NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Houston, Texas – 24
is June 24th, 2004. This oral history interview with Joe Engle is
being conducted in Houston, Texas, for the NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project. The interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted
by Sandra Johnson and Jennifer Ross-Nazzal.
At our last session we concluded talking about your second Shuttle
mission, STS-51-I, that ended in September of 1985. Just four months
later, the agency and the nation encountered the loss of the Challenger.
Would you share with us where you were and how you learned about the
A.] Steve Hawley and I are both from Kansas, and we had been invited
by the governor of Kansas to take part in the annual Kansas Day festivities,
which is a formal dinner and a banquet and a ball, and I believe there
was a parade involved, too. Steve and I took a [Northrop] T-38 [Talon]
up to Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka [Kansas]. We landed there the
morning of the flight, actually. We had buttoned the airplane up and
gone into base operations, and we landed about twenty minutes, as
I recall, before the scheduled launch time, so by the time we got
in, we were able to get all the post-flight activities done.
They had a television set up in the base operations waiting room or
lounge area there. I think it’s there all the time anyway, but
they asked us if we wouldn’t like to watch the launch and, of
course, we were kind of hoping that there would be a place where we
could watch it. So we went in there along with the people who were
manning the base operations at the Air Force base there and the folks
from the governor’s office who had come out to meet us and take
us in town. Steve and I watched the last few minutes of countdown
and watched the launch until the breakup; so we were there at base
operations at Topeka.
I remember Steve being a little bit concerned about what we should
do, and I remember telling him there’s—in fact, I don’t
remember saying a whole lot of words. I think I told him, “You
go file a flight plan back to Ellington [Field, Houston, Texas] and
I’ll call the governor’s office and explain that we’re
not going to be there.” So by the time I had finished the call,
he had the flight plan ready and we turned right around and came back.
were your duties after the accident? So much was going on and people
were trying to do all that they could. What were you trying to do
after you landed and returned to Houston?
course, we didn’t know what was going to be done. I think things
were still not organized completely into focused groups. There was
an Accident Investigation Board in the process of being formed. We
were not part of that. As a matter of fact, I think [Robert L.] Bob
Crippen was one of the few from the Astronaut Office who was on that
But I do recall immediately taking part in the almost continuous Shuttle
mission simulator runs, which were attempting to duplicate all the
conditions of the launch. At that time, the cause of the accident
had not been determined. Nobody had any idea what it was. They suspected
high-altitude wind sheers and, of course, they had gone back and gotten
the wind profiles and fed that into the simulator. We were flying
launch profiles, trying to determine if there were areas where structural
stress or overload had happened during the boost.
So, as I say, we were not at that time assigned to anything specifically,
because nobody knew where to focus specifically yet, but we were collecting
data, mainly, of launch profiles in the simulator, and I was taking
part in that.
were you able to determine some of the changes that were made for
the Shuttle Program before the return to flight?
the main change, of course, was purely mechanical and a design change
at Thiokol [Corporation], a change in the geometry of the field joint
that allowed the blow-by or the pass-through of the hot gas from the
solid rocket. I remember sitting in on a number of those meetings
where the design was being reviewed and approved, but I didn’t
have any active part in that.
As I recall, those of us in the Astronaut Office were most active
in some of the other changes really didn’t have anything to
do with the cause of the accident, but had to do with additional improvements
and changes. I recall the bail-out boom, which is the long boom that
extends out the hatch if the crew has to get out over the water. It’s
not a good vehicle to ditch in the water with, so you can blow the
side hatch, extend the boom, and everybody hook on with a parachute.
The boom takes you down below the wing. It forces you to go below
the wing before you get to the end of the boom, so you don’t
hit the leading edge of the wing as you bail out. That wouldn’t
have done any good at all in the Challenger scenario, but it was something
that I think was done to make the safety folks feel that they’d
made a contribution. It had very limited application.
We had stopped using pressure suits during the launch phase. They
were cumbersome. In fact, I remember on 51-I, which was a couple flights
before Challenger, we wore shirt-sleeve coveralls and it was a much
more comfortable way to fly, and you had much more visibility and
reach access without the cumbersome suit on. But after Challenger,
it was determined to go back to a pressure suit. In case cabin integrity
was lost, the crew would be able to survive. So the launch escape
suit was developed further and we took part in those evaluations of
had believed that until the Challenger accident that flight scheduling
came before crew safety. Were there safety issues prior to or during
your last Shuttle flight that concerned you and your crew, or had
there been other safety issues that the astronaut corps had talked
had not been any major safety issues, and there certainly wasn’t
any feeling that safety was being compromised in order to get the
flights off. That may have been a misconception on our part; because
we all wanted to fly so badly, we really were willing to accept the
risk that was there and probably more. But in the Astronaut Office
the discussions more were centered around somewhat of a relief that
the thermal protection system, the tile separation issue, had been
resolved. The tiles were not coming off or separating anymore and
damage to the tiles was very minimal. There were a few dings, but
that was normally resolved by having debris kicked up off the runway
after landing, so that was not a problem at all for entry.
We were more concerned with the high-speed moving parts. By that I
mean the turbines, the fuel turbines that pump the fuel the very high
rate from the tank into the engines. They turned at a tremendously
high rpm [revolutions per minute], and just the thought of that rate
of rotation and the turbines coming apart could very well have been
a disastrous thing in the back end of the airplane. None ever have,
but it’s one that I think has always nagged not just the crews,
but some of the engineers keep their eye on them pretty closely.
And hydraulic pumps. We had had failures of triple redundant systems,
hydraulics and computers and things like that, all of which are mandatory
for the vehicle to return to land. So we were keeping our eye on those
kinds of failures more than the kind of thing that happened on Challenger.
you have any indication that you might have another flight or were
you expecting to command another flight?
Engle: I think
expecting would have been a correct way to put it. I expected that
I was going to fly again. I was not assigned to a specific flight.
There were enough pilots, enough crews in queue that the foreseeable
flights were already manned or announced when I returned from 51-I.
