Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
by Rebecca Wright
Albuquerque, New Mexico – 24 January 2003
Today is January 24th, 2003. This oral history with Mike Mullane is
being conducted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the NASA Johnson Space
Center Oral History Project. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted
by Sandra Johnson.
Thank you, again, for allowing us in your home this morning and taking
time to visit with us for this project.
Well, I look forward to participating, and thanks for coming all this
way to meet me here.
We’re happy to do that. We’d like to start out today by
you giving us some background information about how you first became
interested in aviation and aerospace.
All my life, and by that I mean all my life that I can possibly remember,
I had a fascination with airplanes and anything associated with the
sky, really. I’m sure part of that has to do with my father.
He was in the Air Force. He was a flight engineer on cargo airplanes
in the Air Force, and I’m sure that had some influence, because
he would take us out to the base and let us climb around airplanes,
old airplanes, I’m talking about C-124s, C-97s, pretty old airplanes.
I’m sure that had some influence, but it was beyond that, I
think, an innate interest in flying.
My dimmest memories are of building airplanes, of drawing airplanes.
As soon as there was a space program, I was fascinated with that.
Even before that, I was fascinated with all of the movies, the science
fiction movies. There wasn’t Star Trek when I was a
kid, but War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide
and Forbidden Planet and all these other 1950s, early 1950s
movies, I was fascinated by those that had a space flavor to them.
I was always dreaming that some day I would be a pilot. I wanted to
be a pilot. That never happened, at least not as a military pilot.
My eyes were too bad. When I graduated from [United States Military
Academy] West Point—actually, let me back up. I’m skipping
my childhood here.
When the space race started, I was twelve years old. When Russia launched
Sputnik, I was twelve years old. That was 1957, and I was here in
Albuquerque. My backyard was a desert as far to the mountains—it’s
now all built up, but it was a lot of open area out there, and I started
building and testing homemade rockets. I got involved with the rocket
clubs that they had in the schools. Well, most of them were school-sponsored.
And started building these homemade rockets and testing them from
I’d go out at night and watch satellites when they were forecast
to come over, watch meteor showers. I built hot air balloons. I took
plastic, the plastic that covers the dry cleaning that comes back,
clothes covered by this dry cleaning plastic, I would iron it shut
with my mother’s iron, the little hole where the hanger comes
out, and go up on the roof on a still winter day when there’s
a fire going, and put it over the balloon and launch this hot air
balloon. Had to be careful on how you did it or else it would melt.
The plastic would melt. But I did that.
I built balsa wood gliders. I built rubber band-powered gliders. I
was just totally, absolutely fascinated on anything associated with
the sky, even weather. I built my own weather station. I had a little
book that told you how to make an anemometer and hydrometer and things
like that, and built that.
Anything, anything at all associated with the sky. Astronomy, weather,
rockets, planes, balloons, I was just totally fascinated with. And
as soon as there were rockets, as soon as there was the space race
going on, I was just totally swept up in that. Watched every launch
that I could possibly watch. All the early pioneers flying in their
rockets, dreamed some day that—in fact, one of my dreams as
a kid—because one of the big things when I was a kid was that
our rockets didn’t have enough power. The Russians would launch
tons of equipment up there, and we’d launch a fifteen-pound
grapefruit-size satellite. Our rockets didn’t have enough power,
and they were always emphasizing how our rockets were not very good
and not very powerful, and I had this vision that some day that NASA
would be launching astronauts, but they would have to get kids because
they were lighter. They wouldn’t have enough oomph on their
rockets to lift an adult, so that they would get kids. So I dreamt
that maybe I could be a kid astronaut.
But any rate, I was just totally swept up in everything associated
with space and flight, and, again, I’m sure my father had a
lot to do with that, his background. But again, I think it’s
beyond that. I think it was some type of innate interest that was
there from God, I guess. If I had to pick a source, I guess that would
have to be the answer.
But any rate, as soon as I went to high school, I was focused on math
and science and wanted to some day be a pilot. Wanted to go to the
[United States] Air Force Academy [Colorado Springs, Colorado]. Could
not get into Air Force Academy because my grades were too bad. My
SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores weren’t good enough to
get into the Air Force Academy. I got a third alternate to West Point.
Third alternate. And by some miracle, the primary student and two
backup students dropped out of the way, and I barely made it into
I graduated from West Point in 1967, and again through West Point,
of course, the space race was going full bore then with—let’s
see. I guess it would have been the Gemini Program, and then the early
I was dreaming some day of being a pilot, test pilot, and trying to
be an astronaut as I graduated from West Point. But then when I went
into the Air Force, my eyes were bad. Could not qualify as a pilot
because of my eyesight. Ended up flying in the back seat of fighters,
the F-4 Phantom, mostly, and then started my Air Force career as a
backseater in the Air Force.
So that kind of is my childhood background there. Does that answer
it pretty thoroughly?
Were you in the Air Force at the time when you learned about the astronaut
selection for the 1978 class?
Yes. Let me give you my Air Force career here. I went into the Air
Force in the back of F-4s in Vietnam, went to England for four years
in the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] forces that were
over there during the cold war, and then came back to the U.S. [United
States], got a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering,
and then went to the backseater course, the flight test engineer course,
they call it, at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards [Air Force
Base, Edwards, California]. I graduated from there and when to Eglin
Field [Eglin Air Force Base, Florida], doing some test work in the
back of fighters at Eglin Field.
It was while I was nearing graduation from test pilot school, from
the flight test engineer course at the test pilot school, that NASA
announced they were selecting Mission Specialist astronauts, and this
was the new thing, because now you didn’t have to be a pilot
to apply to be an astronaut. So this dream of perhaps being an astronaut
was now back open to me. Before it had been closed, because all the
people before they had selected were pilots, but with this mission
specialist position, there was going to be a possibility for me to
be an astronaut.
In fact, I remember that night that they announced it. This was big
news at Edwards, because virtually everybody at Edwards Air Force
Base wanted to apply to be an astronaut. [General Thomas P.] Tom Stafford
was there, and he had a meeting over at the Officers’ Club,
because a lot of people were wondering, what do you think about this,
how do you go about being an astronaut? So we all went over to listen
to Tom Stafford’s thoughts on the astronaut process. Nobody
could know what the selection process and the criteria and all that
would be, but he just gave some of his insights on NASA and his experiences
there. But I’ll bet 99 percent of the fliers, frontseaters and
backseaters, at Edwards, put in applications to be astronauts, and
I put in my application. It was while I was at Edwards that I put
It was going to be a year or more before they actually started selecting
people. But I graduated, went to Eglin Field in Florida, was flying
in the backseat of fighters there, and that’s when NASA started
doing the interview process. I was called down to Johnson Space Center
[JSC]. I don’t remember what month it was. I think they announced
in December, so it probably was in summer of ’77, I guess,
probably, that I went to NASA for an interview, and I never thought
in my wildest imaginations that I would, (a), ever make a cut for
an interview, and, (b), ever get selected after that interview.
I remember in the interview I was pretty laid back because I didn’t
think that I had a prayer. I had a snowball’s-chance-in-hell-prayer
is what I had, because I’d been around too many other super-achieving
people and knew that certainly my academics were not as good as some
of these other people that graduated first, second, third in their
class from the Air Force Academy or whatever, or Annapolis [United
States Naval Academy]. I felt pretty intimidated by a lot of those
folks that were in the interview. As a result, I just sort of was
pretty laid back and didn’t expect much.
Then I was shocked in December, I guess it was, of ‘77. I think
that’s when they started calling people and announcing the thirty-five
people that were going to be selected for the first group of Shuttle
astronauts. I was actually, at the time I got the phone call, I was
stationed at Eglin, but I was TDY, temporary duty, to Mountain Home
Air Force Base in Idaho, doing some work up there. My wife called
and told me that Abbey had called, George [W. S.] Abbey had called
the house and was trying to get ahold of me. And the news had already—somehow
they had leaked that the some of the women who had been selected were
already known, because that morning the press was interviewing some
of the women, [Margaret] Rhea Seddon I think was on, I don’t
remember. But it was obvious that people were being called and this
announcement was being made.
When my wife said that Abbey called, I was thinking, I cannot believe
that Abbey would call to tell somebody they’re not selected.
That sounded to me like it would go to some minion there, not Abbey.
So I thought, gosh, could he actually be calling to tell me I’m
an astronaut? I remember how frustrating it was, because this was
back in the days when telephone communication isn’t what it
is now, and particularly when you’re at a military base. You
don’t just pick up the phone and call long distance from a military
base. You have to get authorization from the squadron—I guess
it was the squadron commander’s office to make a long-distance
call, and you had to then put it with the operator. It was a long,
involved process. So I had this phone number to call George Abbey,
but it took me a while before—probably took me a good hour before
I was able to return the call, all these administrative delays getting
a long-distance call out of a base back in 1977.
When I called Abbey, he asked me if I still was interested in being
an astronaut. And, of course, you know what the answer was there.
“Yes, yes.” I just went out and screamed with joy. I remember
that night I bought some beer for the rest of the people that I was
working with there at Mountain Home in the hangar there, and we had
a little party. And I remember driving back to my apartment that I
was staying in, stopping out in the desert. This is out in Idaho.
It’s like New Mexico. Go out in the desert; it’s like
being in space. Black sky. I remember standing out there and just
looking at the sky and thinking that I had this chance of actually
flying in space.
I still had these doubts that it would ever happen. I’m one
of these guys that tend to think of all the things that can go wrong,
like a medical problem or the rocket blows up or whatever it is. It’s
something that is going to not—ultimately it will not happen.
Even though Abbey called and told me that I’m an astronaut,
I felt like there’s still a lot that could go wrong that would
prevent me from actually flying in space, but I still had this overwhelming
sense of joy that I had this shot at getting into space.
It was. It was a fantastic feeling. It really was. It was a lifetime
dream come true to be an astronaut. But again, I didn’t really
ever consider myself an astronaut until the SRBs [Solid Rocket Boosters]
ignited on my first mission. All the rest of it I just thought it
was name only. But it certainly was an overwhelming, joyful experience
of the first magnitude.
I tease my wife how we are, that we tend to set these goals and think
that once we reach this goal, it’s going to make you happy for
the rest of your life. It’s one of those things that nothing
will ever, ever—you will never desire anything other than this.
Of course, that never happens. As soon as you—I remember telling
my wife that if I just flew one time in space, just one time in space,
that’s all that I would need to be infinitely happy. And then
I’ll bet within two days after landing from my first mission,
I said, “I sure would like another mission.” [Laughs]
It’s just one of those things. It’s a joyful experience
to be told that you’re going to get a shot at riding into space.
So I was weightless at that point, I think. I was just floating around,
How did the arrangement work where you were still part of the Air
Force and became a NASA astronaut?
NASA had an agreement with the Department of Defense that any DoD
or Air Force, Army, Navy, whatever, officer who was being selected
as an astronaut would just be on loan to NASA. It was for a—I
don’t remember the period of time, whether it was three years
or four years. There was some period of time that the military was
loaning us to NASA, and we were still paid by the military, still
promoted by the military, but we were on loan to NASA. And the renewal,
this memorandum of understanding between DoD and NASA, was renewed.
Whenever it came due, they would renew it.
It was always—in fact, there was one thing that always kind
of—it was always in the back of our minds. The Air Force isn’t
in the Navy, and they’re not in the business of training people
to be astronauts. You ask the Air Force, the needs of the Air Force
come first. The needs of the Navy come first. So in the backs of our
minds, it was like, “Gosh, I hope I don’t get close to
a flight that have the Air Force say, ‘Oh, you’ve got
to come back and fly for us.’” Or there’s some war
that we need more people that have backseat experience or front-seat
experience or whatever, because none of us had flown before that memorandum
had expired. I don’t remember how long it was, but I know it
wasn’t as long as it was that the first of our group started
flying on the Shuttle. So there was a little minor thought, “Boy,
I hope the DoD renews this thing. I’d hate to get here and do
all this training and then be pulled back into the Air Force.”
