When the space shuttle Endeavour thundered over Silicon Valley a couple of weeks ago, it shook loose plenty of memories among the thousands of people who turned out to have a look.
But Gloria Beasley Lausten will put her memories up against anybody else's. Her memories flooded over her, a rush of images from Florida, upstate New York, Ohio, the road west and a Lockheed Missiles & Space lab in Palo Alto. But one mental picture stood out among the rest: Her late husband Bob, in shirt-sleeves, working away on the ceramic tiles that kept all the shuttles cool upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
"It was very emotional for me," she says.
I met up with Beasley in her Sunnyvale living room a week after the fly-by. I'd invited myself over to find out more about her husband, Bob Beasley, and his role in the shuttle program while at Lockheed, a role that Lausten feels has sometimes been overlooked. Overlooked, for instance, when I wrote a column about the shuttle flyover that mentioned the tiles, but didn't mention their inventor.
"I'm not shy about publicity," she says.
She's not. But in Lausten's soft rebuke of me, I saw a love story, a story of a widow who was determined to stick up for the memory of her late husband -- a man she met while in college in Florida and moved with to jobs in New York and Ohio. A man with whom she had three kids and ended up in Silicon Valley.
This is a woman who waited until her life circumstances allowed (she remarried after Beasley died and soon after lost her second husband to cancer) and then spent 10 years writing and self-publishing a book about Beasley, their life together and his work.
"I don't go around thinking of him as this great creator," says Lausten, who called her book "The Shirtsleeve Invention," for the engineers' uniform of the day. "I think of him as my husband, who I still miss."
Beasley was, of course, both husband and inventor. He worked for years, starting in the 1950s, on creating a material that could resist tremendous heat. He worked and tweaked and reworked his tiles. It wasn't always clear whether his project would have commercial applications and it was hard at times to get anyone to pay much attention.
But when the shuttle project came along and NASA was looking for contractors, Beasley's bosses at Lockheed thought the tiles might be just what a reusable space ship needed. Beasley retired from Lockheed in the midst of the shuttle project, sidelined in 1977 by a stroke that harmed his vision and weakened his left side. He died in 1997.
NASA liked what they saw in Beasley's tiles. They ran tests at NASA Ames and suggested modifications and ran more tests. But in the end, it was Beasley's tiles that went up on 135 shuttle flights.
"They were invented by Lockheed and his team, " says Howard Goldstein, who was among the original NASA employees who worked on the shuttle's heat shield. "There is no question in my mind that they should get that credit."
Talking to Gloria Beasley Lausten got me thinking about the nature of invention. The valley is full of brilliant minds who have come up with breakthroughs that have changed our lives for the better. But credit is a slippery thing. More often than not, the biggest innovations are a combination of smaller breakthroughs or a variation on something someone else thought of first. Credit for innovation can be fleeting, celebrated at the time of the breakthrough, but overshadowed by the next thing. And so maybe it's good to have someone around who isn't shy about publicity.
Someone like Lausten, who can still tell the story of sitting with Beasley in 1981, watching television in Sunnyvale, waiting to see Columbia become the first shuttle to test those tiles on its return from space.
"We watched and it was coming in and it was coming in," says Lausten, who recalled the trial and error and heartache involved in getting the tiles right. "And he said something like, 'There were a lot of tears, but it was worth it.'"
Lausten, who's bashful about her age but says she's in her 80s, sat in the same house late last month watching live coverage of the Endeavour riding piggy-back on a 747 looping around the Golden Gate Bridge on its way to NASA Ames and nearby Sunnyvale. The large crowds delighted her.
"I was surprised with how many people felt a part of that," Lausten says. "It was a part of people here and that's one of the things I was happy for Bob for."
And yes, as Endeavour headed down the Peninsula, she had to try to get a look herself.
"We ran outside and we saw it between two trees," she says.
But that was enough. After all, she has enough shuttle images to last a lifetime.