaking to over 1,350 students.

This year they are planning to increase that number to over 2,000 students on a whirl-wind 14-day trip which included a presentation in the Santiam Hospital Auditorium in Stayton – s well as presentations at both Stayton High School and Regis Catholic High School.

“My objective is to do as many schools as possible,” James explained. “It’s amazing the response you get from the students and the teachers.”

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