That’s never happened, as far as I know.
Tell us about the move to Houston [Texas] and your starting and training
as an AsCan [Astronaut Candidate].
Okay. Move to Houston. The first thing that I remember about the move
to Houston is that the housing was so incredibly expensive. I had
a house that I think we ended up selling for like $55,000 in Florida,
and when I got to Houston, I mean, to live in a $55,000 house in Houston,
you’d better be looking at a doublewide down in some trailer
park. The housing seemed to be incredibly expensive. That’s
the first sensation, first thing that shocked me when I got down there.
But like everybody else, you finally work a way around it and end
up getting a house. It wouldn’t have bothered me to live in
a doublewide if I’d gotten a chance to fly into space.
But we moved down there and rendezvoused with all the rest of our
group. We actually flew down. Abbey sent T-38s out to pick up people
to fly down there ahead of time, before they actually had to report,
to look for homes, to get that process going. So we had probably met
a lot of the people that were actually going to be in our group, before
we actually formally reported in there, which I think—I think
that was May of ’78 that we actually officially began our
astronaut careers with NASA. I’m not sure, but it was in the
springtime there of ’78 that we actually reported in. Then got
thrown into the process of learning this whole new world of NASA,
and it was a little awkward, I think, at first.
One thing that surprised me about NASA, shocked me, really, was how
unstructured, I guess, the training program was. In the military,
the training was always very structured and always, when you’re
talking about flying an airplane, was always delivered by pilots or
backseaters who flew that airplane. So I had this vision that when
I got there the astronauts would be training us. They were the ones
that flew the Shuttle or had flown the vehicles before the Shuttle.
So we would have these older astronauts that would be training us,
and that it would be very structured as it was in the Air Force.
In the Air Force, before you fly a new airplane, you have this ground
school, you have books, workbooks. I mean, you have to study stuff,
and you take tests on it. You have to pass these tests before you
move on to the next level. You fly with an instructor pilot before
you’re ever turned loose in the plane by yourself. You have
a certain number of minimum hours you have to get. It’s very,
very structured, and I kind of expected that when I got to NASA, that
it would be a classroom. You’d go to a classroom, and you would
sit there and follow a workbook or these various documents, and that
the astronauts would be teaching us, and I was really surprised to
see how unstructured it was at that time. I think it probably is more
structured now. But at that time everybody was coming up to speed
on how to train these new astronauts to fly the Shuttle.
One of the things I look back on, one of the hurdles was trying to
figure out what you really needed to know, because the Shuttle was
so complex. At what level did you go? And so that was something that
I remember struggling with. It was so massively complex. Where do
you focus your attention on? And after a while you finally, talking
to older astronauts who were there, they would give you insight into
various systems, and you got comfortable—“Okay. This is
what I’m going to be doing, and this is what I have to know.”
They had some part task trainers that started coming online that we
could practice in, and some of the trainers would start giving us
the detail that we needed to actually be proficient to fly on the
Shuttle. But it wasn’t as structured as the military, and that
surprised me. Really did. I expected it to be very, very structured.
Did you have much interaction with some of the longtime astronauts
that were still on—
When we got there, there was probably—I’ll bet there was
probably twenty older astronauts still there. Two Moonwalkers; Alan
[L.] Bean and John [W.] Young were still there. And, yes, we interacted
with them quite a bit. Some of them were—I remember, speaking
of trying to figure out, trying to learn the Shuttle systems; I remember
the data processing system as incredibly complicated, just vastly
complicated. I remember going to [Joseph H.] Joe Engle and asking
him a question about the data process system. They had this term called
“failed to sync,” when one of the computers wasn’t
working with the other computers, and I was trying to get some insight
into that. And I’ll never forget him explaining it to me by
saying, “Well, Mike, have you ever looked inside one of these
computer boxes? They got jillions of wires in there, and they’re
curved and bent all over the place.”
And I says, “Yeah, I imagine it’s pretty complex, Joe.”
And he says, “Well, you know how they operate on ones and zeros
I says, “Yeah, I understand that.”
He says, “Well, every once in a while, one of the ones that
are going through the zeros can go through these wires really, really
smoothly because they’re round. But every once in a while, one
of these ones going through the wire gets turned sideways and causes
a logjam, and all these other ones and zeros back up behind it.”
[Laughs] I’ll never forget him pulling my leg, obviously, but
I thought his explanation was as good as any at the time. Old Joe
was a good guy. He was a lot of fun to talk to, had some unique insights
into the space business.
Early on, they brought in older astronauts, too, that were not in
the office anymore. They brought in Neil [A.] Armstrong to talk to
us, some of these legends. [Thomas P.] Tom Stafford came through there,
I think, to just talk to us about their experiences.
We had a lot of professors. They took us to the Lunar [and] Planetary
Institute [Houston, Texas] in the early days there. Probably for the
first three, four months or so, we had these lectures by these professors
who were expert in their particular area, whether it was geology or
meteorology or oceanography, and they were there to educate us on
how space affected their particular science, how it affected geology,
what we could do from space to help geologists, what we could see
and record from space that would help oceanographers, that type of
thing. And these professors were also renowned in their areas. So
we had some top-drawer instruction there early on. It was kind of
a shotgun, a little bit of science, little bit of past astronaut experiences,
a lot of the Shuttle, insight into the Shuttle.
This was the first class that NASA had selected in about ten years,
and it was also the first time that it had selected minorities and
How did that affect your class or maybe you specifically?
[Laughs] Well, I’d be a liar if I didn’t say it was difficult
to learn how to work with women, and not because of the women; because
I had no life experience in working with women. I tell my wife, I
say—I tell everybody, there were two things that at age thirty-two
I did that I had never done in my life, when I woke up to go to work
for my first morning as an official astronaut at NASA, two things
I’d never in my life had done: dressed myself, and worked with
Dress myself. Let me explain that. I went to twelve years of Catholic
schools, wore a uniform every day. Woke up, put on a uniform. Went
to school. Went to West Point. For four years I don’t think
I ever saw an article of civilian clothes. Didn’t have it in
the closet. Wore a uniform all the time. Went into the Air Force.
Would wake up in the morning, go to work, put on a flight suit. Not
one time in my life did I ever have to go to a closet, open it up,
and pick a pair of slacks and shirt that matched. And that was a real
In fact, a number of times that I walked out of the house or walked
through the kitchen on my way to work, Donna, my wife, would look
at me and say, “You’re not going to work dressed like
that, are you?” [Laughs] In fact, she told me she was going
to get Garanimals and put them on the clothes so that I could match
the elephants with the elephants and the giraffe with the giraffe.
And I tell you, I wasn’t the only one struggling in this regard,
because I remember driving up one day to NASA with my kids in the
car, who were teenagers at the time, young teenagers, and there was
one of the astronauts walking around in plaid pants. Plaid pants.
I mean, even I, with my absolute zero fashion sense, thought that
maybe that looked a little bit retro. In fact, to this day, my kids,
they’re in their thirties now, if I’m with them and they
see a golfer out in plaid pants, my kids will laugh and say, “Hey,
Dad, check it out. There’s an astronaut.” [Laughter]
So that was one of the things that I had to do when I woke up on my
first morning. The other was working with women. I had never in my
life ever worked professionally with women. In fact, my whole life,
the Catholic schools I went to weren’t gender-segregated, but
a lot of the classes were. I mean, there were females in the school,
but a lot of the classes were segregated by gender, and so had very
little interaction with females as a young person, and West Point
had no females at the time I was there.
In the Air Force, the flying community that I was in had no females
when I was in there. So as a result, I was thirty-two years old when
I was selected as an astronaut and I had never worked professionally
with women, and I have to admit that I’m sure I was a jerk,
in a word, because I just didn’t know how to act around them,
telling jokes that probably were not appropriate to tell and just
doing dumb things that were inappropriate and probably would have
gotten me a prison sentence in this day and age now with sexual harassment
and all that.
The women had to endure a lot, because there was a lot of guys like
myself in that regard, I think, that had never worked with women and
were kind of struggling to come to grips on working professionally
with women, but we all made it. That’s for sure.
Tell us about some of the first duties and assignments that you received
as an AsCan and then after even your training.
The first duty assignment I got was working with Spacelab, which to
me was a crushing blow, because at the time it was obvious to all
of us, if you weren’t working on STS-1 or -2 or -3, if you weren’t
a support crew member for one of those, that in our minds you were
not in the running to get an early flight. And working on Spacelab,
it was kind of like you’re down to the bottom of the barrel,
that that’s so far down in NASA’s launch—I don’t
remember when the first Spacelab flew, but it was going to be pretty
far down on the launch sequence. So I remember supporting our guys
like Owen [K.] Garriott and [Robert A. R.] Bob Parker and Karl [G.]
Henize and these guys. They were scientists, basically, that were
going to be flying on Spacelab, and so I was kind of supporting them.
Great group of people, I mean really top-drawer people, but it was
one of those things that I felt like I was an outcast, that I wasn’t
in line to fly one of these earlier missions, which in fact was the
truth. I wasn’t in line to fly one of those early missions.
You, though, became a member of the support group for STS-4 and STS-6.
Would you share with us what type of training or what type of support
that you provided for these crew members?
Well, STS-6, in particular, I remember that, because that was going
to be a TDRS [tracking and data relay satellite] mission, so I trained
with the crew members, learning the tracking data and relay satellite,
the IUS, the inertial upper stage, trained with them very thoroughly.
I could launch a TDRS in my sleep after I’d gone through the
support functions of going to the contractor, sitting down with the
contractor, learning how the circuits worked, learning what possible
things could go wrong. In most cases, I was going to these things,
but some of the crew members from the mission, the STS-6 mission,
would be there, and they would be learning the same things. So it
wasn’t like I was the guy that was going out there learning
all this and reporting back to them. There was a little of that, but
a lot of the times we were together on it and learning at the same
time. So I was almost like a crew member. I learned all of this stuff.
I wouldn’t fly on the mission, but it certainly was very beneficial
to my training to be involved so intimately with their operations.
During those years before you were selected to be on a crew, you were
learning so many of the different activities and assignments, duties.
Did you have any feelings of which ones of these that you would like
to do? Did you want to cast yourself in one of those roles?
I wanted to do what everybody else wanted to do. I wanted to do a
spacewalk, which I never did. I wanted to operate the robot arm, which
I did a couple times on the missions. I wanted to be involved.
I’m not a scientist, and, frankly, I didn’t have any interest
in any science mission. I did not want to fly on a Spacelab mission.
I absolutely was dreading getting assigned to one of those. I just
didn’t have any interest in it. I shouldn’t say any interest;
my interest was low in it. I wanted to operate things, as I had done
in the Air Force. And I think the pilots are the same way. I was kind
of like a pseudo pilot. And I think probably the other backseaters
were the same. They were used to operating things, being mechanics.
Certainly the pilots flying something. I’m sure the pilots,
they were totally focused on flying the rocket. And what happened
on the science mission, for example, I’m sure it was kind of
secondary to what they really wanted to do. Certainly that was what
it was in my mind. I did not want to fly any science missions. I wanted
to fly missions where I did things, like operate the robot arm, and
saw the results. Science is great, but you don’t ever see anything.
You collect data, and somebody else three years later publishes a
report about it, and it’s not the instant feedback as you would
get, say, on a spacewalk or operating the robot arm. Those were the
things I most wanted to do.
You were selected for mission STS-41D. Tell us how you learned that
you were going to be part of that crew.
