(CBS) – Growing up in rural Georgia, Lewis Wooten felt light years away from the long, illustrious career he has built at NASA. But the day Neil Armstrong took that one giant leap, Wooten was inspired to follow in those footsteps towards space exploration.
“I can remember that very well. It was a hot July down in southwest Georgia,” said Wooten, who now serves as a Deputy Lab Director at NASA.
Raised on a farm, Wooten spent his days working the farm and weeding. As luck would have it, July 20, 1969 was a Sunday, which meant Wooten had the day off. Instead of joining his siblings and cousins in the cow pasture for their usual game of softball, Wooten was holed up indoors, witnessing civilization’s greatest achievement.
“I was inside of a hot house with no air conditioning, looking at a black and white television,” recalled Wooten. “A little bit after 3… I saw man land on the moon.”
Like the 600 million other people around the world who watched Apollo 11’s mission, Wooten stayed glued to the television, inspired and dreaming of someday being a part of extraordinary explorations into space.
“The next day I was working in the fields. I’m looking up in the sky saying, ‘man is on the moon.’ Where I come from, that was a long way from the moon. I can always remember saying, ‘you know, I really want to be a part of that.’ But the likelihood of me in 1969 being a part of something like that is about as far away from the moon itself.”
Eleven years later, after earning a master’s degree in applied mathematics, Wooten would fully realize his impossible dream. He was hired at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and what followed has been nearly four decades of cutting edge work.
Wooten began work as an engineer and eventually became Payload Operations Director for Spacelab, a reusable laboratory that traveled in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay. It was the predecessor to the modern-day International Space Station. From there, he served as Flight Director for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the solar system’s most powerful telescope, still in operation today.
“Now, I am in the SLS program office where we are building the most fantastic, the largest rocket that’s ever been built by mankind that will take us back to the moon, the place I started.”
When he thinks about the journey he has taken – from looking up at the moon from peanut fields in Georgia, to helping take that next giant leap – Wooten is beyond thankful.
“I get emotional when I kind of think about it,” he said. “I thank God dreams do come true. Being a part of NASA is a significant dream come true to me. It inspired me and it still does today.”