NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
3 December 2004
The questions in this transcript were asked during an
oral history session with John E. Blaha. Blaha has amended the answers
for clarification purposes. As a result, this transcript does not
exactly match the audio recording.
Today is December 3rd, 2004. This oral history with John Blaha is
being conducted for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project
in Houston, Texas. Jennifer Ross-Nazzal is the interviewer, and she
is assisted by Sandra Johnson.
Thank you so much for taking time to meet with us today. I’d
like to begin by asking you to tell us a little bit about your Air
Force career before you started working for NASA.
Okay. I mean, I wasn’t prepared for any of this, but I’ll
tell you what I can.
You can give us the highlights.
I went to the Air Force Academy [Colorado Springs, Colorado], 1961
to ’65. I always wanted to fly airplanes for the Air Force.
When I left the Air Force Academy, I went to graduate school at Purdue
University, West Lafayette, Indiana. I received a master’s degree
in astronautical engineering. From there I went to pilot training
at Williams Air Force Base in Phoenix, Arizona. I met my wife there.
I spent a year in pilot training. Really enjoyed it, liked all the
flying. I roomed with seven other Lieutenants in a beautiful home
on fifteen acres. We had a good deal and a lot of fun during pilot
I got married five months after I completed pilot training. I was
in F-4 training in Tucson, Arizona [Davis-Monthan Air Force Base].
During F-4 training, I had an opportunity to volunteer for an exciting
program, showing the South Vietnamese Air Force that the A-37 was
a good airplane and would perform very well in a close air support
role. They ended up purchasing twenty-four squadrons of A-37s. I enjoyed
my time in Southeast Asia. I flew 361 combat missions. I thought it
was a lot of good flying.
When I came back from Southeast Asia, I wanted to fly another airplane.
I also now had a goal of wanting to be an astronaut. I read the bios
[biographies] of some of the early astronauts, and realized many flew
different types of airplanes, and attended the test pilot school.
So I felt I should switch airplanes again when I came back from Southeast
Asia. I went to F-102 training in Texas and F-106 training in Florida.
Then from there I went to the 460th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in
Klamath Falls, Oregon, at Kingsley Air Force Base. I flew F-106s for
a year—really enjoyed it, and then was selected to the Aerospace
Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. I really
enjoyed the curriculum and enjoyed flying many types of airplanes.
One aircraft that was very exciting was the Rocket NF-104. This was
a research airplane that had a rocket on it. You flew the aircraft
above 100,000 feet and wore a space suit. At that altitude the sky
was black, and the Earth looked curved. Two people who flew the NF-104
became astronauts—Roy D. Bridges, Jr. and myself. The Space
Shuttle entry from 70,000 feet down was identical to what we were
doing in the Rocket NF-104. I really enjoyed the Rocket NF-104 at
In 1972, “Buzz” [Edwin E.] Aldrin [Jr.] returned to the
Air Force, as the Commandant of the school. So I got to know him,
and I told him I wanted to be an astronaut. Buzz recommended I stay
at the Test Pilot School and teach in the Rocket NF-104 airplane.
So I became an instructor at the school.
In 1973, I volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force in England.
So I went over there and was a test pilot with them at the Aeroplane
and Armament Experimental Establishment in Boscombe Down, United Kingdom.
It was really fun flying all the British aircraft, the Harrier, the
Lightning, the Jaguar, the Hunter, the Jet Provost, the Hawk, and
Our time in England was the best three years of our lives, except
for right now. My wife and I think we have the best years right now.
But even up until probably seven or eight years ago, we would say
our time in England was the best three years of our lives, because
I could get up in the morning, we could eat breakfast together as
a family, and then I went to work at nine o’clock in the morning.
By five o’clock in the evening I was home. That was really nice.
I got to fly airplanes, and we traveled around Europe a lot.
In 1976, I came back to America. I had to work again. The Air Force
assigned me to attend the Air Command and Staff College [Maxwell Air
Force Base, Alabama]. When I graduated ten months later, the Air Force
thought I ought to go work in the Pentagon [Washington, DC]. I wasn’t
excited about a non-flying job. I went and then ended up loving the
Pentagon. I had a very good job there working on tactical aircraft
force structure. I spent fifteen enjoyable years in the Air Force.
They had promoted me to a full colonel.
But then I left them, because NASA selected me in the 1980 astronaut
group. So I remember when I left the Air Force, it was hard, because
I really loved the Air Force. That is a quick summary of my Air Force
You sure moved around a lot. Can you tell us about the selection process
in 1980 that you went through, and the interview and the application
Yes, it’s probably—I mean, you’re going to hear
that same story from everybody in that. I’m sure in the ’78,
’80, ’84, ’85 group people, it was the same, so
you’re going to hear it the same. But I’ll tell you a
little bit about it.
