2018-02-10 / Front Page

Local NASA Connection

A space operation to explore a planet more than 3 billion miles from Earth wouldn’t normally be considered local news. However, for NASA’s New Horizons Pluto mission, Cameron County could be considered a home base of sorts.

The spacecraft carries with it the memory of one of the pioneers of modern space travel, Daniel Sarokon (shown). He died on Jan. 1, 2006, less than three weeks before the New Horizons liftoff.

A native of Armstrong County, Sarokon maintained a number of local connections.

As a youth, he spent a considerable amount of time in Cameron County, working parttime in the 1940s at what is now Shur-Fine Market.

His sister, Eva Olivett, resided in Emporium for many years before passing away in 2008. His brother, Charles Sarokon, died on Jan. 29 of this year.

Eva’s son, Don Olivett, said his uncle’s prolific career almost never was.

“When he came back from World War II, he attended Bethany College on the G.I. Bill to become a doctor,” Olivett explained. “For some reason, he decided not to pursue medical school, which ended up working out pretty well.”

Launched Jan. 19, 2006, New Horizons completed a flyby of the Pluto System in late 2016 and is now on its way to the Kuiper Belt, a mysterious large debris field at the edge of the Solar System outside the orbit of Neptune. It’s expected to reach its destination early next year and continue its exploration of the region until 2021.

Goal of the $700 million mission is to understand the formation of the Pluto system, the Kuiper belt, and the transformation of the early Solar System. The spacecraft has collected data on the atmospheres, surfaces, interiors, and environments of Pluto and its moons.

Sarokon, who began his engineering career just as scientists were developing rocket engines, was in on the ground floor of the budding technology and worked at several companies before heading to General Dynamics, one of the country’s largest defense contractors.

His first space launch was a craft named Surveyor, which was the first vehicle on the moon. After that, he was launch conductor for 29 more lunar and planetary missions at Cape Canaveral using the Atlas and Centaur rockets.

In all, he was part of 79 missile launches during his illustrious 30-year career, the most in history of the space program.

Another nephew, Steven Sarokon, of Indiana, Pa., remembers his uncle as an incredibly intelligent and well-rounded individual.

“He was a brilliant guy with a photographic memory and movie star appearance to boot --definitely not an empty suit,” Steve Sarokon said. “He had such an enormous knowledge of the world and taught me so many lessons that I carry with me to this day. We all wanted to emulate him because he had accomplished so much.”

Eventually, Sarokon’s work took him to China, Germany and other nations to help with space projects under the NASA umbrella. His work with the Chinese in particular garnered a lot of attention, earning him a visit from some G-Men, according to Steve Sarokon.

“The Chinese paid him well over $1 million to consult on their missile program, which piqued the interest of the FBI, even though it was all approved by the government,” Sarokon explained.

“They knew what the issue was with the Chinese rockets their first day there, but he told me they dragged the visit out for a while, so their government would have to pay more.”

Sarokon was also involved in the launch of the Surveyor. As a tribute, he placed his father’s eyeglasses frames on the craft. They now sit on the moon.

“Uncle Dan was always a very humble man who was as proud of his family as we were of him,” Steve Sarokon said. “For someone to come from such a little coal town and accomplish so much was quite an inspiration. He helped make history.”

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