NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
7 February 2007
Ross-Nazzal: Today is February 7, 2007. This oral history with Richard
O. 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 Sandra Johnson. This is our third session with
Colonel Covey. During the last session we finished talking about STS-26.
Today, I’d like to begin with your career and flight assignments
after this flight. In 1989, you served as Chairman of NASA’s
Space Flight Safety Panel. What were your duties and responsibilities?
Covey: After STS-26, I actually was assigned two positions. First,
I was selected to replace Bryan D. O’Connor as Chairman of the
Space Flight Safety Panel. Second, I replaced Brewster H. Shaw as
the astronaut lead for Department of Defense missions to be flown
aboard the Space Shuttle. These missions were highly classified, and
even though no new ones were to be added to the Shuttle manifest after
the Challenger accident, four or five were still on the books. So
I became, say, the interface between the Astronaut Office to the payloads
community and to the Department of Defense for those types of missions.
The Space Flight Safety Panel, as I said, was formed after the Challenger
accident in response to some of the thoughts and recommendations of
the Rogers Commission. Like I say, it was to be an ad hoc, if you
would, committee made up of Operations folks, primarily, to look and
review activities within the agency that were specifically focused
on human spaceflight. It was not to replace things like the Aerospace
Safety Advisory Panel, which has a broader view for NASA, but rather
to be complementary to it with an additional focus. We were not aligned
with the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, and instead had a direct
reporting, as I recall, to Code M at the time. I may have to go back
and look at that, but—yes, that was it.
It was loosely chartered beyond that, and so we spent our time not
just looking at Space Shuttle-related activities, but Space Station.
At that time Space Station was on the books, you know. It was being
worked, actually, I think at time as Space Station Freedom, and so
it was a little bit different with the work packages and the way that
it was being managed, and it eventually wound up being the ticket
on into the International Space Station of today.
I was not ever very sure that we really performed a valuable function
in that safety role, the safety panel role. So as that went along,
I felt more like it was something that had been set up in response
to someone else’s idea, but the practical implementation was
difficult to make useful to the programs and then to the agency. But
they could say they had one. It was one of those types of things.
I think the reality of that is it eventually faded away and doesn’t
exist anymore, best I know, and that was probably the appropriate
thing. It was in response to the accident and the immediate aftermath
of the accident, and the return to flight, getting up to the point
where we were back to more regular flight operations, it had some
value, but beyond that, it didn’t.
You said you replaced Bryan O’Connor. Was there anything in
the charter that said specifically an astronaut has to be on the—
Yes, right. Chairman of the panel was to be an astronaut, so that
was it. But we had a Flight Director. We had a Launch Director. Norm
Carlson was on the panel up until the time he retired. I’m trying
to think where the other membership of the panel, where they came
from. It seems to me we had someone from Marshall [Space Flight Center,
Huntsville, Alabama]. I know we had someone from Marshall that was
part of the panel that represented their—so it was outside the
program, more of an institutional flavor, looking at operations within
the programs. That was about it.
What were some of the issues that you looked at as part of that panel?
Tough for me to remember specific issues. Like I say, I was never
really enamored with the effectiveness of the role, and probably one
of the reasons I don’t remember as much about it.
Okay, well, shall we go on and then talk about—
Well, actually, no. I want to talk about—you were Coordinator
for DOD [Department of Defense] Flights. That was something that we
hadn’t found in our research.
We were low-profile. [Laughs]
I can imagine. Can you share with us some more detail about that?
Sure. You know, all of the missions were highly classified, and each
crew, as they were selected, was read into the particular program
that they were in, the DOD program that they were supporting. But
there needed to be someone who was aware of what all of those missions
were going to be doing and working that interface with the appropriate
agencies within the DOD to make sure that the crew issues that may
cross all of those were being taken care of.
So we had a very small staff, primarily focused on managing the classified
materials that we kept in the Astronaut Office related to these missions;
the clearances of the people that may have to go beyond just the regular
Department of Defense top-secret clearances; helped manage all of
that activity. Someone that could go and sit in on all of the meetings
related, that are standard types of meetings for any payload that
might fly on the Shuttle in the course of mission preparation, but
because they were of the classified nature, they would be held in
special environments or different places, and having someone that
could go and attend all those other than just the crew for a specific
Because even the crews, from one mission to the next, didn’t
necessarily know what the other crews were doing and what they were
going to fly and do on orbit. If you think about just all of the meetings
that go on related to mission planning and payloads, those were all
done in a classified environment, so having someone designated from
the Astronaut Office to go and do all those was important. So I got
to know an awful lot about all of the missions that we called classified
DOD missions at that time, starting in late ’88 and going on
through my flight in 1990.
Did you spend some time at the Pentagon working these issues, or were
you primarily based here in Houston?
Primarily based here. I probably can’t even tell you where else
Did you work very closely with anyone in particular while you were
working on this?
Within the Astronaut Office?
Within the Office or within the Air Force.
The groups of people that we worked with within the Department of
Defense and the Air Force were at the time very low profile. When
they came to JSC, there were very few people that knew that they came,
necessarily who they were and what organizations they represented.
That was the way we operated back in that time frame.
Was it clear to you at some point that you were going to be flying
on a DOD mission because you had received this assignment?
Yes. I assumed that I probably was, but I’m trying to think
of the timing. It must have been in ’89. I was approached by
the Air Force about returning to a Air Force assignment as a Test
Wing Commander over at Eglin Air Force Base [Florida]. Going through
the process of making my decision on whether I wanted to accept their
offer to come back to a very, very good job, or to stay and fly again,
I had discussions with Dan [Daniel C.] Brandenstein about, okay, so
what’s going to happen next and when. So [it] was in that discussion
with Dan is when he told me of his intent for me to fly STS-38, which
was going to fly at the time, I believe, in the summer of ’90.
Yes, it was summer of ’90. So that was sort of when I learned.
So I was in this role, which made sense that Dan would have assigned
me to this role of coordinating all of the DOD flights if indeed he
is planning for me to pick up one of those flights, much like Brewster
had. See, Brewster left and went off and flew one of the DOD missions,
I think STS-28, and so I kind of rolled in behind him in doing that,
and then flew the STS-38. So that was when I found out that, yes,
that was what I was going to go do. It made sense at the time.
What sort of challenges are associated with flying a classified mission
versus, you know, flying your first two missions?
Well, one, it was very complex. You know, from the training and standpoint
that even sometimes the training loads were classified, so you had
to operate in a classified environment; the controls and the limitations
that that puts on you in how you train, how the Mission Control Center
operates, make it more cumbersome. But actually, we had gotten very
good at it by 1990. The facilities were set up. The procedures were
set up. You had to have a classified way of developing the Flight
Data File and managing the Flight Data File as classified material.
The control center had to operate in a classified environment, which
meant that there were real limitations on the communication systems;
that encryption was required for communications, and some of it, there
were special facilities required in the control center for the payload
operations and for certain levels of secure meetings. It was much
different. When you throw the elements of classification, DOD classified
operations, in there, it got more complex and more difficult. But,
you know, we learned how to do it.