In 1979, NASA announced they were going to hire astronauts. The Air
Force picked thirty people and sent the list to NASA. NASA then invited
us to a one-week interview at the Johnson Space Center. My interview
at NASA was in April 1980. In May, I think, or early June—I
had a phone call from George [W. S.] Abbey. He said, “John,
do you think you want to be an astronaut still?” I answered
Mr. Abbey then said, “Well, you were selected.” I was
really excited to hear I was selected.
What was your family’s reaction when you found out?
They were ready to go to Houston. It would be like it was at Edwards
Air Force Base testing machines.
Why don’t you tell us about the training that you underwent
as an AsCan [Astronaut Candidate] when you arrived here.
I really enjoyed listening to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews
brief us on their space missions.
Yes, that was like really neat. At that time, it was like wow, you
get to sit here and listen to these people you heard about a long
time ago who flew these missions. I thought that was really neat.
I also enjoyed traveling with my astronaut group.
Ross-Nazzal: I also understand that your class was called the Needless
Nineteen. Do you recall that?
No, I don’t. Who told you that?
Dave [David C.] Leestma.
Dave Leestma? Did you talk to him? He’s a good guy. Whatever
he tells you is good. He’s one of the finest human beings I’ve
ever known. Dave Leestma. I really like him. Haven’t seen him
in a long time.
He’s still over at JSC, as far as I know.
He’s a fantastic human being. He’s going straight to heaven
when he dies. I think he’s the only man I can say that about.
He will spend less than one second in purgatory. [Laughter]
That’s a nice compliment.
He’s really a nice man.
Any other anecdotes or stories you recall from training?
No, not really. I mean, we did our normal study, and we liked it.
Everybody was happy. It was a lot of fun. I mean, I don’t remember
any particular things. I remember Bill [William F.] Fisher always
had a lot of good jokes that he would tell. On our trips he was always
telling some kind of doctor jokes. Have you ever heard doctor jokes?
You’re a doctor, but not a medical doctor.
Yes, not a medical doctor. He’s a medical doctor.
What area are you a doctor in?
In history. If you have a bunch of history doctors together, do you
all have some doctor jokes?
I don’t think so. I think they’re mainly about students
and grades and things like that.
Medical doctors, man, I couldn’t believe listening to Bill Fisher
and some of his stories. Are you going to interview him?
He’s on our list.
You could tell him when you see him, just say that John said you had
some very interesting medical doctor jokes. [Laughter]
We’ll have to ask him if he’ll put that on the record.
Okay, that’s all. So I remember Bill Fisher’s jokes. But
the most important thing was being able to sit and listen to an Apollo
astronaut crew tell you about their mission. I thought it was pretty
Very. You were onsite when STS-1 launched. Did you have any responsibilities
for the mission?
STS-1; what was I doing? We all were doing different little things.
What was I doing? Oh, I was down at KSC [Kennedy Space Center, Florida]
helping out in the family area, and the only reason I remember, now
that you say that—I thought I wasn’t going to remember
for a minute—but the only reason I remember is because I remember
on the loudspeaker, “Joe [H.] Engle is now making another pass
in his T-38 to make sure that the runway is safe.” So I had
to be down there if I was hearing that. [Laughs]
So what were you doing with the family at that point?
I was called an extended family escort.
Did you get to see the launch?
What did you think?
Oh, I thought it was pretty incredible. I mean, anytime you went down
there and saw even the vehicle and climbed in the vehicle, you were
pretty excited, thinking, “So when do I get on? Why are these
guys wearing glasses launching in the Space Shuttle? They’re
old.” That’s what I was really thinking. [Laughs]
I’m glad you’re sharing this stuff with us. I understand
you worked on the Orbiter Head Up Display. Can you tell us about that?
Yes, that was a fun thing. I had worked on a Head Up display in the
Air Force on the A-7 aircraft and I worked on the Head Up Display
in the Jaguar with the British. Therefore, when I came to NASA, it
was a natural fit that I’d work on the HUD [Head Up Display].
The biggest challenge on the Head Up Display in the Space Shuttle
was the older established astronauts had not flown military aircraft
with a HUD. Now, the younger guys, the ’78 and the ’80
group pilots had all flown aircraft with a HUD. There was some resistance
to the HUD from the older astronauts. But, I had a lot of fun with
the HUD. I liked working on it, and I liked working with the company
in California who was doing it for us and getting it into the Orbiter.
Who else was working on that with you?
The guy who was first working on it in the ’78 group was Dave
[S. David] Griggs. He left the HUD assignment before it got into the
Orbiter, and unfortunately when I saw it, I felt it was too cluttered—displayed
too much information.