Then when Challenger happened, it was obvious that there was going
to be an extended downtime for the Shuttle. There were an awful lot
of really talented young pilots and engineers, mission specialists,
who had not flown yet. I remember thinking very hard and trying to
think unselfishly that it would be pretty vain for me to lobby to
get back into the launch loop right away, while these other young
kids were sitting around waiting, because they’d been waiting
for quite some time.
The other thing was, I was coming up on mandatory Air Force retirement
in March, so I had to make the decision of whether to retire from
the military and hire on as a civil servant and stay in the Astronaut
Office. That would have been another decision to make, and I had not
really forced myself to that decision. That was still a little ways
off, so I was trying desperately to figure out some way to be able
to keep flying airplanes, like the T-38s, because I knew once I retired
from the astronaut program, I wouldn’t have that access to the
fun airplanes to fly.
I was really undecided, quite frankly, exactly what I was going to
do, until Challenger happened and that kind of changed things.
us through the next couple of years. You did leave NASA before return
to flight and you did retire from the Air Force. Share with us how
all fell in place for you and how you moved on to the next phase of
Engle: I had
given a couple of talks. I remember giving one major talk at an Air
National Guard Symposium in Washington, D.C. It was prior to our flight,
and I know we had taken a good many mementos from Guard squadrons
around the country. When Challenger actually happened, [Edward C.]
Pete Aldridge was the Secretary of the Air Force at that time. He
had been down here at NASA, actually, training as a [payload] specialist
to fly on the first Air Force flight out of Vandenberg Air Force Base
[California], which, of course, never happened because of Challenger.
But Pete was going to be a [payload] specialist on that flight.
He was at that time the Undersecretary of the Air Force and he was
able to wrangle his name into the position of being the Air Force
representative on it, which is a really good deal. Pete was a neat
guy. His parents lived over on the west side of town, and I remember
a number of times him coming in or needing a ride over, and I would
drive over and spend some time with them and got to know them very
When Challenger happened, Pete contacted me pretty quickly afterwards
and said that he had seen that my retirement papers were coming across
his desk. He asked if I would agree to extend my retirement for a
year so that it wouldn’t be perceived by media and anyone else
that Air Force guys were bailing out of the program because of the
accident; they didn’t want anything to do with it, and really,
I think, from his perspective, from a standpoint of giving more confidence
or shoring up the confidence that the Air Force was still committed
to the Space Shuttle. So I was tickled silly about being able to do
that, because it meant that I could still stay here and still fly
T-38s. He had made arrangements with the NASA Administrator at the
time, and that was all taken care of, so I extended.
I didn’t serve on any official Challenger board or return-to-flight
activity, but I did take part in the simulations. I remember working
on simulations and working on other improvements to the Shuttle at
the time. But that extended me from—let’s see. I guess
it was February until the next fall; October, I believe it was.
you retired from the Air Force, you were then appointed to the Kansas
Air National Guard with the rank of brigadier general. Tell us about
how that involvement occurred and why you decided to take that position.
was one of the neatest recoveries that anyone’s ever done for
me. Again, I was coming up on the end of September, wondering what
I was going to do to fly. I couldn’t afford to go out and fly
anything else on my own. During that period of time, during that extension
that Pete had asked me to do, there was a position that was becoming
vacant in the Air National Guard which was called the Air National
Guard Advisor to Commander in Chief of Space Command and—he
wore two hats—the Commander in Chief of NORAD, North American
Air Defense. The same gentleman was the Commander in Chief, the CinC,
of both organizations.
The Guard, General [John B.] Conaway, who I knew personally, was trying
to figure a way that the Air National Guard could integrate into space
activities somehow, to get space into the Air National Guard repertoire.
During that same time, Gene [A.] Budig was the chancellor at the University
of Kansas [Lawrence, Kansas]. He really wanted me to come back and
take a position at Kansas. I had barely gotten a bachelor’s
degree at Kansas; didn’t have a master’s degree or anything.
I was not a good student, and why they even thought they wanted me
to come back and be on the faculty back there, but he wanted me to
come back to Kansas.
[Senator Robert J.] Bob Dole was not a very close friend, but a friend,
and he had approached me about running for a congressional seat in
Kansas during this time period. I had, I thought fairly tactfully,
declined Senator Dole. In fact, he has a great sense of humor, and
I recall telling him what [Robert A.] Bob Rushworth told Margaret
Chase Smith when she wanted Bob to come back—Bob was one of
the X-15 pilots—come back and run for Congress or Senate in
Maine. He had called me up there to his office in Washington and I
told him, “Sir, I’m really honored that you’d ask,
but I’ve been a professional test pilot now for twenty-five
years, and I’ve become so accustomed to basing my decision on
facts, that I don’t think I could make the transition into politics.”
Bob said, “Well, I kind of knew you were going to give me that
But he and Gene Budig and John Conaway, who was Air National Guard,
and Pete Aldridge, who was by then the Secretary of the Air Force,
had decided that that would be an appropriate position for me to take
and I could go back into the Kansas Air National Guard. I could come
back home to Kansas and serve the state and then do the appropriate
assessment of how the Guard could get involved in the space program.
So they called me up to the Pentagon, and I was in General Conaway’s
office and he and Pete Aldridge were there. I suspected something.
They approached me or they offered the job to me, and General Conaway
broke in and said, “Now, this is not your normal cushy job.
This is not your normal good-deal thing that you hear about guys getting.
This is not just Space Command, it’s NORAD, North American Air
Defense, so I expect you to go out to the Guard squadrons that are
flying air defense and check out in their fighters and fly with those
guys and let me know where the problems are in the squadrons.”