Well, I’ll be honest with you here. One thing I think that I
really felt that could’ve been done a lot better was more visibility
into flight assignments. That was a real, I felt, a real morale problem
when I was there, is that flight assignments were kept so secret.
There was a secretiveness about flight assignments that was incredibly
frustrating to our group and I’m sure to the other astronauts,
too. I always felt there should be a sign-up list. I mean seriously.
I felt like, hey, you ought to just go out there and ask people, “What
mission would you like to fly?”
Now, I’m sure there would be a lot of overlap in that in that
you would have had as a manager, you would have had to place people
where the needs were. But it just was incredibly frustrating to never
really have a sense of when you might fly or what the criteria was
to qualify for a flight. I mean, I felt that was very frustrating,
and I hope it’s changed. I hope there’s a lot more visibility
into the flight assignment process than there was when I was there,
because I know morale suffered in our group because there wasn’t
that visibility into flight assignments.
Basically, you didn’t really have a sense of when you might
fly until the phone rang and you were called over to Abbey’s
office to be told that you were going to be on a mission, which was
a very joyous event, I mean, but I think it would have helped morale
a lot if we could’ve had a better visibility, long-term visibility
into that, if people’s could have said, “Okay. We’re
thinking of putting you here and here and here, and that’s the
grand plan of things,” then I think it would have made people
a lot more comfortable. As it was, people were just paranoid. “When
am I going to fly? Is it ever going to happen?” You know, that
type of thing.
But eventually Abbey’s office called, and myself and the rest
of the STS-41D crew got called over to his office to be told we’d
be flying on STS-41D. At the time it was going to be an IUS, a TDRS
mission, which I’d already been thoroughly trained on through
the STS-6 mission. But as it turned out, there was a lot of problems
along the way. The TDRS that was launched—was it the first TDRS?
The first IUS went out of control, had some problem when it was launching,
and so that delayed that program and gave us a new payload on STS-41D
and had to learn how to deploy PAMs, these spinning satellites, these
propulsion assist modules with communication satellites. That’s
what we were going to be flying.
On 41D, our first launch attempt, as probably you’re aware in
your history there, was an abort on the pad. Maybe I’m jumping
ahead. Maybe I ought to jump back to your next—maybe I’ll
stop there and see what your next question is.
I’d like to talk about the training, how you trained as a crew.
You were all primarily rookies, except for [Henry W.] Hank Hartsfield
But yet you were out of that class. Tell us how all of that came together
and the training activities that you went through, you in specific,
for your roles on that mission.
The best time of my life was being in training for a mission. Then
it was your mission. Before all the support stuff, you were
learning a lot, but it wasn’t your mission. You wanted your
mission. So I really felt that was the best time of my life, was training
with these crew members for a mission that we were going to fly. I
felt we had a very good team. We all got along. That’s not always
true. I mean, a lot of missions or some missions fly with people who
have some differences. And we didn’t have that on our crew.
I felt like we had a real good friendship and professional bond there.
It made it easy to train, and we got very good, I felt like, in the
We were blessed with Steve [A.] Hawley. In the Shuttle they have these
five GPCs, general purpose computers. It’s the heart of the
Shuttle, the brains of the Shuttle. Well, the joke in the Astronaut
Office is that when you had Hawley aboard, you had GPC-6, a sixth
computer, because his brain was like a steel trap. I mean, he read
complex documents like most people would read a comic book, and comprehend
everything instantly and have instant recall. So that was good to
have. Hawley was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever in my life
met. So I really had a good sense of being with that guy and with
the rest of the crew.
Of course, Hank had already flown. [Michael L.] Mike Coats was great.
I felt good about it. I felt we really got along well, were very professional,
very good, and when it came time to launch, we were thoroughly, thoroughly
trained. The simulations were great. The support we got from the trainers
was great. The support we got from the contractor was great. I really
felt like we were as well trained, and as far as teamwork goes, as
best as we possibly could be when we went out to launch.
What were your duties on this mission? What were you going to be doing?
As a mission specialist, myself, [Judith A.] Judy Resnik, and Steve
Hawley all responsible for the checkout and deployment of the PAM
and SYNCOM [Synchronous-Orbit Communications] satellite we were carrying,
three communication satellites. So we checked these things out and
were responsible for checking them out and for deploying them. There
was no robot arm operation on that mission.
You also had another crew member, [Charles D.] Charlie Walker.
Charlie Walker, right. He was a payload specialist for McDonnell Douglas
[Corporation], flying a [Continuous Flow] Electrophoresis [System
(CFES)] experiment, I believe is what it was called. Yes, he was great,
too, fit right in.
Did it affect the crew at all to have a commercial space partner?
Well, yes. I tell you, all astronauts, I think, carry, and I certainly
did, and I think we all did, had a sense of exclusion, I guess. We
felt a little bit like the payload specialists were outsiders, and
a lot of us, I think, felt like, hey, if they’re flying, that’s
a slot one of us could be flying. So there was some friction there,
I think, that we felt like, hey, why isn’t a mission specialist
doing this experiment, that type of thing. But I’m mature enough
now and particularly after you get your one mission under the belt,
you become a little more tolerant of the outsiders. By that I mean
the payload specialists.
And certainly they did a great job. Charlie did an outstanding job.
I think that’s a great program and it’s necessary. But
in being honest with you, I have to say that certainly there was this
undercurrent of feeling that these people were outsiders that had
taken a seat from a mission specialist. But, again, it never manifested
itself in any type of intent to prevent Charlie or any of the payload
specialists from doing their job. I mean, we all were professional,
and we all pulled together as a team, and I’m proud that Charlie
was there. He did a great job, and he went on to fly two more times,
I believe. That payload specialist program, I think, is important
for the success of the Shuttle. But at the time we were kind of childish,
Originally, the mission was supposed to launch on June the 4th ,
but you didn’t launch till August the 30th. Tell us what it
was like to go through those weeks of delays.
Actually, let me back up to that other question there. One thing that
I think—I’m going to say here probably nobody else has
said, but I know a lot of people thought about it. It was about the
passenger program. I don’t know if you were going to ask me
anything about that. I’m talking flying the foreign nationals,
the congressmen, senator, Christa [S.] McAuliffe. I felt that when
I talked about payload specialists, those people were welcome and
did a great job, but I think that the passenger program was, in my
opinion, was a terrible thing. I really always felt that the Shuttle
is too dangerous to be flying people for public relations purposes.
So I felt it was even a moral issue. It was immoral to be putting
people in harm’s way for public relations purposes. And I think
a lot of astronauts felt the same, and a lot of astronauts were disturbed,
at least, by the presence of the passengers, not the payload specialists,
but the passengers who were flying just for public relations purposes.
That was one thing that really bothered me, and I was heartened to
see after Challenger [STS 51-L] that that program was canceled, that
they don’t fly people just for public relations purposes.
Barbara [R.] Morgan, who’s going to fly, has been trained as
a mission specialist, and that’s the way you do it. If you want
somebody to fly on this rocket, train them as a crew member, and they’re
flying as a mission-essential crew member. The fact that she has a
teaching background, fine. But when she flies, she’s going to
be doing spacewalks, she’ll be operating the robot arm, doing
experiments, doing a mission specialist job. She just happens to have
a background in teaching, and that’s fine, but I thought the
way they were doing it pre-Challenger, putting people aboard that
were just flying for no other purpose other than public relations
purposes, I thought that was a crazy program.
Anyway, I interrupted you there.
No, that was all right. Thank you for that point. Let’s talk
about the delays leading up to your launch.
You’re going to have to remind me. How many were there?
Many. You started out with the main engine that had to be looked at
with a thermal shield problem as well, and then you had the GPC failed
on June 25th. You scrubbed at the T-9 hold. And the next day your
main engine fired, and that was with the possibility of a fire.
There were a number of delays, including the one that you were on
on the pad and you had the post ignition.
Yes. Let me just comment about delays. There is nothing that is more
exhausting than being pulled out of that cockpit and knowing you have
to do it tomorrow. It is the most emotionally draining experience
I ever had in my life of actually flying on the Shuttle. I will admit
that it is terrifying to launch. Once you get up there, it’s
relaxing, but launch, it’s terrifying. And people assume that
it gets easier. I tell people, no, it doesn’t. I was terrified
my first launch. I was terrified my second launch. I was terrified
my third launch. And if I flew a hundred, I’d be terrified on
a hundred. And as a result, you have this sense of death. You think
about it a lot before you go fly.
Before I launched, a month or so before I launched, I wrote a letter.
I had three insurance policies, and I’m one of these guys, I’m
not a lawyer, and I don’t want to read all the fine print of
these insurance policies, which I had gotten when I was not an astronaut.
So I wrote a letter to each of the insurance companies asking for
them to—I said, “I’m an astronaut. I’m flying
on the Shuttle. If I die, are you going to pay this policy?”
Because I wanted them to say it. I didn’t want my wife finding
out after I was dead that there was some little clause in there, “Oh,
by the way, this doesn’t apply if you’re flying a spacecraft,”
or something. And they all wrote back and said, “You’re
covered.” And I stapled those answers to the policy and to my
You prepare for death, basically. I know it’s ridiculous to
think you can predict your death. You could get in an auto accident
driving out to get in the T-38, and that’s your death, and here
you are thinking it’s going to be on a Shuttle. But I certainly
prepared for death in ways, in a formal way. I served in Vietnam,
and there was certainly a sense of you might not come back from that.
And I said my goodbyes to my parents and to my wife and young kids
when I did that, but this time it was different because it’s
such a discrete event. It’s not like in combat where in some
missions you go off and fly and never see any enemy antiaircraft fire
or anything. But this one you knew that it was going to be a very
dangerous thing. And as a result, twenty-four hours before launch,
you go to that beach house and you say goodbye to your family, to
the wife, at least. That is incredibly emotional and draining, because
the wife knows that it could be the last time she’s ever going
to see you, and you know it’s the last time you might ever see
In fact, my wife, we have these astronaut escorts, family escorts.
My wife identified one time—a month, six weeks before launch,
the wives have to pick an astronaut who’s going to be a family
escort, and she says, “What I’m picking isn’t a
family escort; it’s an escort into widowhood.” That’s
the person that’s going to stand next to them on the top of
the LCC [Launch Control Center] and watch that launch. NASA wants
that person there. And we say it’s a family escort that helps
deal with the—the crew’s so busy in the training. Getting
the families down to the Cape, if there’s issues there, the
family escort can help with that issue. But really, they’re
casualty assistance officers. They are they are going to be standing
on that LCC roof next to the wives.
So my wife was saying, six weeks before this event, she has to think,
“Now, who do I want next to me at the moment I’m a widow?
Who do I want?” So you have this buildup, this incredible emotional
investment in these launches that just ticks with that clock. Picking
the astronaut escort. The goodbye on the beach house, at the beach
house, that lonely beach out there. And now to go and get into the
cockpit and then you yourself—like I said, I thought a lot about
death. I mean, I felt this was the most dangerous thing I would ever
do in my life was ride this Shuttle. And the reason I say that, it
has no escape system.
And there’s another mistake that NASA made, building a Shuttle
without an escape system. I mean, NASA’s a great organization,
but I look back on that, and that was—I mean, it didn’t
happen when I was there. I don’t know what the thought process
was to think that we could build this rocket and not need an escape
system, but it was the first high-performance vehicle I was ever going
to fly on with no escape system. If something went wrong, you were
dead. So that was the sense of death that kind of rode along with
you, as you’re driving, preparing for this mission and driving
out to the launch pad. You know it’s the most dangerous thing
that you’ve ever done in your life. And to get strapped in and
be waiting for that launch, and, man, I’ll tell you, your heart
is in your throat.