We had additional restrictions and limitations put on us in our travel.
Sometimes we were not allowed to travel to acknowledged locations.
So then when you start having to travel and, you know, the whole issue
of how you do your travel reporting and expensing, when you have to
say going someplace, but maybe you go somewhere else. I mean, it was
complex, and so that was part of what the role that I had was, as
the coordinator and integrator, was to help facilitate some of that
So there were those complexities, but that was all kind of fun, too,
you know, all this keeping everything classified and saying, “No,
I can’t tell you where I’m going, and I can’t tell
you what I’m doing,” and those types of things. Outside
of the core group in the office that was either flying the missions
or had leadership positions and had the appropriate clearances, there
was very few people that really knew what was going on on those DOD
There were even further levels of classification and knowledge of
what was really going on and what the payloads were designed to do
and were to do, as you got within even the crew. So there were some
things that I as the commander of the mission got read into that no
one else on the crew did, and there were some things that the crew
knew about and that some of the people working the payloads knew about,
that other people working the payloads did not know about. So even
in the control center they had a limited knowledge of all the things
that were actually involved in the payload operations. So it was a
different environment, different environment.
You have to remember we had gone down this path because when the Shuttle
came into being, it was designated as the primary launch vehicle for
Department of Defense payloads, so it had to accommodate that. We
were going down a path where we were even going to launch Department
of Defense missions out of the West Coast. We were going to control
them out of Colorado Springs [Colorado]. I mean, all those things
were—and work facilities were being built. We had done a lot
of work on developing, you know, supporting the development of SLC-6,
the Space Launch Complex 6 out at Vandenberg Air Force Base [California]
before the Challenger accident.
That all ended with the Challenger accident, and then the national
policy became that they weren’t going to fly satellites and
expendable payloads, if you would, or payloads that could fly on expendable
launch vehicles, on the Shuttle anymore. So that got phased out, and
that’s why it eventually went away. It took a while because
of what was in flow and in process at the time, but then it went away
after that. But that was because of the change in national policy
based upon the Challenger accident.
So we stopped working on Vandenberg launches, which not only included
the new launch complex out there and a very complex process of moving
the Orbiter, we were developing filament-wound boosters that were
lighter for the Shuttle that replaced the steel-case ones that we
fly with now, and that was to facilitate launching out of the West
Coast where they had a real performance issue. Those were scary boosters,
because they had a lot more flex in them. So none of us were really
sorry to see that go away after the Challenger accident, and the DOD
missions went away, and we decided we weren’t going to launch
out of California with the Space Shuttle.
But the whole operation was going to be really weird out there. Getting
from the runway to the launch pad, you know, it was up and down hills
and through the valleys, because of the way California is built. They
had made special provisions for being able to tow the Orbiter along
roads and stuff to get it from the runway down to the launch pad.
That was very interesting, and got to do some interesting work in
preparation for that pre-Challenger.
Were you involved in that work?
Yes, yes, yes, for a while back before the—it must have been
even before I flew my first flight we were doing, because we stopped
pretty much everything after Challenger. I don’t remember us
doing anything out there but that. Yes, we ran tests on making Shuttle
approaches to the runway at Vandenberg, which was sloped, and everybody
worried about whether the slope of the runway would cause problems
in flying the big glider down, because it was a one-and-a-half-degree
slope, as I remember, which is not real severe, but the final approach
of the Shuttle is only a two-and-a-half-degree glide path, so one
and a half degrees, relative to that two and a half degrees, can make
a big difference.
So we were trying to figure out if that was a problem; we ran a test
out there. That was fun, and took the Shuttle Training Aircraft out
and flew it around to the runways, and then we were working also,
like I say, the SLC-6 development, the filament-wound boosters. All
those were elements of getting ready to fly out there, and that was
early eighties we were doing that stuff.
But anyway, so I’m back to the DOD missions. As I say, for those
of us that were flying those missions involved, it was just a little
bit different than—a whole lot different than the other missions.
What did it mean to you as a military man, being assigned to this
DOD mission? Did it have any sort of special significance for you?
Oh yes, absolutely. You know, I thought it was wonderful. There were
exciting things going on in DOD space back then. There still are.
There were exciting things, and being a part of all that then with
my military background and my being an astronaut and being able to
support all that was really very, very cool.
Why don’t you tell us about the crew members and your relationship
with them on this flight.
Okay. Well, my STS-38 crew is a unique crew in a lot of different
ways. One, we were all active-duty military folks. We had representatives
of each service. We had a West Point graduate, two Naval Academy graduates,
and myself, an Air Force graduate, and then a UT [University of Texas,
Austin, Texas] graduate, so, you know, Carl [J.] Meade snuck in there.
So we had representatives of every service. We had representatives
of all three service academies. Every one of the crew members was
a graduate of a military test pilot school.
Although only two of us were really flying as pilots, there always
have been and continue to be some number of military test pilots who
fly as mission specialists. So Bob [Robert C.] Springer, Carl Meade,
“Sam” [Charles D.] Gemar were all graduates of test pilot
school selected to be mission specialist astronauts by NASA and flew
in that role with us. Frank [L.] Culbertson [Jr.] and I were selected
as pilots, and so we were there. From the standpoint of, if you would,
a common background of military academies, military service, military
test pilot school, we had the full bag there on the crew.
Three of the guys were flying for the first time. I had flown twice,
Bob Springer had flown once, and then Frank, Sam, and Carl were all
flying their first flight. Flying with guys for the first time is
always an interesting proposition. I really noticed it going from
STS-38 to STS-61, where I had a crew of everybody had flown; and then
on STS-26, everybody had flown. My first flight, I was flying for
the first time, so I was just wide-eyed. I probably didn’t know
the complexities it is of training with and flying with somebody for
the first time.
So we did that, and it turns out that our mission—the good news/bad
news about flying with new guys is that the good news is that we weren’t
flying a real long mission, so they didn’t have to worry about
a whole lot of things. The bad news was that our most critical operations
were all on the first day right after, basically between launch and
the time we went to bed. So here these guys were going to be adapting
to space for a first time, with all of the “gee whiz”
factors and everything, and we had to do our most serious and significant
work that first day in deploying a payload.
So I worried about that, and we tried to keep our operations as simple
as we could. And basically, they were relatively simple, other than
the fact that, as I recall, the most difficult thing was dealing with
lighting and things like that for photography. Had a lot of people
that we had to have responsible for photography, but it’s hard
to simulate on the ground the exact lighting conditions you’re
going to have when you get on orbit, and we struggled. We struggled
with that, and we didn’t do very well with that when we finally
got on orbit. It was just bad lighting. I mean, the lighting was terrible,
and so it’s hard in a short period of time to get ready to take
pictures and movies and video and get them as good as you’d
So the common background that everybody had from the standpoint of
their experiences, pre-NASA experiences, I think helped us as a crew.
All five of us were qualified and checked out to fly the front seat
of the T-38, so a lot of crews, if they had five people, they might
have three pilots and two mission specialists, and they take three
airplanes when they go somewhere. Well, we always took five airplanes
whenever we went anywhere.