Can you tell us about changing that? What changes did you make?
Well, to me it had too much data on it. It only needed four or five
very important things on it.
You mentioned that you worked with a company in California. What company
I don’t remember.
We can research it. We can always add it later, too. What sort of
work did you do out in California with the company?
Oh, that was very important, because they were the people who were
actually making the HUD. When I first discussed my suggestions with
them, I smiled because they said, “John, what you’re telling
us is you want this display more like an F-18 HUD.”
And I said, “Yeah, you could say that.”
And they said, “Well, we tried to tell your people that a couple
of years ago, but they wanted all this stuff on it.” Anyway,
it was sort of funny.
But the fundamental problem that I ran into with the Space Shuttle
HUD was the senior flyers in the Astronaut Office were not familiar
with a HUD.
Did you ever take any of those flyers up on the STA [Shuttle Training
Aircraft] and show them how it worked?
Yes. I had them evaluate the HUD in the STA. Dick [Richard H.] Truly
and John [W.] Young were the two people who I thought really ended
up liking the HUD with a small subset of information. Then, of course,
once they liked it, making the format change on the HUD was easy.
So when was the HUD first put on the Space Shuttle then and actually
used in a mission?
On STS-6, the version with too much information flew. Dick Truly flew
with the new version on STS-8 version. I think all astronauts felt
the simple version was a useful tool.
You mentioned STS-7, and we know that you were CapCom [Capsule Communicator],
actually, on STS-7. You were CapCom for seven flights. You want to
talk about some of those experiences and your memories?
I really enjoyed my time as a CapCom. It gave me an opportunity to
learn a lot about spaceflight. I was an on orbit CapCom on STS-7.
On STS-8 and STS-9, I was an ascent and entry CapCom.
I really enjoyed working on STS-11, because Vance [D.] Brand was on
that mission, and he was my mentor when I first came to Houston. We
all had a mentor the first two or three years. So I really liked Vance,
because he was always helping me out and trying to teach me stuff
my first couple of years here. So now he was flying, and I was a CapCom,
and so I really liked working STS-11 as an ascent, orbit, and entry
On STS-12, they had an icing problem in one of the ports that expels
water. I don’t remember which it was, but it made an ice cone
on the side of the vehicle, and because they couldn’t dump water
anymore, they were trying to figure out what to do to get it off.
They decided to use the mechanical arm. Sally [K. Ride] had flown
on STS-7, and she knew the mechanical arm real well. She also was
a friend of Judith A. Resnik who was a crew member on STS-12. So I
thought we ought to have Sally come into the control center and explain
the procedure to Judy Resnik. So Sally came in, and she told Judy
the procedure to follow with the mechanical arm to remove the ice
Smart thinking. Any other memories from any of the other flights?
CapComs, no. I mean, there are some, sure, but I don’t want
to drag it on.
All right. What do you think you learned from being CapCom?
You learned a lot about what was going on in the control center, which
is a big part of any mission. A mission is a vehicle in the air and
a control center and two teams working together, and I met a lot of
the people that work there in the different disciplines, and that
ended up being very useful when I became a crew member, because then
I felt like I knew them and knew what was going on there versus sitting
over in the simulator training. I thought that was very good.
You later were actually selected for a crew that didn’t end
up flying, 61-C which became 61-H. When did you learn you were selected
for the flight? Can you give us a sense of that day?
I hadn’t seen George Abbey for four or five years. I mean, I’d
seen him, but we hadn’t had a conversation, so then, I mean,
there was like a long lapse of years, and in January of ’85
I went up to his office, and he said, “Come in.”
You walk in. You kind of knew what was going to happen, because people
had told you. And he said, “So you want to fly on a Space Shuttle
still?” Something like that. [Laughs]
And you said, “Oh yes.”
Anyway, so he said, “Well, what do you think, if you’re
the pilot of this flight, 61-C?” or whatever it was.
And I said, “Oh, what do I think of it? It would be wonderful.”
And he said, “Are you sure?”
“Good. Well, what do you think of these crew members on it?”
“Oh, I think they’re all wonderful people.” [Laughs]
Anyway, it was that kind of a meeting, and then you were happy, of
Were you in the office by yourself, or were your other crewmates there?
No. No, just with him. He did that, I think, one-on-one with people
always, is what I think, unless he just did that with me, which I
can’t believe. [Laughs]
Now, I understand that there were payload specialists appointed to
Yes, there sure were. Nigel [R.] Wood was the prime payload specialist,
from U.K. The other person was Richard [A.] Farrimond from the British
Army. Nigel was a Royal Air Force officer. Anyway, so I thought that
was really neat, since I’d served with the Royal Air Force.
I thought they were good, just because they were Royal Air Force.