I mean, after a launch abort, I swear, you could take a gun and point
it right at somebody’s forehead, and they’re not even
going to blink, because they don’t have any adrenaline left
in them; it’s all been used up. To be strapped in out there
and then to be told, “Oh, the weather’s bad. We got a
mechanical problem,” and to be pulled out of the cockpit, and
now it’s all going to start over. Twenty-four hours you go back,
you’re exhausted, you go back, have a shower, meet your wife,
say goodbye again, and then start the process all over the next day.
And you do that two or three times in a row, and you’re ready
for the funny farm. It really is a very emotionally draining thing.
When we finally did have main engine start on the—what was the
date on that one? June? Where we had the pad abort and the fire.
June 26th, yes. I remember thinking we finally got down to the final
seconds, got the “go” for main engine start. I remember
thinking, “Well, we’re going now. It’s going to
happen.” And you get that heavy vibration when the liquid engines
start on me. It’s a [demonstrates], really shakes you really
good in the cockpit. And watching those numbers flicker off the countdown
clock, and then to have the master caution light go on, and quiet.
Obviously, the engines shut down, or at least we thought they did
because there were two shutdown lights on. One wasn’t. Mike
Coats kept pressing on the—we didn’t want any engines
on at that point. Whatever’s going on, we wanted all the engines
off. I remember Mike pressing on the engine shutdown switch to get
a light on, but nothing ever occurred.
I’ll tell you what was so terrifying when that happened was
the confusion, the momentary confusion on the radios. You’re
so used to NASA, to launch control and mission control, so used to
it being just razor-sharp and electrically quick. If there’s
ever anything, I mean, I tell people, it’s no accident when
they were headed to the Moon with Apollo 13 and they had an explosion,
the first thing they say is, “Houston, we have a problem,”
because those people are so good. They’re guardian angels. You
just have such tremendous confidence in the LCC team and the MCC [Mission
Control Center] team. And to hear any hint that they are confused
is a dagger of fear right to your heart.
I don’t remember exactly how it was said or who said it or whatever,
but on the net you hear, “We’ve had an RSLS [Redundant
Set Launch Sequence] abort.” You hear these calls, and it’s
obvious that it’s not like, “Oh, we really know what’s
going on here,” like it had been in all the simulations in all
of our training. So that was a dagger of fear to hear any hint that
the LCC was a little bit confused. They rapidly figured out what the
heck the problem was, but there were those few seconds there where
the tone of voices that were being used and the things that were being
said were like a dagger of fear right in the old heart. In the cockpit,
the rocket was waving back and forth and the hold-down bolts, that’s
a little disconcerting. I’ll tell you, we were sitting there
I know as an engineer, you know it’s not going to happen. The
safeguards to keep the solid boosters from igniting are in place.
You somehow sense, “Oh, my gosh, we were down to within a couple
of seconds of the SRBs igniting. Oh, my gosh, are they going to ignite?”
Well, a couple of seconds in the world of electronics is a lifetime,
and I’m sure that all the safety devices had rotated to prevent
them from igniting, but in the back of your mind, you’re thinking,
“What happens if those ignite?” I mean, if they ignite,
you’re dead, because you have no liquid engines running. And
that’s one of those things you can talk to yourself out of as
an engineer. “Oh come on, now. The safety system is working
fine. Those things aren’t going to ignite.” But it was
disconcerting, to say the least, in that cockpit.
Then we got the word that somebody reported seeing a fire on the pad,
not on the vehicle, but on the pad. And as I tell people, when you’re
sitting—they reported it as a small fire on the pad, and I’ll
never forget thinking, “There’s no such thing as a small
fire when you’re sitting on four million pounds of propellant.”
That was a real terror to hear the word fire.
And there was a big debate in the cockpit whether we should get out
of the cockpit and run to the escape baskets. The ground hadn’t
called for that, and Judy had unstrapped downstairs and was looking
out the hatch window to see if she could see any fire, and she couldn’t.
They turned on the fire-suppression system, so the vehicle was being
sprayed with water. The launch pad was being sprayed with water. And
she couldn’t see any fire. Hydrogen, as it turns out, burns
clean, so she wouldn’t have seen any fire.
But it was one of these things, do we run out? What do we do? We just
unstrapped, were ready to bail out of the vehicle if the LCC called,
but we stayed with it, which was the right decision. The LCC was right
to keep us in there, because we could’ve run out into some invisible
hydrogen fire that might have been there. So that was the right decision.
But it was definitely, definitely terrifying.
I remember Steve Hawley—I don’t know how soon after the
pad abort, but I remember looking at him, and he looks at me and he
says, “Gosh, I thought we’d be higher when the engines
quit.” [Laughter] I wanted to kill him. I wanted to hit him.
I says, “This is not funny, Hawley. This is not funny.”
But that was just so incredibly scary
And on the LCC—I later talked to my wife about it—it was
just terrifying up there, too, because it was very hazy that day,
kind of a haze-fog, so the vehicle was hard to see, and they have
the speakers, of course, going, and they saw the bright flash of main
engine start. Heard the countdown, and then that stopped, and it takes
a few seconds for the sound. So here there was this instant—instead
of a long roar like you normally see with the launch, you had this
discrete [demonstrates] and then it stopped, like an explosion. And
it was foggy out there, and they had a hard time seeing it, so my
wife said she was just—it crossed her mind that the rocket had
blown up, because it was this instantaneous roar. But that’s
the scaredest I think I’ve probably ever been in my life, was
sitting out there wondering what in the heck’s going on with
that fire on the launch pad.
Was there a discussion among the crew about the use of the wire basket
Yes. Yes, yes.
And what were your thoughts on that?
Well, again, it was one of these do we or don’t we? Do we or
don’t we? They said, “There’s a small fire out there
on the pad.” The gantry or the access arm had been swung back
to the side hatch. I don’t know that we argued about it. I know
there was some discussion like, “Should we run out and get in
those baskets and get out of here?” And I don’t know why—I
don’t think we ever queried LCC as to whether we should do that
or not. It was an internal debate. Maybe one of the other crew members
have some better memory than I do on that. But it was just a discussion
in the cockpit whether we do, whether we don’t. And we just
kind of decided that we would sit tight and wait for LCC to give the
In August, you had a chance to launch again.
And you did have a couple of delays as well.
Yes, I know. There was never a time I went out and launched on my
first launch attempt, ever, ever, ever. Yes, and again, it’s
all that emotional investment again. Actually, I’ll tell you
the thing that was so bad that I remember about that abort is, going
back to what I said earlier, that I was paranoid that something like
this would happen and snatch this dream from me at the last second.
And this was proof. I mean, in my mind, it was obvious we weren’t
going to launch anytime soon. So we were pulled out of the cockpit
and told, “Hey, you’re heading back to Houston. We don’t
know what’s wrong. We don’t know when we’re going
to fly.” And I just catastrophized in my own mind. I was like,
“Oh, my gosh. I’ll bet they find something terribly wrong
with the engines. They are going to have to redesign the engines.
It’s going to be years before we ever fly again. Who knows what’s
going to happen, who will fly that mission.” That type of thing.
I just felt so absolutely depressed to have gotten within a couple
of seconds of this lifetime dream and then have the rug snatched out
from underneath me.
My whole family, as, I think, most astronaut families, sort of like
a family reunion to go down there to the launch. So I go back to the
condos where my family is, and have all these relatives I hadn’t
seen in seemed like forever who were there. They’re all in Florida,
right? They’re all having a great time, right? The fact the
rocket didn’t fly, that’s no big deal, right? They’re
all drunker than skunks and having a good time partying. All my cousins
and all these people, they’re out on the beach. This is a wonderful
time. And let me tell you, there is nothing worse than being a non-flown
astronaut who has just aborted a mission, who feels pretty bad, and
now you have to go to a party. I couldn’t stand it.
I remember thinking, “I can’t stand this.” I couldn’t
be around people who were happy, because I was miserable. And I walked
out onto the beach and just laid down on the beach and fell asleep
on the beach. Then I remember my grandmother came out there and says,
“Mike, you’d better get up. You’ll get sunburned
out here.” [Laughter] I couldn’t escape.
I told my wife then, I said, “If this happens again, if the
next launch attempt, whatever that is,” I told her, I says,
“I am not coming back to the condo. I am going straight to the
T-38, and I’m hitching a ride back to—I will not be around
a bunch of people that are happy and drunk, having a great time while
I’m miserable, so I’m flying back to Houston.” So
that was the rule from then on out.
But we came back in August and finally launched. It was literally
a dream come true. Terrifying again. Nothing had changed in that factor.
It was still a very emotionally gut-wrenching fear factor involved
in launching on this thing. In fact, I remember, I was sitting behind
the pilot, and they have those two windows overhead, the back cockpit
there, and I remember launching and thinking that “This rocket
could blow up right now, and I will have never seen the Earth from
space,” because the nose is too high. All you’re seeing
I remember after the boosters separated, I craned my neck back as
hard—I about broke my neck by doing this, but I craned my neck
back, because the rocket’s going into orbit upside down. It’s
still a pretty high angle, but I thought if I could at least look
out that overhead window and be looking back and down I’d see—we
were up at like twenty or thirty miles at that point and I’m
craning my neck back to be able to do that, and got a glimpse of the
Earth. That was my first glimpse of Earth from, well, certainly extreme
altitude. It wasn’t my definition of space. It was under fifty
miles. It was probably around the thirty-mile mark or so. But it was
just a breathtaking glimpse. I could see this pointalistic display
of the clouds on the blue of the Atlantic, down there. Just a fantastic
view. It was obvious I was seeing the ocean and the clouds from extreme
altitude. But that was my first glimpse, and I remember thinking,
“Well, if it blows up now, at least I had that one glimpse of
Earth from extreme altitude.”
I remember on my launch, too, the training was—again, NASA’s
training is superb, but the thing that surprised me was SRB separation.
I’m sure some astronaut in one of the earlier missions probably
had mentioned it. I don’t know if I just wasn’t there
or it didn’t register in my brain, but the first two minutes
have a lot of vibrations and shaking, particularly when you’re
going supersonic and getting those shockwaves. The boosters are with
you still, so they’re making a lot of racket. So you have a
lot of shaking and noise for the first two minutes. And then when
those boosters separate, you hear this loud bang, you see this fire
across the windows, and then it’s like a switch. It’s
nothing. No sound, no vibration, just dead quiet. And the Gs also,
because the boosters are gone. You’ve lost six million pounds
of thrust. Those are gone. So it’s very, very—you’re
light in the seat. It’s almost as if you’re ballistic,
like you’re weightless.
And I had this momentary panic attack at SRB separation that all three
of the liquid engines had shut down, because it was so quiet. I assumed
that there would be some noise from those liquid engines all the way
to orbit, some vibrations or something, but there wasn’t. It
was just glass-smooth. And I remember thinking—I didn’t
say anything, but I remember thinking, “All three of the liquid
engines.” And I was looking at them. I didn’t see any
lights on them. I was thinking, “Well, surely somebody would
say something if they all had shut down,” and nobody was saying
anything, so I figured, “Well, I guess they’re still running.”
That was the only thing that I remember being surprised about, just
completely taken aback by, was the discrete change in the noise and
vibration at SRB separation. It just got glass-smooth from that point
Then we got up where the main engine cut off. As soon as the engines
cut off, we were weightless. We were flying the first flight of Discovery,
and they try to keep those cockpits really clean. People wear bunny
suits inside them. They vacuum them a lot. There’s cracks and
crevices and stuff, dust and stuff falling into that they can’t
get to, and so at MECO [main engine cut-off], when the main engines
stop, you’re instantly weightless. This debris that had been
trapped in these cracks starts coming up. So you’ll see bits
of dirt and other things floating. I remember seeing a couple of little
nuts and washers, wondering, “I wonder what that’s off
of. Hope it’s nothing important.” [Laughter]
And then I see an X-Acto blade tumbling in the cockpit by me. And
then I see a mosquito [imitates mosquito], trying to fly in weightlessness.