Boy, I could hardly believe what I heard him say, and I was trying
to fight back a grin and jumping up and saying yes. I was sitting
there trying to contain myself, and Pete Aldridge says, “Well,
hell,” he says, “I knew we wouldn’t get you to take
this unless we gave you an airplane to fly, so go do it.” [Laughs]
I retired from the Air Force, I believe it was on the 30th of October,
over at San Antonio [Texas]. They had a full-blown ramp retirement
with a fly-by and all, and a flight of [McDonnell Douglas] F-4s [Phantom]
had come down with Kansas to be part of the fly-by. The deal was,
I retired that afternoon and the next morning I got in the back seat
of one of those F-4s and flew up to Kansas and was sworn in, not as
a general; I was sworn in as a colonel and held the rank of colonel
for close to a year before being promoted to brigadier general.
you’ve got to arrive in Kansas, you might as well go in style,
I guess. [Laughter]
they wanted to make sure you didn’t change your mind.
it was one of the most enjoyable five or six years that I can recall,
because it was getting to fly fighters again and get current in fighters
and weapons delivery, and flying with young aggressive fighter pilots
and hearing what their problems were and carrying those concerns back
to where it made a difference.
was moving into somewhat of a new era. They were starting to develop
some ideas for [Space] Station as well as possibly moving into partnerships
with Russia. In 94, the NASA Advisory Council established a task
force about the Shuttle-Mir [Program] and invited General [Thomas
P.] Tom Stafford to chair that task force. Tell us how you became
involved with this part of NASA’s new era as a consultant and
as part of that review team with General Tom Stafford.
Engle: I recall
that General Stafford had been asked to chair a review team on the
upcoming repair mission and he asked me if I would be on his review
panel with him, along with a number of other people. Of course, I
was happy to do that, and I think that preceded the Phase One, the
I know that the two kind of went hand in hand, because when we had
completed our assessment of the Hubble Telescope, which was a rather
major impact to the planned EVA schedules. There were, I think, two
EVAs at the time scheduled, and right away we saw that the EVAs were
just terribly oversubscribed. I think it was a matter of people trying
to keep the number of EVAs from getting out of hand and make it look
like not all that big of a deal to repair the Hubble.
But it turned out that there were five EVAs required and it was, I
think, very fortuitous for Tom to identify and stand fast, make a
very hard statement that it was going to be an unsuccessful mission
and a disaster if they tried to do it in two EVAs. It turned out it
took five full EVAs to do it and the repair was successful. So Tom
gained a great deal of credibility there, which he already had, and
as a result, I believe, was asked to review the upcoming Shuttle-Mir
or Phase One missions, where the United States was going to begin
to send people and experiments up to the Mir station to learn how
to operate in space for an extended period of time.
So that was how the Phase One activity got started, and Tom took a
number of the people who were on the Hubble repair team and put them
on that Shuttle-Mir Phase One.
you been in contact all this time? Had you worked on special projects
with General Stafford while you were part of the Kansas Air National
not particularly, but I had been continually in contact with Tom.
Tom was one of my instructors at the Test Pilot School, when I went
through Test Pilot School, and we had kept in touch quite a bit. We
flew together a lot at that time that Tom came down here to NASA,
and I followed him down a number of years later, so we knew each other
very well and we flew together down here some.
When Tom left NASA, he went back to the Air Force and ultimately was
the Flight Test Center Commander at Edwards [Air Force Base, California]
and happened to be the Center Commander at the time that we were preparing
and flying the approach and landing tests. So we worked very closely
with Tom, both professionally and personally when we would go out
there to fly. Tom made some very unique opportunities and assets available
for us. I know Dick [Richard O. Covey] and I got to fly [Lockheed
Martin] F-16 [Fighting Falcon] fighters while we were out there, and
it was new and going through development, and learned some techniques
from the flight control system on the F-16 that we were able to apply
to the data-gathering flight that we flew during the approach and
landing test program. So Tom and I had kept in touch. It was kind
of a natural fit, a good fit, a good, comfortable fit.
you learned from him that he had been named the chair of this new
task force to study the planning and development of Phase One, what
were your first thoughts about NASA joining efforts with the Russians
to do a space exploration?
Engle: I remember
Mr. [George W.S.] Abbey was the Director here at the Johnson Space
Center at the time, and he was the one that told me that he wanted
me to work with Tom on establishing a joint commission with the Russians.
I remember telling him that I was about as right-wing military as
could be expected and I had spent a good deal of my professional career
on the end of a runway sitting alert to go after them. I said, “I
think I’m probably the last guy in the world that you want on
that or that they want to see come and work with them.”
He said, “Well,” he said, “that’s really kind
of why I want you there, as a piece of litmus paper.” He said,
“I figure if you can make it work and if they can work with
you, why, then anybody will work.” [Laughs]
Abbey was full of those kinds of compliments.
As a matter of fact, the first contact with the Russians was very
much that way. The Russians were not at all receptive to anyone else
coming and sharing with them how to go into space, because they were
convinced they knew how to do it. They’d been doing it longer
than we had and, in their perspective, much better than we were doing
it. It made it a little more difficult, because the boosters that
they were using, the launch vehicles that they were using, were their
intercontinental ballistic missile boosters and so there was a security
element, too, that, from their perspective, made it a great deal more
difficult to work with us. In fact, a lot of their space equipment
was still being used for military purposes, and General Stafford knew
I remember in January, I believe, of 1995, I think it was—yes,
I think it was 1995—he was going to go over in February to approach
and formally set this thing up, and he told me to go over in January
and kind of give them a heads-up as to what we were going to do and
let them know that he’ll be over in a month and sign this thing
Well, I went over with a group of two or three people and we had scheduled
visits with the deputy head of Rosaviacosmos, RSA [Russian Space Agency],
and RSC [Sergei Pavlovich Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation], Energia.
The gentleman who had been identified to be Tom’s counterpart
on the joint commission, who was Academician [Vladimir F.] Utkin,
who is the most respected rocketeer that Russia’s ever had—well,
next to Korolev, but most respected living one, an old gentleman,
just a big bear of a guy.
We were not doing well at all. Mr. [Boris D.] Ostroumov had essentially
thrown us out of RSA and Mr. Semyanov did throw us out of Energia.
He didn’t want anything to do with us, didn’t want any
independent—they didn’t know what an independent review
group was. It was an entirely foreign concept to the Russians. They
were more prone to the stovepipe, of this enterprise has this task
to do and you turn the finished product out and it will fit with this
finished product, and you don’t talk to each other. Everybody
was very, very closed door about it. So they didn’t want the
idea of anybody looking over their shoulder, even their own people
looking over each other’s shoulder.
It was a difficult concept to sell, and we were just about to say,
“This doesn’t look like it’s going to work.”