There are some great stories that are stories about that, because,
you know, Sam Gemar, even though he was flying the front seat of a
[T-]38, his flying background before he came to NASA was predominantly
helicopters. So he didn’t have as much experience in flying
high-performance jet aircraft as the rest of us did, and it showed.
[Laughs] So we always had to accommodate that sometimes and make sure
we were watching out for Sam; make sure we didn’t put him in
the wrong situation and do that. But that was fun.
So, you know, the crew, we got to travel a lot together to places
where we couldn’t tell anybody else where we were going. We
had a lot of things that we could only share with each other. We couldn’t
share them with our families; we couldn’t share them with other
people in the office. So from that standpoint we still have a secret
ring or whatever, and can nod at each other when we hear things or
know things that we know that nobody else still knows about what we
did and how we trained and stuff.
Let’s talk about your style as a commander. This is your first
flight that you get to command. What was your commanding style like,
if you can characterize it?
Well, it’s probably better for someone else to answer that question
than me. [Laughter] Well, my approach was always to make sure that
everyone understood clearly their roles and responsibilities, and
then to make sure that I held them accountable for those, the activities
associated with that. With the type of people that I had on the crew,
that wasn’t hard to do. They were all very much project, process
oriented people, because of their test piloting backgrounds, and so
they would go off and work the specific issues that they were assigned
and do that.
I very much as a commander never felt like I had to be the smartest
person on everything that was happening. I had smart people, and I
wanted them to be smartest on the specific areas, and I would rely
on them to be able to keep me smart, as smart as I needed to be. So
I know that I learned that from the commanders I flew with, which
is not an unusual approach for commanders to take.
A commander’s role varies from mission to mission, and it varies
from individual to individual. My focus was making sure that our preparation
for the mission, including how we related to and dealt with our customers,
which I considered to be the payload customers, the Air Force and
DOD agencies, that that relationship was clear and solidified. That
our relationships with the flight control teams and the Flight Directors,
in particular, was appropriate and clear and open, and then that we
had properly trained and were capable, each of us performing the specific
roles and actions that were required of us during the course of the
So, you know, that meant watching guys in training and making sure
they had the right training, and being comfortable with their ability
to perform on orbit. There are other people that are making some of
those judgments, but ultimately to me it’s the commander that
has to make those calls on the readiness of the crew to perform on
As commander did you have any opportunity to select the crew, or as
Coordinator of the DOD flights, did you have that opportunity?
I did not in this case. Dan pretty much told me who I was going to
fly it with, so there I was.
Why don’t you tell us about training. You alluded to some of
the challenges in training, but was training any different for this
mission than your previous two, besides the classified discussion
Actually, the training was very much, in my mind, very much like the
training that we had for STS-26. They were similar type missions.
They were both scheduled for four days. They both involved flight-day-one
deployment of a payload, and then basically a couple of days of doing
things then coming home and landing. I mean, they’re pretty
simple missions from the standpoint of the structure of them.
So the training, very much like that, a lot of focus on ascent and
entry for the pilot, commander, and flight engineer, who was Bob Springer
in our case. We didn’t have any robotic arm operations, so we
didn’t have to do that. The guys that were doing EVA [Extravehicular
Activity] training were strictly contingency-type operations, and
that was pretty minimal, as it usually was. So we didn’t have
any rendezvous. We didn’t have any of those types of things,
so the training, it was focused around ascent/entry, and then flight-day-one
payload operations, and that was pretty much it, so it was pretty
simple. We could get our training done pretty easily and in a pretty
structured time frame.
What did you tell the rookies on your flight about being in space
and some of the challenges that they might face or things they should
be aware of?
Yes, you know, I don’t really remember coaching them that much.
I’m sure I did, and both Bob and I did, trying to help them
get ready for that. I don’t remember any specific things, other
than I’m sure we probably told a lot of war stories along the
way and helped them that way.
Well, why don’t we talk about launch day and getting ready to
go to the launch pad and then the eventual launch?
Well, let’s see. First, we got caught up in a scenario that
changed our launch date substantially in 1990, and I’m not going
to remember all the details exactly. We were scheduled to fly on Atlantis,
and I believe it was Discovery ahead of us had gone to the launch
pad, and they had hydrogen leaks. I’m trying to think of—I
don’t remember exact details on it, but it was around the disconnects,
the ET [External Tank] disconnects.
They were substantial leaks. They were unresolved, and somewhere in
there they brought Discovery off the pad, and then they decided to
check and see if Atlantis had the same problems; took Atlantis to
the pad, did a tanking test, and it did. So that took us into a four-month
delay, at least four months; I want to say it was four months. That
rolled us into November from the summertime.
So before I get there, there was an interesting thing that happened
in this, in that Bob Springer had decided that he was going to leave
the Astronaut Office after our flight, and in fact, had already accepted
a position with Boeing in Huntsville, Alabama, when we got the delay
announcement. I wasn’t 100 percent sure that he wasn’t
going to say, “You know, I’m not going to fly. I’m
just going to go to my new job.” [Laughs] I think he probably
had some of those thoughts about whether he wanted to delay.
Well, Boeing was good about letting him delay his report date, so
he did go ahead and fly with us, but after we got back in November
he left and actually finished his part of our crew report while he
was working for Boeing in Huntsville, so he departed pretty quickly
after we completed the mission.
So that all kind of happened. It pushed us off into November. I don’t
remember a lot of the details of that, and that was one of those things
that got us into a different lighting situation that made it difficult
for us to do our photography.
But anyway, when we got to November it turned out that the launch
was a night launch. That in itself wasn’t particularly new to
me, since we had launched very close to night on my first mission.
It felt like a night launch when it actually happened because of the
clouds that were there, even though it was right at sunrise.
But going to the launch pad in the dark, which I had done before,
is always an interesting experience, because you get to see things
that you don’t necessarily see in the daytime, like the hydrogen
burning off and away, and the lights, the way things are lit up is
very, very interesting and surrealistic out at the launch pad with
the big xenon lights and all of the burn-off and the hissing and the
gases and stuff that are moving around out there. It’s pretty
But I don’t remember much about the launch specifically, other
than I do remember that my oldest daughter was not there. It seems
to me we launched in the evening, as I recall; it was an evening launch.
But my daughter Sarah wasn’t there. It was the only launch that
she missed, and the reason was that she was on the Clear Lake High
School volleyball team, and they had won their region and she was
on a bus heading to Austin [Texas] to play in the state championship
So we had talked about what happens if—and made a decision that
she would not go to the launch. She’d been to two, so she wouldn’t
go to the launch; she would go with her team to the volleyball championship.
So she was on a bus, actually, between here and Austin during the
launch, and someone had to call her out. Back then we didn’t
have a whole lot of cell phones, so I was not sure exactly what happened.
But the follow-on to that was when I was on orbit, I was getting the
scores from them. They won the semifinals—yes, the semifinals,
and then lost in the finals that year. But I got all that while I
was on orbit. I’d get it in the teleprinter. It would come up
in the message; they’d give me the scores. [Laughter]
But like I say, I don’t remember anything unique or specific
about the launch. I don’t remember anything unique or specific
about the crew’s reactions. It was pretty typical.
