From the countryside to the cosmos: How a Franklin County man found his place among the stars – Franklin County Times


It was 1971. In downtown Corpus Christi, Texas, Keith Bates hid in a newsstand, where newspapers from across the country were for sale. “I bought every one I could find – Denver, Chicago, New York, Miami – and took them home and took the classifieds out of them.” The recently fired Bates scanned job postings line by line and sent out resumes to every likely option, over a hundred, across the country.

Aluminum Smelters of New Jersey, a listing he found in the Philadelphia Inquirer, was the only job offer he received. So he and his wife Gail and their baby boy, Kevin, packed their bags and moved across the country for the new opportunity as Supervisor of Aluminum Extrusion – a job that would be part of an estate. propelling Bates into the national space program.

Bates’ story begins, of course, a little closer to home – in Pleasant Site, Franklin County, where he grew up. The 1965 Red Bay class alumnus said he still had the mechanical mind. He worked on a pair of mules and drove a tractor to help with farm chores when he was around 12, and by 15 he worked as a part-time auto mechanic and farmer. At that time, he believed he would one day put his skills to good use as a tool and die maker in the automotive industry. In the end, he could have aimed a little higher, as his career would one day place him among the brightest engineering minds in the country.

When Bates was a fresh-faced 18-year-old, he met the woman who would become his wife, Gail Rea. A mutual friend connected them, to facilitate a double date. “He said, when I walked into that living room, he thought, ‘I’m going to marry her if there is a way in the world,'” said Gail, who also grew up in the county. Franklin, who graduated from Belgreen in 1967. She didn’t share his immediate attraction, but eventually, she jokes, he exhausted her. They were married on Christmas Eve 1966.

Bates said he always had in mind he would go to college, an ideal defined by his parents. He started at Phil Campbell’s Junior College, the first year the school had established a formal campus. It was the chemistry professor there, a Mississippi state graduate, who convinced Bates to drop his plan to major in mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama and enroll instead. to the State of Mississippi to be part of the cooperative program with Redstone Arsenal. His mentor at the Arsenal was John Honeycutt – a man who would prove to be a crucial link later in life.

After graduating in materials engineering – which he chose simply because he aligned with the co-op program – Bates moved his family to Texas for a year. The job in Texas ultimately fired him, setting him on the path that would lead to the space program.

From aluminum smelters, Bates’ career progression brought his family to Wisconsin, where he held a similar position for Vulcan Materials; at Reynolds Metals Company, where he started as a metallurgist in Texas and Sheffield before becoming an application engineer based in Virginia; and Revere Copper and Brass in Scottsboro, Goose Pond Island, where he rose to the post of mill superintendent.

It was his next opportunity, however, that would prove to be the defining job change in Bates’ career.

It was 1983 and Bates’ mentor Honeycutt was still working at the Arsenal. A colleague of NASA contractor United Space Boosters Incorporated in Huntsville asked Honeycutt if he knew of anyone with aluminum expertise who would be interested in coming to work as a powder propellant engineer for the space shuttle program. – and Honeycutt knew the perfect man for the job. As Bates’ time at Revere came to an end due to a plant shutdown, he needed a job, so the position at USBI came at the right time.

As he puts it in his resume, Bates “took on increasing responsibilities”, moving from Senior Materials Engineer at SRB to Head of SRB Materials and Processes to Director of SRB M&P before moving to United Space Alliance in the same role. , when the United States – a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin – continuation of the SRB contract.

In early 1997, the Bates dropped off their daughter Amy at the University of Montevallo and traveled to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

A job Bates thought he could hold for a few years had turned into a 14-year career – and it wasn’t over yet.

