In Kent County, a man with a space mission He wants to construct futuristic academy on former missile base

November 01, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TOLCHESTER -- Starfleet Academy in rural Kent County? Well, yes, that's what Kenneth E. Beatty has in mind.

To be precise, the 68-year-old former teacher-artist-Scout leader planning the Delmarva Space Training Center for a 24-acre abandoned Nike missile base about 20 nautical miles across the Chesapeake Bay and a world away from downtown Baltimore.

The orbiting U.S. Sen. John Glenn, it seems, isn't the only American bent on contributing to the space program late in life.

If Beatty's dream becomes reality, bright young people from across the nation would be arriving each week for intensive training in an array of futuristic fields including solar and wind energy, propulsion, robotics, telemetry engineering and astronomy. He envisions these high school and college "cadets" being assisted by a staff of 113 and housed in a complex of buildings that would include a space museum, a laser lab, a full-scale simulated moon base and, eventually, a duplicate of the Mars space station that is now but a gleam in the eyes of National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials.

Trained on 16 computer simulators similar to those used by space shuttle crews, the cadets would leave the academy on their way to 21st-century careers as aerospace engineers, research or spacecraft technicians, even spaceship commanders or pilots, Beatty says.

"I've been working on this for at least 20 years," he says. "I have never given up."

While Beatty remains short on funds to carry out the project, he has received some support from Kent County and from a NASA veteran, David G. Roberts, a retired pilot who was director of aircraft flight operations at the agency's Wallops Island, Va., launch center.

Beatty's nonprofit group has negotiated a $1-a-year lease with Kent County, which has owned the former missile launch site since the Air Force abandoned it in the mid-1970s.

Roberts has agreed to advise the training center's board. He believes the project has a chance, provided Beatty can secure enough money to operate the museum -- establishing a showcase that would attract more donors.

"Fundamentally, I think it's a hell of a good idea, but I thought he'd get more financial support from the state or from NASA," Roberts says. "To tell you the truth, I think what he really needs is a patron, someone on Capitol Hill and from NASA."

NASA has only given mild encouragement.

"What you see with Ken is a guy who is very sincere and committed to a mission," said Frank C. Owens, head of NASA's education office. "I don't know of another facility exactly like what he's proposing, but there's hardly a day that goes by that we don't see someone with a worthwhile project come into this office."

Beatty stands ramrod straight in his blue, NASA-like jumpsuit, as though he were cast for the role of space academy director.

"I think all this really started for me as a child," Beatty says. "I was fascinated with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. That's never really changed."

An Eagle Scout who spent 30 years as a Scout and adult leader, including three as a paid Scouting administrator in Washington, Beatty organized the first Space Explorer troop in 1971.

Later, Beatty was a technical illustrator for a defense contractor and at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County, drawing advanced aircraft and satellites.

In the early 1980s, Beatty received a flurry of national publicity when he formed the National Aerospace Cadets. He and his group of young space enthusiasts spent evenings and weekends turning his Hagerstown basement into a starship simulator controlled by a 4-foot panel of colored buttons.

Quitting is the last thing that any of the dozen board members Beatty has recruited to help lead his nonprofit organization would expect. They cite his relentless, almost evangelical enthusiasm as a factor in joining the long-shot campaign.

"This is his passion; I would say a lesser man would have given up," says Satinder S. Sidhu, a board member who heads the physics department at Washington College in Chestertown.

"It's starting from nothing and aiming for something really big," Sidhu says. "Like any visionary, he can see what he wants, but sometimes he has difficulty seeing how to arrive there."

Money has eluded Beatty's idea. After two years of fund raising, grant writing and downright pleading, he has come up with about $5,000 and spent nearly $20,000 of his life savings.

One big cost is that the dilapidated cinder-block buildings at the base will require almost total renovation. For example, a 103-by-33-foot barracks building where Beatty plans to house a museum with interactive displays would require at least $250,000 to rebuild. Vacant for nearly 25 years, the building was used at times by the county roads department to store straw.

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