In fact, I had called Tom from over there and he said, “Well,
pack it up and come home.” He said, “We’re not going
to waste our time on this.”
And I remember telling him, “Well, we got one more guy, the
guy you’re supposed to be the co-chair with, and I’ll
go see him, because we can’t move the flight up anyway. It costs
too much money to move the flight up.”
So we went to Academician Utkin’s, and he was pretty much the
same way. I remember going in and being told to go in and sit in his
office and wait for him. He walked in, and at that time, they didn’t
have phones with pushbuttons. Each line had a separate phone, so he
had fourteen phones on his desk, I remember, and a big map, a wall
map of the Soviet Union. It was still Soviet Union then to them. Finally
he walked in, strutted in, and sat down at his desk and started making
some phone calls. We were sitting there, [William] Bill Vantine was
with me and there was an interpreter present.
Finally, after about, I think, about twenty minutes, he turned and
he said, “So,” through the interpreter, he said, “So,
you are going to tell us how to go to space?”
I was trying to be as diplomatic as possible, but not wimpy about
it, and I said, “No. No, sir. We’re here to join with
you and go to space together and see if we can combine our resources.”
He reacted with a couple of things about, “But you want to use
our space station? You don’t have a space station. You want
to use ours.” Finally, he leaned back in his chair and he said,
“Let me tell you. I was the head of the Intercontinental Ballistic
Missile Program for the Soviet Union and I designed the SS-19,”
which was a superb rocket, booster, and he went to the big map on
the wall and he said, “We had—,” and he started
going through the numbers of missiles that they had targeted for New
York and Chicago [Illinois], all our major cities. After he’d
completed, he walked over and he sat down and he folded his arms and
looked at me.
I remember saying, “Well, sir, I know that you did exactly what
you thought was the right thing to do for your country.” I said,
“At the same time that you were doing that, I was sitting in
a [Boeing] F-100 [Super Sabre] in Aviano, Italy, with a nuclear bomb
strapped under the belly,” and I walked up and I pointed at
Aviano, Italy, and I said, “I had one target, one bomb and one
target only, but I felt I was doing the same thing for my country
that you were.” I said, “My target was this airfield right
here,” and it was back in Hungary; it was not in Russia, but
it was in the Soviet Union. I said, “That was my target.”
And it’s amazing, the intelligence that the Russians had on
us at the time.
He said, “Yes, I know.” And he said, “You would
not have made it.”
I said, “Well, I think I would have made it.” I said,
“My route was to fly up this—.” We had memorized
our routes so that we didn’t have to look at maps, so I followed
the track up the river valleys and I said, “You had antiaircraft
here and you had radar here, so my route was to go around these hills
and on in.”
And he started to scowl and he said, “You would not have made
I said, “No, I would have run out of fuel before I got back,
but I was going to bail out in Austria. I felt if I could get to Austria,
why, I would make it back.”
And he sat there and he just scowled at me for a while, finally pushed
his chair back and he got up and—he was a big guy—and
he started to walk around his desk toward me, and I figured that—he
wasn’t smiling at all, and I thought he was going to cold-cock
me, so I figured I’d stand up and take it like a man. [Laughs]
I stood up and hadn’t really got my breath from standing up
and he just grabbed me and gave me one of those big Russian bear hugs
and he said, “It’s better this way, isn’t it?”
I recall just before he said that, when I finished I said, “This
was what I was doing, but I really think that we have the opportunity
to take off our gloves and do something together for the whole world.”
And that’s when he didn’t smile, but he walked around
and he said, “It’s better this way.”
So he set the commission up. A month later, when Tom went over, it
was all set up and ready to go, and it’s been working for over—well,
it’ll be ten years coming up next year. And even Academician
Utkin said, “We’ll try this, but these things don’t
ever last more than a year or two.” [Laughs]
the four years that Shuttle-Mir was happening, your commission had
quite a number of challenges that you had to deal with, including
a fire, collision, computer failures. Could you share some of the
challenges and how you were able to find the mutual understanding
and respect so that the two agencies could work as well as they did?
Engle: I think
that the mutual respect and understanding was the key, and it only
worked because it went both ways. We had to accept some of the Russian
characteristics and some of their personalities and ways of doing
things, and they had to do the same thing with us. We never did, and
probably never should, completely accept the way the other guy does
things, because both sides had been doing things successfully, going
into space successfully, and they weren’t always the same way.
And both sides were reluctant to let go of those ways and methods
that they had been going into space.
Their concept is, as I’m sure you’ve probably heard, is
much more dependant on ground control, and that follows their philosophy
from the way they control their fighter aircraft. They control them
from the ground. The pilots don’t have much leeway as to what
to do once they engage in combat, and that’s what makes them
very, very susceptible and predictable. They like to do things automated,
and so we are more prone to let the pilots do all that they can, let
the crew do all they can in the way of rendezvous, docking.
One of the instances was when the Progress vehicle collided with the
Mir when we had crewmen onboard. Of course, our rationale was that
we have Americans onboard, so we’re very interested and we feel
like we ought to be very much part of the accident. They didn’t
really want us to be involved with that, and I think, again, probably
because some of their guidance equipment was still classified, still
military, that they used to automatically guide the Progress in.
But they were attempting to transition in to where they had manual
control of the vehicle coming in. The commander onboard the Mir station
was going to fly it in remotely, using a camera that was on the Progress.
The reason they were going to do it is they were becoming cash-strapped
and the guidance system was being made in the Ukraine. It was very
expensive and they wanted to avoid having to buy that automatic guidance
and docking system. So it was an experiment, really, a demonstration
that they could, in fact, do it.
They had set the rendezvous up. Unfortunately, it had some overburns
in the Progress engine. So the Progress was coming in with too much
energy, and the pilot onboard was trying desperately to make that
rendezvous and docking happen, trying to force it, and it came in
too fast and collided with the Mir.
The Russian traditional way to handle that is to blame the crew and
to dock him of all of his bonuses and to send him off to Siberia and
not have him around anymore. Tom was very quick to recognize this,
and good for him, he really stood fast. Became very incensed that
they were going to blame the crew for something that was really an
experiment that was set up wrong by Energia and very poorly planned,
and he made a very strong point of it.
