NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
15 November 2006
Ross-Nazzal: Today is November 15th, 2006. This is the oral history
with Dick Covey 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 Rebecca Wright. This is our second session
with Colonel Covey.
Thanks again for joining us.
Appreciate it. Last time we had talked about your first spaceflight,
but I wanted to go back and cover a little bit of territory that we
didn’t talk about, one of which was the fact that your flight
had been scrubbed several times before you had the chance to launch.
Can you talk to us about why it was scrubbed and the feelings amongst
Sure. We were scheduled to launch in the end of August, and, of course,
the end of August is always problematic relative to thunderstorms
in the launch area. The very first day we went—I think our launch
time was supposed to be around—well, it was early in the morning,
because we had to rendezvous, and we had to hit the rendezvous plane
on the launch. We went out, and it really was quite nice, but when
we got close to the launch time, there were two little rain showers
that were out over the water. We could see them; I could see them
on the pilot’s side. I could look out over there, and I could
see them. There was these two little rain showers. It was clear above
us. There weren’t any big thunderstorms or anything, but that
violated a criteria, and it was interesting to watch how the weather
criteria changed, and not necessarily for good reasons, but for reasons.
We already knew that we only had like two days to make our rendezvous
window, or if we didn’t, for various reasons we wouldn’t
be able to complete the rendezvous and repair of the LEASAT. So that
became very important to us, and then when they called the launch
after we had been out on the launch pad for what seemed like a long
time, but back then even then we still had relatively small windows
because of the rendezvous requirement, they scrubbed the launch, and
we had to go back and try again the next day.
So we scrubbed for weather. The next day we went out, and we got a
little closer to being ready to launch. At the point where we’re
supposed to bring the backup flight system computer up, we tried and
it failed. We did all the standard things to try to bring it back
up, but it didn’t. It was a hard failure of the backup flight
computer, and so we scrubbed the second day for that.
At that time there were concerns about some of the propellant lines
and the insulation around them after you’d gone through two
cycles for launch preparation, and so we knew that if we didn’t
launch on that day that we were going to skip a day before we’d
get another opportunity. It probably was going to take that much time
to get the backup flight computer replaced and rechecked out and everything
anyway, but we were feeling pretty glum, because technically we had
lost the opportunity to do the most exciting part of our mission other
than launch, which was to do the rendezvous and the EVA [Extravehicular
So the other thing I remember about that time period is it was Joe
[H.] Engle’s—oh, I think it may have been his fifty-second
birthday or something. But we had a cake on board that we were going
to take into orbit for his birthday, but now he was going to have
his birthday on the ground, so they wound up unstowing the birthday
cake and taking it back to crew quarters, and we had it there instead
of on orbit, and celebrated his birthday.
So we scrubbed for weather the first day. We probably would have scrubbed
for the computer failure, or we would have had the computer failure
on orbit, so that was probably a good deal. The next day we scrubbed
for the computer failure, and the next day we took off and waited,
and then the weather started getting absolutely horrible. The good
news was that the folks back here in Houston figured out that we could
still launch on that fourth day and make the rendezvous and had margins
to do that. So that was good.
Well, the launch window kept moving forward a half hour or so each
day, as it does when you have a rendezvous. So we had gone from being
a daylight launch to being, on that fourth day, just after sunrise
or just at sunrise. We got up early and everything, and we looked
at the weather, and it’s pouring down raining, okay? The rain
is pouring down.
Now, one of the funny things was—well, when we got back in the
crew quarters after that first scrub for weather, John [W.] Young,
who was the Chief of the Astronaut Office at the time and also served
as the airborne weather caller in the Shuttle Training Aircraft, when
we got back in there, the first time I was making some comments about,
“I can’t believe we scrubbed for those two little showers
out there. Anybody with half a lick of sense would have said, ‘Let’s
go. This could be a lot worse.’”
John Young came over and looked at me and he says, “The crew
cannot make the call on the weather. They do not know what’s
going on. All they can see is out the window. That’s other people’s
I said, “Yes, sir. Okay.”
So here we were at that next day, and it’s before sunrise, and
it’s pouring down raining, and we’re sitting there saying,
“We’re going to go out there and scrub again. We’ve
already done this twice. We’re getting pretty used to it.”
So we go out, and—have I told this story already?
No, you haven’t.
Okay. [Laughs] Okay, just wanted to make sure. You guys will have
to remind me when I start saying things again.
As we’re going out of the suit-up room, they give us yellow
slickers; it was either there or when we got to the pad. Maybe it
was when we got to the pad they gave us the yellow slickers. We get
out onto the crew bus, and it’s pouring down raining, and they
take us out to the launch pad. When we get to the launch pad, it’s
still pouring, and they give us yellow slickers to put on over our
gear, because you get rained on on the launch pad. We get in the elevator
and we go up, and as we’re trying to get out on the crew access
arm, we had to have that. I still remember seeing some of the videos
from the pad showing all of us in these yellow slickers with our hoods
up and everything, going out in the rain to the pad. And we’re
certain we’re not going to go.
We get strapped in. This was, of course, before Challenger, so we
didn’t have the launch and entry suits. We just had the flight
suits and the helmets, and actually strapping, there weren’t
any parachutes, so the strapping in was relatively easy. As soon as
we got everybody strapped in and we got the hatch closed, the next
thing I know, “Ox” [James D. A.] van Hoften and Mike [John
M.] Lounge are unstrapping so that they can lay down and sleep in
the back, knowing we’re not going to launch in the rain.
So we’re all out there, and I’m sleeping. Joe, I don’t
know, Joe is probably sleeping, and we’re all just kind of saying,
“We’re going to be here and just try not to let our backs
get too sore before they tell us we’re going to get out of here.”
And next thing I know, they’re starting to—and it’s
still dark out, and of course, got all the lights, all the lights
around the Orbiter when you’re on the pad, and so it’s
hard to see anything other than every once in a while I’d see
John Young fly over in the Shuttle Training Aircraft. I’d see
the blink of the red lights. But there’s water on the windscreen.
I can see all the water on the windscreen, and I’m sitting there,
Well, darned if we don’t get down and come out of the holds
pretty much on schedule. Now, at this point we know absolutely this
is the last opportunity we have, and the launch control team knows
it, and the flight control team knows it, that if we don’t get
off today, we’re not going to go do this satellite rescue. We’ll
go pump out our communications satellites, which was our primary mission
we were going to do. Every time we think we’re going to go into
hold or something, we don’t. We just keep on going. About the
time it got down to the point where it was go for APU [Auxiliary Power
Unit] prestart, all of a sudden van Hoften and Lounge start saying,
“What the hell’s going on?”
So they’re back there, and we hear all this grunting and groaning,
and they’re trying to get each other strapped in, and we go;
we start the APUs. I’m looking, and now I’m seeing sprinkles
on the windscreen. He says, “We’re going to launch in
the rain, you know.”
I’m sitting there saying, “Nope, the crew cannot say anything
about the weather, because we don’t know what’s going
He says, “We’re going to launch in the rain.”
Well, we did. We wound up going down, and we launched, and the pictures
of that launch show—and it’s just before sunrise, right
at sunrise, but with the clouds it was dark. So the motors lit everything
up and we went up, and all the pictures show this column and [imitates
sound] disappearing in the clouds. That’s what it felt like
to us. We were going; it got real bright and everything. It was reflecting
off the clouds. The ground and everything is real bright, and all
of a sudden [imitates sound]. Man, talk about being in a glowing environment
when you’re inside the cloud as we flew through the clouds.
We went on, and I’m sitting there saying, “This was pretty
amazing.” We were pretty amazed. The interesting part of that
was later after we had finished the mission and we were in our crew
debrief with John Young and the other leaders of the Astronaut Office.
We were talking about that, and I was saying, “Yeah,”
I says, “man, it was raining. I couldn’t believe you guys
were let us.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” [Laughter]
“Okay.” I learned my first lessons there. So it was a
fun story. But anyway, we launched in the rain. I’m not sure
if anybody has actually launched in the rain in the Space Shuttle
since then. There’s probably been some that have landed through
clouds, but I don’t know if anybody has flown through the clouds
like we did. You go back and you look at the [STS] 51-I launch pictures,
and every one of them that shows any distance away from the initial
ignition of the solid rocket motors shows this orange glow going into
the clouds, and that’s it, and we were gone.
So that was how we wound up launching on the fourth attempt, or third
Tell us about that first day in space. Some people experience space
sickness. Did you have any of those experiences?
