SPRING HILL — Working as a computer programmer in July 1969 inside what is now the Johnson Space Center, Jerry Bultman’s office was sandwiched between the astronauts’ building and the auditorium.
It was the perfect vantage point to catch a glimpse of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins exiting quarantine in preparation for a pre-flight press conference.
Bultman knew his job, along with that of those around him, was to give NASA the mechanical and technical expertise it needed to support the Apollo 11 crew members on their historic journey to the moon. And the magnitude of the situation was not lost on him.
“We were trying to get ahead of the Russians,” Bultman told a group of wide-eyed students during a presentation Nov. 1 at Spring Hill High School. “We wanted to put the United States up front and in first, and that’s what we did.”
But even a computer programmer can get starry-eyed, so when he saw the astronauts, he grabbed a small notepad and scurried into the auditorium to listen to the press conference. Afterwards, as the astronauts were walking down the aisle toward him, Bultman asked them if they would sign the notepad.
That piece of Americana stayed in Bultman’s possession for decades as a lasting reminder of the moon-landing achievement. He since has donated it to the INFINITY Science Center museum next to the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Bultman’s message to the students was to aggressively follow their dreams and to not be discouraged when the inevitable obstacles of life appear.
“Shoot for the stars,” he said. “If it knocks you to your knees, pick yourself up and keep going. Hard work will pay off.”
It’s a powerful message the Spring Hill students never would have had the opportunity to hear if not for a chance encounter a few years ago on hunting grounds in Ottawa.
Bultman is a 76-year-old New Orleans native, but in his retirement he has enjoyed traveling to pursue his hobby of deer and turkey hunting. He jumped at the opportunity to hunt on land in Kansas.
Brett Gearhart, a teacher who works with gifted students at Spring Hill High School, also happened to be hunting on that same property a few years ago, and the pair soon developed a friendship.
Gearhart asked if Bultman would come and speak to his gifted students, and he accepted. The high school students were joined in the auditorium by gifted students from Spring Hill and Woodland Spring middle schools.
Gearhart said Bultman has really become a great role model for him, and he wanted his students to also benefit from hearing Bultman’s life experiences.
They learned that certain role models had a big impact on Bultman’s life, including two great math teachers he had while he was growing up and a professor who recruited him to teach a computer programming lab at Mississippi State University.
“I got to learn everything about computers,” Bultman said. “The light bulb went off, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”
His educational path wasn’t perfect, though, as he also told the students how he struggled with advanced physics.
Bultman said the key for him was to stay focused and work hard. He also said it truly pays off to help others and be kind to those around you.
“Through life, being a good person makes things easier,” he said. “All of us are who we are because of the decisions that we make. Always take the high road.”
After the presentation, the students crowded around the stage and looked through a variety of pieces of memorabilia Bultman had on display, including awards from NASA.
They also flipped through a photo album and asked Bultman questions about some unique pictures, including one he snapped with his Brownie camera of his fuzzy television screen in July 1969 as Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface.
Bultman said he cherishes all of the memories, and he’s enjoying retirement now after 41 years in the space industry, much of which he spent working for Lockheed Martin.
“My high road has paid off,” he said with a smile.