It was August that we were launching. Those mosquitoes down there,
just clouds of them down at the launch pad area. So one of them had
gotten in while we were strapping in, and it was wiggling around trying
to figure out how to fly in weightlessness. And I nailed that thing.
Wham! The last thing I wanted to have is a mosquito running around
in that cockpit.
But then we fired our OMS engines, got into our final orbit, opened
the payload bay doors. That really was—actually, it wasn’t
until I unstrapped from my cockpit that I really got a view of the
Earth, just sitting a little too far back to really get a glimpse
of it out the windows, but I remember unstrapping, and this was right
after the OMS burn, unstrapping from my chair and floating up and
looking out, and I tell you, it was just—well, as I tell people,
we all try to describe it, but it’s indescribable. Your eye
can pick up a lot more than any camera can, and it was just so glorious
to see the Earth, the horizon of the Earth, the blackness of space,
the blue of the oceans, the white of the clouds. It was just breathtaking.
And every expletive that you could possibly throw in there to say
how incredible it is would not do it justice to see the Earth, looking
out those windows. It was just great. And I remember at that time
thinking, “This is all I need to be happy the rest of my life,
to see this view.” Of course, then, that went rapidly by the
wayside. Just a couple of more missions, spacewalks, something else.
There’s always something else you’re trying to get to.
But it was glorious up there.
I tell you what. Why don’t we take a little break here.
We were talking about your mission, that you had launched, and as
much as you enjoyed looking out the window and getting the chance
to see that view you’ve wanted to see all your life, you did
have duties while you were there.
Yes, we had to get to work, unfortunately. [Laughs] No, we got to
work checking out the satellites. That all went exceptionally well.
There was no problem at all with any of the satellite releases. Everything
was just exactly by the book.
One thing I remember, Judy Resnik, we had an IMAX camera up there,
and we were doing some filming of the SYNCOM launch, the one that
rolls out sideways, and Judy was floating between me and Hank. Hank
was on the starboard side of the vehicle looking aft with a camera
filming the deployment. Judy was floating next to him. I was floating
next to Judy, throwing the switches to release it. Hawley was up front
doing a countdown to release. And when we threw the switches and this
thing started going out, that IMAX camera has a belt-driven magazine,
and Hank was filming it as it moved away from the vehicle, and Judy—I
don’t know if you ever saw pictures of Judy, her hair, that
long black hair of hers was just a wild riot around her head in weightlessness,
and that belt-driven magazine sucked up a shank of her hair into that
IMAX camera and jammed it. I remember Mike Coats, we helped cut her
hair out of the—free her from the camera. It popped a circuit
breaker, stopping the camera from driving. It looked like we might
have destroyed the camera. Mike went down to the mid-deck and spent
hours picking hair out of the gearing of that thing to make it so
it could work again. For a while it looked like we would not be getting
And I tell you, I have the greatest admiration for the women in our
group. I never had a sense of any of the males wishing that they would
fail or have any problems or anything. I mean, there was never any
of that. They were pioneering into an all-male bastion, one of the
last, I guess, the Astronaut Office. But I always felt that everybody
considered them equals and they were part of the team, and everybody
wished them nothing but the greatest of success. But the press didn’t.
[Laughs] Let me tell you, the press had the women under a microscope
and were looking for the slightest indication that a woman was different
than a man. And as a result, the women were paranoid about displaying
anything, anything that would remotely be construed as, “Oh,
you’re different than a man.”
When Judy’s hair got jammed in that camera, Hank was going to
call MCC and tell them, “Hey, we’re going to miss all
of these IMAX filming for the day and may miss it all for the mission,
depending on whether Mike can recover from this thing.” And
Judy looked at him, and I don’t remember her exact words, but
basically it was, “I’m going to cut your heart out if
you so much as say a word over the air about my hair getting caught
in this thing,” because she knew. —I mean, to us it was
baffling, like, “What’s the big deal?” But it quickly
became apparent to us what her concern was, was that if that was blabbed
to the whole world, it would be the thing—it wouldn’t
matter how well Judy did on the mission, all the things she did, she
would be remembered as the woman who had her hair that jeopardized
the IMAX. “Women are different than men. Their hair’s
long,” that type of thing. That’s what the press would
pick up on. She knew it. That’s what the press would pick up
on. So as a result, she absolutely was adamant that nobody say anything
over the air about her hair getting caught in that IMAX. That was
one example of that.
Another one occurred later in the flight, too, when our urinal on
our toilet failed. We couldn’t use the urinal. Obviously, it’s
a trick urinating in weightlessness. I think it was Judy observed,
men are at an anatomical advantage on camping trips and space trips
in using that urinal.
MCC called us. The heater on the outside of the dump nozzle failed,
so this blob of frozen urine froze on the side of the vehicle, and
what they were worried about was on reentry this blob of ice would
break off, fly back, hit the tail, gouge out the heat tile. The tail
would be burned off, and the Shuttle would crash: I thought of my
life being threatened in many ways, but never by a block of frozen
Any rate, so we ended up using the robot arm. Hank used the robot
arm to knock this piece of frozen urine off, but we were prohibited
from using the urinal from that point, because they didn’t have
any way of dumping it after that. But there was still some of what
they call ullage, which means there is room left in the tank for some
urine. MCC called up and said that they estimated there were like,
I don’t know, like three man-days of ullage left in the urinal.
It was clear what they were saying: Judy could continue to use the
urinal. The men are going to use the plastic bags, which, let me tell
you, is a mess to do. But Judy could use—I mean, they didn’t
say it, but it was obvious that, hey, we’ve got one woman aboard.
There’s three days of ullage, three man-days of ullage left.
Let her use it. But Judy didn’t, because she knew, she knew
that if she did, and she got back to Earth, the press would eventually
pick up on it. “Aw, they had to cut this woman some slack. Women
are different than men. They had to cut her some slack and let her
use the urinal. The rest of the men had had to pee in plastic bags.”
So that was another indication of how these women were—all of
us had the paranoia of “We don’t want to screw up. We
don’t want to screw up, not for ourselves, not for the team.
We don’t want to let the team down. We don’t want NASA
to look bad.” We had this intense pressure. “Don’t
screw up anything.” Well, the women had all of that and then
the extra pressure of never revealing, of never having the slightest
revelation that they might be different than men come out. They couldn’t
afford it, because the press—nowadays it wouldn’t matter.
If a woman got her hair stuck in a camera, nobody would care. But
for those women that were flying those first couple of missions, they
were under a microscope by the press. So you saw it manifested in
several different ways in that area.
What was the question? I rambled here.
Let’s talk more about this situation that occurred with the
Yes. You were called onto possibly—
Possibly do a spacewalk, yes. Hawley and I—which we were really
hoping for. Hawley and I had trained as the backup—what do you
call them? The contingency EVA [Extravehicular Activity] crew members,
in case there was a problem. There was no planned EVA, but they always
have two crew members trained in case there is a problem that requires
an EVA. So Hawley and I did a—I guess we prepared to do a spacewalk.
I later heard on the ground that the ground really felt that was a
real long, long, long shot, that they would ever send out anybody
to do a spacewalk to get rid of this thing. They felt like they would
be able to do it fine with the robot arm, which they did. But, of
course, Hawley and I were praying that they would call us and say,
“Go out on a spacewalk and knock this thing off.” But
I was really looking forward to that, but it wasn’t to be, didn’t
happen. Hank used the robot arm and reached in there and knocked the
Hank Hartsfield had training on the RMS [remote manipulator system]?
He had used the RMS on his mission, STS-3. He’d used the RMS
on his mission, I think, and so he was trained. Judy was trained on
it, too. I don’t remember the logic process by which Hank used
the arm and Judy didn’t. I don’t remember what the rationale
was there, but I remember Hank used it to knock off that urine. So
we’d better hope that any aliens that are in orbit go by the
old Boy Scout adage, “Don’t eat yellow snow.” [Wright
laughs.] Because there was going to be a blob of it floating around
Our research has told us that during this situation that you guys
became very resourceful of having to handle all of the lack of sanitary
efforts up there. You ended up using some of your used clothing to
Yes. Here, let me tell you about peeing in a plastic bag in weightlessness.
I’ll get really graphic here. When your bladder is full and
you’re urinating, the urine separates from your body and moves
away. And when you have the urinal, it’s being sucked down that
urine hose and going into the waste tank. Now, when you are using
a plastic bag, the first thing we did was we tried to pee in a plastic
bag, and that urine would hit the bottom of the bag and splash back
out, and so you would have urine floating around, or you’d be
trying to trap it. We figured out then that if you took articles of
clothing—and socks worked really great. We put socks in the
bottom of those, but any other dirty clothes would work fine, too.
And you urinate, the wicking action would still work fine in weightlessness.
Things would wick in to the cotton or whatever it was, the clothing.
But you had to regulate your bladder, your flow rate of your urine
to not exceed the wicking capacity, because if you did that, then
it would start splashing again. So you had to be careful, regulate
your urine flow rate to make sure it didn’t exceed the wicking
capacity of whatever it was that you had down there. And that worked
pretty good. The problem is, as your bladder pressure dropped off,
a big ball of urine would stay with you, would stay on you. So then
you had to use tissue to mop that off of you. That was a lot of fun,
let me tell you. [Laughs]
Make for some interesting conversation at the dinner table.
Oh yes. Oh yes.
Come up with a plan of sharing what worked and didn’t work.
I remember Judy was floating in the cockpit one time and had on a
pair of socks. We all just wore these socks up there, and we were
getting down into the mission, and we didn’t have a lot of clothing,
and people were talking about—and I remember Judy was floating.
Just kidding, I went floating over. I grabbed her feet, and I started
pulling her socks off, like “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.
I need your socks.” And she was screaming, “I’m
being socked! I’m being socked!” [Laughter] That was real,
Another thing that’s disgusting up there is when people are
vomiting from space sickness. That is bad. I didn’t get spacesick
up there. We all floated around. As rookies, we had our barf bags
out of our zippers ready for a quick draw in case we ended up getting
sick, and it’s one of those things, again, paranoia things,
like every single time your stomach does anything, it’s like,
“Am I getting sick? Am I getting sick?” And it takes a
couple of hours before you finally decide, “Well, no, I’m
not getting sick.”
But a couple of people on the crew did get sick, and that’s
disgusting. Like I tell people, even if you’re not sick, if
you’re sitting in a volume hardly bigger than the back of a
pickup truck and people around you are vomiting, that doesn’t
do anything for you. I remember taking somebody’s bag that had
vomited and stowing it in the wet trash container, and I remember
Hawley looking at me, as I had this warm bag of barf that I’m
pushing into this wet trash container. He says, “Well, I guess
you must be feeling okay.” [Laughs]
I says, “Yeah, so far so good.” But that is disgusting.
I remember somebody threw up once, too, and I felt something on my
cheek, and it was barf. So there’s some nonglamorous sides of
being an astronaut, certainly.
Hopefully, it met all the expectations that you had wanted and more.
Of the mission?
Absolutely. Absolutely. It was just the most joyous thing, and it
was so wonderful to be part of a mission that went so well. I mean,
we had the urine problem, but the satellites all were released, because
before that, they had had some problems with satellites blowing up
after they released. You didn’t want to have your name associated
with anything that had failure on it, and even though for those earlier
missions—it wasn’t the crew’s fault that the rocket
blew up after it was—not blew up, but it had a—what was
the problem with those PAMs? They had some problem with the PAMs.
I don’t remember what it was. They didn’t ignite or something?
I guess they didn’t ignite. That’s what it was.