You know, every one of my mission I had some form of space adaptation
syndrome. Most of them were pretty repeatable, and I could predict
what I was going to have. There’s an awful lot of talk about
it beforehand, and you talk to the guys that have been there, and
so you know sort of what to anticipate, but it’s really kind
of different when you actually get there. On all of my first three
spaceflights, the first day was just extremely busy. That, I think,
in itself, it keeps you from feeling a lot of the effects, because
you’re overpowering anything that your body’s telling
you by focusing on the job you’ve got to get done that first
We were supposed to deploy, I think—I think we were supposed
to deploy a spacecraft a day for three days, and so first day up,
we had the RMS [Remote Manipulator System], and we were supposed to
get that checked out. We had to deploy one of the spacecraft, and
I can’t remember if it was ASC [American Satellite Company]
or the other one. But one of the things that—well, that’s
about the first day. But basically, first day; we’re talking
about space adaptation, so let me get back on that.
First day, my first couple of flights, not a whole lot of problems.
I usually didn’t sleep very well the first night. When I first
started having symptoms that I had to deal with, it was the morning
after the first night in space. I say I learned on the first one,
and it was repeated pretty much on the others. I didn’t know
at the time; I knew on my later flights, but I tried to say, “Gee,
I’m kind of hungry. I know I ought to eat something or drink
something.” So I tried to drink some orange juice and couldn’t
keep it down. It wasn’t like I was even nauseous; it was just
that it wouldn’t stay in my stomach. So I learned then, okay,
second day in space, forget about eating. It’s not going to
work until you start feeling—and for me it was classic.
Bill [William E.] Thornton, Dr. Bill Thornton was the first one I
remember coming back and saying, “Gee, the effects of the shift
of your intestines and your organs inside is much like the trauma
of someone who’s had abdominal surgery,” because it’s
an impact to it. People who have had abdominal surgery, they say don’t
eat anything until you start hearing bowel sounds again. So Bill,
on his early mission—it may have been STS-8 or—I can’t
I think that’s right.
Yes. Dr. Bill had gone and he had listened to people’s bowel
sounds, and could correlate that pretty much to the way somebody was
feeling. If they felt like they couldn’t eat, or might feel
nauseous or whatever, they didn’t have any bowel sounds. Once
they started having bowel sounds, then it was okay. So I’m pretty
sure I was classic in that regard, and I learned that. So after time,
a period of time, the body adjusts to the fact that all the organs
are shifted around, and it’s gone through this trauma of not
being settled by gravity down in one end or another, and I could start
eating and had no problems the rest of the flight, relative to eating
and nausea. So that was a day two event for me.
Later missions, I would preplan; take medication. We had some medication
that I took; it wasn’t very effective, as I remember. Toward
at least my last two missions, the most effective counter to it that
helped me get going was a drug called phenergan. It was injected,
and that was okay when you had a medical doctor injecting it into
your hip, but on my third flight I had to have a Marine do it. [Laughs]
Because we didn’t have any medical doctor, so he was our crew
medic. But anyway, then, while we’re on space adaptation, after
I got through that day, then the next day I developed pretty significant
headaches, primarily driven by fluid shift; again the sustained impact
of fluid not draining out of your head as it does on Earth. After
two days I started getting headaches. I had to treat those with Advil
and other things, and it generally made me pretty uncomfortable on
the third day, which was okay on my first missions, but then on my
last mission that was rendezvous day. So I had to work through that
for the rendezvous, and that was an interesting challenge. So that
was my second-day symptom.
My third-day symptom was by the third day I was starting to have lower
back pain, again, caused by the fact that the spine wasn’t being
compressed on a regular basis during the day, so that stretching out
of it would cause me pain. So I would have to deal with that by either
trying to find some way to compress my spine or to put load on it
somehow or another to relieve some of that pain. That would come and
go for the rest of the flight, but it was most pronounced like on
the third day of a flight.
So my first mission and my last mission were long enough where I got
past that and could enjoy and feel good most of the flight. My second
one was only four days long, so about the time I started feeling pretty
good, we were getting ready to come home. [Laughs] And the same with
my third flight, which, we were trying to come home on the fourth
day and waved off and came home on the fifth day. So in those early
short missions you really just kind of worked through the adaptation,
and about that time you came home. So that’s pretty much my
story on space adaptation.
You had mentioned a first-day story. I wanted to go back to that.
You had mentioned we would go back to it. I’m not sure—
Yes. Well, our mission on 51-I had been planned for some period of
time to deploy three communication satellites. I don’t remember
at what point it was, but I think it was after we got approval to
do the rendezvous, then that’s when they added on the RMS. As
you remember, that was a compressed time frame. It was four months
from the time that the LEASAT failed on orbit until we launched, and
it was actually supposed to be about three months.
We threw on the RMS, and then all of a sudden we’re doing RMS
operations. We’re doing EVA training and operations, and in
addition we’re doing rendezvous training, and all that got added
in, as well as the procedures got added in. And somewhere along the
way, we didn’t get a complete integration of the RMS operations,
primarily related to cameras and the PAM operations, Payload Assist
Modules, in the two communication satellites we had on those, which
had covers. They had these clamshell covers for the PAMs that gave
them thermal protection up until the time you deployed the spacecraft.
It was all part of the design.
What happened during that first day, and of course, we’ve got
three new guys, first time in space. We’ve got late procedures;
not as much training probably on the total integrated aspects of that
day in the actual situation we had; and in positioning the cameras
on the RMS, now, to get a better view of the closing of the clamshells,
there was a note that Mike Lounge missed about, “Be careful
not to move this camera until after you close the clamshells, because
it can have interference.” And indeed, he had moved it, got
it all positioned, tried to close it; it caught on it. It broke the
So when that happened, then all of a sudden now we’re in a mode
of having this spacecraft that we can’t protect thermally, and
we go into a reaction mode. The decision is made by the ground—I
think that that one was to be the second one that we deployed on the
next day. The decision was made that we would deploy both of the PAM
on the first day. Again, I’m not sure that’s ever been
done, but we scrambled to get that done so we could get that one that
didn’t have the protection done, plus the one that we had already
planned on. So basically we got the one we planned on, and then we
regrouped and got the other one off.
So it made for a very, very busy first day for a bunch of new guys
up there. Even Joe Engle had only been on a two-day mission before;
I think it was two days when he flew STS-2. Maybe it was longer; I
can’t remember. But he didn’t have a whole lot of time
in that environment, and so like I say, we were a bunch of new guys.
We had a busy, busy time frame, and we recovered; both spacecraft
were deployed successfully. The rest of the mission, instead of having
this nice view out the back, where there was this closed clamshell.
All the pictures have this clamshell that is a continual reminder
to us that we screwed that one up and broke it so that it couldn’t
be closed, which was interesting. [Laughs]
But anyway, that made our day one a little bit longer than it was
supposed to be and a lot more action than there was supposed to be,
and like I say, we were terribly busy in that time frame. But at the
end of the day we’d deployed two satellites, had one to go,
and a rendezvous to go after that.
You were the pilot for this flight. What were some of your basic duties
during the mission?
The pilot/commander roles are driven a lot by the systems of the Space
Shuttle, and then some overall general responsibilities of the commander.
So on this mission I had the classic responsibilities for things like
the electrical power and the hydraulic power and those things that
the systems are located over on my side, pilot side, of the ship,
and then backing up the commander for all of the actions that he’s
required to take during dynamic flight and to assist him in taking
those actions in order to make sure we get to the right place at the
right time and have everything taken care of.
So it’s interesting. The training that the pilot and the commander
do, and the mission specialists, too, who’s the flight engineer,
at least in those early days probably 60 percent of the training that
we got was focused on ascent and the things that could go wrong in
ascent and how you responded to them. I’ll say 60 percent for
ascent and entry. So we kind of said, “Gee, by the time we got
to orbit, 50 percent or more of our training was behind us.”
All that training we did was contingency type of training, because
there’s really very little you have to do on ascent if everything
is going right, other than go along for the ride, which is a good
thing. So that was it.
So then beyond that in our mission, the roles that I evolved to were
a lot of photo TV responsibilities on orbit. For the EVAs, having
responsibility as the IV [Intravehicular] crew member, so I was the
one following the checklists and doing that; developing those and
working them with the EVA crew members relative to that while Mike
Lounge was operating the arm, and four of us coordinating what we
were doing. Then the commander’s job is to make sure the ship’s
running and pointed in the right direction and doing those things.
So those were on-orbit responsibilities. There were some systems responsibilities,
obviously, there too.
Then for our mission, Joe Engle gave me the responsibility of flying
the rendezvous. We agreed early on that I’d fly it up to the
time where the transition went from the front seat, and working the
orbital maneuvering system and making the burns, RCS [Reaction Control
System] burns that are required for the rendezvous, all the entries
into the guidance and navigation done up front, up to that point where
it transitions to the back, where it’s an out-the-window deal,
and that’s where Joe took over.
So I was very lucky in that regard, in picking up those responsibilities
for the rendezvous. Most commanders would not do that, because it’s
just one of those parts of flight that they like to do. In fact, I
did the whole rendezvous for the—my next rendezvous on the Hubble
[Space Telescope]. I didn’t give up that opportunity, and flew
to rendezvous and the proximity operations. I allowed the pilot to
do the separation maneuver, okay; I did let him do something, but
it wasn’t like flying the rendezvous itself. So I was lucky
But those were my primary roles.
