By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Betty Gruhler’s 30-year career working for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida started during the golden age of the Apollo program and concluded near the end of the age of the space shuttle.
She was there for the first moon landing, the miraculous return voyage of Apollo 13 and many other events that captured the imagination of the American public. But as Gruhler reflected on that time in her life inside her new apartment at Everlan in Johnson City, she admitted that most days just blended together as she worked to support her four kids as a single mother.
“It was a job,” Gruhler said. “I got up in the morning and I went and I did my work. And then I came home and took care of my kids.
“It was a very busy time. I had no time to go, ‘Oh, I’m doing such a great thing.’ I had no time for that.”
But Gruhler did do great things during her career at NASA. After starting in an entry-level GS-1 typist position in March of 1968, Gruhler steadily climbed the ranks by applying for and receiving promotions when they became available.
At first, the work was mundane. She delivered a lot of mail, answered the phone and pounded away on an electric typewriter. By 1975, Gruhler was clearing visitors through security, training co-op students and establishing a new filing system. It was around this time that Gruhler looked around at the engineers she shared a workspace with and came to a life-changing conclusion.
“I saw those men, what they were doing, and I said, ‘I can do that,’ ” Gruhler recalled. “I just decided that if they could sit there and do that, I could do better. And, you know, I did.”
Gruhler’s path to becoming an engineer was a slow and steady journey that started in September of 1979 and spanned a decade.
“I had four kids, so I could only go to school one night a week, so it took me until I was 42 to get my degree,” she said.
Gruhler’s days typically started with getting her kids up and off to school, and getting herself ready and off to Kennedy Space Center in time to start work at 7 a.m. She typically got off work at 3:30 p.m. so she could be home when the kids got home. One night a week, she dropped the kids off with a babysitter so she could go to class.
“They had to go to the babysitter sometimes, but not all the time because I think kids need a mom,” Gruhler said.
Memorable days were few and far between during this stretch in the 1980s as Gruhler kept up a demanding routine of serving as an employee, parent and student. But January 28, 1986, is one day that will forever be etched into her memory.
Gruhler was in her boss’s office that day, watching the Challenger launch and then witnessing the explosion of the spacecraft. In the aftermath of that tragedy, Gruhler was part of the Search, Recovery and Reconstruction Team. She recalls going to work in the dark and returning home in the dark while helping compile the official report on the accident.
“It was an accident, and we all felt bad,” Gruhler said. “And then to have to go out and check all the pieces in the hangar, that was hard. But it was my job, and I had to do it, so I did it.”
On Dec. 17, 1988, Gruhler earned her BS degree in Math and Science from Rollins College. In January of 1989, she became one of a handful of female engineers working at NASA and spent the final 10 years of her career identifying potential safety issues, implementing solutions and eventually handling logistics for the shuttle program and the space station until her retirement in January of 1998.
Gruhler’s apartment contains plenty of evidence of the high-quality work she did at NASA. Boxes and folders contain countless awards, letters of commendation and other mementos collected during her career.
One honor that stands out is the Silver Snoopy Award she received from astronaut Mike Anderson on Oct. 30, 1996. The Silver Snoopy Award is special because it is awarded to NASA employees by astronauts to acknowledge outstanding performance, contributions to safety and mission success.
Gruhler still has a framed photo of Anderson presenting her with the sterling silver Snoopy lapel pin that flew on a space shuttle mission along with a certificate of commendation. It’s a bittersweet memory for Gruhler as Anderson lost his life when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003.
Despite the fact she had been retired for five years, Gruhler recalls going out to Texas to aid in the recovery operation.
“He had two girls and a wife,” she said. “It’s hard. You know these people, but what do you do? Just go on with my work.”
Retirement has allowed Gruhler to slow down and look back at a remarkable career. The highs and lows weren’t all metaphorical. She started as an entry-level NASA employee and climbed to the upper reaches of the employment ladder by the end of her career, going from GS-1 to GS-12. She also spent time in the offices below the launch pad and once made her way to the top of the gantry that supports the space shuttle while it is on the launch pad.
“Going up the gantry when the shuttle was up there, going up to the top and coming back down, that was exciting,” Gruhler said. “And then the rest was work.”