Former space official keeps workers close to home

May 04, 1997


Staff Writer, Charles Town

RANSON, W.Va. - Peter G. Smith worked in Asia for the State Department and helped set up international space programs for NASA, but now his goal is to help people stay close to home in his adopted Jefferson County.

"I'm way too young to want to slow down," said Smith, 55, who retired from NASA in 1995 after working as head of international relations for the space program.

Smith was working in Washington, D.C., as part of NASA's Office of Technology Assessment when he and his wife decided to buy a house in the country.


They found a place in Jefferson County near Middleway, W.Va., and moved there in 1994.

Like many other Jefferson County residents, Smith commuted to Washington, spending three to five hours a day on the road or on commuter trains.

"You can go from October to March not seeing your house in the daylight," Smith said.

He had heard of telecommuting and liked the idea. When he found out Jefferson County did not have a telecommuter center, he called the Jefferson County Development Authority, which also was interested in starting a center.

With help from U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd and U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, the telecenter was able to get $250,000 in "seed money" to buy the necessary computers, equipment and rent the space in a former garment factory owned by a local corporation.

Smith worked as a volunteer with the program since last June. When it officially opened on March 31, he became the paid director.

How much he'll make is still to be determined, he said. He has a budget of $66,000 to pay for his salary and an assistant's. That amount also has to include benefits and workers compensation.

The telecenter has to become self-supporting in two years under the government program sponsoring it.

Smith thinks that goal can be reached. Already there is a list of people wanting to use the telecenter at least one day a week.

The telecenter rents cubicles to federal agencies so that the agency employees can work from the center.

Computer modems and fax machines keep workers connected to their main offices, he said.

The idea is to help people work efficiently without the need to travel to the metro area.

If enough workers used telecommuter centers, it would ease traffic congestion on the highways, shortening the commute for those who still have to drive to the office and cutting down on vehicle pollution, he said.

"It seems like one of those ideas that doesn't have a down side," Smith said.

Smith started working for the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service in 1964, spending most of his career in South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In 1979 he moved to NASA to become the China desk officer, working with the Chinese government on space treaties.

He then became director of international relations for NASA where he helped oversee more than 1,000 agreements with more than 100 nations.

He ended his career as part of NASA's Office of Technology Assessment.

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