Tell us about the crew relationship. You mentioned you were going
to celebrate Engle’s birthday on orbit, and he let you fly the
rendezvous. Tell us about the relationship between the other crew
Well, Joe Engle was somebody that I had known of for, gee, since I
was probably a cadet at the Air Force Academy [Colorado Springs, Colorado],
because of his being one of the few Air Force officers that flew the
X-15 and got his Astronaut Wings flying the X-15 before he even joined
NASA. He came to NASA in ’66, I think, so he had done all that
back when he was a baby almost, I guess, you know. Then even before
I got to the Astronaut Office, Joe Engle was flying the approach and
landing tests on the Shuttle out at Edwards [Air Force Base, California],
coming off the back of a 747. Then when we got there, he was the backup
commander for the first flight and was destined to fly the second
So, gee, to me it was almost like flying with history. So that was
a great part of it, and Joe is absolutely probably one of the best
pilots that has come through the Astronaut Office, from just the standpoint
of his abilities, flying abilities. So, I thought I was getting a
good deal to get to fly with Joe. And it turned out that that was
good, because he also allowed me to do a lot of things that he might
not have wanted to do, or wanted to let me do or whatever and that.
So it was a good relationship, and it continues today. We still send
CDR [Commander] and PLT [Pilot] notes back to each other, e-mails,
you know, and as he’s gone through his recent hip replacement
and is recovering from it, the most recent one. So that was a good
Now, Ox van Hoften, I think I may have mentioned that in our—or
my early days—our early days and as an astronaut candidates,
we were assigned to live in the same room, so he was my first roommate
as an astronaut candidate, and that went on for at least five years.
So I knew Ox well; knew his family. We had a very strong relationship,
and that helped me. In fact, I’m trying to remember at what
point he got assigned to the crew, because initially I don’t
think—at the very first time the crew assignments were made,
I don’t think he was on it, but then they shifted things around
a little bit, and he was added to it. That was a great day for me,
because, one, he’d already flown in space. He’d already
done EVAs, and he was pretty down to Earth and pretty reasonable in
telling you this is what you’re going to see and what’s
going to happen and what you ought to expect, and so that was good.
The other crew members, Bill [William F.] Fisher, of course, was the
husband—I knew him first as the husband of Anna [L.] Fisher
before he was selected himself as an astronaut, but knew Anna very
well because she was a classmate, and of course, had gotten to know
Bill then. Then the fifth crew member was Mike Lounge. Did not know
Mike as well going into it, but then wound up flying with Mike on
two flights. It’s very rare to fly with the same person on two
flights, particularly back in the early days. Now I guess there’s
more people who are flying together twice.
The crew got along very well. There were good—I’ll say
good rivalries and good memories that went with that. See, Mike Lounge
was a Naval Academy graduate, but he was flying in the Air National
Guard, as was—van Hoften was a former Navy pilot flying in the
Air Force National Guard, the Air National Guard unit. So they were
conflicted all the time whether they were Navy guys or Air Force guys.
We had this great picture that we got made of all of us in our Air
Force uniforms, except for Fisher, who was a civilian. But, it was
kind of fun from that regard. It was a good crew.
Did you have much free time on board the mission, or was it pretty
It was pretty packed, but at the same time it was long enough so that
it felt like we had more free time and everything, a lot more free
What did you do when you had some free time?
We did silly astronaut tricks and looked out the window; that’s
primarily what we did with free time. Those were the two things you
looked forward to being able to do. In fact, we did one sequence—I
think it was Lounge and Fisher that came up with this, and only rookie
astronauts first time in space would do this. But they came up with
this in-place marching stuff, where they would get suspended out in
the middle of the middeck, and then they would start doing their arms
and legs, and they’d start turning in place, and then stop and
turn in place, and stop.
So we got this idea, well, we ought to have a drill team doing that,
so we got four of us up there, and Engle’s trying to do the
filming of it; I think he tried to get it. But we’re all doing
this stuff in place, and that that little scene wound up in Loaded
Weapon , some people have seen that. I can’t remember why
it’s in Loaded Weapon, but it’s in Loaded Weapon; I’m
pretty sure that’s the movie that it showed up in. It’s
just a stupid scene, but it’s pretty funny, because we’re
doing all this, and we try to come to attention, and everybody starts
drifting off in different planes and attitudes and stuff. So, like
I say, it was stupid astronaut tricks.
That was the first time that I really got a great appreciation for
looking out the window. You know, I always tell people—they
say, “What’s space like?”
“There’s two things that you can’t replicate easily
on Earth, and one is the view that you get, and the other one is being
weightless.” I said, “Those two things.” Everything
else is actually an artifact of some of that, to some degree, and
I still feel that way. As many pictures as I’ve taken from the
Space Shuttle and thought they were the most beautiful pictures ever,
and people go, “Oh, wow,” I says, “Yeah, but you
I said, “When I’m looking out the window and I get close
to it, this is what I get in the camera, okay? I’m seeing all
this.” [Gestures] I see all that, just like we do here. You
look; that’s a camera view there. Well, that’s like that
[gestures] and not much. This is—and that’s what you remember
is just to be able to scan your eyes across all this and see all this.
You think, “I’ve got to take a picture of it,” and
you take a picture, and you get a picture of that part of it, and
you’re really seeing all that. So astronauts get disappointed
in their photography sometimes, and other people are saying it’s
great, but it’s because of what you see and what you record
and what you’re able then to remember about it.
Sometimes what you remember is what you recorded, and you’ve
got to think back about what it was really like to go and look out
and see horizon to horizon and the curvature of the Earth and everything
you can see down there. But the views of the Earth were extraordinary.
The sunrises, the sunsets, looking into the ocean when the Sun is
at different angles and seeing what you can see in the ocean that’s
not visible to the eye except from that distance and with that angle
of the Sun shining on it. I mean, texture that’s depth, and
understanding that it is. It’s not just a surface phenomena,
but what you’re seeing is maybe forty, fifty, a hundred feet
deep, as far as waves and things like that. It is extraordinary.
One of the most significant things that happened in 1985 in the last
part of August and the early part of September was a hurricane called
Elena. Elena spun into the Gulf, and of course, with our launch time
and everything, we were generally coming across the Gulf of Mexico
just before sunrise type of deal or right at sunrise. That led to
some extraordinary views of this hurricane. Now, I know that there
may have been Orbiters over hurricanes before 1985, but the pictures
that we took of Elena in the Gulf of Mexico, I still see as kind of—you
know, they’re showing a picture of a hurricane; this is one
they show, because it covered the entire Gulf. You can’t even
tell it’s in the Gulf. I know, because I took the picture, and
I know. It was bearing down on my hometown up on the panhandle of
Florida, so I was very attuned to it and knew that.
But it’s interesting, that was one of those things where that
was a picture we took, and it’s still one that shows up in a
lot of places. I don’t think I put it on that—no, we didn’t
put on that. But even the National Weather Service for a while. It
was interesting, when we came back, I took the whole sequence of them,
got the date and time of them, and sent them off to the National Hurricane
Center, because I had the time. I didn’t have the location,
and I asked them if they could give me the location for each of the
shots if I gave them the time. Bob [Robert C.] Sheets, who was the
Director, and then the guy that’s here in Houston and does the
weather now, used to be down there.
Neil Frank, yes, he came out of the Hurricane Center down in Miami
[Florida]. But I sent them down to those guys, and they got real excited
about them, and for a long time that’s what they used as kind
of their—because they didn’t have them. Now we’ve
got a zillion pictures and get pictures from the weather satellites
and stuff that show all of them. But these were good ones, and so
that was one of the things, really the unique things I remember, was
tracking that hurricane every day as we came across the Gulf and watching
it develop and watching it track and take pictures of it. It was neat.
I read that this mission was shortened. What impact did that have
on the crew and the experiments that the crew was doing, if any?
I do remember that it was shortened, and I’m trying to think
that the reason it was shortened may have been because we took one
of the deploy days out of it. You know, we deployed two satellites
in one day, and so that basically let us then go and do the rendezvous
a day early, get the EVAs done, although as I recall, we had one EVA
planned to do everything and wound up taking two. So somewhere in
there we made up another day. It may have been it took us a day less
to do the rendezvous. But we got everything done; there wasn’t
anything left undone that I remember at all.
Why don’t you tell us about the day of landing? What are your
recollections of that event?
That’s a good question. I haven’t thought much about that
landing, other than I think it was, as I recall, it was early in the
morning at Edwards. That would have made sense, because we launched
early in the morning, so it would have had to have been early in the
morning. The standard things of getting ready for the entry the day
before; I was always amazed when I got on the Orbiter, even though
people had said things. But, you know, the first time you fire one
of the large RCS jets and how it feels, because it reverberates through
the structure of the Orbiter. People say it feels like sitting next
to a howitzer when it fires. Well, I’ve never done that, so
I don’t know, but it’s a very distinctive, “Fire
one jet.” [Imitates sound.] It kind of makes that sound, that
[imitates sound] type of sound. It’s not a boom.