And there was a medical doctor, Pritawi Sudarmo, from Indonesia. She
was the other prime payload specialist. We were going to deploy PAMs
[Payload Assist Modules].
What did the astronaut corps think of the appointment of payload specialists
to the crews at that point?
I thought they were neat people, myself. I really thought they were
very, very talented people, any of the payload specialists that I
saw, met, and worked with were very, very talented, sharp people.
I thought they brought a lot to the missions.
Then, of course, later, when I had our crew—there was a large
crew much later on STS-58; boy, we had very, very talented payload
specialists. I mean, they were so sharp I couldn’t believe it.
So I really thought they were good. My answer is I thought they were
How long did they train with the crew?
We didn’t train very long, and something happened. I don’t
remember what. I have no idea, and it’s not Challenger yet.
For whatever reason, our payload was changed, and I honestly don’t
remember what occurred, how that occurred when we lost our two payload
You mentioned Challenger. Where were you when the Challenger accident
I was out at Base Ops [Operations] at Ellington [Field, Houston, Texas],
getting ready to fly in a T-38. As soon as the Challenger launched,
I was going to walk outside and fly down to Kennedy [Space Center],
and they were going to put some data tapes in the backseat of my T-38,
and I was going to fly it back here. That was my job on the Challenger
flight, so I was literally standing out there. I saw the launch on
And after you saw what had happened on TV, what did you do? Did you
go back to the Center?
Yes, but I knew it wasn’t good. It was like wow, this is very
bad. This is not going to be good. This is bad. I felt sorry for the
families on board. I’d known Dick [Francis R.] Scobee at Edwards.
So that wasn’t good. From a family viewpoint, you felt bad about
everything, but you also were concerned about what did this mean to
the future of you flying in space. I mean, there’s no question
those were of equal weight. Of course, Mike [Michael J.] Smith was
on there. He was from our group. Anyway, Challenger wasn’t real
Did you have any thoughts about leaving the astronaut corps?
No. Not because of the accident.
What were some of your assignments after the Challenger accident?
I thought I had a good assignment. I went out to California to work
with the Marquardt Division of the CCI Corporation who make the reaction
control jets. I worked a lot with them to mitigate a burn through
failure mode on the reaction control jets.
I understand you were also working on the development of contingency
Yes, I worked on that a lot. Actually, Vance Brand had got me started
on ascent aborts in ’81. He had said, “John, we have too
many people around here that are all interested in the entry, because
that’s like an airplane, and we need someone to really work
on ascent.” Vance was the one who got me going on ascent development.
So I was working on ascent and ascent aborts as a first assignment
after ’81 when I stopped being an AsCan. And that became kind
Then, of course, after Challenger a whole level of interest went into
it, so I worked an awful lot on contingency abort procedures, and
that was really fun. I liked that that, because to me that was like
being a test pilot with an airplane. You were working on flying maneuvers
to make the Shuttle and/or crew survive if you lost one engine or
two engines or three engines, anywhere in powered-flight ascent. So
that was actually really fun, rewarding work.
I worked a lot at Rockwell [International Corporation], because there
were a lot of structural implications, flight control implications,
and thermal implications. I needed a lot of engineering teams to do
a lot of work to validate if particular trajectories were, in fact,
safe. Just because you’re flying them in a simulator doesn’t
mean the real vehicle could fly there. So that was really exciting.
I could give lectures on that subject for two or three years in length,
probably. That was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed it. Ascent powered-flight
contingency abort procedures was something I really enjoyed working
on and doing.
Then when I got to be on a crew, of course, I always felt very comfortable
in that area, and I always thought other crew members in general didn’t
get enough training in it, and I felt they never felt totally comfortable
with it. Fred [Frederick D.] Gregory, my commander on STS-33, said
once, “You wrote the document on it, John, so I figured you
must know it.”
Were there any other astronauts who were working on this project with
We had plenty of other people who would fly test runs and things,
but I was the guy working contingency aborts. I’m trying to
think of the one engineer here who was working with me. He was a good
guy, worked in the Mission Ops Directorate. I wish I could remember
his name. Right now I can’t.
We can fill it in later.
He was good. I had been working with him since ’81, so when
this assignment happened in ‘86, we started working together
You talked about working out at Rockwell doing some of the testing.
Did you ever conduct tests with the STA?
No, because the STA is in a flight regime nowhere near any of the
flight regime of contingency aborts. An example of a contingency abort
is if you are traveling at 11,200 feet per second on ascent, and if
you lost two engines, well, you’d take the Orbiter and immediately
just stand it on its tail. You’re going this way. [Demonstrates]
You see, you’re upside down, so you stand it on its tail this
way. This is the maneuver we ended up developing that you could survive.
