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NASA brought economic boost to West Virginia

Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

FAIRMONT, W. Va. -- This town's courtship of NASA began on a summer day in 1992 when Charlie Reese got a call from his wife.

Keith Pauley, a nuclear physicist for Titan Corp., based in Fairmont, W.Va., looks at a copy of the Houston newspaper headlining the Columbia shuttle tragedy. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"She said, 'What have you done now?' recalled Reese, head of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce. "I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'Senator Byrd wants to see you in his office tomorrow morning.' "

Sen. Byrd is Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia's extremely powerful Democratic senator and not a man to be trifled with.

When Reese got to Byrd's office, the senator had good news. He asked Reese what incentives Fairmont could offer to help Byrd land a small office of the national space agency with the unwieldy name of the Independent Verification and Validation Facility.

Reese persuaded West Virginia University, just up Interstate 79 in Morgantown, to provide 12 acres in a new business and technology park for the NASA operation. WVU continues to own the modern building in which NASA is now housed.

The verification facility has a budget of $35 million a year. While it employs about 30 NASA people directly, there are 200 other employees of private corporations funded through NASA grants

Its job, in short, is to check and double-check all software used in space shuttle flights and other space missions.

Now 10 years old, the NASA facility has played a major role in most of the space shuttle missions that came after the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger. It also works on software for the International Space Station, which has been in orbit around Earth for more than two years, staffed with American and Russian crews.

Even though software problems had nothing to do with the Challenger explosion, Nelson "Ned" Keeler said the center's mission was established as "another layer of quality assurance" to make sure missions go as planned.

"The earlier we learn to find a problem, the less expensive it is to fix," he said.

Software is crucial for all types of work on the space shuttle, the space station and the Hubble space telescope, which sends to Earth pictures of planets and galaxies in space.

Keeler and Keith Pauley, a physicist and software expert, said software was used to control the guidance and navigation systems, to monitor the temperature and atmosphere for breathing within the shuttle, to run communications systems that allow the astronauts to talk with the space center in Houston, to help astronauts with various scientific experiments they must do, and myriad other tasks.

Teachers go to the Fairmont facility to learn about rockets and space, knowledge they take back to their classrooms. Equipment, such as a portable, 12-foot-high domed planetarium, is available so teachers can show star formations to students.

Besides Byrd's influence, Fairmont relied on the aid of U.S. Rep. Allan Mollohan, a longtime Democratic congressman, to get the software center.

Byrd and Mollohan have "both been important in bringing high-technology jobs to the I-79 corridor" from Morgantown to Clarksburg, Fairmont Mayor Nick Fantasia said.

He said the high-paying jobs at the NASA facility had provided a major economic boost to the Fairmont area.

The region had lost 4,000 jobs in the glass industry, 2,000 jobs in steel and far more jobs in its backbone, the mining industry. Mollohan said the jobless rate spiked at about 21 percent in his first year in Congress, 1983, a time he called "the Reagan recession." He said it was clear to him he had to work on attracting new types of industry, including aerospace and high technology.

His work is what has helped bring highly educated employees such as Pauley, the software expert, to Fairmont.

Like most NASA employees, Pauley will never forget what he was doing Feb. 1 when Columbia exploded. But he has an extra reason to hold that in his heart. He knew two of the shuttle astronauts who died, and worked with one of them, Willie McCool, every day for more than two years when Pauley was based in Texas.

"He was quiet and unassuming, soft-spoken and very bright," Pauley said of McCool. "He didn't say much, but what he did say was always important."

Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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