Growing up in southwest Gainesville in the 1940s and '50s, getting up early and milking the family cow before school, Jack Richards never imagined he'd be deeply involved in the nation's space program.
Of course, there was no U.S. space program until after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957.
Neither did Jack think he'd be in the space industry when he helped his father, an automobile mechanic for the Pontiac dealership, rebuild airplane engines at the Gainesville airport. Nor did it cross his mind when at age 15 he made his first solo flight in a Piper Cub under the tutelage of the legendary Lee Gilmer, for whom the airport now is named.
Lee suggested that Jack and his father learn to fly, which they did. They had been practicing landings when Lee walked around the plane, checking it out after it landed, turned to Jack and said, "It's yours; take it up and go."
Not yet 16 years old when one could get a license, Jack was nervous and excited. He forgot to push the carburetor heat button back in after he took off, but otherwise the first flight went well, and, "I was hooked," he said.
But Jack, who grew up on Banks Street, attended Main Street School and graduated from Gainesville High School, figured he'd be an artist of some kind rather than in some aviation field. He was always drawing, sketching and took a commercial art course by mail.
School was fairly routine. He went out for football and basketball, but didn't play much. His grades were average, and college wasn't even on his radar. After high school graduation, he worked 18 months for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, taking art courses on the side, still thinking something in commercial art would be his career.
Flying nagged, too, though. He returned to Gainesville in 1954 and joined the U.S. Marines with hopes of honing his flying skills. After serving in a flight squadron, he finished his tour and returned to Washington, married and has remained in that area since.
Jack joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., as a contractor in 1960, then as an employee in 1969. By then he had college very much on his mind and earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland while still working.
His first NASA job was designing electronic circuits and systems that would eventually become an instrument to be assembled on a spacecraft. After testing, it would be launched to a distant planet or comet to measure the composition of their atmosphere or gases.
Jack became instrument manager in 1988, managing the people, schedules, testing and budget while ensuring that everything, including the launch, was done on schedule and within budget. That was his job for the Galileo Probe Mass Spectrometer launched successfully to Jupiter, the Cassini Ion and Neutral Gas Mass Spectrometer launched in October 1997 for orbit around Saturn in July 2004; and the Contour Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer launched from Cape Kennedy in July 2002. The Contour mission failed because the spacecraft's rocket engine blew apart.
He moved up NASA's ladder until becoming assistant director for operations for the Earth Sciences Directorate over about 1,200 people.
His work has carried him to several other countries as well as across the United States.
While working and continuing his studies at the University of Maryland, he did find time to work on his commercial pilot's license, take voice lessons, sing as high tenor with a male quartet and as a soloist and with the local Civic Opera.
He doesn't sketch as much as he used to, filling what little spare time he has gardening or working in the yard. When he retires, he might take up painting again.
Since his parents died, he seldom gets back to Gainesville. A younger brother, Buddy, lives in Gainesville. Another brother, Jimmy, retired from the Air Force and lives in Florida, and a sister, Patsy Ayers, lives in Kansas. Jack has two sons and two daughters, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
This December he will have had 44 years of federal service, and he's soon turning 75 years old, but retirement isn't an option. "I'm not thinking about it," he said.
Of his work, he said, "I love every minute of it."
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.