From NASA to the classroom: an unexpected journey

Photo by Ethan Grissom.

By Blake Jennings
Staff writer

At 56 and with stark silver hair, physics professor and former NASA engineer, Eric Klumpe (kloom-pa) conveys a youthful and laid-back presence.

“Hey dude,” he can be heard saying, sporting a Northface vest, black glasses and a likable, wry smirk.

His small, rectangular office space resembles a meeting ground shared by both athletes and intellectuals. Posters of triathlons and surfing are plastered along the walls right next to a bookcase filled with multiple, dense physics textbooks.

In a corner stands a tall plastic plant with blossoming faux flowers, each one representing a planet, with the large stem symbolizing the infinite stretch of the solar system. It is one of the many gifts from students, who are a high priority in his life. He invests personal time in their education, offering time slots on the front of his door to any student who wants to talk about anything: life, the universe, culture, sports or motorcycles.

A place in physics

From a young age, Klumpe, was drawn to the intricate inner workings of machines.

“I remember when I was young. All I wanted was to be like my dad,” Klumpe said. “He worked at a power plant. But all I knew was that he was good with his hands. He built the whole second story to our house and was always working on cars. At school they said, ‘Draw a picture of what your dad does for a living,’ and I drew a picture of my dad working on the engine of a pick-up truck. Not because he did that, but because I saw him do it.”

During childhood, Klumpe had a budding interest in science, making his own chemistry sets out of kitchen supplies. For a time, he even thought of being a doctor.

“I think that’s because my mother told me it was a really hard job,” he said.

Similar to most teenagers, Klumpe entered high school with a great sense of awkwardness and insecurity. As a 100-pound kid who spent his first years of school studying in the third-world nation of Panama where his family had moved there from New York when he was 8, he was unsure of where to fit in. But he eventually found a place.

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