That particular trip, Academician Utkin had invited us down to Risan,
to his hometown, for a celebration that weekend. So Tom and I rode
back with him in a little van, and while we were riding back, about
four-hour drive, with the interpreter, we explained to him the rendezvous
techniques and why Gennady [Vasily Tsibliev] was set up for failure.
It really was not his error at all; it was the people who had planned
And the next day, in our meeting, he had contacted all of the Russian
people on the committee and they concurred that it was not pilot error;
it was a bad test setup that had caused that accident. And that particular
individual happens to be now the Commandant of the [Yuri] Gagarin
[Cosmonaut] Training Center in [Star City] Russia, so it was a very
effective scenario on that.
Yes, we reviewed the fire onboard the Mir. Moving on into the [International]
Space Station, when [Dennis] Tito was taken up as a guest on one of
the taxi missions, ferry missions, there was a misunderstanding or
miscommunication that started that whole thing, got it off and polarized
the two sides, and we were asked to go over and try and work something
out, and were able to do so, so everybody could walk away with a little
bit of pride. So it’s been a wide spectrum of activities that
we’ve become involved in, but it’s been interesting.
you first took the assignment, or decided to join up with General
Stafford to do this task force, did you have any idea it would be
lasting past the Shuttle-Mir phase and on in for another six, seven
I sure didn’t. I think at the time we felt that it would be
just Phase One, and then as Phase One started to ramp down and Phase
Two of the Station started to ramp up, it was obvious that this line
of communication, this alternate route of communication that had been
established with the joint commission, was in fact very much value
added to NASA and Rosaviacosmos, and particularly to the heads of
the two agencies. There were a lot of times when things would come
up that didn’t lend themselves to a decision or to a public
forum between the two heads of agencies to decide, and it obviously
couldn’t be decided down at the working level, because of, as
I said, the way we do things differently. So a number of things we
were asked to go work out and propose solution and give it to the
managers and let them gnaw on it and come up with solutions. It really
is more a good line of communications than it is a technical or even
an operational asset to NASA and to Russia.
your counterparts on the Russian side stay constant or did you have
new people for these last years?
stay constant much more than we do. Particularly the support staff
people tend to be promoted up and, of course, the astronaut representative
changes, but theirs does, too, because of flight schedules and flight
scenarios. But the members of the Russian Advisory Expert Council,
they tend to be very, very stable. They are the respected leaders
and they don’t change until either their health forces them
to or they actually die. We’ve had a couple of them that have
died while they were members.
of the changes, of course, is that Mir deorbited and the International
Space Station is now in place and we are still working with the Russians.
How did your tasks change, what kind of challenges did you encounter
with the new program?
the biggest hurdle, I think, was the mindset of people on our side
and probably a carryover from what was perceived during the Mir flights.
The Mir was a Russian vehicle and we were guests onboard. We were
paying guests and we were learning how to operate. I think that within
a lot of folks here they brewed the resentment that we were in a “Mother
may I” situation, and the feeling was, “Boy, once we get
our hardware up there, we’re going to be the boss and they’re
going to do what we tell them to do,” which was really not the
right approach to take. And again, I think just the Russian culture
is that they are more stoic is the word, serious, firm in what they
say, whether they’re sure of it or not. There was a little bit
of an understanding that that goes on, that it was necessary.
But I think the biggest challenge was probably convincing both sides,
our people as well as their people, that it was going to be a joint
venture; it was going to be a joint Space Station and that the United
States was responsible for it and would have to have the final say,
but inputs from all the partners were going to be necessary to make
it work, and we still see times when that is a concern.
The technical rationale may not be totally complete when people take
a very firm stance and they fill in what the holes are with just pride
and experience, and that sometimes causes a problem.
of all the meetings that you’ve had with the Russians in Russia
and here, are there any that stand out in your mind?
there are a number of them, and I think the major ones that you touched
on, the fire, the Tito mission. The Tito mission was really a very
large hurdle because both sides had become so polarized. In fact,
our Administrator had publicly stated very, very firmly that he was
not going to fly, and their Administrator had very publicly and just
as firmly said, “Yes, he is.”
We honestly—I do recall that was one week where we were probably
averaged maybe two or three hours of sleep a night because we would
be in very, very hard negotiating meetings with them during the day,
and then at the end of the day we would go back to the Volga apartments,
the Volga apartments that NASA leases over there, and be on telecoms
with the people back here, giving them the information we had learned
and receiving information from this side and then trying blend the
Of course, at the end of the day over there, five o’clock over
there is eight o’clock here, so as we were just finishing up
the day and getting back to the Volga at six o’clock or so,
and normally hadn’t eaten yet, the phones would be ringing and
people here would be ready for a full day’s work. [Laughs] So
it was good in a way that it was a very efficient way to get the job
done, but I remember at the end of that week, we were all completely
didn’t have to worry about forgetting while you slept.
just didn’t sleep.
you like to take a break for a few minutes?
That would be a good idea.
Pilot In-flight Landing Operations Trainer. He had to force the words
to make PILOT out of it. But it was essentially a laptop, but at that
time, laptops didn’t have enough capacity, so it was a workstation
that we had to go out and buy. Essentially it was like a game, a little
game that you buy now down at Target, to land, a landing simulator.
We can talk about it or elaborate on it, but it was one of the things
I had found I thought was maybe a deficiency or something that really
taxed the commander on coming back and landing, that I felt would
help unload some of that task, if he could practice the landing onboard,
and it’s worked out well. It’s gone on almost every flight
now. Now the computers are small enough it can go into a little laptop,
with very little overhead.
interesting. What is the feedback from the commanders?
really like it very much. In fact, Dick Covey had a unique situation
on his flight. They had planned to land on Runway 1-5 down at the
Cape [Canaveral, Florida], at the end of the flight, and the computer
had the capability to put in a wind profile, and the winds during
the duration of that flight, the winds had changed drastically, the
jet stream had changed direction as well as speed of the winds at
altitude. They were trying to maintain that same landing runway, because
they knew he hadn’t practiced very much going the other direction
down at the Cape.