Then you get the motion from it, but then the structure kind of goes
like this [gestures] until it damps out. Then you fire it again, and
the whole—and you go, “Wow.” So, not like being
on a piece of steel or something. The structure of the Orbiter would
do that, and all these little things break loose that may be stuck
against a vent or something, or stuck somewhere in a corner, but when
you start firing the reaction control jets, then it all comes loose,
because you’re still weightless in zero-G, and then those things
shake out, and so you get stuff kind of floating around. You hope
it all winds up on the screens again, the things that you’ve
lost. You know, they come loose.
So during the rendezvous we got to feel that. Then we do the RCS checkout
and the APU checkout. The other thing that also is like that reverberates
through that, which just still amazed me, was you get the hydraulic
system up and running, and then through the computers you would pop
ports in the hydraulic system. That was a protective type of reaction
to protect the hydraulic system and the flight controls. Well, popping
those ports was also an event that shook the whole spacecraft. Not
expecting that. It was kind of interesting to do that.
So I was getting ready for entry. We didn’t do as much fluid
loading on that first flight as we started doing on later flights.
Didn’t have the launch and entry suits, so basically it was
jump in your flight suit, go and sit up in the seat, and at the right
time put your little clamshell helmet on, and you were ready to go.
We were not particularly high, but the deorbit burn and everything
was pretty nominal.
Our entire entry path, almost the entire entry path, was flown in
the dark, and that was pretty amazing. Now, we had heard about these
people that have seen these flashes out the overhead windows, and
nobody was real sure what they were. We were still debating what they
were. As it turns out, it was what you might think it is. It was just
a matter of some plasma kind of moving around and hitting the air
as you’re going through the hypersonic parts of the entry. But
I know that Ox and Mike Lounge were trying to figure out how to get
mirrors to be able to look out and see that and figure out what it
was, and we were doing that.
But since the whole entry was at night, then, of course, we got to
see the progression of the plasma growth around the Orbiter, and how
it starts out kind of as just little fingers along the bottoms of
the windows that you can see over here, and maybe kind of orange.
But then as you get into the thickest, hottest regions, turning into
this complete sheath of white over all the windows that you’re
looking at. So you’re sitting out here, looking. “Wow,
it looks really hot out there. It’s right there, too; it’s
right outside the window.”
Of course, I saw it on every flight, but, I mean, on that first one,
you kind of get bits of, “Oh, so that’s what they were
talking about. Now I understand what they were talking about.”
As I recall, since we were up above the ground, and even though it
was right at sunrise, we got into the Sun a lot earlier. As we came,
we slowed down; a big left-hand turn at Edwards to land on the lakebed.
It just looked like we were in the trainer, coming around there and
going around and watching Joe fly it down to a landing. Back then
we didn’t have drag chutes and stuff, so all I had to do was
lower the landing gear at the right time, and Joe did the rest. Rolled
out on the lakebed, and I was familiar with Edwards, and it was great.
Tell us about some of your PR [Public Relations] trips that you took
after this mission.
Some of them, yes. Now, let’s see, after that mission—I’m
trying to think. I’m trying to think if we did anything really
unique. I remember going to the contractor facilities. It wasn’t
anything particularly noteworthy about those, other than that when
we went out to see the Hughes guys, we had a pretty nice celebration
relative to the success of the repair and redeployment of their satellite.
I know we spent some time with the National Guard Association in Louisville,
Kentucky, because of our two National Guardsmen that were on board,
and got some recognition there. I’m trying to think of any other
PR things. As a crew, I just don’t remember us doing that many
things together as a crew, other than the standard stuff, to go around
to other contractors that we had supported and then the Shuttle contractors,
and kind of do a “gee, whiz.”
But in the fall of 1985 one of the things, and they let us do it back
then, but one of the things that I had asked to be flown in the orbital
flight kit was a football for the Air Force Academy football team.
The coach, Fisher DeBerry, actually was relatively new. He’d
been an assistant but he was the coach to the team, and I had gotten
to know him, and got the ball from him, and I flew that. So let the
Academy know, and the Academy wanted me to present the ball back to
them at halftime of a football game.
The football game they picked was when Air Force was going to play
[University of] Notre Dame, [Notre Dame, Indiana] 1985. Going into
that game, Air Force had beaten Notre Dame three times in a row. It’s
almost unprecedented by any team. They weren’t favored to win.
I remember the game, because it was a wonderful game. Air Force got
behind, and then blocked a field goal and ran it back for a touchdown.
Wound up winning the game. Beat Notre Dame four years in a row. You
can probably go and look and find there’s not too many teams
that have ever done that, but Air Force did, and it was the game that
I presented the flown football back to the Air Force Academy from
our flight. That was the best postflight that I did, that I remember;
there’s probably some others. I just don’t remember them.
What are your memories of receiving your Air Force Astronaut Wings?
They showed up in the mail. [Laughs]
Really. Okay, there’s no ceremony?
Not that I recall, no. No. Somewhere along the line the Astronaut
Office gave me a gold pin that was flown on a mission to signify going
from the unflown to the flown astronaut, silver to gold. But I don’t
remember if it was anything other than maybe at an Astronaut Office
Monday morning meeting and, you know, “Here’s your pin.
Congratulations.” But relative to anything with the Air Force
and the Astronaut Wings, I’m not sure we did anything special.
We did go up to Air Force Headquarters [Pentagon, Washington, D.C.].
We did meet with the Vice Chief of Staff at the time, and maybe he
did pin them on us at that time. Now I’m remembering, because
van Hoften and Lounge were there, and I do remember we were all in
uniform. I don’t know if they gave us a medal or if he gave
us our Astronaut Wings, which had flown on the mission. That may have
been what it was. That was a long time ago. I’ve forgot it.
But that may have been—I’ve got pictures of that. Now
I’m thinking about those pictures and saying, “Okay, what
was it? What was it that he was pinning on me? Was it a medal or was
it the Astronaut Wings?” Probably it was the wings; I doubt
that they had the medals squared away by then. So it was a visit back
to the Pentagon—it may have been only the second time in my
life I had ever been in the Pentagon—and got them squared away.
That must have been it. Joe Engle probably arranged that.
That’s nice of him. After this flight you ended up being CapCom
[Capsule Communicator] for three more flights. Do you want to talk
about the first two, [STS] 61-B and [STS] 61-C? Anything stand out
from those two flights?
Yes. Of course, I’d been an ascent CapCom, and so when they
asked me to go back over and do the CapCom thing, that was good. That
was a good place to go and do that. At the time the ascent CapCom
was Fred [Frederick D.] Gregory. The way that we did this is they
had changed it a little bit from when I had first been an ascent CapCom,
and they basically had two folks that were in the control room during
ascent, and one of them was the weather coordinator. So he was the
ascent weather CapCom.
That’s actually what I did on the first two of those missions,
61-B and 61-C. I was training, again, in the simulations and stuff,
to be the prime CapCom, but for those I was basically sitting next
to Fred and backing him up and communicating with the astronauts that
were at the TAL [Transatlantic Abort Landing] sites and with the weather
aircraft. The focus there was not on launch weather so much as it
was landing weather, because the launch weather is the domain of the
launch control team. The landing weather, whether it’s at [Kennedy
Space Center] Florida for an RTLS [Return to Launch Site] or one of
the other abort sites or whatever, is the domain of the flight control
team in Houston, and so that was what that second CapCom position
Mostly I remember a lot of the hoopla around Bill [Clarence William]
Nelson flying on 61-C. I honestly don’t remember much about
whether we had on-time launches or not for those missions. If there
were issues relative to the weather, I just don’t remember,
but I know that’s what my job was was there, and there wasn’t
anything special or exceptional that happened on those flights.
Well, let’s talk about the next mission for which you were CapCom,
which was the Challenger accident.
Talk to us about that morning. How long had you been on console before
the launch was to take place?
Let’s see. First, you go back, you know, and of course, like
I said, there was two CapComs, the weather guy and the prime guy,
and so it had been planned for some time that [STS] 51-L would be—I’d
be in the prime seat for that and be the guy talking to them. All
the simulations that we did were there. And actually, I was really
excited about the mission, because Jay [H.] Greene was the ascent
Flight Director. He had been the ascent Flight Director on STS-6 when
I had been his CapCom. That was his first ascent Flight Director stint,
and my first ascent CapCom one. Then he had been the lead Flight Director
for 51-I, so I don’t think he did ascent, or he did all the
on-orbit stuff as the lead Flight Director, and got to work with him
So I was really excited about getting to work with Jay again in the
control center as his CapCom. So there was a little bit of history
between the two of us going into that. We had a lot of trust. We had
worked together before, and so, to me, that was a very positive aspect
of going into that.