And then you roll it 180 degrees that way, and now about the time
you started to sink, you push over and jettison the external tank.
There’s a whole lot of structural and thermal implications with
this maneuver. That’s why I needed those engineers.
Then you’d hit the atmosphere, and you would build up to three
Gs, and then you would now hit the normal entry corridor. Whatever
you did, you were trying to get to the entry corridor somewhere, intercept
it. For example, if you’re doing 18,000, you want to get to
the entry corridor. If you’re at this 112, you want to hit the
entry corridor. Because once you hit the entry corridor, and let’s
say you hit it at Mach-8, well, now you’re in the chute that
you know all about. Whereas the STA only flies at subsonic speeds
and altitudes below 40,000 feet.
Did you ever do any work with Steve [Steven R.] Nagel, for instance,
who was developing those crew abort procedures to work in conjunction
For the bailout. You’re absolutely right. He and Jim [James
P.] Bagian were working the bailout piece of that, and that became
critical, because there were lots of the contingency aborts that you
would end up in a glide, and at 30,000 feet start using Steve Nagel’s
bailout procedures. If you couldn’t get the Space Shuttle to
a runway during a contingency abort, you now were going to use Steve
Nagel’s bailout system.
How did that complicate your simulations?
It didn’t. It didn’t at all. In fact, it was a savior,
because it meant that if you couldn’t get to a runway, you could
still have the crew survive, which was very important. So anyway,
what he was doing and what I was doing actually met and complemented
each other and made something complete that wouldn’t have been
complete without each part. I didn’t really work on anything
to do with bailout; Steve and Jim Bagian did.
If you could generalize here for us, how do you think that the Challenger
accident impacted the Astronaut Office?
Wow, it was pretty bad. I mean, it was a big downer. I remember it
was just a big downer. It tore my heart out. I couldn’t believe
it at the memorial service when I saw Crip [Robert L. Crippen], water
just pouring off of his face, he was crying so much. It just killed
me. I mean, really, I remember, that killed me. And Guy [S.] Gardner,
who I really like. There were some people who I know who, wow, they
looked like they had a waterfall on their face. That doesn’t
happen often in your life. So it was a bad thing, Challenger. I thought
it was a real bad thing.
And then, of course, you worried about—I mean, once you got
over that part of it, you started going, wow, what’s this going
to do to your life and flying? When we first came here, they told
us, in 1980, that there was some probability that you’re going
to lose a Space Shuttle and a crew, and I think it was something like
one in fifty—I don’t remember. If someone tells you a
different answer, I’d like to hear it, so my answer could be
wrong. But it could have been something like one in fifty flights,
we’re going to lose a Space Shuttle, and we’re going to
either lose it in ascent, because that’s the most risky time,
or we’re going to lose it on entry, because that’s the
second riskiest time frame.
So when the Challenger tragedy occurred, I thought, “Well, they
told us this was going to happen. At least they told us the truth,
so you can’t fault anybody for that.” As it turned out,
the Challenger tragedy made the Space Shuttle safer, because Dick
Truly, the Administrator at the time, did something that was brilliant.
He said, “Look, we all know the booster caused this accident,
and we’re going to fix the booster. But I’ll bet you there
are twenty other things in that spaceship that were ready to cause
an accident. They just didn’t happen first.”
So Dick Truly said, “We’re going to go through everything
and look at everything,” because we have never flown a reusable
space vehicle before. When we looked at everything, we discovered
many potential problem areas. For example, the AC motor valves, the
reaction control jet, the software that would cross-feed propellant
in the aft pods, the brakes, and all sorts of things. We were ready
to have an accident in the Space Shuttle in many places, so what Truly
did turned out to be brilliant. All of those pieces of hardware were
redesigned, rebuilt, and tested and put in all the Orbiters. When
STS-26 flew, although the Space Shuttle looked the same, it was a
totally redesigned Space Shuttle.
So to me, Challenger occurred, but out of it came a very safe Space
Shuttle. We got a second-generation vehicle. I thought that was pretty
neat. And, of course, that proved out. The Space Shuttle flew eighty-seven
missions before we had another problem. I think this is a compliment
to the engineering team that did that. Because, you know, astronauts,
we’re just operators, but the engineering team are the people
who really figure out how to solve those kinds of engineering problems,
and they did a tremendous job.
You mentioned this attention to safety and detail. You were actually
a pilot for the simulated Shuttle mission before STS-26 flew. Can
you tell us about that simulation?
Well, our crew was lucky. About two months after the accident, we
were assigned as a prime crew to train for a simulated June launch.