Anything you can share with us about the flight itself?
Yes. We did not go very high, and you can read a lot into that. We
didn’t go very high because we couldn’t go very high,
which says we probably had a heavy payload. But, you know, if you
go back, there’s some stuff that’s in the statistics now
and they talk about that. But that was the thing that was really unique
about the whole mission is I don’t think we ever got up above
about 135 nautical miles. Our insertion was low, maybe 125 miles or
so, and then we went up a little higher after we deployed a payload.
So that put us in an orbit that was so different than my previous
ones. It’s really low. You know, you have a greater sense of—I
mean, the proximity to the Earth makes a difference in how you look
at it, what you can see. You can’t see as far to the north and
south or ahead of you or behind you. But then when you’re looking
down, you can see more things.
I remember at that time this was in the time period called Desert
Shield, which was right after the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqis
in 1990, and when we had started deploying large numbers of U.S. forces
in the Saudi Arabia in preparation for what eventually became Desert
Storm. So whenever we would fly over that part of the world, of course,
there’s lots of fires and stuff in the oilfields in Kuwait.
We could see all those, and we would try to see what else we could
see. I remember looking and seeing the bombers on Diego Garcia sitting
there very clearly when we flew over it in the Indian Ocean. In fact,
I think we sent some messages that basically we’re focused on
our troops there.
Everybody had a sense that we were going to go to war, that Desert
Shield was more than just a saber rattling, that they were really
positioning for an invasion and a rejection of the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
But I think that happened like in just after the first of the year,
January-February time frame in ’91, yes, somewhere like that.
We were flying right at Thanksgiving time, just before Thanksgiving,
so I remember that.
But that was probably the one unique thing about the flight, more
so than my others, because during my next mission we went up to the
Hubble [Space Telescope] up at 300 miles, and it’s a lot different
up there. That’s more than twice as high as we were on the other
mission. People don’t think about the different operational
range of the Shuttle from the standpoint of, yes, you can go into
120-mile orbit. You’re not going to stay there very long, but
you can go into a 120-mile orbit. Or you can go all the way up to
330 miles, or however high the Hubble might be, with it, and it makes
a difference in the things that you do.
So we, like I say, had a very busy first day, and then transitioned
into enjoying our next couple of days.
Then the end of the mission was different. After the Challenger accident
all landings had been in California, and there really had not been
any plans to change that approach. A very, very conservative agency,
very conservative. In the past when the Kennedy Space Center [KSC,
Florida] was the primary landing site, California was the alternate,
and people always thought about, okay, you know, we’ll go to
California if we can’t land in Florida. That was kind of the
way that people thought about primary and alternate sites. But we
had switched back now to where the primary site was California. We
were supposed to land in California.
On our landing day—and it was a four-day mission, and on our
landing day the weather in California was not good, and so after doing
all our preparations for landing, we waived off and extended a day
to wait for the weather to get better. Well, the next day the weather
in California was still not good, and it was not forecast to get any
better the following day, which would have been our last extension
day on this mission. So everybody started looking at landing in Florida,
which was really weird, to think that Florida was going to be the
alternate weather site as opposed to a primary site.
Lee [Alan L.] Briscoe was our Flight Director, Entry Flight Director,
and I remember he did something I’ve never heard of done or
seen before. He actually got on the com [communication] loop to talk
to me, and basically the question was, “How do you feel about
landing in Florida instead of California?” We hadn’t landed
in Florida in five years, since, you know, ’86—or almost
It was kind of a no-brainer to me. I says, “Hey, I’ve
flown so many approaches and landings to the Kennedy Space Center.
We can go land there. That’s not a problem.”
But so that was different, for a Flight Director to get on the com
loop instead of letting the CapCom [Capsule Communicator] talk to
me and tell me. That was very different, and they did that.
So we said yes, and so on our first extension day then we flew to
a landing in Florida. It was a late afternoon landing. Mike [Michael
L.] Coats had the weather aircraft duty down in Florida, and I suspect
Dan was still out in California, so he had sent Mike down to Florida
to be a weather aircraft guy. So he was there, and so they went and
they watched the weather.
This is the fall of the year, and one of the things that they do in
Florida during the fall is they burn the underbrush in their pine
forests, a very controlled type of burn just to get everything down.
And they were doing that over on the west side of the river down there
in Florida, and the winds were predominantly from the northeast, and
so they were blowing that smoke out over central Florida toward Orlando
[Florida]. So at the time Mike made a recommendation that we land
on runway 33 to the north down at the Kennedy Space Center, and that’s
what we were targeting to.
Well, between the time that they made the weather call and probably
about the time we deorbited until we got there, the winds shifted,
and they shifted around from the southwest. All of a sudden this smoke
started getting blown over the Shuttle Landing Facility. Mike was
watching it, and it was one of those things where we go, “How
bad is it going to get,” you know. It was getting worse and
worse, but it was one of those things where it was, “Well, how
bad is it going to get?” They didn’t know.
As it turns out, the smoke was coming pretty much right across the
southern half of the runway, and the northern half was clear. Mike
could have made a call somewhere in there and said, “Let’s
go and fly in from the north end and land on runway 15.” We
could have come in—I would have loved that, because that’s
a left-hand turn for the commander, so the commander can see the runway
and see everything coming around, and that’s what we all like
to do is see that.
But he didn’t make that call, and instead we wound up coming
around, and they started telling us, “There may be some smoke.
It may be bad.” Well, it got compounded by the fact that the
Sun was going down, and so all this time, you know, Mike’s looking
and saying, “Well, the smoke’s not too bad, not too bad,
not too bad.” The Sun starts getting down, the smoke starts
getting a little thicker, and pretty soon, because of the refraction
of the light off the smoke, you can’t see through it. So we’re
coming around on the heading alignment circle, and Frank now is over
looking out his window.
“Frank, what do you see?”
“Not much.” [Laughs]
“Do you see anything?”
He says, “I don’t see any of the aim points yet. Don’t
So, you know, that’s not bad. We’ve got great guidance
in the Orbiter. It’s always been good, and we knew we were close.
So we’re flying around, and when we rolled out on final, the
only thing I could see—I could not see the runway. I could not
see the visual aim points. The only thing I could see was the what
we call PAPI lights—the Precision Approach Position Indicator,
PAPIs—lights through the smoke.
So that’s good, because it gives me a visual reference that
I can fly to that tells us if the guidance isn’t—but that
was the only thing—so we’re flying down. We fly all the
way down. We go into the smoke, and we get down at our pull-out altitude,
and when we go in the smoke, I can still see those lights, but I can’t
see anything down toward the runway. We come out and we pull out below
the smoke, and there it was. There was the runway.
Frank lowered the gear, and we landed, and I think technically I get
to log an instrument approach on that. [Laughs] So not only were we
landing at KSC for the first time in five years, we’d just basically
flown through conditions that they would not normally have said, “Go
fly through those.” The irony of it was at the other end of
the field it was fine. So anyway, I remind Mike Coats of that all
the time, of the weather call he made for me. [Laughs] So that was
actually one of the more exciting things that happened on the mission
I can talk about.