I was over in Mission Control at the time, so I would send up on the
message train what the forecast winds for landing were, and I’d
put a little explanation code that we used on our flight when something
was—you know, “Pay attention to this,” without raising
other people’s concern. And the winds clearly showed and the
trend showed and the forecast, I’d send the forecast winds up
with this explanation marks on them.
Dick saw that and he realized that the winds were going to be such
he was going to have to land the other way, plus come into the heading
alignment circle with—it seems to me they were almost 200-knot
winds at altitude that day—and that he would need to turn early
and anticipate it, otherwise get blown way downstream and way down
below the hack and then be energy short coming back in. He could make
it all right, but it would be a terse thing.
So on that little trainer he had onboard, he started practicing landings
the other way. Even though they were still sending up to him that
he planned landing runway was 1-5, he was practicing to land on 3-3.
Then that morning, the flight controller finally decided that they
were going to have to land the other way, so they changed the runway
on him, and they were expecting him to get blown way downstream and
told him he might have to turn early. He said, “Okay,”
and he was ready. And he did, he knew exactly when to lead the turn;
he’d been practicing it. So he just nailed the heading alignment
circle. He was right on all the way down, energy all the way down.
Afterwards he said that that was one of the biggest gratifying things
to him was to be able to know ahead of time that the landing situation
was different and to be able to practice it. He said he’d screwed
it up the first few times. He went and got blown on by.
Anyway, that was PILOT. It started out, I was up in Washington with
Mike Mott and we were going to serve on some review, and I can’t
recall exactly what it was right now. It had something to do with
a new vehicle review. But we were both disqualified for some reason.
Oh, I know. It was because neither of us were NASA employees and the
meeting was going to be just NASA employees.
So Mike and I got thrown out of the meeting and we went downstairs
to get some coffee while they were discussing whatever they were going
to discuss, and we were talking about things and I told him that on
my flight, on my second flight particularly, when I came back admittedly
dehydrated and no sleep the night before, but even on the other flight,
that after being in zero gravity for a long while, your motion cues
are altogether different. One-G [gravity] is not your calibration
point anymore; zero-G is. So when you get in the pattern to fly, you’ve
got this force on you, the 1-G force, that’s strange and it
kind of diverts your attention.
The visual cues should completely dominate your attention and you
should try to divorce the motion cues as much as possible in order
to keep up with the cross check, because it seemed like it was tough
to keep up with the cross check. You knew something was wrong and
you’d be looking around trying to figure out what it was was
wrong, so you needed to really divorce yourself from everything but
the visual cues, and that a way to practice doing that would be with
a little landing game, if you will. I remember drawing it out with
a computer and a stick.
And Mike said, “You know, that’s a good idea. Let’s
go talk to—,” the guy who was the head of what is now
Code M [Office of Space Flight]. [Jeremiah W.] Jed Pearson was his
name. So he set up a time to go talk to him about it, and George Abbey
was there and came in—he was in Washington for some reason—and
we sat and talked with Jed.
Jed was a fighter pilot and he said, “That looks like it might
be a good idea.”
And George mumbled and he said, “Yes, Joe Henry, that’s
pretty good. Why don’t you find out what you need to make that
happen.” This was on a Monday, and I was going to fly back Tuesday,
and George said, “Why don’t you come on back and come
up to my office on Tuesday.”
I said, “Well, George, I’m not going to get back Tuesday.
I won’t be back till Wednesday and I won’t have time to
do anything with this.”
“Okay. Wednesday will be okay. Come on up to my office.”
[Laughs] So it was not much more than that scribbled cartoon literally
on the back of an envelope. George said, “See what you need
to do to make that happen.” And as I mentioned before, it turned
out that laptop computers didn’t have enough capacity then.
The one thing that I was going to be insistent on was that the response
that you see on the screen would be accurate to what the Shuttle is
and not have any delays. The resolution was not as important. Whether
you looked at boxes or filled in buildings didn’t make any difference,
but the horizon and your response was very important.
So one of the guys here, Bob Henson [phonetic], said, “You know,
if we had a little more capacity, we could take the actual updated
Shuttle flight dynamics out of the engineering simulator and just
use one string of that, put it into the computer, and we’ll
get some guys out in California to draw the scene for us, keep the
load down. So we did that, and the idea initially was to tie it in
with the Shuttle hand controller so you could just use that and practice
But to penetrate into this orbiter flight control system would have
required a whole new certification from Rockwell [International Corporation]
at the time, and we didn’t want to do that. So we got a little
hand controller built by a company that builds them for games and
got them to make one that looked like the Shuttle hand controller,
and got it all put together and it really worked well. And as I say,
then as computers got more and more capability, more capacity, they
were able to put them into the standard onboard laptop that’s
carried now, and it’s used over in the Pilots Office over here
in Building 4 now.
A lot of guys, before they go out to fly the STA, the Shuttle Training
Aircraft, they would go in and practice some landings just to freshen
up and to make their training more efficient when they go out. New
astronaut candidates spend a lot of time in there, flying and getting
familiar with the characteristics, because the characteristics that
you see on the screen are duplicated; they’re replicated from
the Shuttle engineering simulator. In fact, all of the operational
interims, OIs, that are put in and developed, feed right into the
SES [Shuttle Engineering Simulator], then they’re ported into
this PILOT simulator so every change that’s made in the flight
control system is updated automatically.
must have been pretty rewarding for you to be able to take that concept
and see it work so well.
rewarding, yes. It really was, yes. It was neat. And fortunately,
a lot of guys had made the same comment, that “I thought that
I was the only one that was having trouble with—,” that
the perceptory cues, the acceleration cues are really distracting,
that normally they’ll help you out in the pattern. You can tell
when you’re pulling 1 G or 1.5 Gs in the pattern, but that’s
deceptive and it takes away from your concentration, because everything
is strange and different after coming back. You just have to concentrate
on the visual cues and the hand-eye coordination between what’s
going to happen.
is, yes. And it really turns out, I think, it’s not much different
than video games. If you play video games a long time, you get pretty
good at them. [Laughter]
of us. [Laughter]
You also were involved with the STS FCS [Space Transportation System
Flight Control System] and guidance improvements.
was a fallout of the simulator. In realizing that at high winds at
altitude, the guidance system does not have any way to anticipate
what winds are or the displays that you have are so much after the
fact that your trajectory has been affected ahead of time.