The idea was to keep the whole training system running. In June, we
had a two-day simulation mission. Then we actually went back into
training again, once they decided STS-26 was going to be a TDRS [Tracking
and Data Relay Satellite] flight, we then started to train on the
STS-26 training load. As a result, when I launched on STS-29, I felt
very prepared. I felt like when I launched on STS-29 that I’d
been through my third training flow, which meant I really felt very
Any interesting anecdotes that you remember from those training sessions?
One thing that was disappointing was that we lost Anna [L.] Fisher,
and I never understood that. Originally she was the MS [Mission Specialist]-2
on that first assigned crew, and I really liked Anna. We had become
good buddies, and I really liked working with her.
Approximately a year before our real launch in ’89, I was on
a PR [public relations] trip in New York, and I got a phone call,
and I was told, “John, I just wanted to call you because,”—I
think it was from Dan [Daniel C.] Brandenstein—“I just
wanted to call you, because your crew has been announced for this
STS-29 mission, and Anna is not on the crew.”
I never understood this change. I remember that was a big downer to
me. It should have been an upper, because I was being told I was assigned
to a crew, STS-29, that would launch in March 1989. But it wasn’t.
How did it change the dynamics of the crew?
A lot. A lot.
Can you give an example?
Well, it really changed it a lot, because I thought the crew that
we had was working well together. We had had four military academy
people on the crew and Anna. Mike [Michael L. Coats] was from the
Naval Academy [Annapolis, Maryland]; I was Air Force Academy; Bob
[Robert C.] Springer was Naval Academy. [James F. Buchli was from
the Naval Academy.]
Anna was the MS-2, and I used to smile going through the training
briefings (the simulators and the debriefing) because there was no
question, Anna was ten or twenty IQ [Intelligence Quotient] points
above the other three of us. Because she would sit there, and I could
tell by her eyes when someone explained something to us, she knew
within about ten seconds; she had it. We were all scratching our heads,
and maybe fifteen minutes later we would catch up. You could tell
by her expression, but she was so nice about it, because she wouldn’t
Or you’d be doing an ascent simulator run, and you were performing
a procedure, and you’d hear a little voice whisper—so
she’d like move the microphone; not over the intercom [intercommunication
system]—“John, do this switch now.” And that was
her, just trying in a very nice way to tell you you’ve got to
do this now or you’re going to screw it up. I learned whenever
I heard that, just do what she said, don’t try and ask why.
That was really good.
I came to really like her. She was a very smart woman who was a real,
I thought, strong part of that crew. That’s why it bothered
me or hurt me a little bit when I got that phone call. It took me
a while to get over that. I don’t know how long, but it took
me a while. Probably six months to even a year. It took me a long
time to get over that. That was a downer.
Why don’t you tell us about the crew of STS-29 and the crew
that actually did fly, and talk about the crew relationship and the
We had two ’78 people, Mike Coats and Jim Buchli. We had three
’80 group people, Bob Springer, Jim Bagian, and myself. We were
like two groups of people. Anna was the one who formerly had integrated
us, and she was now gone, and we were like two groups of people. But
we were a good crew, and we had a very good mission and did well.
But I thought we were two groups of people.
But we had a good mission together. I enjoyed flying. I remember I
really liked Mike Coats in the ’78 group, so flying with him,
I was happy. I remember when he was a pilot on 41-D and I was a CapCom,
and we worked well together there. So I liked that, and we had a very
good enjoyable flight. I remember the only thing bad about it was
about a week before launch, Crip came in and sat down with all of
us, and he said, “Listen, the only thing y’all are doing
on this flight that’s important is launching that TDRS. We may
just bring y’all down after four days.”
I said, “What do you mean, you may bring us down?”
He said, “Well, you know, we want to get the Orbiter back, so
we can get it ready for another flight.”
And I thought, “You want to save one or two days? You’ve
got to be kidding me.” Anyway, I remember that, because that
was not good. I wanted to maximize my time in space, not shorten it.
The other thing I remember about STS-29, all of your training, in
all of the debriefings you listen to, you’re listening to all
these people talk about space adaptation syndrome. So the only thing
that was an unknown to me on that whole mission was space adaptation
syndrome, and I was wondering where am I going to be. I don’t
know why, but I was lucky. From the first millisecond that we were
in zero-G, I never felt bad, and I thought, “I can’t believe
all this stuff I’ve been listening to, but I sure am glad I’m
on this side of the wall.”
Because I really enjoyed being in space. I’ll never forget that.
I mean, every time I flew, when I flew on that mission, when I landed,
I remember I told my wife, “I really love you, but I’ll
tell you what. If they would let me, I’d run right over to that
launch pad, and I’d launch in two hours and go again.”
And I felt that way every time I landed. I mean, I really like being
in space. I don’t know why. I felt better there. I actually
felt better there than I do on Earth. Why, I have no idea, but I really
felt good there.
