Storyteller Jay O’Callahan
“Forged in the Stars”
Performed at The Harvard Art Museum
Tuesday, March 2, 2010, 6 PM, free!
Running time 75 minutes
We’re putty in a storyteller’s palms. No matter how many gadgets and apps and iPods we invent, nothing will replace the immediacy of being mesmerized by a man or woman whose voice can create a universe out of thin air.
Give a guy like Jay O’Callahan a stool and an audience and he’ll take you to places just as magical as any Avatar or Star Wars movie.
The first time I heard O’Callahan was 1974 in the newly constructed John Pierce Elementary School in Brookline, Massachusetts. We wanted to create a positive buzz about the school’s unconventional design. The three-floor, open space floor plan incorporated the library at its core. Every classroom was visually connected to each other and to the library. What a cool space to present a fellow like O’Callahan.
O'Callahan's launch pad was a small 3-foot high stage erected in the middle of the first floor, surrounded by the library and six classrooms. Over 500 kids (including my class of 4th graders up there on the third floor) and staff filled in around the stage and perched along every inch of the railings around the two upper levels to watch O’Callahan, a 34 year old just launching his career, tell stories about growing up in Brookline. Any guy who can command the attention of an audience of kindergarteners to 8th graders for the better part of an hour is some kind of special.
He was on the right glide path. By now, he’s told stories to audiences all over the world. Two years ago, NASA commissioned O’Callahan to write a story that would celebrate its 50th anniversary. During his preface to re-telling the story at the Harvard Art Museum in Cambridge last night, O’Callahan recalled a moment in the middle of a planning meeting. Ed Hoffman, director of NASA’s Academy of Program, Project & Engineering Leadership, enthusiastically exclaimed, “Write a love letter to NASA!”
Mission statement in hand, O’Callahan steeped himself in NASA culture. He read over 30 books. He watched tapes of NASA’s historical achievements. He spent months interviewing scientists, astronauts, engineers, and computer specialists who’d worked with NASA since the beginning. “They were all engineers at heart, all numbers and theories," he said in mock exasperation during his opening remarks, “what kind of stories could they have?”
“What brings you to work?” he asked them in his visits to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The results floored him. Smart, driven, and inspired, many revealed they’d been hooked on space as children and that they were living out a dream of a lifetime.
“I ended up with 1000 pages of notes and facts,” he said.” When I talked to them about their work, they opened up like flowers.”
How will I ever tell this story, he wondered. One day, mowing the lawn at his home in Marshfield, MA, he got it. Invent characters and a story line that will synthesize everything he’d soaked up in his months of reading, viewing, questioning, and listening.
With that, O’Callahan blasted off - and took us with him. “It all begins on October 27, 2007 in Boston, Massachusetts,” he begins quietly.
Within minutes, he’s sketched out the four main characters, Kate Decordova, mechanical engineering student at Northeastern University; Jack Carver, son of a Maine lobsterman and now PhD candidate at MIT; Cynthia Moss of St. Paul, Minnesota, Kate’s eccentric roommate and music major at New England Conservatory; and Edith Whiteside, a clench-jawed but warm-hearted Boston Brahmin (“the empress of the streetcar,” O’Callahan calls her in Kate's first chance meeting with her).
The back story is that Kate and Jack have been engaged, then un-engaged, then at Jack’s request, join together to present a program about space exploration at a prestigious conference which he’s been invited to keynote. “You tell three stories twelve minutes long about NASA history and I’ll finish by citing the greatest moments of the Jet Propulsion Lab’s history,” he begs her.
They make a plan to meet on three successive Thursday nights during which Kate will tell Jack each of her three stories.
With that O’Callahan taps into the solid fuel of his story. Kate’s first NASA tale is about J. C. High Eagle, a Cherokee from Oklahoma who won't give in to discrimination and becomes an unlikely and successful NASA engineer in a career spanning 40 years.
By now, you can see O'Callahan's going to pull together the threads of data he’s gathered to weave a patchwork quilt telling the stories of the extraordinary cast of characters who made NASA a household name in the second half of the 20th century. “Forged In The Stars” is going to be about people, not algorithms.
Her second story is about Neil Armstrong being questioned about his 50,000 foot decent onto the moon in the lunar module by a fictitious somewhat dyspeptic admiral. I thought I pretty much knew that story. I watched the first moon landing happen on a TV set in Kalispell, Montana on July 20, 1969. Until tonight, I never knew that some scientists speculated the moon dust was a mile thick and the astronauts might sink in it. And I didn’t know the details of the human drama of the last 90 seconds of the lunar module landing.
“The work of 600,000 people went into this mission, the fire that lifted the rocket into space was boosted by the hopes of millions and the wonder of every child who ever imagined a world in space,” Armstrong says. "When we three astronauts toured the world after the mission, people kept greeting us not with 'You did it' but with 'We did it.'"
If you couldn’t tolerate risk and danger, you didn’t work at NASA. Kate's third story is about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher chosen to fly aboard the ill-fated Challenger that exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986. Her recounting of the failure of management at NASA and Morton-Thiokol to address the O-ring problems, poignant to this day, still evokes tears. So does the warm portrayal of McAuliffe, who contributed so much to her community, her school, and her students before being chosen as the first “Teacher In Space.”
The final section is Jack’s. O’Callahan delivers a surprising switcheroo as he has Carver abandon his fact heavy speech. Instead, Jack tells the story of his father opening up the universe to him as they looked skyward when they were at sea when he was a boy. Jack finishes with the saga of the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, still plunging past our known universe as he speaks.
O’Callahan’s construct melds massive amounts of factual material and invents fictional characters to frame NASA’s history. At every turn O’Callahan fills the story with anecdotes about the ways these scientists and engineers were influenced by personal fascination with space as children. Their work was their passion. O’Callahan inserted wry humor to punctuate the dialogue every time the going got heavy.
“What’s your dream?” Kate recalls Edith Whiteside asking her early in the first story.
O’Callahan probably never dreamed of being offered a $50,000 commission by NASA to create a story that underscored the passion of the men and women who took mankind to the moon. His enthralling "love letter" took us to the moon and beyond.
Photo courtesy of O'Callahan's web site