His wife remembers when Bates told her he thought he was in the running for the chief engineer of the United Space Alliance. Of course, with a fair amount of humility, Bates said he never thought he would be selected. Nonetheless, in 2004 he found himself at the helm as chief engineer for SRB, based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“This is the ultimate dream job for an engineer,” Bates said. “You have no personnel problem. We had hundreds of engineers and technicians working on the boosters, and each of them reported to me technically. I could tell any of them what they could do and what they couldn’t do, but they all had their own reporting line. With personnel matters relegated to other managers, Bates, in his role, was able to focus on making unbiased and undistracted decisions about shuttle readiness. “The chief engineer is ultimately responsible for making all technical decisions and taking the risks associated with those decisions, as to whether the vehicle is ready to fly or not, from the smallest to the biggest decision. “

Bates became chief engineer the year after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. “The first year the only thing we did was try to get past Columbia. It wasn’t a booster problem, it was a tank problem, but we were all still dead in the water, ”Bates explained. He had already experienced the Challenger disaster of 1986 during his time at the USBI and was involved in the investigation of the case – for which he received a certificate of appreciation from then-NASA administrator James C. Fletcher. So recovering from a major shuttle disaster was unfortunately not a new experience.

When he first launched as Chief Engineer in 2005, Austin, Bates’ 10-year-old grandson, was excited to watch the event on TV – but probably no more than Bates himself. “We were excited then because we hadn’t flown for over two years,” Bates said.

From 2004 to 2008, Chief Engineer Bates was the contact person for 10 launches. Out of the total 135 missions carried out by space shuttles during the mandate of the space transportation system 1981-2011, he participated in 128 of them in one capacity or another.

Bates has many memories of his work as a chief engineer. One happened on a Saturday morning when he was called around 11 a.m. to assess damage to a shuttle that had been struck by lightning the night before. The shuttle was on the pad, ready to take off, and the team needed Bates’ approval to be allowed to fly.

“At 2 a.m. he still wasn’t home,” Gail said. “He told me when he left, ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back.’ The only thing we had then were BlackBerrys, so we didn’t have texting, just emails. He emailed me at 2 am and said, “Pray for me. . They’re trying to get me to sign, and I’m not going to do it.

With no way to make sure the shuttle wasn’t damaged, Bates had to stand up to his colleagues who insisted that everything was fine. “He knew if he signed it and that thing exploded, it would be his signature,” Gail explained. When another tropical storm struck, necessitating a delay in launch, Bates and his team were able to take the time to check all the circuits feeding the systems and determine that all was well. “We have never been so proud of a tropical storm before.”

In another incident, which Bates said was fun but needed repair, one of the shuttles on the pad was attacked by spikes. “They were attacking the foam insulation of the tank. This foam is thick and has the texture of a spray foam that you would fill a hole in the wall of your house with. It’s really easy for woodpeckers to peck holes in it… Apparently they made nests.

As chief engineer, Bates said, although he coordinated with the technical community, he was largely the final say for the United States on preparing SRBs for launch. It was a responsibility he assumed with serene confidence. “They said the more complex the problem and the harder it was, the calmer I became,” Bates said. “I have been told. I don’t remember it that way, but I don’t remember being nervous or scared. This has always been my approach: predict the worst, hope for the best. I think the worst will happen, but we will be okay with it. “

Bates left the Chief Engineer position to become Director of Design Engineering in 2008, which allowed him and Gail to leave Florida to return to his Huntsville-based Alabama home. After more than 28 years in the shuttle program, he retired in 2011 – but it didn’t last long.

After dismantling and rebuilding a classic car and winning auto shows, Bates didn’t know how to spend his retirement years. It was then that another opportunity presented itself with the space program. With most of his career focused on materials and processes, Bates continues to build on that experience as a consultant to the SLS booster at NASA-MSFC, a role he has held since 2015.

“When I was offered the option to go back to work part-time,” Bates said, “of course it took me a while to think about it. I really struggled to make the decision. – for about two seconds He joined us right away, and the consultant’s job is what he continues to do to this day.

Interestingly, another Pleasant Site man, Jerry Smelser, was space shuttle main engine and external tank areas project manager at Marshall Space Flight Center around the same time as Bates, although they never crossed paths professionally. Bates said he had always been proud. Pleasant Site has not one but two men who were instrumental in the space program.

Bates chokes when he reflects on how the Lord has directed his steps in life. “None of the decisions I made were really mine,” he said. “At the time, I was just trying to keep a job. It was tough in the early ’70s. Come to think of it … there’s no way I was smart enough to do all of this. I have been blessed beyond imagination.

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