You had mentioned training for this mission. Are there any interesting
anecdotes that stand out from training?
Not that I remember. I don’t know why I don’t remember
much about 29. We did the IMAX. We made an IMAX movie. I remember
doing an experiment for a junior at Purdue University, a chicken-and-egg
experiment. I remember doing that. But I mean, those weren’t
big highlights. To me, the big highlight was just zero gravity and
looking at the planet and looking outside. I felt like I was on such
a high that I never wanted to get off.
Your crew did a number of Earth Observation photos. Did you take any
photograph that’s one of your favorites from this flight, that
I can’t say that I did. I mean, there are a lot of different
space photographs. I actually like some that other people have taken.
I mean, so I have maybe my favorites, whether I took it or someone
else took it, and by that I even mean on another flight. I can’t
think of any. I used to like Earth Obs [Observations], yes, and I
worked with the Earth Obs people a lot. Did a lot of planning for
the mission, and like anything, if you plan and prepare, when you
get there, you get more out of it if you put more into it ahead of
time, and I got a lot out of STS-29 on the Earth Obs side. Oh yes,
that was fun. I’m glad I prepared for it the way I did so that
I could get the return. But I don’t remember any particular
thing. I mean, I could list a number of sights to you, but now that
I look back, maybe they’re not that important individually.
One of the highlights of this mission was the fact that the President
actually called up and spoke with the crew. What are your memories
Yes, I remember that. I remember that, March of ’89. I guess
we were the first Shuttle flight after his inauguration. What I really
remember is at the end of it. I don’t remember how it quite
went down, whether Mike said something that almost invited us or what,
but anyway, one way or the other, when George [H. W.] Bush said, “Well,
y’all are going to have to come see me in the White House.”
I remember that, and I thought, “Oh, that’s really good.”
Because that was kind of like—did you see that movie, The Right
Stuff? You know that one area in there where one of the wives says
something to the effect of, “I can’t wait until we go
to the White House and see Jackie [Jacqueline Kennedy],” or
something like that. Well, that was true of space flights. So now
when he said that on orbit, it was kind of like, “Hey, we get
to go to the White House and see George.” [Laughter] That was
a fun thing.
So after the flight, did you go to the White House?
Can you tell us about that?
That was a fun thing. I mean, we went there, and I thought that since
we were the first crew there that it was a little bit of a novelty
to George Bush, so we had a real nice visit with him. I mean, better
than my subsequent trips there, which now were becoming old hat to
him. But yes, that was a lot of fun. I think we were there for a couple
of hours with them. In fact, I remember we were up in their private
quarters with him and his wife. They showed us their puppies, and
I mean, we were talking about a million normal family kind of things.
So that was pretty special. I think we were around them privately
But again, we were their first crew, too, so that had something to
do with it. And later, after other flights, when I went up there,
I noticed that it was becoming old hat to them now. It wasn’t
a new thing. But they were nice people.
I was surprised on entry on STS-29. I was a little surprised.
Can you talk about that?
Yes, I would just say that what surprised me was time compression,
and why I have no idea, but from the time we did our de-orbit burn,
we were on the runway, in real time, one hour later, it felt like
it was five minutes, and why, I have no idea. Because I thought I
was very prepared, but it was a huge time compression. It just went
by like that. [Snaps fingers.] And you almost wondered, “What
did I see? What was this instrument reading at this time?” And
I could hardly remember it, which meant that I was way behind the
ball. I think I was riding it, not involved with taking care of it.
So I remember that. I remember time compression, significant time
Then at the end of the flight, I was wondering if I was going to have
any problems. For whatever reason, it was like going and getting in
my car and driving over here and then getting out, which really surprised
me, but I was really happy.
What are your memories of getting out of the Space Shuttle and seeing
My number one memory is, I already told you, the first thing I told
Brenda, “Brenda, I love you, but if I could, I’d go right
back out to that launch pad and launch right now again.” That’s
how much I enjoyed being in space. That’s the number one thing
I remember. She would tell you that, too, if she were here.
What was it like those first couple of days being back from space,
other than wanting to go back?
My number one desire was to get reassigned to a crew and get back
into orbit. And of course, we were only on a five-day mission, which
isn’t like it’s some great separation, because it’s
not. I mean, what’s five days? It happens to people all the
time here, right?
Besides going to the White House, what other trips did you take after
this flight was flown?
I went back to my hometown in San Antonio [Texas]. They had a couple
of things there, a couple of big parades. The Battle of Flowers Parade
was one. I also went to Granby High School in Norfolk, Virginia, where
I graduated in 1960. I was the graduation commencement speaker. I
went back to the Air Force Academy and spoke to cadets. I went to
the athletic awards dinner in June. So a whole lot of things happened
like that. They were kind of fun, because you were going back to places
that you had been at.