As the ascent CapCom you work so much with the crew that you have
a lot of—in the training periods and stuff, not only do you
sit over in the control center while they’re doing ascents and
talk to them, but you also go and work with them on other things.
I remember that the last night the crew was in quarantine here at
JSC before they went down to Florida, the Flight Directors and the
CapComs all went over to sit down with them one more time and go through
any questions and stuff.
So we got to go over and spend an hour or two in the crew quarters
with them. Spent most of my time with Mike [Michael J.] Smith and
Ellison [S.] Onizuka, who was, as we talked earlier, my longtime friend
from Test Pilot School. They were excited, and they were raunchy,
as you would expect, and we had a lot of fun and a lot of good laughs.
It was neat to go do that. So that was the last time that I got to
physically go and sit with the crew and talk about the mission and
the ascent and what to expect there.
So with that, then they went off, and then we sort of waited until
we got down to launch day, and, boy, it seems to me that the ascent
team, flight control team, shows up well before the crew goes to the
launch pad. I can’t remember exactly, but we’re in there
quite a while, because we’re looking at the weather, and we’re
looking at anything else that’s going on. We’re making
sure that we’re following what they’re doing; got everything
greased by the time they get strapped in so we can do our com [communication]
checks with them and that. From the control center standpoint, I don’t
remember anything that was unusual or extraordinary that we were working
or talking about.
So there was no concern about launching that morning at the Mission
There wasn’t anything that I was aware of, and of course, time
may have made—I haven’t had to think about that. But,
no. I mean, it wasn’t something where we knew that someone was
making a decision and how they were making that decision, okay? We
just flat didn’t have that insight. Didn’t know what was
going on. Did not. It was pretty much just everything’s like
a sim [simulation] as we’re sitting there getting ready to go.
Tell us about the liftoff and then the events that occurred afterwards.
One of the things is that they’d just started putting televisions
in the control center. In my earlier flights, if anybody had one,
it was maybe INCO [Instrumentation and Communication Officer] or somebody
down in the front, but there wasn’t any that people could see
that I recall in the Flight Control Room, the idea being you shouldn’t
be looking at pictures. You should be looking at your data, okay?
So that’s how we trained. Since the last time I’d been
in the control center, they’d started putting—I knew that
we had one down here, and because I’d sat as the weather guy,
and once the launch happens, you know, I kind of look at the data,
but I look over there at the TV. It’s down a row lower and kind
of out over this way from Flight Director, CapCom, it’s kind
of down over that way.
So, looking at all that and everything, start the launch, and I go
heads down on my display, because whatever I’m supposed to be
watching there, I want to make sure I’m looking at it and don’t
miss it and that. So everything, all the calls, I don’t remember
anything unusual; the calls went. The first indication I had that
something was wrong is that Fred is watching the video and sees the
explosion, and he goes, “Wha—? What was that?”
Of course, I’m looking at my data, and the data freezes up pretty
much. It just stopped. We all missed the ms or whatever it was; it
was missing. So I look over and could not make heads or tails of what
I was seeing, because I didn’t see it from a Shuttle to a fireball.
All I saw was a fireball. I had no idea what I was looking at. And
Fred said, “It blew up,” something like that. So I know
their dadgum camera guy, amazingly, he’s still—he was
sitting there just cranking along in the control center while this
was happening. Didn’t miss a beat, because I’ve seen too
many film footages of me looking in disbelief at this television monitor
trying to figure out what the hell it was I was seeing.
So off loop, there was a dialogue that started ensuing between Jay
and myself, and Jay, he’s trying to get confirmation on anything
from anybody, if they have any data, and what they think has happened,
what the status of the Orbiter is. All we could get is the solid rocket
boosters are separated. Don’t know what else. I’m asking
questions, because I want to tell the crew what to do.
That’s what the ascent CapComs are trained to do is tell them
what to do so they don’t have to go—if we know something
that they don’t, or we can figure it out faster, tell them so
they can go and do whatever they need to do to recover or save themselves.
There was not one piece of information that came forward; I was asking.
I didn’t do it over the loop, so I did this between Jay and
some of the other people that could hear, “Are we in a contingency
abort? If so, what type of contingency abort? Can we confirm they’re
off the SRBs [Solid Rocket Boosters]?” Trying to see if there
was anything I should say to the crew.
Amongst all the confusion and everything else, there was never anything
that anybody indicated, “Well, we ought to try to contact the
crew.” We didn’t have any com. We knew that. That was
pretty clear to me, so the only transmissions that I could have made
would have been over a UHF [Ultrahigh Frequency], but if I didn’t
have anything to say to them, why call them? So we went through that
for several minutes until, and so if you go and look at it, I don’t
think there was any—there was never a transmission that I made
after “Challenger, you’re go [at] throttle up.”
That was the last one, and there wasn’t another one.
Then, after that flurry of trying to figure out is there something
that we can do or something we can tell the crew or whatever, I remember
Jay finally saying, “Okay, lock the doors. Everybody, no communications
out. Lock the doors and go into our contingency modes of collecting
data.” I think that was—when he did that, I finally realized
that—I went from being in this mode of, “What can we do?
How do we figure out what we can do? What can we tell the crew? We’ve
got to save them. We’ve got to help them save themselves. We’ve
got to do something,” to the realization that my friends had
Then given that, then you’re in there and, “Okay, get
all your notes together and write your notes and stuff,” and
I’m going, “Wow!” I don’t think I did a very
good job of taking notes. Of course, Fred and I were there together,
which helped, because so many of the Challenger crew were our classmates,
and so we were sharing that together, a special time that I’ll
always remember being with Fred was there in the control center for
But that was it. Had no idea what had happened, other than this big
explosion. We didn’t know if it was an SRB that exploded. We
didn’t know if—I mean, that was what we thought. We always
thought SRBs would explode like that, not a big fireball from the
external tank propellants coming together. So then that set off a
period then of just trying to deal with that and the fact that we
had a whole bunch of spouses and families that had lost loved ones
and trying to figure out how to deal with that.
What did you do after you left mission control that day? Did you go
to the Onizukas or the Smith family and—
Yes, you know, the families were in Florida, and I remember, of course,
the first thing I wanted to do was go spend a little time with my
family, and we did that. But then we knew the families were coming
back from Florida and out to Ellington [Field, Houston], so a lot
of us went out there to just be there when they came back in. I remember
it was raining. Generally they were keeping them isolated, but a big
crowd of us waiting for them, they loaded them up to come home. Then
over the next several days most of the time we spent was trying to
help the Onizukas in some way; being around. Helping them with their
family as the families flew in and stuff like that.
What impact do you think the accident had on the astronaut corps?
It made the astronaut corps very conservative, and the reason it did
that was because, well, as things played out, it made them conservative.
It made them very I’ll say distrustful that the system would
make the right kinds of decisions to protect them. I wouldn’t
say it was a bunker mentality, but it was close to that. You know,
the idea that, as it played out, that there were decisions made and
information that may not have been fully considered, and as you can
see from all of it, a relatively limited involvement of any astronauts
or flight crew people in the decision that led up to the launch, very
little, if any.
So that led to some changes that have evolved over time where there
are more and more astronauts that have been involved in that decision-making
process at the highest levels, either within the Space Shuttle Program
or in the related activities, where before it was like, “Yeah,
those guys will make the right decision, and we’ll go fly.”
That’s probably the biggest effect that I think came out of
Did you ever consider leaving NASA as a result of the Challenger accident?
No. No. I’m trying to think if that was ever a consideration,
and I don’t recollect it as being something—I was mostly
concerned about how soon we’d get flying again.
What were some of your duties after the accident until you flew on
Oh, well, initially I didn’t think they were going to let me
be involved in any of the investigative and data collection activities,
because I was on the flight control team. That gave way, and I actually
was able to be part of a video reconstruction team and participate
in that. So we were some of the earliest folks to actually get to
the camera views that showed the effects of the leak from the SRB
joint and how it progressed into the penetration of the external tank
and the ensuing activity.
So initially that, but that didn’t last. I mean, that was kind
of, okay, there was that data. We were still training crews, and so
I was still doing ascent CapCom stuff, as I recall, as we trained,
because nobody knew how long it was going to be before we flew again,
so we continued some level of training. Once we realized that it was
going to be a redesign and a lengthy period of time, it seems like
we backed off of that a little bit, but I don’t remember exactly
So I had been working with Rick [Frederick H.] Hauck and his crew
as the ascent CapCom in some of their training. I probably could reconstruct
the timing of this, but Rick had a crew of four, and they were supposed
to fly the first Centaur mission, so it was Mike—Mike Lounge
was on that mission; Dave [David C.] Hilmers was, and Roy [D.] Bridges
[Jr.] was the pilot.
Somewhere in there after the Challenger accident, the Air Force came
back and asked Roy if he would go back out to Edwards Air Force Base
and command a test wing out there, and he elected to do that rather
than wait to fly again. So that was in ’86 sometime; I don’t
remember when. I’m pretty sure it was ’86, may have been
early ’87. So he left.