Yes, that’s not classified, is it? [Laughs]
How different is it landing on a runway versus landing at a dry lakebed?
You know, I had never landed the Orbiter on the lakebed, but my two
[times as a] pilot were on the lakebed, and the biggest difference
is the deceleration tends to be a little quicker on the lakebed, just
because of the makeup of the material. But the pilots wouldn’t
say that it’s substantially different other than that. You’ve
got more runway and more places to go sideways when you’re on
Was there any damage done to the Orbiter? I know the last time the
Orbiter had landed at KSC there were some problems. Any damage to
No. No. Not with my landing. [Laughs]
Okay. Of course not, no. [Laughs] I wasn’t making a comment
about your piloting skills there; just a question.
Did you guys have any PR [Public Relations] duties after this flight,
or were they also classified?
Yes, we did. Yes. Let me put it in the right perspective. We had some.
Most of them were related to our customer, so they weren’t highly
publicized. I’m trying to think if there was anything else unique.
The only thing that was unique and was very memorable is that the
crew did get invited to the White House, and this was the George [H.
W.] Bush the first and Barbara, Barbara’s White House. We went
just before Christmas, so we went in December. We went very quickly
after our flight, which was, you know—the Bushes were great
about that type of thing.
It was the most memorable visit that we had. Of the three that I’d
made to the White House after flights, it was the most memorable.
The reason was because of George Bush and Barbara Bush. They invited
our spouses, so our wives went with us, and we all went into the Oval
Office. Had a very nice photo session in the Oval Office with them,
and I’ve got this great picture of my wife and myself with George
and Barbara Bush, and that’s unique, to have the First Lady
in the picture. In my first visits the First Lady wasn’t anywhere
Then the President says, “I want to take you guys to go do this,
and Barbara’s going to take the spouses and go show them the
private residence,” which was all decorated for Christmas. So
they disappeared, and then he says, “Okay,” he says, “I
want to show you this little—,” so he took us off in his
little office behind the Oval Office. He had his little world map
in there, and he had a typewriter, and that’s where he typed
all of his little notes to people and stuff. He was showing us that,
and he was just kind of saying, “This is where I really do my
work,” you know, and stuff, and it was very personable.
He took us outside and showed us around some things, where he played
horseshoes, and the dogs were running out there, I remember. Barbara
came out somewhere in there, because Millie went running out and caught
a bird, and it drove Barbara crazy. She was so ticked at Millie for
killing this bird, as you can imagine.
But then my wife tells the part about when they went up into the private
residence, and we came up, I guess. Yes, we came up there and joined
them. This was about the time we had joined them, and it turned out
that “Jeb” [John Ellis] Bush’s—Jeb Bush was
there with his family for the Christmas holidays.
I think Kathy said that we were standing outside the Lincoln bedroom—she
still remembers this—and these two little kids came running
out, grabbed their arms around Barbara Bush, and pulled her down.
I sort of remember this; my wife remembers it. And she listens to
them; she says, “Yes, these are the astronauts.” So here
were these kids who were the grandchildren of the President of the
United States, and they’re real excited about seeing the astronauts,
you know, and stuff.
It was kind of a neat story that’s there. So that was the most
memorable postflight thing we had from STS-38 was that.
That’s a nice memory. It’s nice that you were able to
go and get those photos.
Well, the next thing that I have in your chronology is your work as
Acting Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office. Do you want to talk about
that a little bit and some of your duties and how you got appointed
to that position?
Yes, let’s see. That was in a time period when Jim [James F.]
Buchli was the Deputy of the office, and he was going to go fly. So
the way that had been worked, that Dan would let him go fly and still
retain his title as the Deputy of the Astronaut Office, so they had
somebody come in and act for him. Dan did the same thing, so when
Dan went to train to fly, he would have someone come in and be Acting
for him so his position was secure when he came back.
So Dan asked me to come in and be the Acting Chief while Jim went
off to train and fly. You know, there the Deputy of the office has
to run interference for the Chief in a lot of things. I’ll call
them personal personnel issues, helping resolve things that come up
with members of the astronaut corps, you know, their working with
other people, or helping make sure that we’ve got all of the
assignments and duties that we think we’re responsible for covered
by somebody, with the flux of people going in and out of training.
So it was largely focused around those types of activities.
While I was in that role, several things happened. First was in April
of ’91, I believe—yes, it would have been April of ’91—the
Association of Space Explorers, which is an international organization
made up of, at the time, cosmonauts and astronauts who had flown in
space, the Russian—or Soviet, at that time—branch extended
an invitation to the U.S. folks, U.S. members of the Association of
Space Explorers, to come to Russia for a commemoration of Yuri [A.]
Gagarin’s flight thirty years before. So it was a thirtieth—and
this was before there was any established relationships between NASA
and the Russian space program.
But I got to go, and it was pretty extraordinary, because we didn’t
know exactly what we were going to get to see or get to do at the
time. But it turned out to be much more than we had—the Russians
had decided to kind of open up a little bit to us. So we went over
to Moscow [Russia]. We spent time out at Star City [Russia]. We went
to Energia; we got to see their control center. I mean, we got to
see things and ask questions and got to do things we had not imagined
that we were going to get to do, very much get a front-row view of
their human spaceflight program and how it was structured and how
Then for the actual commemoration, it was done on the same launch
pad that Yuri Gagarin had launched from. They actually had a vehicle
on the pad, ready to launch or close to being ready to launch. But
so they flew us from Moscow out to Baikonur [Kazakhstan], which at
the time everybody says, “Well, it’s not really Baikonur.
It’s somewhere else. It’s out here in Kazakhstan,”
you know, and we didn’t know where we were going. But they took
us out there and hosted us.
The whole time the Russian government hosted us in different government
facilities, and they hosted us out there. We got to see where the
cosmonauts’ crew quarters were at the launch site, basically,
and their training facilities there and everything, and share all
that. They took us out to an air field, and they had all of their
military fighters, their Shuttle Training Aircraft equivalent, all
kinds of things out there we got to see, not expecting to be able
to. You know, I mean, they just really gave us a lot of access that
we didn’t expect. I got to take my wife. It was a wonderful
event, and we did that.
So that preceded some other activities that took place the next year
that I was involved in, which was the actual first discussions between
the Russians and the U.S. programs as to how we would exchange crew
members and participate in each other’s programs. That kind
of set the bit. I got to meet a lot of the people that I’d deal
with later on the Russian side, but just getting that experience was
So then we got into an interesting daisy chain of events. Dan Brandenstein
was getting ready to go off and get into serious training for his
mission in 1992 on Endeavour. The first flight of Endeavour, I think,
was in ’92. So he asked me then to be the Acting Chief of the
office. While he did that, and then at that time we said, “Yeah,
okay,” and Steve [Steven R.] Nagel would be the Acting Deputy,
because Buchli was still off doing his thing for a little bit longer.
