CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland's NASA Glenn has played a critical role in the Artemis 1 mission, overseeing development of the service module that will power and propel the Orion space capsule out of earth's orbit, around the moon and back.
What you may not know is that hometown pride goes all the way to the top.
"I'm Jim Free. I'm the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate Associate Administrator – which is a long title."
Long, but fitting considering Free oversees systems development for every facet of the Artemis program.
It's a big job, and one he has worked toward for a very long time.
"We lived on the flight path -- Cleveland Hopkins -- and I could watch planes land every day and read about the shuttle," Free said when we sat down with him a few months ago.
In nearby Kamm's Corners on Cleveland's west side, Free's passion for space and flight stayed with him through four years at Saint Ignatius High School, and on to Ohio's Miami University.
But his pursuit of an aeronautical degree wasn't always easy.
"Is this where we can talk about you getting a 'D' in your first physics class?" 3News' Betsy Kling asked Free.
"No, I'd prefer not to talk about that," he replied. "There's a little bit a perseverance message to go along with that. Yeah, there's quite a bit of it. I called my mom like, 'Hey I got this D' and she's like 'all right, just come home' and it's like, I'm not coming home I'm gonna work through this," he said.
That same tenacity propelled Free through 30-plus years with NASA, eventually leading him back home to Cleveland's NASA Glenn Research Center where by 2013 he'd risen to center director in just seven years.
Free took retirement in 2017 -- but it didn't last long.
"I was asked to take this job, you know, I was thinking, 'Should I take this job? Should I go back? Is this the right job for me?' Then I saw somebody's post somewhere that said, 'I just got my dream internship with NASA for two months.' And I said, 'How can I not take this job?' It's the coolest job in the world," Free said.
We asked Free if there was anyone in his childhood that was his role model as he was growing up. His response was emotional.
"Certainly my mom. She put me in the position to do the stuff I'm doing today. My family today is just a huge support to come back and take this job. We would have these discussions as a family and I told them this one and they're like you know you gotta go back."