Once he had elected to leave, he left relatively quickly, and Rick
still had his crew together and asked me to come and train with them.
When they did their training, they needed a pilot, and he knew I was
relatively current because I was an ascent CapCom, and I’d been
on a mission not too long ago. So I started training with Rick and
those guys. That was all by Rick’s design. Somewhere along the
line Rick figured out he was still going to fly the next flight. I
don’t think the Centaur mission was going to be the next one
after the Challenger accident, but it was pretty close thereafter.
But he figured out he was going to fly the first flight and I think
at that point started lobbying to get me on, added onto the crew as
When did you find out you were going to fly the return-to-flight mission?
I can’t remember the date. [Laughter] I remember getting called
over to George [W. S.] Abbey’s office, though, and as I recollect,
Rick was there, as was—I can’t remember if it was Dan
[Daniel C.] Brandenstein or John Young, but they were all over there
and kind of said, “Well, would you be willing to do this?”
“Well, yeah, I’d do it.” [Laughs] I said, “I’ve
got to fly with him?” [Laughs]
I honestly don’t remember when it was, but at that time they
formalized me coming on to the crew and “Pinky” [George
D.] Nelson being added, and they said okay. That’s when they
came out and said, “This is the return-to-flight crew of STS-26.”
I’m not even sure we were calling it STS-26 then; it was just
the return-to-flight crew, and then once they figured out they didn’t
want to do the 51-Is and 51-Ls and stuff like that anymore, they changed
it back to a number. So it was something like that.
Anyway, I was tickled, because as we talked earlier, I was the last
guy in our class to fly, and all of a sudden now I’m going to
get to fly again before a whole lot of other people do. [Laughs] That
was good. It always worked out good.
What did your family think of the decision?
I think they were a little bit concerned. They were excited for me,
a little bit concerned, but convinced by me and others that there
probably wasn’t going to be a safer flight. When I went through
all the things that were going to be done before we flew again that
were better than the last time I flew, it was easier for them to accept
that. But terribly frightening, more so for them than it was for the
crew as you go through that.
It was interesting, you know, the attention on STS-26. Most people
don’t even remember what our payload was or what we were flying
for. The focus was on the crew and the changes that had been made
to overcome the Challenger accident from a systems standpoint, so
that was a big part of it. That was different than any of my other
missions; there was so much focus on the crew. It happened again here
for STS-114, too, you know. I think that’s a natural thing when
people die, then those that follow behind them receive a lot more
attention doing the same thing that other people have done and will
do. So it’s interesting.
You mentioned the attention that you received for this flight. I understand
that 48 Hours came down here and filmed a segment about the mission
itself. What do you recall about that program or the media interest
in the mission?
Well, like I say, it was unprecedented, the attention that we got.
I mean, artists would come and take pictures, and then they’d
go paint pictures of us doing different things. Some of them are over
in Space Center Houston now. I see them when I go upstairs, and I’ve
got some photos of artwork that guys did, and so that type of attention
was weird. The New York Times wanted to do a whole insert, kind of,
on us, and so whatever their weekend magazine is, it starts out there’s
this picture of one of the guys—I’m pretty sure that was
it—getting into an EVA suit or something like that. I still
have a copy of that down in my archives, you know. [Laughs]
Just a lot of national, high national-level interest. That 48 Hours
is obviously focused not just on the crew, but on the things that
have been done to overcome the Challenger accident, technically, and
looking a little bit back into the Rogers Commission and saying, “This
is what the Rogers Commission said happened, how do we know it’s
not going to happen again?” type of thing. So it was very much
Now, we knew, because from the time we were named as the crew, it
was still a year or so out, and we all knew that there was nothing
like being a prime crew for that length of time. I mean, you get everything.
When we [wanted] to go fly the Shuttle Training Aircraft on these
days and these times, yes, we got it. We want the simulator, we got
it. We want to go do this, yes, we got it. So we got everything we
There’s nothing like being prime crew, and when you’re
prime crew that long, you really probably get a lot of—you have
a lot of due to people for it, because the other astronauts suffer
from that, to a large degree. They don’t get that priority.
Then the next crew is only a month or so behind you, and so they’re
only prime crew for a month. We were prime crew for eighteen months,
two years or something. It was ridiculous.
But, we got invited to participate in anything that had to do with
return to flight, whether it was a test of the solid rocket motors,
the changes in the booster joints; go out to Utah and see them fire
these motors. We’d go wherever, and of course, we also got to
be involved in a lot of the crew escape development.
Boy, I remember the first time I think it was “Sonny”
[Manley L.] Carter [Jr.] kind of sat us down and went through this
bailout scenario type of deal and what might be possible for a partial-pressure
suit following the trajectory that the Challenger crew compartment
had gone through and things like that. If you had a pressure suit,
a partial-pressure suit, then you’d probably be able to survive
this, and then if you could get to the door, you could have this parachute
and bail out. And we’re all going, “Wow.” [Laughs]
So being involved in those types of things that other astronauts were
lead for and doing for us, following for us, but bringing all the
right information to us so that we’re totally informed and comfortable
with what was happening was really neat.
Had the training changed at all since your first mission? Did you
notice any differences?
Well, no, not substantially. We overtrained because we trained for
so long. Our mission was so simple, to fly up; first day, kick out
an IUS [Inertial Upper Stage]; take some pictures; do some middeck
experiments or whatever; and then come home. You know, it was basically
it. It was a test flight, and a very simple one from the standpoint
of the payload that we had. So we probably overtrained.
Where we had new training was in the fact that we had new life support
gear. Now we had parachutes, so, well, okay, now we had to go train
how to parachute into the water and get our little life raft blown
up and crawl into it with all this gear on, this funny gear that we
hadn’t had before. We had to learn how to crawl out of the Orbiter
with all that gear on and rappel down. We had to do a lot of things
that we hadn’t done before because of the change in that. So
most of the training differences focused around the new crew survival
Most of the changes to the systems that made them safer were things
that we didn’t have much effect over relative to the way we
train, like the change to the SRB. Well, okay, we’re still going
to launch just like we always had, and the changes are going to make
it so we don’t wind up blowing up, but we didn’t have
to learn anything different. There wasn’t anything we could
do relative—or that how that change would affect our response.
So I don’t remember anything other than the normal continued
refinement of our ascent contingency abort procedures as we continued
to get smarter and smarter about what you could do with the Orbiter
and at what times. But that was always—that’s still going
on, you know; that’s still going on.
There probably were some software changes, but they were relatively
minor, so it wasn’t a lot of different type of training other
than that, which is another story, okay? So did we talk about the
color of the suits?
Okay. As they developed this idea of bailout and of using these partial-pressure
suits, they went and the first suits that they got were dark blue,
the life rafts were black or dark blue, you know, like you’re
going to war or something. We kept saying, “Hey, we bail out
of the Orbiter and we’re floating around in this dinghy a hundred
miles offshore, who the hell is going to find us? How are they going
to find us?”
So we’re sitting there one day, and they’re talking about,
“Well, we’re not going to use the blue life rafts. We’re
going to use orange ones.”
I says, “Well, if we’re going to do that, why are we going
to have blue suits? Why don’t we have orange suits?”
So that’s how we came to have the orange launch and entry suits,
because everybody went, “Is there any reason these can’t
be orange? I mean, if we’re going to look stupid in them anyway
might as well look orange.” [Ross-Nazzal laughs.] So that was
an evolution of the crew being involved with the people developing
the systems and dealing with the issues, the real issues of, “Okay,
yeah, so we bail out and we’re floating around. What can we
do to make sure we get found?”
I said, “Well, if the life raft is orange, why not make the
suit orange?” So I don’t know if I get credit for that
or not, but that was the way that that evolved.
You definitely stand out.
Yes. Yes. Yes. So I think all of the blue training suits may be gone,
but if you look back at the pictures of the STS-26 crew and some later
crews doing their training over in the water, they’re in blue
suits. That’s because the early ones that were developed were
made out of that blue material, then they became the training suits
when they went to the orange ones, and by the time we flew, we were
in orange ones. That’s what we flew.
We’ll have to go back and look at some of the digital pictures
and see what we can find.
Yes, you go back and look at the STS-26 crew training. Even some of
the artwork that I see has us in those blue suits, because that’s
what we started out in is training in those things.
Interesting. Well, we need to take a break for a second to change
What was the mood like at JSC as you were preparing for your flight?
Well, everybody was reacting basically to two things. One was the
fact that they had lost a Space Shuttle and lost a crew, and two,
the Rogers Commission was extremely critical, and in many cases, rightfully
so, about the way the decision-making processes had evolved and the
culture had evolved.