About the time that they said, “Yeah, Covey’s going to
be the Acting Chief of the office,” well, Don [Donald R.] Puddy
was the Director of Flight Crew Operations. At the time, for whatever
reason, at that particular time he didn’t have a Deputy. But
he got selected to go off to a three-month program at Harvard [University,
Cambridge, Massachusetts], executive professional development type
So no sooner had Dan said, “Hey, why don’t you come be
the Chief of the office,” and I got a call from Don Puddy that
says, “I’m going off to school. I want you to be the Acting
Director of Flight Crew Operations.” So I still have this little
sign that somebody gave me that showed where I was the Acting Deputy,
the Acting Chief, and the Acting Director all at the same time. Technically,
it was weird.
So I wound up doing that, and Steve Nagel became the Acting Chief
of the office while Dan went off and flew. Then I went up over to
Building 1 and backed up Don Puddy while he was off at school as the
Acting Director of Flight Crew Operations. When Don returned, then
I stayed on as the Acting Deputy Director, because at the time they
didn’t have a Deputy, although they had identified one, and
it was going to be Steve [Steven A.] Hawley, who was coming back from
Ames [Research Center, Moffett Field, California] to be the Deputy
Director. So until he got there, I was the Acting Deputy.
So I got to act a whole lot for a year or so there, which was great.
I had a lot of fun in the role. I got to learn a lot, and I felt like
I made a difference, even as an acting guy, in that time period, so
it was interesting.
What were some of your responsibilities while you were working in
Flight Crew Operations?
Basically, the Director has responsibility for all the aircraft operations
as well as all of the astronaut activities. So those are the two primary
suborganizations that the Director has responsibility for. So management
of all the crew activities, management of the flight crew operations,
were the primary focus of that. You know, having to deal with, again,
a lot of the personnel issues that evolve at the next level up, and
got to there; dealing with aircraft incidents and the additional aspects
of having all of the airplanes that NASA had at JSC, the responsibility
for those, was the primary focus of that job. Readiness of the crew
and the flight crew, the flight crew elements to support launches
in that time period, and being a part of the flight readiness review
process was a big part of it.
What impact do you think that accepting these positions had on your
career or your next flight at NASA?
It had a direct influence. Let’s see. What happened, when Don
got back from school in the early part of ’92, then I was the
Acting Deputy Director until Steve Hawley showed up, and I can’t
remember exactly when it was. But it wasn’t too long after in
that time period—I think it was probably in the summer—Don
Puddy announced his retirement, or his assignment to the Center Director’s
staff, one or the other. So it became clear that they were going to
select a new Director of Flight Crew Operations.
Well, this is an interesting story in itself, in that at the time
the Center Director was Aaron Cohen. The Deputy Director was “P.
J.” [Paul J.] Weitz, former astronaut. In that time period Dan
[Daniel S.] Goldin had come into the Administrator’s position;
that would have been early ’92, as I recall. So the landscape
at [NASA] Headquarters [Washington, D.C.] started changing, and one
of the changes it made was George [W. S.] Abbey, who had worked on
the Synthesis Group and came back into NASA Headquarters as basically
a supporting staff to Dan Goldin.
George very clearly had someone in mind that he wanted to be the Director
of Flight Crew Operations, which had been his old job, and I suspect
that was part of the reason that Don got moved to another position
was to open that up. But the person that George had in mind was Randy
[H.] Brinkley, and Randy was outside NASA at the time. He had just
been hired by NASA but had no experience at NASA or JSC, and George
was promoting him for the position.
Paul Weitz and Aaron resisted that direction, if you would, from Headquarters
as to who should fill that position, and so they did something that
you don’t see very often, which is they opened this SES [Senior
Executive Service] position up for competition. They basically posted
it and told everybody. What that allowed them to do then, and I’m
not sure exactly of the process, but they made sure that they had
plenty of people that were very qualified that applied for the job,
including myself, okay? Then what they did was they were able then
to make Randy Brinkley’s application come in—they do a
process. I think it allows them to go down to where they just have
to look at five or something.
So they threw him out, and then they looked at the five they wanted
to look at, going strictly by the government process relative to posting
and filling a position. The end result was that Dave [David C.] Leestma
was selected as the Director of Flight Crew Operations. That probably
was a compromise, I suspect, between George Abbey and Aaron Cohen,
and that’s okay. That’s how that works.
So right after that was decided, and they said okay, by then I had
been sitting around up [on] the [eighth] floor, because Steve Hawley
had come in, but the two of us were still kind of running Flight Crew
Operations, and I was helping around up there. But then after they
made Dave’s selection, I got called in by Aaron Cohen and P.
J. Weitz, and I still remember this very clearly. They thanked me
for applying for the position and were very gracious about it, and
then said, “We want to talk to you about what you want to do
next.” The choices were, “Do you want to go back and be
the real Chief of the Astronaut Office, or would you like to command
the Hubble repair mission next year?”
It took me about two seconds to say, “I don’t want to
go back and be the Chief of the Astronaut Office. I want to go fly
the Hubble mission.” So did I have an input? Yes, I think because
I was working with Aaron and P. J. in Building 1 in Flight Crew Operations,
I gained their confidence, and they wanted to do something good by
me, so that was the good thing. So I got the jump on that one there.
It wound up they made that assignment, and that’s how I got
Before we talk about this flight, I was just curious, do you think
there were any drawbacks to taking these administrative positions?
No. No. No, I actually wasn’t sure if I was going to fly again
or not. I’d pretty much decided I wanted to, but there were
absolutely none, no. I learned an awful lot, and I felt like I was
contributing at the right level, based upon my experience in the office
in the time that I had had with the agency by then.
Let’s also talk about your role as a representative for the
negotiations between the U.S. and the Russians a little bit before
your flight. What did that involve and when did that process start?
Well, it started before I got my assignment. It must have been in
the fall. It must have been in the fall of ’91. I think the
first time they came, he said, “We’re putting together
a group to go to Russia.” Don Puddy was still gone, so I just
self-designated myself to go as the flight crew representative. So
I made two trips to Russia somewhere in that time period, and somewhere
in there I also found out that I was going to fly the Hubble mission.
I remember that.
Basically, as they were trying to have these initial discussions about
what could we do—could we fly Russians on the Space Shuttle;
could we send U.S. astronauts to Mir—the early discussions didn’t
even look at the Shuttle flying to Mir. That actually evolved later.
It was more just an exchange of crew members.
So we were trying to figure out what’s the right structure to
do that. What are the right agreements that have to be put in place?
How do we deal with Russians coming over here and getting trained?
How do we deal with an American going and training with the Russians,
flying to Mir? What assurances do we need to have about the safety
and reliability of the Mir and the Soyuz and all that?
As you can imagine, very difficult, very difficult. One, there was
still not a lot of trust between the two sides. One, we had to do
everything through interpreters, because we didn’t have anybody
at that time that spoke Russian, at least to the point where—there
were so many of us that didn’t that we had to have an interpreter.
Likewise, they didn’t have too many people that spoke English.