Then I got reassigned in July to a new crew, so it sort of just stopped
the public appearances very quickly.
Let me just go back and ask you just a couple of general questions
about the flight.
Anyway, that got going for a little bit, and then it was like it was
completely interrupted, and everything had to be canceled that was
planned when I was reassigned to that STS-33 crew. But I wasn’t
unhappy about that, but anyway, I remember that.
I can imagine you were pleased.
I was very pleased. Go ahead, back to—
When you were on board the Space Shuttle in flight, did you have a
chance to fly the Orbiter as the pilot?
Yes. On entry, of course, I think it was a pretty normal concept that
the commander would, at some point in the landing phase, say. “You
got it,” and you’d fly it for, I don’t remember,
five or ten seconds, whatever it was, and then give it back to the
commander and he’d fly it. So I did that, and when I did it,
I thought, “Gee, this feels just like the STA.” That was
the biggest value of it, for you to realize that your STA training
was very, very good.
But the biggest thing I got out of that flight, that surprised me,
was the time compression the last hour prior to landing, which really
helped me prepare for subsequent flights. I realized I had to think
more about that last hour so I was more prepared, because if you’re
more prepared, that doesn’t happen to you. As it turns out,
by the time I flew STS-58 on entry, I felt like I was driving my car
over here today. I mean, everything, the world in front of you, every
bank angle, everything, I felt like I was seeing everything, and that
was completely different than STS-29. When STS-29 was over, I felt
I hadn’t seen anything.
Do you remember the day of launch? Do you have any memories or recollections
of that day?
I think so.
Do you want to share those thoughts with us?
The biggest thing I remember was that we were in an extended launch
hold. Mike Coats had a very bad backache. So he finally decided he
had to unstrap, because we were being delayed for such a long time.
We ended up laying on our backs, I think, very close to the five-hour
limit before we launched. So Mike unstrapped and actually then was,
instead of in his seat this way and laying on his back, he was laying
on his side this way. [Demonstrates] And then he’d lay on the
other side. And then he got strapped back in.
I mean, there are really absolutely hilarious things that you see.
Something happens in space to people. There’s something psychological—people
can change. When they’re in zero gravity, they can be a very
different person than they are here on the ground, which to me is
really interesting. And I remember, I wondered about that after my
first two flights, and I remember telling one of the flight surgeons.
When I was done with my debrief on STS-33, I asked, “Who else
gives you a debrief like me?”
And they told me, “Shannon [W.] Lucid.”
And I said, “Is that right?”
And they said, “Yeah.”
And I said, “Oh, okay.” You’ll see why I wanted
to know this here in a minute.
Then, I don’t know, six months later or whenever it was when
I got assigned to STS-43, and Shannon was on my crew, I was elated,
because now I knew there was a human being who gave a debrief like
me. So I went to Shannon early in our training, and I said, “Shannon,
when we get on orbit, and we’re there for a day or two, I want
to get together with you, and we’re going to have a discussion,
and the real bottom line is, I want to know from you, have I changed?
Yes, or no? Or am I the same? And then I’ll tell you what I
think about you.”
Now I’d have a baseline, and from that baseline, that would
have a lot to do with whatever I was observing and thinking about
other people. That turned out all to be good, because she was telling
me, “No, you haven’t changed at all,” and I was
telling her, “No, you haven’t changed at all.”
Yes, there’s a psychological shift that occurs with people in
orbit, which is real interesting.
A positive change or negative?
The change can be in either direction. I’m going to call it
an unknown direction. But when you see that, someone you’ve
been training with for a year and a half, two years, and it’s
like this face is talking, but they’re not the same person,
which is really weird.
It was really weird, but I remember after my second flight, I did,
I looked at whoever the flight surgeon was debriefing me, and I said,
“I got a very important question. I want to know who gives a
debrief like me.” Then when I got to fly with Shannon, that
was good. Then we flew again on STS-58 together, so that was also
good. I mean, when you have someone grounded with you, that helps.
It helps you understand other things that are happening.
But there are a lot of funny things that happen on a space flight.
I mean, really absolute funny things. In fact, Shannon and I, on 58,
were laughing so much, the tears were coming out of our eyes, we were
laughing so much. Sometimes we’d get together and just look
at each other and just laugh so hard.
I think next time we’ll look forward to some of those stories,
because this is about the time we should end our interview today.
I know, but I probably shouldn’t tell you those stories. That’s
why when you asked me what to talk about, I know that it wouldn’t
be fair to other people, and I don’t like to do that. But anyway,
they are funny. If I can think of any that are okay to tell you, I’ll
That would be great, and we look forward to speaking with you next
time about those flights.