So those two things together are hard for any institution to accept,
because this was still a largely predominant workforce that had come
through the Apollo era in to the Shuttle era, and had been immensely
successful in dealing with the issues that had come through both those
programs to that point. So to be told that the culture was broken
was hard to deal with, and that’s because culture doesn’t
change overnight, and there was a lot of people that didn’t
believe that that was an accurate depiction of the situation and environment
that existed within the agency, particularly at the Johnson Space
We started seeing a lot of personnel changes in that time period in
leadership positions. I think they were a matter of timing and other
things, but George Abbey had been the Director of Flight Crew Operations
for a long time, and somewhere in there George left that position.
Don [Donald R.] Puddy came in as the Director of Flight Crew Operations,
and that sat poorly with a lot of people, because he wasn’t
out of Flight Crew Operations; he was a Flight Director. So that was
something that a lot of people just had a hard time accepting.
John Young left from being Chief of the Astronaut Office, and Dan
Brandenstein came into that position. I’m trying to remember
what happened in Mission Operations, but somewhere I there Gene [Eugene
F.] Kranz left; I can’t remember when, and I’m not sure
when in that spectrum of things that he did. So there were changes
The Center Director changed immediately after the Challenger accident,
but we had a new Center Director, also, and changes were rampant at
[NASA] Headquarters [Washington, D.C.]. So, basically, there was a
restructuring of the leadership team from the Administrator on down,
but much of it was still people who had been part of the system and
so it was not as difficult as if there had been a lot of outsiders
that would have been coming in. Dick [Richard H.] Truly was up at
that time running whatever we called Code M in those days, but old
Code M, and Jim [James C.] Fletcher came back as the Administrator.
Aaron Cohen had stepped in as the Center Director here, I believe,
or was it—no, who was it? I can’t remember who came in.
Jesse [W.] Moore was here for a while, wasn’t he?
Yes, but he was gone within months. He had just showed up, and then
he was gone right after the Challenger accident. I don’t remember
the progression of when Aaron came in there. It may have been in that
time frame, ’86. I just can’t remember if there was somebody
else that was there or not; I don’t remember.
So a lot of leadership changed. That did a lot of different things
relative to—but one thing was now we had an astronaut that was
leading Code M. I think that was the time frame that Bob [Robert L.]
Crippen became the Shuttle Program Manager, or somewhere in there.
That may have been when Bob went down to Florida, and all of a sudden
we had an astronaut now that was starting to be involved in what was
going on down in Florida, and that was something that kept on going.
So you had a program position down there.
So all of that started changing the Astronaut Office’s perspective
of the people that were making the decisions, but I say, it was very
distrustful and trying to figure out who we can trust and how do we
know that the crew’s voice and mind is being represented appropriately.
And those were the types of things that helped a whole bunch to do
But, as JSC does, once they got past the grief and got past the disappointment
of failure and acceptance of their role relative to the decision-making
process, they jumped in and said, “Okay, our job is flying.
Let’s go figure out how we’re going to fly again.”
That was the focus, and as JSC can do when it is focused on something,
they did an extraordinary job of getting ready for that flight, both
from the standpoint of looking at the mission operations, but all
the engineering required to support the activities.
The Orbiter engineering, of course, is primarily led through JSC,
so all the changes that were made to the Orbiter. From the program
standpoint, the guys having to stay with the Marshall [Space Flight
Center, Huntsville, Alabama] folks that were getting the changes made
to the solid rocket boosters, you know, the evolution of the escape
systems, all of that; all JSC stuff. They did a wonderful job in doing
Let’s talk about this crew. This crew was an all-veteran crew.
How did that differ from your first flight?
It makes a big difference when you have all veterans. One, you’re
not having to always kind of keep people focused on what it’s
going to be like, and you know they’re not going to be “gee,
whizzed” by the first time they get there. So it makes a difference.
I’ve flown on two flights that were all-veteran flights, and
I’ve flown on two flights where three new guys. You approach
them a little bit differently.
From a crew member’s standpoint, again, it makes it easier for
people to accept and focus on their roles, because they understand
what it’s like for the other person and for them, and you lose
all of that first-time stuff. People can get—they can make the
wrong decisions for the wrong reasons sometimes, and when you don’t
have the experience of having flown, you’re more prone to do
that. History will show that. [Laughs] So that was a big difference.
I understand that Ronald [W.] Reagan came down while you guys were
in quarantine. Can you talk about that event, your memories?
Yes, I don’t think we were in quarantine when he came. I think
it was actually prior to that. That was extraordinary. Well, first,
one of the most extraordinary moments was when he came down for the
Challenger memorial service. That in itself was such a memorable event,
and, he just had such a way with people and a way of presenting himself,
and the best speechwriters in the whole world, and he could deliver
on those. I still look back at that. I look at the words he said and
the things he said, and it was extraordinary.
Presidents coming to JSC just didn’t ever happen, and he’d
come for that. Now he was coming back in a preflight, getting ready
to go fly, this same mode. He’s coming back basically to get
the troops fired up, and to show the support of the nation and his
support for the things they’ve been doing. Of course, the crew
gets to be kind of that focal on that.
But what a great week. I still remember they had the big stage set
up over at Building 9 and had it so they could do it kind of indoors-outdoors
and get a bunch of people out there. They’d set up some things,
and they offered us an opportunity to meet with him before the event,
and for our families to meet him. My girls were young, and I remember
we all stood in a kind of a semicircle with the crew member in their
flight suit and their spouse and their kids. He went around and shook
every hand; stood with every family; had his picture made. My kids
still look at those pictures and, you know, “Golly, that was
me with the President of the United States, you know, and I was ten.”
So it was a wonderful event, and again he did just that. He just always
had the ability to say the right things, and I think he meant them.
He was an actor, but I think he—[laughs]. So that was a real
boost for the team for a President to come down for something other
than a funeral, and so we appreciated that a lot. It was a great day.
Got great pictures of it. [Laughter]
Why don’t we talk about the launch? I understand that you guys
had to wait for about an hour and a half until you officially launched.
What was going on in the crew cabin at that time?
Well, we did have a long launch window, because we didn’t have
a rendezvous, so we had a relatively long launch window, which is
good and bad. It’s bad for the crew. It’s bad when you’ve
got—particularly, we had these new space suits; not comfortable.
As I remember, I don’t think we were wearing the diapers then.
We were still using the urine collection devices, and those aren’t
particularly comfortable or easy to use. When you’re on your
back for four hours out there, as the pilot and commander are if you
go to an hour and a half into your launch window, because we normally
go out two and a half before, then it’s a long time. It’s
By the time we got out there, we had long gotten past—and it’s
typical, I think, of astronauts and test pilots and stuff. If you’re
going to go do something that’s dangerous, then you have already
rationalized the danger to something that you can accept, and you
feel confident in your ability to respond to those things to keep
something bad from becoming worse. If you didn’t feel that,
then you would never go to the launch pad. You’d be too scared,
because it’s frightening enough.
So we had long gone through this mantra, and believed it, that this
was the safest Shuttle flight that’s ever going to fly. [Laughs]
So, my recollection is, as with every launch, I’m more worried
about doing something that makes me or the crew look bad than I am
about the absolute dangers that we’re facing. You know, it’s
one of those things. [Laughs] I can die okay, but I don’t want
to screw up and then die. [Laughter]
So it’s an acceptance that you have in that regard, and you’re
very much performance focused, performance focused, as a crew, as
an individual, thinking all the time, okay? Looking at the procedures.
This is what’s going to happen. This is what’s going to
happen. That’s what I’ve got to do if that doesn’t
happen. I mean, it’s that type of thought process.
I get on the launch pad, and I go to bed. [Laughs] I don’t think
there’s been a flight I’ve been on that I didn’t
go to sleep on the launch pad for some period of time. It may be five
minutes, ten minutes, but you have to relax, and so, you know, in
relaxing, I’ll go to sleep. I don’t miss anything critical.
They talk to me, I wake up. But I know that I can sleep on the launch
pad, and I attribute that to the fact that it is such a high-adrenaline
type of thing that if you really can relax, then your body just kind
of goes [demonstrates] really quick.
But then I could do that—I’ve been able to do that a long
time. I can sleep in weird places, and I’m not alone in that.
Lots of people will say, yes, they can take a catnap on the pad, particularly
when you get in, pilot or commander first, two and a half hours before
launch, you know, for an hour strapping all the other guys in and
stuff, so it’s an easy time just to go to sleep there before
you have to start doing checks on anything. It’s just a matter
So we were out there. I don’t remember much about waiting to
launch. I don’t remember. We just wanted to go.
Any memories of launch itself?
Yes. My first launch had been into the rain and the cloud. This was
into clear blue sky. It was a lot different. [Laughs] It felt different,
I think, just, you know, the first time you’re just overpowered
by the sensations. The second time, the test pilot in you kicks in,
and you start saying, “Okay. Oh yeah, that’s what I’m
feeling there. That’s what that is. Okay, and this is going
to happen. Yes, I’m ready for that.” Those types of things,
anticipation; it seems to take much longer.