So we got initial exposure at that time to the Russians who ran much
of the crew operations, both inside Energia and outside Energia, and
started setting up agreements on the exchange of crew members. So,
as I recall, they were very painful, very painful discussions, just
because of how hard it was to get through everything and make sure
everybody was clear that we were all talking about the same things.
In the end it wound up that one of the last things I did in my role
in Flight Crew Operations was to facilitate the first two Russians
to come over and get established in our community here and into our
training programs, into the Astronaut Office. It was Vladimir [G.]
Titov and [Sergei K. Krikalev]. … The first two.
Part of the agreement was that we would pay their living expenses
here when they came. So I had to go and work with the NASA folks on
how we pay these Russians and the basis of what we pay them, and how
do we give them money and know what they’re doing with it. At
that time checking was not something that they came with any knowledge
of, and so I remember having to go—we decided to use the JSC
Federal Credit Union as a way to funnel money to these guys and have
some insight into what was happening.
So I remember that when they showed up, we got them and we put them
in a hotel, them and their families in a hotel. We had arranged for
some executive apartments that we had taken out leases for them. Then
we put money in the credit union account, and I remember taking them
over to this apartment and helping them write checks for their first
month’s rent and their deposits or whatever they had to put
down, and do that. It was, you know, taking them through the basics
of it. They were smart guys, so they figured it out. In fact, they
were real smart guys, and we didn’t give them nearly enough
But there was a communications thing. Titov spoke very little English.
He spoke some. The other one had very good English skills.
So they came and got geared up to go fly on the Shuttle, and then
we sent Norm [Norman E.] Thagard over to go fly to the Mir on the
Soyuz, and then that evolved into a whole program with the Shuttle
flying up and doing dockings with the Mir and things like that. But
I just got that first stuff going, and I bailed out. Actually, I thought
it was going to be too hard to work with the Russians anymore, and
going and flying the Hubble mission looked like a good one to me,
so that was sort of what happened in that time period and what I was
Yes, it’s interesting. You mentioned that there were a lot of
trust issues between—well, I guess just on the part of the Russians
and not necessarily the U.S. side?
Yes, yes. Well, for years these had been competitive programs. For
years, other than the 1975 mission where we flew with them, that had
been lost. This was fifteen years later, sixteen years later, so a
lot of the relationships that had been built for Apollo-Soyuz [Test
Project, ASTP] had vanished. The players were in different roles.
They were gone. So the idea that facilitated this basically was the
breakup of the Soviet Union. That then took away the adversarial,
competing programs aspect of it to one of finding a way for these
two great countries with these great space programs to work together.
So I think it was supported because it was a way to work together
that should be nonthreatening, and I think it was, largely, but it’s
just that, you know, the Russians did things different. To them, knowledge
was power. Well, it is anywhere, but to them knowledge was power,
so when you tried to find out information about like their systems
and stuff, you found out that there was one or two guys who had everything
in their head, and they may have a set of drawings or something, but
they didn’t share those with everybody. Those were theirs.
So whereas we have everything documented and you can go and pull out—the
knowledge is not resident to one person. It’s resident to a
community, and theirs, it was more small groups had the power and
the knowledge that allowed them then to secure their roles. So they
weren’t necessarily willing to share everything as much with
us, nor when they wanted to share it with us did they have it in a
form that made sense to us, that we could deal with. Says, “Okay,
yeah. Oh, yeah, you want to know about that? Here is this guy. Ask
him your questions.” And we want the schematics and we want
the—you know, and they weren’t there.
I imagine technology exchange was quite difficult then.
This is probably an easy question. Did they have things like Xerox
copiers or scanners so they could share those things with you?
Not to the degree that we had.
How challenging was it for you, being that you had been working in
the military for so long, and they had been the focus of the Cold
War for so long, and now we’re trying to create a partnership
with them in space? Was that a challenge for you?
Not particularly, no. No.
You mentioned ASTP, and I was just curious, did you ever talk with
people who had worked in the program and talked about their working
groups and how they made those relationships between the U.S. and
the Soviet Union work?
I don’t remember specifically addressing it relative to the
activities that we were undergoing then. We did have some people that
had been around during ASTP that were part of our team, so there was
some knowledge. I remember early on talking with people like Jay [F.]
Honeycutt when I first came to NASA, who had been involved. That was
in ’78, and he had just finished working on that in ’75,
and so he had a lot of experiences there. People like that were around
that supported a lot of this, like George Abbey and Tom [Thomas P.]
Stafford, had vast experience with them. But for most of us that were
involved in those early parts, early discussions, it was limited.
Well, I think we need to stop and change out our tape here.
All right. So we are back, and we’re going to talk about STS-61,
which was the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. You
told us how you were selected for that flight, given the opportunity
to do so. Probably pretty exciting for you.
Yes, it was.
So why don’t you tell us about the first days after you had
been selected and what some of the things were that you were working
Well, it hadn’t been announced for a while, you know, after
I had talked to P. J. and Aaron about it, but I knew it was in work.
So I was still working a lot of the Russian stuff there up until the
time. At the time they had already assigned four of the crew members.
The four EVA crew members had already been assigned is my recollection.
So when they finally got around to forming the rest of the crew—and
I didn’t have much input on this, either, although I had no
objections, but they assigned Ken [Kenneth D. “Sox”] Bowersox
as the pilot and Claude Nicollier as the RMS [Remote Manipulator System]
operator. Claude may have been assigned before; I just don’t
remember specifically if he was. So the other crew members were Story
Musgrave and Jeff [Jeffrey A.] Hoffman and Kathy [Kathryn C.] Thornton
and Tom [Thomas D.] Akers.
So everybody had flown before. All the EVA crew members had previous
EVA experience, except for Kathy, I believe. So it was a very experienced
crew from that standpoint. In fact, if I went back and added up all
of the flights that everybody had, there was a bunch of them. I guess—I’m
trying to remember if it was—it may have been Sox’s first
flight. No, that was his second one; I’m pretty sure it probably
was his second. I think everybody had flown before. I just can’t
remember which one he had flown on before that. So I had a very experienced
crew and a great mission.
It was at the time the environment was such that NASA was struggling,
as it always seems to be, with its image and with its role and with
the Space Station evolution, which had gone from Freedom to the International
Space Station. That was all in this time period going on, and then
the Hubble was up there and not working the way it’s supposed
to, and everybody was poking fun at them. The sense that you got was
everybody was looking at the servicing and repair of the Hubble Space
Telescope as the mission that could prove NASA’s worth and,
I guess, that it deserved to continue to be given the charters; that
it was advancing space and aeronautics for our nation. So we felt
that throughout this time period. There was this overarching focus
and pressure on the success of this mission.
NASA did the right things relative to making sure that the right focus
was there. Our Lead Flight Director was Milt [J. Milton] Heflin, a
very experienced Flight Director, a longtime NASA Flight Controller,
so very, very good experience there. He was given the first team relative
to all of the support that he got. The agency decided that they wanted
to put an additional focus on the mission, and so they came up with
something that didn’t previously exist, which I think they called—was
the Mission Director role. Basically, this was a George Abbey creation,
and he assigned Randy Brinkley to go do that job.