So what we did was to take the cues that were on the eight ball, the
guidance system, the attitude reference system, both roll, pitch cues,
and actually the yaw and yaw rate cues, which are vertical and horizontal
bars across the bottom with a little needle that tracks across. Those
are not used in aerodynamic flight; they’re used in space flight.
So we took those functions and put in, as you approach the heading
alignment circle, an error that shows that you’re coming up
on the alignment and gives you some anticipation of when to roll into
the turn and what Gs to pull, and what’s necessary to track
the heading alignment circle and to fly the approach more accurately.
So it was a matter, really, of just taking some functions that were
already on the display, giving them new meaning, differentiating or
defining what they told you in the pattern. The idea, really, was
to be able to keep the errors at a minimum all around the track to
landing in case the pilot had to come back at low clouds, low-visibility
At the time, there was a big push to go ahead and qualify the automatic
landing system on the Space Shuttle. We had kind of tried that on
STS-3, with Jack [R.] Lousma, and the Shuttle doesn’t really
lend itself very good to that, because if the automatic pilot is flying
the airplane, the stick doesn’t move any, because it just stays
still. So you don’t have any feedback; you’re not communicating
with the airplane all the way down. So if you do have to take over
with an error at the end, you really are at a disadvantage of not
having flown the airplane and not knowing how much deflection is needed
for the delayed response of the Orbiter.
So an additional thing that we put on that was a little box that even
if the pilot had been up for a long-duration mission, which was a
concern that he might not be capable of flying it back in the pattern
if he was up there for two, three, four weeks, that he would at least
start flying it and try to keep the guidance symbol, or to keep the
velocity vector inside this guidance box and fly it around and keep
communicating with the airplane and acquire this transition that was
necessary for the landing. And if he was not able to, if he wasn’t
able to keep the velocity vector in this guidance box, then the automatic
system would take over, fly it back and center it up, and then he
could take over and fly it again on in. That didn’t have to
be used, because the automatic landing system push finally went away,
and I think that won’t ever happen. But developing those kinds
of pilot interface displays was a lot of fun, very rewarding.
one you mentioned was the glass cockpit development.
glass cockpit, the transition from the old—well, we called them
steam gauges, but the old round dials that the Space Shuttle initially
had to the CRTs, cathode ray tube displays, where it’s multifunctional
display system. You can call up different functions on the same screen,
if you like, and the development of the layout, the format, of displays
that should go on those CRT screens to replace the old gauges, was,
again, an interesting pilot interface task.
did that, again, as part of working with General Stafford, as part
of his review, or was that an independent consulting?
was an independent consulting tasking that I was doing then, yes.
That really preceded the time that I was working with General Stafford.
I started to work with General Stafford on the review group, on the
Hubble review. In fact, the PILOT and the flight control system and
the MEDS [Multifunction Electronic Display Subsystem], the glass cockpit,
all preceded the time that I started to work with him.
other types of projects have you done, either independently or with
General Stafford, for NASA that we haven’t discussed?
Engle: I think
that working with him, they’ve all been as a result of being
on the Stafford Task Force or the ISS [International Space Station]
Operations Review Task Force, but the particular nature of the tasks
have been pretty varied. I mean, they varied everything from reviewing
the Russian budgetary system to see if they were going to be able
to hold their end of the agreement up, which was entirely foreign
to me. I’m still not really sure what all we did over there.
All I know is that General Tom had forced his way—not forced,
but talked his way into the Bureau of Budget, which was a very restricted
area over there, and they brought out what they called grafiques [phonetic],
which at the time, they didn’t print things up; they just would
have these big wall charts of numbers and things that they would put
up for briefings, and at the end of the briefing, they would be taken
down and rolled up and nobody could see them.
So they had this grafique up there which laid out their expenditures
over the next few years, and we’d asked for a copy of that and
they’d said, no, it’s not available. So we sat down and
I just told guys, “Okay, you take this section up to here. You
take this one, I’ll take this one, and you take this one here,
and we’ll get this thing copied down.”
So we were copying the charts down and Mr. Ostroumov, the guy who
threw us out initially, I know he came up and he said, “Is this
all American generals have to do is to copy down numbers?” [Laughs]
And I said, “Well, sir, American generals do whatever they have
to do to get the job done.” And he let me alone after that.
And then the interesting thing was, we had copied all these numbers
down and gotten together at the hotel and combined them, and the next
day, very, very magically, a handout appeared with all the numbers
on it. [Laughs] But again, I have no idea what they meant or what
they were or anything; we had the budget report there that we brought
were there to gather information.
gathered the information.
February of 2003, NASA and the nation lost another Orbiter when Columbia
disintegrated on its way back home. Share with us where you were when
you heard that news and then how you’ve become involved with
some of the return-to-flight activities.
Engle: I was
in Reno, Nevada, when we lost Columbia. I was at a wildlife conservation
convention and saw it on the news very early in the morning, and wasn’t
able to get out of there before being captured by some media types
who wanted interviews. Of course, I had no idea what had happened
then. There was a lot of speculation, but I really had no idea what
had happened until, well, I guess it was a day or two later when I
learned what the source was.
you now involved with some of the return-to-flight activities?
Engle: I am.
I am now and, again, because of General Stafford, who keeps me off
the street and keeps me from my hunting trips and flying as much as
I want to. He had been asked by the Administrator to set up an independent
review group of how NASA was responding to the recommendations of
the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. We were not involved at
all with the Accident Board or with their findings, but because of
the commitment by Mr. [Sean] O’Keefe that NASA would in fact
comply with all the recommendations, and NASA’s statement that
they would raise the bar and do even more, he asked General Stafford
to form a committee of experts, of expertise in various areas, the
management areas and the technical areas and the operation areas,
to review NASA’s responses and to assess whether they had complied
with the intent of the Accident Board recommendation, and that’s
what we’re doing now. That’s what I’m involved with
right now and will be up until return to flight.
you can share with us at this point, or are you still collecting information?
we’re still collecting information and it’s going to be,
I think, much more of a task for the task group than was initially
planned. I think initially folks thought it was going to be a black-and-white
yes or no; yes, NASA has complied with this recommendation, and no—the
recommendations themselves leave some flexibility on what can and
should be done and the practicality, actually what you can do, practicality,
whether you can do it or not requires some flexibility. It’s
not a matter of looking at each recommendation individually; it’s
almost necessary to look across the board where if one recommendation
is not quite completely satisfied, is it covered by the ability to
revert to another direction by another recommendation.
