Jay Honeycutt’s first career plans were earthbound and electrically charged.

The former director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, 83, visited with students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, his alma mater, Monday, talking about the direction of the space industry and how they might fit in it.

He spoke for an hour with UL students from the CAPE — Cajun Advanced Pico Satellite — program; his appearance marked a celebration of the CAPE team’s successful completion of its CAPE 3 CubeSat and its upcoming launch, which will likely take place by the end of the year.

The CAPE team was also going to announce a new partnership with six local high schools through which UL students will teach high school students how to build a satellite and launch it.

Honeycutt, a native of Jena, lived in various corners of Louisiana as a boy, his family following his father on assignments for CLECO to Jeanerette, New Iberia, Winnfield and Pineville. After graduation from Pineville High School, he earned a degree in electrical engineering in Lafayette and fully expected to work for CLECO. That was before he was drafted into the Army and served at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

He said he took an engineering job in flight operations at Johnson Space Center in 1966 — Houston was closer to his Louisiana home than Huntsville, he said — and his new niche in the space exploration program became his career path.

Honeycutt worked in supervisory and management positions at the space center that included projects like Apollo and the space shuttle. His many duties over the next two decades included the investigation into the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986 that claimed the life of Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher who was on the flight. Honeycutt was among those who had selected McAuliffe for the mission.

Honeycutt said students he met at the Nick Pugh Aerospace Electronics Research Laboratory reminded him of those who worked at NASA in the 1960s. Most of them were young — 23 to 26, he said — and many came from smaller, Southern campuses like UL, where students are trained in hands-on fashion.

Inside info on doing business in Acadiana

We'll keep you posted on the Acadiana economy. Sign up today.

They were green at their jobs but, in the Space Age’s infancy, so was everyone else. He said with the CAPE 3 students, drawn from multiple academic disciplines know — he would “take them right now and you could do the work.”

“All you needed was the chance, the opportunity to do the work,” he said.

Young engineers today, he said, are “just as bright and capable” as the old Space Center crews were — “and probably a little smarter.” What mission control people need, though, is that some extra: the courage and ability to make split-second decisions that can save the lives of astronauts.

Honeycutt said when he grew up, “there were no astronauts,” so no one aspired to do the work.

When he went to Johnson Space Center, “No one knew what we were doing. There were no old guys telling us to do it this way because they didn’t know any more about what we were doing than we did.”

So young people learned on the job, growing in expertise and knowledge from the Apollo program to space stations to shuttles.

Honeycutt said he had not been on campus for three years, and each time he returns it’s harder to find his way around. Sitting in an engineering building, he said, “I know my way around this building and the bookstore and Martin Hall.”


Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.