So Randy had to create this role, basically, which was almost like—I
don’t think he reported to the Space Shuttle Program; I think
it was an agency role that integrated the aspects of what the Hubble
folks were doing at Goddard [Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland]
and what the Shuttle folks were doing relative to the mission, and
sort of working it from a agency-level view. So that was new, and
we had to deal with that additional structure and reporting, if you
would, in doing that.
The mission grew in complexity after we had the crew assigned. We
initially were looking—it initially started as a three-EVA mission,
but it grew to five, and that was because of the things that were
added onto the mission itself from the standpoint of what was required.
So the idea that we were going from—a leap from one mission
in ’92, where they had done three EVAs, to doing five really
pushed the bounds of what people thought we could do. Even with four
EVA crew members; even with an eleven-day mission, it just started
pushing the bounds. There was a lot of scrutiny on it and a lot of
focus on it.
But, you know, the mission itself, some new aspects. It would be the
first time that we would have rendezvoused with the Hubble Space Telescope,
so there was some newness to that. We had not at that time had not
rendezvoused with anything as large as the Hubble. This was pre-Mir,
so we hadn’t been to the Mir. The largest things that we had
flown up to had been things like the LDEF, the Long Duration Exposure
Facility. But it was still, with the solar arrays and everything,
it was still one of the larger objects that we had rendezvoused with,
so we had that aspect of it, too, of newness.
The idea of doing five days of spacewalks was clearly new. The idea
of doing some of the substantial maneuvering of large pieces of equipment
on the end of the RMS was new. So all those things together, all the
things that made this an incredibly appealing mission to astronauts
also made it very complex, and some of the newness of it made it so
we had to work things a little differently.
So we went off—all of us were assigned, I know, at least a year
before the flight, so that would have been December of ’92,
in that time frame, and we set off in the direction of preparing for
the mission. The differences between preparing for this mission and
any of my other missions, it was closer back to my first one than
it was to the two in the middle. The integrated operations of Shuttle
maneuvering, RMS activities, and EVAs, although now commonplace, wasn’t
then. So integrating all of those activities and the crew activities
together was a big part of my role as the commander, and making sure
that what we signed up to do was something that I felt was achievable
and that we could control the way it was done.
Because of the size of the Hubble Space Telescope and the environments
we needed to train in, we knew immediately that a lot of the EVA training,
neutral buoyancy type training, would have to be done at Huntsville
at the Marshall Space Flight Center, because at the time the only
facility we had at JSC was relatively small. It was okay for contingency
Shuttle tasks, but when you were starting to talk about wanting to
fully simulate maneuvering the RMS with an EVA crew member on it,
with the large instruments that we had to move around, then we had
to do that at Marshall.
So we wound up spending—the crew spent a lot of time at Marshall.
It wasn’t just the EVA crew members. They may have spent a little
more time there, but we all went, because that was the only way for
me, in particular, to learn what was going to go on, what it looked
like, what were the issues that they were dealing with, what were
the complicating factors involved.
So we all spent a lot of time in Huntsville, me on scuba, Sox on scuba,
and the EVA crew members in there in their suits and Claude Nicollier
working the RMS operations. So I could get on scuba, and I could go
down, and I could get right up there next to them and see what they
were dealing with, see what the latches looked like, and see what
the tools looked like, where they had to put them. So that was invaluable
to me in preparation for the mission, to be able to do that.
Did you and the crew spend any time out at Goddard?
Yes. Of course, the high-fidelity mockups of the telescope were there,
so there was time that was spent there looking at what the real telescope
should look like, and did that.
I’m wondering if you could compare the media interest in this
mission with STS-26, which was also a very popular mission.
Twenty-six was more focused on the crew and the aspects of the crew
than 61. Sixty-one, it was more focus on the mission and what we were
going to do rather than who we were. So that was a major difference,
and I was more comfortable with the 61 part of it, where the focus
was on the things we were going to do, not on who was doing it so
much; I mean, the people. So that’s a difference in the type
of mission that we had on both of those.
“Oh, okay, tell us about the TDRS [Tracking and Data Relay Satellite].”
Well, that takes about two minutes, and everybody’s asleep,
you know. “Okay, well, let’s talk about the crew,”
you know, so that was the difference between 26 and this one, which
is you could talk about the mission forever and ever, and people just
never got enough of it about the things we were going to do and how
we had to do it, and they loved talking about what the potential improvements
meant. So that was the difference.
Why don’t we talk about the launch of this flight then, or any
other sort of events that occurred prior to the flight.
Yes, let’s see. There were some bumps along the way. One of
the other things that the EVA crew members did was to take a lot of
their tools and stuff into the thermal vacuum chambers, where they
would go in and spend time in their suits in the thermal vacuum chambers
and work with the tools. Now, Story Musgrave, I love him. He’s
one of the smartest people I know. He’s a medical doctor; he’s
all these other things. Story goes in, into one of the thermal vac
[vacuum] runs, and does something that just blows me away. It still
does; I still don’t understand Story doing this.
But his hands got cold, and he didn’t want to stop the run.
He wound up getting severe frostbite, to the point where we didn’t
know how well he was really going to recover his sense of feeling
in some of his fingers, as I recall. His fingers were black, okay?
Well, so this angered a lot of people—one, that he let this
But the problem is Story had been around for a long time. Story is
different than a lot of people, other people, and so there were some
that looked at this as an opportunity to try to get him off the crew.
So the first thing that happened was we were assigned a backup EVA
crew member, and it was Greg [Gregory J.] Harbaugh. It was interesting.
Greg was recovering from knee surgery, so he couldn’t even get
in the suit and do stuff, but he was designated as the backup EVA
crew member for us.
Then there was this concerted effort to use Story’s injury as
a reason to get him thrown off the crew by some people within the
agency and the Center, and I had to go fight that. Basically, it was
that he was going to recover, and he was going to be fine. So the
reasons went beyond. The reasons were political and personality based
rather than technically based on his capabilities and whether he was
going to recover from his injuries.
That was hard to deal with. You would think that we could get beyond
some of that stuff, but it was still out there, and all the signs
were there that someone was going to make this decision on their own.
It didn’t happen, and Greg continued to train with us and was
there as our backup, but we didn’t have to replace Story, which
was good. It was what I wanted. So that was one of the bumps along
I’m trying to think if there were any other. Nothing in particular.
I mean, the training was pretty intense, focused on the EVA activities
and the support of those activities. Obviously, rendezvous and proximity
operations and the redeployment were all those things that we had
to prepare for and do.
I had made some divisions of responsibilities along the way. I had
decided that I was going to fly the rendezvous and the proximity operations
up to the grapple, but any other maneuvering that had to be done,
basically on orbit, I was going to let Bowersox do. So the separation
maneuver when we redeployed the satellite, if we had some contingency
things, it was my intent to let him fly and do that flying, just so
he got the additional experience, and do that. And that worked out
So now where are we?
That’s what I’m wondering. Do you want to stop here and
then maybe start up with launch? Would that make more sense to you?
Yes, it may be the best thing to do.
Yes, and that works for us. So we’ll talk about it next time.