Mission: Space Frontiers

THURSDAY, JAN. 24, 2008

Don’t call Joe Bruce spacey. Call him Space Guy.

OK, he gets a little dreamy when talking about landing a man on Mars or traveling outside the solar system.

But he’s really down-to-earth, the kind of guy you might want to invite to your classroom or church to give a talk.

Bruce, of Spokane’s South Side, makes public appearances as a volunteer in what’s become a midlife mission. He calls it his Space Frontiers program.

Earlier this month he spoke at Pioneer School on Sullivan Road in Spokane Valley. Last year, he appeared in Post Falls, Airway Heights and at several Spokane schools.

Next Thursday, he will appear at Sunrise Elementary, 14603 E. 24th Ave., for an annual speaker’s night event from 6 to 8 p.m.

“Even if I touch just one child the spark might be lit,” he said. “Who knows? They might go on and find a cure for cancer.”

He dresses in an authentic blue space shuttle flight suit and comes with plenty of his own visual aids. He calls them his big-boy toys.

They include two space shuttle tires, a mannequin dressed in a Russian space suit, a hatch door off a spacecraft cargo bay and freeze-dried space food still in its original wrapping.

“As a kid, the space program fascinated me,” he said. “I’ve always been into it.”

That fascination led to Bruce’s passion: collecting space memorabilia and artifacts. He began buying stuff in the mid-1970s. He’s turned one corner of his basement in southeast Spokane into a museum of sorts with overhead track lighting and cushioned rubber floor. You can’t miss the orange X-15 flight suit on the rear wall.

He admits he once dreamed of being an astronaut so being a collector and lecturer are the next best thing, he said.

“This collection, it is Joe Bruce,” he said during an interview at his home last week. “It’s who I am.”

He said his wife, Kathy, is understanding.

After all, Bruce has embarked over the years on his own kind of space travel that includes Kathy and his two children: visits to Cape Canaveral to watch launches of the space shuttle.

There’s nothing like the penetrating rumble and light show of a rocket launch, he said. Never mind the fact it only lasts a few minutes.

Back at home, Bruce works as director of children’s ministries at Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church. He is a 1981 graduate of Central Washington University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in science education. He spent three years teaching in Spokane, but left public education to help run a family-owned bike shop before joining Hamblen five years ago.

Last month, Bruce was accepted to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Solar System Ambassador program, which will provide Bruce with additional training and resources for his Space Frontiers program. He said the acceptance validates his work.

He views space outreach in the same spirit he does his ministry work.

He wants to inspire children to have dreams and to believe in themselves so that they achieve what they want in the same way that the astronauts and space engineers have been able to reach the moon and beyond.

To assemble his collection, Bruce has gone on eBay, bought from an auction house and made contact with people associated with the space program.

He has a card-mounted grain of sand from the moon that was cleaned from a flight suit after a lunar mission. He also has pieces of meteorites that were scientifically traced to their origins on the moon and Mars.

One of his prized possessions is an Apollo 13 flight plan signed by flight commander Jim Lovell and flight director Gene Krantz.

He got that and several original manuals from a retired NASA employee, Phil Dasch, of Spokane, who wanted Bruce to use the materials as part of his Space Frontiers program, he said.

In addition to the memorabilia, Bruce also uses his art skill to produce pencil sketches of the space program scenes. One of them is signed by the crew.

The best part of the collection, he said, is it brings space exploration closer to home. “I want to be able to touch it and feel it,” he said. “I want to be able to share that.”

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