Any rate, ours worked perfectly. Everything went very well. And you
just had this—it was just this ultimate high to be part of this
great team, to have a great mission, to have everything go well, or
most everything go well.
And looking out the window was, obviously, a dream come true. I remember
my first sleep period. The rest of the crew slept downstairs because
it was so light upstairs and so hot. So they would put their sleeping
bags downstairs, and I took my sleeping bag upstairs, and I stretched
across the cockpit and floated into it, so I was looking out the overhead
windows, which were looking down on the Earth, because we had our
top to the Earth. So I had this Earth in my face, and I just sat there,
and let me tell you, you cannot go to sleep looking at something like
So I would sit there and look out at the world down there, looking
at the oceans and the landmasses, just totally fascinated. And then
the sun would set, eventually, and the sunset and sunrise are beautiful.
I think if there’s one thing that you could truly say is the
most beautiful sight you can possibly see as a human, it is watching
sunrise over the Earth, because imagine, you’re looking at blackness
out the window, black Earth, black space, and then as the sun comes
up, the atmosphere acts as a prism, and it splits the light into the
component colors. It splits the white light of the sun into the component
colors, so you get this rainbow effect, and it starts with this deep
indigo eyelash, just defining the horizon, and then as the sun rises
higher, you get these reds and oranges and blues in this rainbow.
For a couple of seconds you will have this brilliant rainbow defining
black, black Earth, black space, and this color rainbow right there
splitting across it. You never got tired of looking at those. And
in sunset it was in the reverse. But those were always beautiful to
But what had happened when I was sleeping there, is that the sun would
finally go down, and I’d finally fall asleep, just from exhaustion,
and then the sun would come up forty-five minutes later, light up
the cockpit, and I’d wake up, and then it was like, wow! Look
out the window, and forty minutes later fall asleep. I mean, it doesn’t
make for a good night of sleep, but I’m sure I don’t think
I got a couple of hours of sleep up there the whole—any particular
night. I can sleep back on Earth. How many times could I ever look
out the window from space? So I tended to cheat myself from the sleep.
Also, I didn’t do any of the exercises. Again, I thought, there’s
no shower, why do I want to exercise, get all sweaty? And there’s
an hour that you’re involved, probably more than that when you
think about getting ready for it and doing it and cleaning up afterwards
on the treadmill. Why do I want to do this? I’ll take that hour
and look out the window. And it was a short mission, so I didn’t
feel like it was—on a space station, you’d better exercise,
but on a six-, seven-day mission, you don’t need to exercise.
You’ll be fine.
What opportunities did you take to take pictures, photos?
Every opportunity. I sat there at every opportunity taking pictures,
taking photos, just clicking away at anything and everything that
looked interesting, bringing them back. On a low-inclination orbit
like that, you don’t really—a lot of it’s ocean.
The world’s a big ocean, but still, we got some great photos.
The mission ended. You landed at Edwards.
Edwards. All three of my missions landed at Edwards. Yes, it was—
Was that kind of a homecoming? You were back to where you’d
spent some time there?
No, not really. Oh, I spent some time there, but it wasn’t—I
never considered Edwards a real part of home, I guess. It was fun
to land there. Yes, reentry and landing were pretty straightforward.
I remember the G-forces seemed to me to be very high on reentry, even
though they were under 2, 1.8 or something, but because you’d
been weightless, you feel like you have an elephant on your back on
Watching the glow of reentry out the windows was a kick. Entry is
not very scary. I mean, you do have some thoughts in your mind, “Well,
I hope this thing holds together, and I hope these engineers knew
what they were doing,” but it’s not like launch. Launch
is terrifying, but entry is fairly relaxing.
When you returned—
Oh yes. You asked about returning, yes. We landed, and the wife was
there to meet us as we got off that bus. All the wives were holding
their nose as they embraced us, because they were embracing guys that
hadn’t had a shower in a week. I’m sure the flight surgeon,
when they crawl into that cockpit after landing, have to gag, too.
And after a while you get used to those smells. You don’t smell
them. But I’m sure the cockpit must smell of vomit and urine.
Can’t imagine what it must’ve smelled like for the flight
surgeon to crawl in there right after we landed.
But I remember, I was so high. I was just absolutely, just—I
wanted to scream. This mission was complete. I was an astronaut now.
There was this sense like, “I don’t care what happens
now. I have this flight under me. I can say I’m an astronaut
now.” Because up to that time I never considered myself an astronaut,
even though NASA gave you the title “astronaut.” Like
I tell people, that’s sort of like being—as a matter of
fact, they gave us this silver pin. They don’t give it to us;
we have to buy it. But once you go from astronaut candidate to astronaut,
you get an astronaut pin that’s silver. Then when you fly, you
can buy a gold one. And you’re not really an astronaut until
you’re wearing that gold one, and I remember I never wore my
silver one. I don’t think I ever put it on, because I remember
telling somebody, I don’t know who it was, to wear that, to
consider yourself an astronaut, to me it would be like wearing stewardess,
flight attendant wings, and saying you’re a pilot, that type
of thing. To me it was like you’re not an astronaut until those
SRBs ignite. So I had this overwhelming sense that I had finally accomplished
this life mission.
I remember on the plane, the STA [Shuttle Training Aircraft] flying
back, I had a beer, and I was telling—I probably had about ten
beers, because I remember telling Mike Coats, I said, “Watch
this. I can drop this and grab it.” Of course, I dropped it,
and the beer spilled everywhere. But it was one of those memories.
I was just being childish. I was silly. I was just silly on the high
of having finally landed from this mission. It was great.
When you returned home, you served some time as the CapCom [capsule
Could you share with us some of those experiences and what it was
like to be in the mission control while—?
I really have to say that being a CapCom was really—it’s
a privilege, and it’s also something that gives you an insight
into the best team on the Earth, and that’s that MCC. I had
the greatest admiration for those people. To see them working together.
It’s just there are times when you’re on teams, and usually
they’re smaller than that, that click really well, but to have
a team that large that is that trained and that good, I really felt
proud of being part of it, and every astronaut should be a CapCom.
I hope that’s part of the training. Every astronaut should get
in there and be part of the CapCom because it is just such a neat
view of what NASA’s all about. That’s the heart of NASA
in that MCC.
In fact, that’s one thing, too. I was always outraged at the
politicians that flew, all of them. Jake Garn, Bill Nelson, John [H.]
Glenn [Jr.] even. I was against John flying. I felt that was again
a flight for public relations purposes that was inappropriate. But
any rate, I remember Garn and Nelson justified those missions that
they needed to see how NASA operated to better vote on NASA bills
or something like that. I remember thinking, if you want to know what
NASA is like, you don’t ride a Shuttle; you sit in that MCC.
If you really want to know what NASA truly is, sit in MCC. Don’t
ride a Shuttle. The analogy there would be saying, “Okay. I’ll
show up for a vote on the Senate floor, and therefore, I’ll
know how the Senate operates.” You’ve never gone to any
of the behind-the-scenes meetings. You’ve never gone to any
of the lobbyist actions and all this other stuff associated with getting
to that point. It’s the same analogy. You don’t know what
NASA’s like flying on a Shuttle. You know what NASA’s
like sitting in that MCC. So I felt very privileged that I got a chance
to do that.
The first launch from the Vandenberg [Air Force Base Space Shuttle]
launch complex [California] was to be STS-62A, and you had been selected
Tell us about that selection and your whole reaction to being part
of a new launch complex and being part of that first crew.
That was another high point in my career. Actually, I had been assigned
to another flight, and I don’t remember—or I don’t
think I had formally been assigned to it, but there was a mission,
a military mission that my name was kind of attached to. It was kind
of a given that I was going to end up flying on this. And then I got
pulled off of that and switched over to the 62-Alpha mission, and
I was really happy about that. The idea of flying into polar orbit,
oh, man, I was just looking forward to that so much. You’re
basically going to see the whole world. In an equatorial orbit like
we were flying, or a low-inclination orbit like we were flying on
the first mission, you don’t get to see lot of the world. So
I was really looking forward to that. And I really liked the military
missions. I ultimately flew two more missions there, both military
missions. I really enjoyed working with those people. You had a sense
of this national security involved about it, which made you feel a
little bit more pride, I guess, in what you were doing and importance
in what you were doing.
The first flight on Vandenberg, first polar mission, it was something
I was really, really looking forward to. And again, I thought we had
a great crew there, too.
Did you have any apprehensions or concerns about launching from a
complex that hadn’t been tested before?
No, not any more beyond—I had the natural terror of riding a
rocket. I don’t care where it was launching from. I didn’t
personally have any fear about it being a new launch pad and therefore
more danger associated with it. It’s just that on launch on
a Shuttle, you fly with no escape system—no ejection seat, no
pod, no parachute of any form. You fly in a rocket that has a flight-destruct
system aboard it, so it can be blown up in case something goes wrong.
Those are reasons why you’re terrified. It’s not where
you’re launching from, in my opinion; it’s the inherent
act of flying one of these rockets is dangerous.
This mission got delayed because of a number of issues.
Well, certifying the pad delayed it and delayed it and delayed it
until eventually Challenger occurred, and then they canceled any Vandenberg
operations for the Shuttle. Obviously, Challenger was the major factor
there. I was crushed that I lost this mission, but that was minor
compared to the trauma of Challenger.
Did you want to ask any more questions before we get into Challenger?
I expect Challenger—
I was going to ask you about Challenger, where you were and how you
heard about that mission.
Challenger, I was with the rest of the STS-62 Alpha, the Vandenberg
crew. We were in training at Los Alamos Labs here in New Mexico. One
of our payloads was being developed at Los Alamos Labs, so we were
up there at Los Alamos. We were in a facility that didn’t have
easy access to a TV. We knew they were launching, and we wanted to
watch it, and somebody finally got a television or we finally got
to a room and they were able to finagle a way to get the television
to work, and we watched the launch, and they dropped it away within
probably thirty seconds of the launch, and we then started to turn
back to our training.
Somebody said, “Well, let’s see if they’re covering
it further on one of the other channels,” and started flipping
channels, and then flipped it to a channel and there was the explosion,
and we knew right then that the crew was lost and that something terrible
I tell you what I thought had happened, is that somebody had either
inadvertently activated the vehicle destruction system, or it had
inadvertently—I thought there was some malfunction that caused
the flight termination system, the dynamite that’s on the SRBs
and the ET [External Tank], to go off. I was certain of it. I mean,
the rocket was flying perfectly, and then it just blew up. It just
looked like it had been blown up from this dynamite. Shows how poor
you can be as a witness to something like this, because that had absolutely
nothing to do with it.
But it was terrible. Judy was killed on it. She was a close friend.
There were four people from our group that were killed. It was a terrible
time. Really as bad as it gets. It was like a scab or a wound that
just never had an opportunity to heal because you had that trauma,
and we left Los Alamos and flew back to Houston. I remember on that
flight the air traffic controllers gave us clearance to Houston, which
normally you don’t get a clearance to Houston. You fly various
navigation points. And obviously, the air traffic control people knew
that any NASA plane out there was wanting to get back to Houston.
So we took off from Albuquerque, and the guy said, “Clear Houston
direct.” Each time we checked in on another frequency, the flight
controllers offered their sympathies, and cleared us to continue to
It was dead quiet in the formation. I think we had three airplanes,
three T-38s, and everybody was just lost in their grief at having
lost the vehicle and lost the people.
My wife met me at Eglin. Started going to the memorial services. Started
going to the wives’, the widows’ houses to console them.
It was terrible, going to the memorial services. It was one of those
things that didn’t seem to end, because then—they were
looking for the cockpit out there. I personally thought, “Why
are we doing this? Leave the cockpit down there. What are you going
to learn from it?” Because by then they knew the SRB was the
problem, a couple of weeks into it. Actually, a couple of hours into
it, they knew the SRB, because they looked at the video from the launch
on one of the different angles, could see the black smoke from the
But I remember thinking, “Why are we even looking for that cockpit?