Not a hold-your-breath type of deal, but, you know, going through
eighty-eight seconds, we’re all kind of thinking about what
happened the last time the Space Shuttle had gotten to that point.
Then when the solid rocket boosters come off, that was definitely
a big-relief moment for us; always has been and always will be, but
had special meaning for us on that flight when we got past that point.
And then, it was rocket into orbit. I think we probably had a lot
of yahoos, and it felt good to be leading the Space Shuttle back into
I’ve seen some clips of your flight, and one of the clips that
I always enjoy, and I think they show it at Space Center Houston [Houston,
Texas], is the clip of you in your Hawaiian shirts. Can you talk to
us about how you got the Hawaiian shirts, and how you decided to wear
those on flight?
Sure. In one of many visits that we made to Florida, there was one
in particular where we went as a crew to the Orbiter Processing Facility
[OPF] to go and see Discovery in there before it rolled out, and to
basically do a hurrah type of event with the folks that had been working
on that dadgum Orbiter for three years almost. I still remember when
they drove us up from the Shuttle Landing Facility. They picked us
up, and they drove it. We drove up to the north end of the OPF over
on the OPF-2 side.
All these people are out there, and they’re in the craziest
clothes you have ever seen. Hawaiian shirts and plaid pants or shorts,
and above them was a big sign that said, “Loud and Proud.”
That was their deal, loud and proud. In the course of the ceremony
they pulled out these five shirts. Some of them are the most god-awful
shirts that exist. In fact, the one that I gave the Space Center Houston
on the mannequin over there—
Okay, I thought that was your’s.
—is a pretty ugly one, and I was glad to get rid of it. [Laughs]
But they gave them to us, and we wore them around over our flight
suits while we were there, and then we took them back and we said,
“What are some of the things we can do to help recognize people
that were so instrumental in getting the Shuttle system back flying?”
We came up with the idea of flying those shirts, and just taking a
picture of the crew with those shirts on, and bringing it back and
giving it to everybody over there as part of the “loud and proud”
crew. So that was the genesis of it. We got them put into our crew
One of the other things for that mission is that we had gone away,
finally, or for the first time, from having to only have for the shirts
that we wore on orbit to be shirts that were the standard—they
had kind of a standard navy blue short-sleeved shirt with a big patch
on it, and we actually got to go and pick Lands’ End shirts
that we would wear, that would be our shirts on orbit, personalized,
even. I still have mine. We were the first ones, and you got a shirt
a day or whatever. I remember we picked one red, one white, one blue.
Everybody got the same red, white, and blue shirts.
So those were the first nonstandard shirts that flew on the Shuttle.
Before then everybody flew the same type of shirts. Now they fly a
zillion different types, which is wonderful, and they’ve finally
figured out that you don’t have to certify some particular shirt
to go and be okay in the crew compartment or anything. It’s
cheaper, too. [Laughs] So we did that.
But we had those shirts, and so when we had time—we had a lot
of time after we deployed the TDRS [Tracking and Data Relay Satellite];
the next couple of days we had time—then we put those shirts
on and put our sunglasses on and took some self-portraits, and that’s
the genesis of them. Came back, and those were the “loud and
proud” shirts, and that’s where they came from. They came
from the OPF at KSC [Kennedy Space Center] on one of our preflight
One of the other things that your crew did is pay homage to the Challenger
crew. Can you talk to us about that tribute, and who was responsible
for the idea, and how it came about?
I don’t remember specifically who said we ought to do something,
but it was something that everybody bought into immediately, and then
it was just a matter of what were the right ways for us to recognize,
so we took a picture of them; we took a patch. We said a few words
and did things. But we felt that it was appropriate to recognize the
sacrifice that they had made and the fact that through their deaths
the whole Space Shuttle Program was more strong and better, and that
they would have wanted us to be right where we were. Never would have
been any doubt in any of them’s mind about whether we should
have flown again or not. I don’t think there was any question.
But, you know, for Rick Hauck and Pinky and me, it was particularly—well,
you know, [four] of our classmates were on the Challenger. One of
Mike Lounge’s and Dave Hilmers’ classmates, Mike Smith,
was on board, so between the five of us, we all shared a loss, a personal
loss in the class and personal loss of friends across those classes,
so it was an easy thing to do.
I understand you also did some Earth Obs [Observations] during the
We did, but I don’t remember anything particularly unique about
the Earth observations, other than, you know, we had more time to
do it on others because we didn’t have a whole lot of things
we had to do after we deployed the TDRS. After we got to orbit, the
biggest part of the flight, the test flight, was over, and so there
just remained to do that. So we had lots of opportunities to take
pictures. I have to go back and look sometime, and see if there’s
anything unique that we took.
Why don’t you tell us about landing? Did this landing stand
out in any way to you?
Very similar to the first landing. Of course, we landed again at Edwards.
I was fortunate to fly with two great commanders, who just did a good
job of flying the Orbiter around and landing it. One of the things
about entries is that the most remarkable parts of them are actually
flying down and touching down, and then coming through the high-heating
regions of the atmosphere and the trajectory. But from one flight
to the next, they’re pretty much the same; not a whole lot of
difference in those.
It was a bright, clear day at Edwards. There weren’t a lot of
clouds or anything like that. When we talk about the landings of my
other missions, there will be a different story, different scenario.
It was different then. Maybe it was because I was flying. [Laughs]
But maybe not. But as a pilot, watching a guy fly and putting the
landing gear down and rolling out on the lakebed, we were just ready
to high-five each other and go see our families and celebrate a great
return to flight.
It’s almost five, but I had a couple more questions for you.
Can I go ahead and ask, or would you prefer that we wait till next
If you think that we’ll get to a good breaking point on STS-26,
we can go ahead a little bit.
Okay. I understand that Fletcher and Vice President [George H. W.]
Bush were there when you stepped out. Did you know that they were
going to be there?
We did not. We did not know that they were, and actually, on the lakebed
itself, Fletcher kind of stayed back, and we got the word that we’d
have a special visitor to receive us. I believe we had precoordinated—not
knowing that was necessarily going to happen, but precoordinated with
the closeout crew to bring a U.S. flag on board for us, because we
wanted to come down the stairs with a flag. They had done that, and
so when we came out, I think Rick had the flag, and we all came down
with the flag and, “Oh, there’s the Vice President.”
[Laughs] Then we all stood around with the Vice President and the
flag and everything; that was kind of neat.
But my kids tell the best story about the Vice President, because
he was there before we landed, and they got to go have lunch with
him, and lunch was hot dogs or something like this. So they still
talk about sitting around having hot dogs with George Bush. [Laughs]
It was funny. “The Vice President is here; we’re going
to have hot dogs for lunch.”
But anyway, that was neat. That was a wonderful return to flight.
A lot of interest in the landing and then a lot of postflight interest,
How were you welcomed back at JSC?
Well, by a huge crowd, as I recall. When we—can’t remember
the time of day—flew back from Edwards with our families and
got back in, and I did not remember big crew return ceremonies or
events prior to that, but we had a ton of friends and families. When
I came around in my house, there were flags, little American flags,
lining the street. The neighbors were all waiting. It was great. It
was great; a lot of fun. Actually a lot of focus on the crew on that
mission, so it was fun to be a part of that.
I understand that you were invited to the White House [Washington,
D.C.] after the flight.
We were. As I recall, there hadn’t been any visits to the White
House by crews for a while. Hadn’t flown for a while, but even
before the Challenger. You know, 51- I, we didn’t get invited
to the White House. I don’t think the crews in ’85 were
going to the White House. So to get the opportunity to go, again,
particularly, since Reagan had come down to Houston, was great.
I believe that when we went, I don’t believe our wives were
invited to that. It was the crew and a smaller group of people. But
my first time to the White House, first time in the Oval Office, Ronald
Reagan, a hero to me. [Laughs] It was great. It was a great experience.
Best visit that I had had at that time to the White House, only surpassed
by the one that I had after STS-38 with George Bush and Barbara Bush,
and we’ll talk about that one, too; a neat story.
But it was pretty perfunctory, with the STS-26 return-of-flight crew
going into the White House and meeting the President and getting some
pictures made. He was very gracious and very nice, but it was a short
I’ve also read that the crew testified in front of the House
and Senate committees that oversaw NASA.
We did. We did. We also made a visit to the House while they were
in session, and they awarded us or gave us a whatever they call them.
They passed a little recognition thing signed by the majority and
minority leaders and stuff, and gave it to us, and recognized us in
the House and presented that to us. But we did testify before the
Science Committees, I believe is what we did. That was pretty easy.
What could we do wrong? We showed them pictures and movies and talked
about our flight, and they asked some questions. Mostly it was a congratulatory
type of event. Go back to the Hill.
Is there anything else you think we should talk about about this flight?
I think we tried to cover as much as we could. There’s probably
a lot more that could be said.
That’s probably as much as I can think of right now. We may
come back or something if I think of something.
Okay. Well, thank you very much. I truly enjoyed it.