So, for example, the foam shedding off the tank, the liberation of
foam off the tank, ideally, the intention was to say, well, we just
won’t have any more foam coming off the tank at all, and that’s
not really a reasonable or a practical thing to try and do. The foam
is necessary for the purpose it serves, which is insulation and to
keep ice from forming, and by its very nature, some of it is going
to flake off. But the size or the mass of the piece that breaks off
and the velocity that it will hit the vehicle then determines whether
there is any damage or how much damage could be done, and if a enough
damage is done to require repair, then the ability to go out and repair
is necessary. And in the very, very remote event that something catastrophic
happens and you can’t repair it, then the last fallback is to
be able to dock to the Station, the crew transfer into the Station,
and then wait for a recovery vehicle to come up for them. So it’s
a very complex scenario that has to go together to make the complete
and the correct story, the correct response.
much history has passed with NASA since the first time you flew the
Columbia and then, of course, now to the loss of it, it’s quite
a mix of your expertise that you’re offering at this point,
to help them return to flight.
I feel lucky to still get to be considered useful to have around.
back over these many years that you have been connected with NASA
in so many different ways, is there a time that you feel is the most
memorable one for you, if you had to pick a highlight, that you would
consider to be the most significant moment of your NASA career?
most significant, the most exciting—I hope neither one of those
have happened yet. I’m still hoping to get a lot more thrills
out of this job before I quit. But up to now, I think that some of
the more significant ones, I can remember very well both STS-2 and
51-I and, in fact, all the flights, getting the feeling that you really
were representing the country. When you walked out to the pad, you
were representing the whole nation; everyone who worked at NASA and
on the vehicle and worked so hard, but not just them, the whole nation
pointed with pride to the space flights.
So I remember very distinctly consciously thinking that when I walk
out there, this is like putting on the USA jersey at the Olympics.
The whole world is watching you and particularly your country is watching
you and you just don’t want to screw it up. You want to make
it happen right and do it good, and you want to have trained as completely
and thoroughly as you can, and you want to keep focused and concentrated
on what’s going on and not pay attention to the flashbulbs going
off and things like that.
Probably the next tier down is that same kind of feeling during the
approach and landing tests and during the reentry on STS-2, when having
been such a proponent and pushed hard to get the flight test data
and to incorporate the flight test inputs into the controls, to get
that data for the engineers on the ground, I do recall thinking that
I had an unique opportunity to represent the whole test pilot community,
and that’s a very proud community in itself, and feeling kind
of the same way. “I just don’t want to mess this up. I
want to do as good a job as I can to make everybody feel proud.”
think you have. It’s only fitting that we started out these
sessions with talking about your flying days, that we end the sessions
with you talking about your flying days. You’ve flown more than
185 different types of aircraft, logged more than 14,000 flying hours
during your lifetime. You’re continuing to fly today, is that
Engle: I am.
Not nearly as much as I would like to, but more than I deserve, I’m
sure. But I do get to fly [Boeing] F-15s [Eagles] and [Lockheed Martin]
F-16s [Fighting Falcons] at Edwards Air Force Base, I think largely
because [Charles E.] Chuck Yeager helped vector me into that position.
He and I enjoy the status of test pilot emeritus at the Flight Test
Center out there, which I looked up and it means “old guy,”
really; an old guy that you really want to retire, but you hate to
hurt his feelings. So we both enjoy being test pilot emeritus at Edwards,
and as such, we are asked periodically to come out to talk to enlisted
people on the flight line or in the support roles as well as the Test
Pilot School. We both are asked to—out of courtesy—to
review the curriculum at the Test Pilot School, both the academic
and the flying curriculum, which is really neat. And they always make
an airplane available for us to fly.
Then each fall, each October, during the annual Edwards Open House
and Air Show, we get to go out and fly for—well, we get to open
the Air Show with a Mach 2 sonic boom early in the morning to start
it out with, and we fly that in formation with two F-15s. General
Yeager is quick to point out to the center commander out there that
I have a very short memory and I forget everything I knew about formation
flying in a year, so it’s going to take him a week to get me
back in shape, so we get to fly all week long out there in fighters.
He was one of my idols and mentors, and I admire him so much. He’s
such an awesome pilot, stick-and-rudder pilot. I first flew with him
at George Air Force Base [Victorville, California] in 1958, when I
first got to fly with him, flying [Boeing] F-100s [Super Sabres],
and I have soaked up as much as I could, how he flies, how well he
flies, and enjoyed flying with him. And we’ve gotten to fly
together continuously almost all these years, and we still get to
fly these fighters together, and it’s just one of the biggest
thrills of my life is to take off, join up on his wing, and fly a
mission with him.
there’s no way that we could have covered everything through
our questions. Are there other stories, anecdotes, memories that you
would like to share with us about any of the things that we’ve
covered before we get off? I always think maybe you’re walking
out the door, you think, “Gosh, I would have told them this.”
So I’d like for you to take a second and think if there’s
some more, and if you don’t mind, I was going to ask Jennifer
and Sandra if they had a question for you as well.
don’t you go ahead and ask them. I can think of a few anecdotes,
but I don’t think I ought to tell them. [Laughs] If I can think
of anything more, I’ll follow up in an e-mail.
thank you for all the time that you’ve given us for the project.
I sure thank you guys. You have done this whole thing so professionally
and you’ve been so patient, and you’ve been so patient
in that you let me keep coming back. I know you normally get through
with somebody in one session, and I know I start ambling and babbling
on and I’ve taken up an awful lot of your time. I don’t
know how you’re going to justify this.
all good. That’s how we justify it. [Laughter] Thanks again.