Just bury them at sea. Leave them there.” I’m glad they
did, though, because later I heard it was really shallow where that
cockpit was. It was like, I don’t know, like eighty feet or
something, which is too shallow, because somebody eventually would
have found it and pulled it up on a net or been diving on it or something.
So it’s good that they did look for it.
So you had these several weeks there, and then they bring that cockpit
up, and then you have to repeat all the memorial services again, because
now you have remains to bury. And then plus on top of that, you had
the revelation that it wasn’t an accident; it was a colossal
screw-up. And you had that to deal with. So it was a miserable time,
about as bad as I’ve ever lived in my life, were those months
surrounding, months and years, really, surrounding the Challenger
What duties were assigned to you during that time?
I don’t remember I had any duties. I remember the Air Force
sent us around the globe on a “re-bluing” exercise to
reacquaint us with what the Air Force did and how they used space
assets. I think the Navy did that, also. I did have. I’m sorry.
The duty I had was working the flight termination system. NASA wanted
to go back and look at everything, not just the solid rocket boosters,
but everything to determine, is there another Challenger awaiting
us in some other system. I was assigned to the flight termination
system, which is the dynamite system that blows up the vehicle in
case she goes out of control.
That was a—I always felt—again, it was a moral issue on
this dynamite system. I always felt it was necessary to have that
on there, because your wives and your family, your LCC people are
sitting there two and a half miles away. If you die, that’s
one thing. But if in the process of you dying that rocket lands on
the LCC and kills a couple of hundred people, that’s not right.
So they should have dynamite aboard it to blow it up in case it is
threatening the civilian population.
That was my view. It was not the view of some of my superiors. And
I could not go to the meetings and present their position. I couldn’t.
I mean, to me it was immoral. It was immoral to sit there and say
we fly without a dynamite system aboard. That’s immoral. And
we threatened LCC; we threaten our families; we threaten other people.
We’re signing up for the risk to ride in the rocket.
That was another bad time of my life, because I took a position that
was counter to my superior’s position, and I felt that it was
jeopardizing my future at NASA. I didn’t like that at all, didn’t
like the idea that I was supposed to just parrot somebody’s
opinion, and mine didn’t count on that issue. As I turned out—and
the Air Force, of course, who was responsible for the flight-termination
system, they absolutely were adamant that it remain, because they
are the ones that are responsible for the safety of civilians around
there. If the rocket went out of control and landed on Orlando [Florida],
NASA wasn’t going to get crucified. It was the Air Force, because,
by law, they’re the ones who are responsible for the safety
of the civilians.
So I did not like that time of my life at all. I felt I was really—I
had an astronaut come to me once; in fact, it was [Ronald J.] Ron
Grabe, who was sitting outside—I don’t want to use any
names here, but a superior’s office, who heard my name being
kicked around as a person that was causing some problems. And that’s
the last thing you want in your career is to hear that your name is
in front of people who make launch crew decisions, who make crew decisions,
and basically, it looks like I’m a bad apple. But I just couldn’t
do it. I could not go in there to those meetings with that position
this superior wanted me to take. I said, “You go. You do it.
I can’t. It’s immoral.” Any rate.
By the way, the end of that is that the solid boosters retained their
dynamite system aboard. It was taken off the gas tank, making it much
safer, at least now two minutes up when the boosters are gone, we
don’t have to dynamite aboard anymore, so it could fail and
blow you up. But that’s the right decision right there. You
protect the civilians; you protect your family; you protect LCC with
Okay. I’m sorry.
No, that’s okay. The Orbiter did return to flight, and you were
on the second mission [STS-27] after that time period.
Tell us about that selection process, and the fact, too, that you
were going to be flying a DoD mission and how different that was.
Again, I have no idea how the selection process was made, because
it was all too secretive, but I got assigned to the second mission,
and again, a great group of people. [Robert L.] Hoot Gibson is an
outstanding commander, really enjoyed working with him and with Guy
[S.] Gardner and the rest of them. It was just a great group of people.
That was one thing; I was blessed. There were other crews that had
problems. There’s frictions and tensions among crew members,
personality conflicts and stuff, but I never saw that on any of my
missions, or if it was, it was sure buried deep, because it just didn’t
manifest itself, and it was just a pleasure working with these other
The DoD aspect, again, I really enjoyed working DoD. It was another
team that was superb amongst these other teams. It was like having
this other opportunity to serve with some really truly great, great
people associated with a mission that was being overseen by a group
of great, great people, and being a crew member with a good group
of people. So I felt very privileged, really had a good time with
these folks. They were very professional. I can’t talk about
the payload, obviously, since this was a Department of Defense mission.
But I did get to use the robot arm associated with the payload. I
guess I can say that. And it was a highlight of my life to be able
to do that, use it.
How was the training different since you were working with payloads
that were not open to the public for information?
Well, from our crew point of view, it wasn’t—I mean, all
the software was classified. The people that were working on it, the
MCC, everybody supporting it had to have clearances, but that was
pretty transparent to us. We would go to a simulator. We would see
our software. We would do our thing and launch the missions or launch
the payload and do the—it was pretty transparent to us, the
security aspects of it.
Did you have any concerns of getting back on for a launch since you
had just witnessed Challenger just two years before?
That’s a common question. A lot of people, when they hear you
flew once before Challenger and twice after, assume you must’ve
been scared more after Challenger, and I said no. I was terrified
on my first launch, I was terrified on my second, and I was terrified
on my third. Challenger did not change the fear factor at all. If
anything, it was a very slight sense that it was safer on the post-Challenger
missions than it was before because people were more focused. Disasters
tend to do that, tend to focus folks. So I had this sense of maybe
a little slight less apprehension about my second mission, although
in lots of ways I was still terrified. Challenger didn’t change
After STS-27, just a couple of years later, you were flying on Atlantis
again, on STS-36.
By the way, on STS-27, there was one aspect of the 27 flight that
I thought I would mention. On STS-27, after we got in orbit, MCC called
us and asked if we saw anything go by the window during launch, which
those are the type of calls you don’t want to get. And we said,
“No. Why do you ask?” And they said on one of the engineering
cameras that they look at after launch, they saw what appeared to
be something breaking off the tip of the solid booster and flying
down, and they were wondering if he had saw it, and then they wondered
if it hit the Orbiter belly. And so they sent up instructions for
me to use the robot arm to bend around and look under the belly, and
we saw a lot of damage to the heat tiles. Something obviously had
damaged those heat tiles, which gave us a little bit of concern. You
don’t need them in orbit. You certainly need them coming home.
And I remember there was a case where MCC and the crew were kind of
at odds over the damage. We were looking at this and saying, “My
god, that’s a lot of damage.” And we saw one place looked
like a tile was completely missing, but it looked to us like there
was a lot of, lot of damage on the belly of this thing. We told MCC,
and MCC just kind of seemed blasé about it, like they were
looking at the video, and they just didn’t have a sense of urgency
like I think we did, and expected them to have. It kind of baffled
us. We said, “Why are they not more concerned about this?”
It was obvious to us there were probably hundreds of tiles that were
And when we came back, it turned out that the video was such a poor
quality with the sun shining on those black tiles, it’s hard
to see things, is that they really couldn’t see what we were
seeing, and they saw a few scrapes and scratches and stuff and didn’t
think it was all that big of a deal, and I think everybody was shocked
when the vehicle landed, and I think they ended up changing out like
700 heat tiles or something. It was a lot of heat tiles they had to
change out that were damaged on that thing.
I remember we were all kind of looking at each other and says, “Why
are they not more concerned about this? Look at it. It’s lots
of damage out there.” But again, it was just the video, the
quality of the video that we were beaming down to them.
I’m sorry. Go ahead with your question.
No, that was a great comment. I was going to ask you about STS-36
and how that DoD mission compared to or how was it similar to the
It was similar, and I really can’t go into any details at all
about the payload or any aspect of the payload. I can tell you again,
it was a great crew. I know you’re tired of hearing that, probably,
but a good group of people, both on the DoD side, the NASA side. We
were, again, thoroughly trained.
The thing that I liked about STS-36 was it was the highest inclination
that was flown and is the highest inclination ever been flown on the
Shuttle, 62 and a half degrees. Is that right? Yes, 62 and a half
degrees, I think is what it was. I know it’s the highest inclination
that’s ever been flown on a Shuttle, which means the tilt to
the equator, so you see more of the Earth. So that was a kick to have
By the way, going back on STS-27, that was the first time on that
mission, because of the orbit tilt, that I was able to see my hometown,
Albuquerque. On the first mission, the only part of the U.S. that
you go over is extreme South Florida or the southern half of Florida
and a little bit of South Texas. So you really don’t get over
the continental U.S. It was only on my second mission that I got to
fly over Albuquerque and look down, and I’ll tell you, that
was a very emotional moment, because here I am looking down on this
area, this desert, this cradle of this dream of a child, where I used
to launch my homemade rockets, and now I’m flying over this
thing, these many miles up looking down. It was a dream come true.
I really felt complete on that second mission, getting to see my hometown.
And of course, I got to see it on the third mission, too, because
it was even tilted more to the equator.
You did mention that you used the arm.
How did it compare using it in space as you trained in the simulator?
Very similar. I felt that I was well prepared through the simulation:
The simulations were very good. I didn’t really find anything
that surprised me in the use of it. Just was very careful. Didn’t
want to bang anything. I felt really, really good about it. Well prepared.
The simulations were perfect.
Before your last mission launched, you announced that you were going
to be retiring.
What led to that decision, and specifically why at that time, from
the Air Force and from NASA?
Oh, it was a combination of factors. I was frustrated with our management.
That’s one thing I was frustrated with. I was frustrated that
there wasn’t better visibility into flight assignments, and
you couldn’t really plan your life very well not knowing what
the plans were to fly you and what missions you might fly. That was
kind of frustrating. That was part of it. The stress on the family
was incredible. The stress on me was incredible for these things.
It was a tough decision, very tough.
In fact, I remember thinking that I wished almost—I did wish,
that there would be some minor physical defect that the docs would
see and take the decision from me and say, “Oh, if you stay,
you’re never going to fly again” so I didn’t have
to make the decision. It was one of those things that I wanted to
go off—this house had become—my father-in-law had passed
away. My wife inherited this house, so it was sitting empty here in
Albuquerque. We always wanted to move back to Albuquerque. The kids
were out of high school, so we didn’t have to worry about changing
them from high school. There were a lot of personal reasons, and the
unknowns of staying with the Shuttle Program.
Personally, another thing in the back of my mind is that I could stick
around here for another two or three years for another flight. Then
there could be another Challenger, and you’ve wasted that time.
There was also that sense, is there going to be another big glitch
in this program, maybe not a Challenger, but something that’s
going to ground it for a year, and I didn’t like being there
when we weren’t fully employed and certainly in those years
after Challenger to when we got assigned to a mission certainly was
underemployed. There was just not a lot to do. So I had in the back
of my mind that fear that I may be staying here and not ever fly again
anyway. The stress on my family, the house, the fact I’d done
it three times.
I think if God could have come down and told me, “If you hang
around for two years, you’ll fly another mission,” I would
have stayed. If I would have had that visibility that it was going
to happen, I would have stayed. Particularly if God would have said,
“You’re going to get a spacewalk,” I would have
definitely stayed. But again, that secretiveness about the flight
assignments always bothered me. I thought that was bad for morale.
I hope it’s better now. I do. It’s just bad for morale.
Looking back during your career with NASA, what do you find to be
the most challenging aspect of that time?
