Carolyn Propst, 53, woke up at 4 a.m. Dec. 5 to watch the first test flight of NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.
The unmanned spacecraft was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, orbited Earth twice and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 640 miles south-southeast of San Diego. The entire flight lasted just under four and a half hours.
Propst, who lives in Cannon Beach, had a very personal reason for checking out the live coverage: For more than two decades, she worked as a navigation flight controller for NASA at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This was during the years of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, which ran from 1972 to 2011.
“It was great to see us flying in space again,” said Propst, who earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1984 and a master’s degree in astronomy in 1988, both at the University of Florida.
At 27 years old, right after graduation, Propst starting working for Rockwell International, a company that contracted with NASA to operate the shuttle vehicles (United Space Alliance took over later on). The infamous Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986 was still relatively fresh on everyone’s mind, and NASA was getting ready to launch again in September 1988 after a two-year grounding.
While working for NASA, Propst stayed in the navigation department and worked her way up to lead the entire navigation group. Early on, the group employed about 75 people, but, as technology improved, the group shrank to about 45, she said.
Propst remained at Johnson Space Center for 23 years, except for a year-and-a-half stint from 1999 to 2000 at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Co. There, she worked for the Boeing Company as a mission planner.
Her mission? Planning maneuvers for the Air Force’s GPS satellites, making sure they remained in the “optimum location” in the sky for people on the ground to receive a good signal.
When a GPS satellite had reached the end of its “useful lifetime” — which happens when it either breaks down mechanically or starts running out of fuel — Propst and her team would have to “dispose” of them.
With the remaining fuel, her team would boost the dead or dying satellite as far out into space as possible so there would never be a collision with another satellite. “You want to get it as far away as you can.”
Propst planned the disposal of two such satellites while in Colorado.
It was shortly after moving back to Houston that Propst — who grew up in the little lake community of Sparta Township, New Jersey — discovered Cannon Beach.
In 2000, while visiting her sister in Idaho, she decided to make a trip to the Oregon Coast. She got hooked on the natural beauty, and, after that, started vacationing on the North Coast at least twice a year, she said. “I just kept coming back.”
When the Space Shuttle program officially ended in 2011 — and it was clear that several years would pass before Orion got off the ground — she chose to retire. “It was a natural breaking point.”
Propst finally moved to Cannon Beach in November 2011. She lives in a condo on Elk Creek Road.
Reflecting on her years with NASA, she said, “I enjoyed it immensely.”
That said, Houston, in her opinion, is “not the most attractive place to live.”
“It’s not very scenic. It’s hot. It’s humid. You have to drive a long, long way to get anywhere that doesn’t look the same as Houston,” she said. “But the job kept me there.”
The North Coast is a different story.
Once she settled into retirement, Propst dived into a whole host of activities and organizations that help keep the character of the coast intact. She just became the newest member of the city’s public works committee.
For the last couple of years, she has volunteered with the North Coast Land Conservancy, participating in their nature walks and becoming part of their outreach program. “It’s so beautiful here,” she said. “This place needs to be conserved and protected.”
Lately, she’s been writing the Haystack Rock Awareness Program Nature Blog (along with HRAP volunteer Rose Rimler). And, this winter, she plans to write profiles on creatures inhabiting the rock. She also has volunteered with the Cannon Beach Cottage & Garden Tour, an annual fundraiser for the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum.
Propst, an avid photographer who also makes jewelry, is the current treasurer of the Cannon Beach Arts Association and a docent with the Cannon Beach Gallery. This month, some of her nature photography, printed on the back of glass, is being featured as part of a larger exhibition called “Glimpses.”
Although she doesn’t use her aeronautic navigation skills very much these days, she hopes her new position on the public works committee, which she will formally join next month, will let her “go back and work on the left side of the brain,” she said.