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Lightning Strikes New Career Path For Macon County Man

The great American Eclipse is over.  For most, it was an amazing experience. But for a Macon county man, the astronomical event was a mile marker on a life changing journey.  BPR’s Helen Chickering stumbled upon his story while on an eclipse assignment at Southwestern Community College in Sylva.

“Ready?  3, 2, 1 and go!”

That’s the sound of the Southwestern Community College balloon team launching a helium balloon  on the day of the Eclipse, part of a NASA project to live stream footage eclipse from the edge of space – the sound you are hearing is coming from the balloon’s camera.

The team’s leader was Jesse Moore, a recent SCC graduate who I first met back in July, during a science camp on campus, where he was giving middle schoolers a sneak preview of the project.

“Guys, what we have here is what we’re going to be sending up during the Eclipse.”

I was doing a story on both the camp and the balloon team and we sat down for an interview.

HC: So first thing I want to ask is what were you doing before, how did you get here?

“Funny story,” says Jesse Moore, “I was an electrician for 15 years before coming to SCC.”

And I soon realized, I was coming back with three stories. 

“One summer day, I was on top of a 20 foot extension ladder, wiring an outside eve light on a house.  I was in Cashiers and I was on the side of a mountain and all of a sudden a hailstorm just came in out of nowhere.  I’m being pelted in the head and I’m trying to finish up before I go down the ladder and about 500 yards down the mountain, a bolt of lightning struck, at that point I realized, I might need a new career!”

“Whether it was God’s hand or his way of pushing me, or whatever. Something said, it’s time to do something different. “

And that’s how this electrician and father of five ended up at Southwestern Community College in Sylva to study electrical engineering

“Kind of found my home here, it was the right timing.”

It just so happens, Southwestern Community College  had just become the only community college in the nation to enter into a cooperative science agreement with NASA, funding that opened up all kinds of opportunities - including the ballooning project. 

“The faculty advisor on the team was my calculus advisor at the time and he said I think you really need to be on this.”   

Before long, Moore was leading the team and the floodgates opened.

“I’ve been able to go to NASA,” says Moore, “get tours, meet people, network, people said when you are ready, give me a call, things like that. It’s just like wow, this is NASA! I went from wiring houses and an electrician and to looking at being an engineer and working at NASA. How incredible is that and it all started at a community college, nobody thinks of that.”

SCC’s Linda Parlett does.  She wrote the grant that got the school the NASA partnership and says Jesse Moore’s story is just what she’d been hoping for.

“Now he’s gone from simply pursuing a two year degree to wanting to become a trained engineer and work for NASA.  That’s the kind of impact this project going to have..”

HC:  Do you ever look back on that day that you were on a ladder in that hailstorm and saw a bolt of lightning and here you are?

“I do!” says Moore. “We joke about it at home all the time.  A thunderstorm will come by and my wife will say to me, ‘What’s our next big goal?  You better figure out what you are going to do next!’ ”

Moore graduated this summer and landed a full scholarship to Western Carolina University where he’ll continue his studies and plans to land a job at NASA.  For BPR news, I’m Helen Chickering.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.