The most challenging aspect of being an astronaut? The wait. I was
there for twelve years, and I flew a total of two weeks in space on
three missions. That was the most challenging part, I think, is not
being—when I was assigned to a mission and then obviously flying
a mission, were the best times of my life, bar none. Absolutely the
best times of my life. And that probably occupied—let’s
see. It’s probably a year and a half involved in the training
and the flying and the mission. That’s four and a half, five
years of twelve years were really, truly, absolutely the best years
of my life when I was doing those things.
I don’t know that I had a good personality for the waits, waits
between the missions. In fact, sometimes I look at my own personal—my
personality is, I like instant feedback. I like to do things and see
the results. That’s why I enjoyed missions where I could use
the robot arm. I did this. I did it. Of course, with the support of
the crew and all the trainers and all of this thing, but I could see
the results of my actions, releasing a satellite, using the robot
arm, whatever it is. And that was very, very fulfilling.
Most of the things in NASA are long, long lead times. I remember after,
I think it was after my second mission, I was working up in Canada
on the robot arm that’s going to be used on the Space Station,
and this is back like in 1988 or so. And this thing just recently
was put up there a couple of missions ago, that robot arm. And that,
to me, was very frustrating, the idea that I’m working on something
that I will never, ever touch. It’s a decade in the future,
at least. And there’s a lot of things about NASA like that.
A lot of payloads, a lot of things that just take a long, long time.
And I guess I have to admit, my personality isn’t well suited
for that. I have a hard time being passionate about something that’s
so far off in the future.
And thank God there are people that can devote a whole life to one
payload that launches or something. In many cases, that’s a
fact. They devote their whole lives to some contractor, some experiment
or whatever, and I’m glad there are people like that, but I
do have a personality that isn’t well suited for that. That’s
probably another aspect of why I left after the third mission.
Is there a moment in time or an event, activity that you consider
to be your most significant accomplishment?
The DoD missions I feel very proud about. Even though I can’t
talk about them, I feel very, very proud about those DoD missions.
I felt like that was something that had a significant impact on America’s
security, and I was part of it, and I felt really, really good about
those two missions.
Before we close today, I was going to ask Sandra if she had some other
questions for you that she might like to ask.
Going back to 41B when you were training for the satellite deploys,
did you go to the vendors where the satellites were actually created,
and if so, do you feel that that helped you understand what you were
going to be doing on that mission?
Oh yes. Yes. Yes, we did go to the vendors, both the people who made
the propulsion module as well as the satellite on top of it, and that
absolutely helped, to see the hardware, real hardware, talk to the
engineers about various aspects of the deployment sequence, things
to watch for. It was absolutely necessary and very beneficial.
When I look back on all three of my missions, the only surprise I
had on all three of my missions was that SRB separation, the quiet
that occurred after that, smoothness of flight. Either nobody ever
commented about it, or it wasn’t significant to other people,
but that was the only thing I remember thinking, “What is this?
What’s going on?” All the rest of them, I felt like whatever
I was doing, I had done a thousand times before, because I had done
it a thousand—well, probably two thousand times I had done it.
It was very well done. NASA’s training is superb. Hey, any training
program that puts a camera in the bottom of the toilet trainer is
a great training program, let me tell you. You’ve heard that
story, I’m sure.
Share it with us.
Well, the Space Shuttle toilet, for solid-waste collection, has a
very small opening on the top, and it has to be small because they
focus air flow to come in from 360 degrees around in toward the center,
and then it’s being pulled down by a fan down inside of the
toilet to draw the waste away from your body. And to use this thing
effectively, aim is critical, because that opening is so small. So
NASA built a toilet trainer that we have there in Houston that has,
inside the toilet trainer, an upward-pointing television camera, and
there’s a television in front of the toilet. You sit on this
toilet, you look at unmentionable things on that TV screen, and you
wiggle around until you got a bull’s-eye. And then you memorize
where your buttocks and thighs are in relation to the landmarks of
the seats so up in space so you can get a bull’s-eye every time.
In fact, there is somebody you guys ought to interview, I think, are
the people who were involved with the design of the toilet. Before,
they were using plastic bags and all that. I talked to this colonel,
Air Force colonel, Colonel Kersey [phonetic], I think was his name,
who flew the KC-135 out at Edwards when they were developing this
thing. There are some unsung heroes out there, let me tell you. They
flew bunches of nurses up there, because they knew they were going
to have to address female waste collection, which they’d never
addressed before in the history of the program. They had these nurses
sit in the back of this KC-135 drinking gallons of iced tea and going
up and doing these parabolas, while they urinated in various designs
they were trying—while photographers filmed them so the engineers
could better understand flow separation and collection and all of
this. Who were those women? Don’t have a clue. Their names aren’t
anywhere. But they’re unsung heroes.
You had people that waited. He told us there was a lieutenant that
volunteered, male, for solid-waste collection. When he had to go,
he picked up the phone and said, “I gotta go,” and they
scrambled into the airplane and went up there, here’s this guy
doing his thing on this toilet while they’re doing this zero
gravity, trying to make sure that was going to work.
I heard that at JSC, because the engineers needed data on urine separation
from females, put a camera in a—I didn’t see this, but
I heard it. You’d have to verify it with the JSC people, but
put a camera in one of the toilets in one of the buildings there,
put a sign on it telling women that if they wanted to volunteer for
science, they could use this, and their private parts were going to
be filmed while they were urinating, so the engineers could get some
idea on flow separation and various ideas on how to collect urine
from females. And who were the women that volunteered to do that?
They probably don’t want their names out there.
But the point is, there were a lot of people who never flew in space
that volunteered to do some pretty raw things to make it more comfortable
for us after we got up there. I’ll sure buy them a beer some
day. [Laughs] I didn’t like using plastic bags, so whoever it
was that got that toilet working, well, I’m appreciative of
I just have one more. I was wondering, you mentioned before the stress
on you when you didn’t have the launches, and the stress on
the families, all throughout your career, and I was wondering if you
could just talk for a moment about NASA’s support system for
[Laughs] You ought to bring my wife in and ask that question. To be
honest with you, before Challenger, the support system wasn’t
very good. Not from the—we all supported each other, but here
you had the family, we get in our jets and we fly down to the Cape
to go fly. Before Challenger, the families did not fly in the STA
down to launch. So here the families had to make their own arrangements
to get down there. There was no guarantee when the mission would fly
and when they’d get back, so the flight reservations were always
a pain. Condo reservations were always a pain because there might
be sometime where, “Okay. We’re going to be down there
from this date to this date.” Then the mission delays for a
couple of days. Well, we got to stay longer. Well, they’ve reserved
the room for somebody else coming in.
It added a stress on the families that they didn’t need. I wrote
a novel once, and in that novel I used that experience and said—this
is an exaggeration, but it kind of hints at it, is that NASA would
have just as soon had orphans, unmarried orphans flying, because then
you don’t have that baggage of a family. Now, that’s a
little severe. That’s a little exaggeration, but there wasn’t
a lot of help given to the families by the NASA organization, particularly
flying them down, having somebody there reserving blocks of rooms,
making sure that they didn’t have to deal with any of that.
That did not occur until after Challenger.
The family escort was there ahead of time. I mean, that was there
all the time, but it got a lot better after Challenger. Then they
started flying the families down, had a full-time person, Trudy Davis,
was taking care of—you ought to interview her if you haven’t.
She could probably tell you some real interesting stories. [Laughs]
She’s retired now. I don’t know if you know Trudy, but
just ask anybody about Trudy Davis there at JSC. She was the one that
would handle a lot of the families’ situations down there. That
was great. After Challenger, NASA got their act together and really
did a great job on supporting the wives. But before that, they were
You know, there’s another thing, too. NASA had the foresight
to see disaster before Challenger. Some of the procedures that were
in there, the family escort, clearly, they knew what the purpose of
that was. After Challenger, they tightened up on some of the rules
so you didn’t have family members sitting out there with a camera
in their nose when the rocket blew up as they did with the McAuliffes
and some of those other things that happened there.
Again, going back to the families, you ought to read the procedures
that the families have to follow when they’re down there, because
on launch morning, the families have to pack and have all their bags
waiting for checkout at the condos, even though there’s a pretty
good chance, weather and all that, that the rocket’s not going
to fly, and they’re going to be checking back in. So you ask
your question, why would NASA require them to pack all their bags
and have them ready to go? And the reason is, is because if the rocket
blows up, they don’t want those families having to go back,
have access to the press, checking out of a condo. So they require
them to have their bags there, ready to go, so if there’s disaster,
an astronaut will go back, pick up those bags, they don’t have
to go to go to the rooms and do anything. They’re all ready
to pick up the bags and take them away.
So there’s another aspect of that, that the wives know exactly
what they’re doing. They’re not dumb. They know they’re
packing up, and they’re put on that LCC roof not for the view.
They’re put there to shelter them from any press that might
try to get to them. So NASA had those rules in place before Challenger.
They just weren’t as tight as they should’ve been. They
made some better adjustments afterwards. But as far as the support,
the support amongst the astronauts was always there, the families,
was always there. It’s just that NASA made a great leap forward
after Challenger when they started flying the families down.
Actually, I don’t think they fly the children. I think they
only fly the wives. I have to ask my wife that. But at least that
was better. Still, it’s a pain to get kids down there. But I
can understand there is some limit on room and cost and all that,
but at least they get the wives down there on the STA, which is what
they should do. And then they have Trudy Davis or somebody like her
there to make sure the condos are no issue, and it makes it a lot
better for the families.
And then that goodbye on the beach, NASA provides that. That’s
great, too, to be able to go out there and meet your family, say goodbye.
Before we end today, is there anything else that you would like to
add or any other thoughts or stories that we didn’t have a chance
Probably a million stories, but unless somebody asks the question,
I don’t remember what they are. It doesn’t key on me.
No, I feel very blessed that I got to fly in space. In spite of some
shortcomings at NASA, I thought it was a great organization. I think
it could’ve been better, with more insight into flight assignments.
That would have infinitely helped morale in that Astronaut Office.
I thought that the passenger program was very wrong-headed, flying
people for public relations purposes, immoral, even, I would say.
But I wouldn’t want that to—there are a few things that
NASA, I felt, had done wrong, but it was, I would have to say, one
of the best teams that I’d ever been with in my life, the best
in MCC, the best in the crews and the LCC. No question about it, they
were the best, and I felt privileged to be involved with it.
We end the session by asking you a question, since this is how we
started out. You were a young boy, standing out in the middle of nowhere,
looking up into the sky, and hoping that one day you’d be able
to have that reverse view, which you were able to accomplish. We know
that you talk to students and adults alike. What do you tell them
about reaching for the stars?
[Laughs] I have a whole program on that, that I talk to students.
I tell students that I look back on my life, and there were a couple
of things that I did accidentally that put me in a position that made
it possible for me to have a chance at flying into space, and those
four things, I tell them are: Dream big, set lofty goals for yourself.
Don’t shortchange yourself. You can be a lot. You don’t
know what your true capabilities are unless you set the bar very high
in your life. So, do dream big. Don’t worry about what other
people did with their lives, what your parents did with theirs, what
your brothers and sisters or friends are doing with those. Just wipe
that out. Just set the bar very high in your life and aim big.
The other thing I say, do your best always, because it’s going
to count. You just don’t know when, but it will count. Take
care of the only body you’re ever going to get. Nobody’s
going to give you another one. You’re going to need it for whatever
dream you’re pursuing. And make school number one in your life.
Education opens so many doors out there, that you’ve got to
get a great education. But those are the things I tell people, is
make sure you do those four things every day of your life.
We wish you the best in your new life with all that you’re doing.
Well, thank you.
And thank you for taking time out of that life and giving it to the
Well, glad to do it, and I think it’s a great project, and I
hope you compile a lot of great stories.
to JSC Oral History Website