Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Houston, Texas – 26 January 2006
Today is January 26th, 2006. This oral history with Richard N. Richards
is being conducted for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project
in Houston, Texas. Jennifer Ross-Nazzal is the interviewer, and she
is assisted by Rebecca Wright.
Thanks again for joining us this morning. We appreciate it.
I’d like to begin by asking you to briefly describe your career
with the Navy before you came to NASA.
Well, it starts back at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri,
where I did my undergraduate work. I had an ROTC [Reserve Officers’
Training Corps] scholarship there, and so at the end of my—when
I arrived at the University of Missouri in whatever year that was,
1965, I’d already sort of committed that I was going to do four
years in the Navy. And at the time, that was the Vietnam War going
on, so the draft was in vogue, so any young male at that point knew
he had to deal with that. So I just decided to deal with it upfront
and get some part of my college paid for. And my dad was a Navy guy
as well, too, so I was sort of predisposed to joining the service.
It was a good exposure, because during that four years the ROTC unit,
although I was in civilian clothes 99 percent of the time, during
the summertime I got to spend a couple months out on what they call
cruises. Sometimes they were cruises, really cruises. Sometimes they
were not. They were just deployments to land-based facilities. But
it gave me a broad cross-section of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the
Navy nuclear program, naval aviation, so it was kind of a shopping
list of what the military’s disciplines were so that when you
graduate it wasn’t guaranteed that you would get to choose what
you wanted, but at least you knew what to apply for.
So I graduated in 1969, and my dad was a submariner all of his life,
and so I had to rebel a little bit, so even though I was going back
in the Navy, I decided that this aviation thing looked like a fun
thing. I’d never flown an airplane before in my life and so
decided to go do that. So when I was commissioned as an ensign, I
immediately got shipped off to Naval Air Station Pensacola [Florida]
to start the standard U.S. naval officer flight training program,
which lasted about a year and a half going through Pensacola and then
later on to Corpus Christi, and I got my wings in Corpus Christi,
After that, my first assignment was with a shore-based squadron. Crazy
thing as it was, the Vietnam War was raging, and planes were being
shot down all over the place, but we had a glut of pilots at that
particular time. And so even though I did well with all my flight
training and wanted to go fly the most challenging missions, I couldn’t
do it, so went off to the shore-based squadron called VAQ-33. The
only good thing about it was the fact that the airplane they were
flying was the airplane I wanted to fly, which was then at the time
McDonnell Douglas Phantom F-4 airplane. And so I did that for about
a year until year and a half, and then I finally managed to land what
they called a fleet spot, which meant that I get to fly that airplane
aboard aircraft carriers and deploy it overseas, which at the time
I wanted to do that.
So joined, went through the replacement air group, which is the formal
advanced training for that particular airplane in a Naval Air Station
in Oceana in Virginia Beach [Virginia], and then joined fighter squadron
103 or VF-103, as it’s called, was called at that time, and
deployed aboard the USS America and the USS Saratoga.
Didn’t go to Vietnam because we had two carriers in the Mediterranean
at that time. Even though all that was going on over in Southeast
Asia, we had to maintain because of our NATO [North Atlantic Treaty
Organization] commitments two aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean
all of that time because of the perceived Russian threat over there.
So spent a cruise doing that and left, finally got to the end of my
tour. Along the way there, during that tour, I got married to my wife
and still married to her, thankfully, and she put up with all that.
But so for her first year and a half, I was gone.
Then finally, we got a shore-based assignment, and I applied for the
U.S. naval test pilot school training and, because of my engineering
background, I graduated with a B.S. in chemical engineering out of
the University of Missouri. Even though the Navy didn’t have
too much to do with chemical engineers, they did like the engineering
background, so that fit in well with the test pilot school background,
which was an engineering oriented school. Graduated from there, and
you’ll have to look at my résumé about what year
that was, I can’t remember, but graduated from there and then
went on to assignment with, I think it’s called, Strike Aircraft
Test Directorate at Patuxent River [Maryland]. It’s long since
had its name changed, I’m sure, and was assigned to the F-18
project, which the F-18 was just coming out at that particular time,
and I got reassigned to do the first air carrier qualifications of
the F-18 at that point. I got assigned to that office about 1978,
and that was when John [W.] Young came.
I think John Young showed up at the naval air test pilot school at
about ’78, somewhere in that range, saying that NASA was, after
a long delay, was going to start interviewing for a new cadre of astronauts
called Shuttle astronauts, and they’d be interested in anybody
interested in it that’s got test piloting background to apply
for it. So I applied for that. That was probably more like ’77.
I applied for that and came down here to Houston to interview in 1978
and went through all the process and so forth, got fairly close, I
was told, but was not selected in the ’78 group but got enough
encouragement to try to reapply.
Along that way, between that and the next time I came down here, which
was the late 1979, we finally got the F-18 flying and did the first
[carrier] trials, and in fact, that’s the first landing right
there [points] when we were aboard the USS America. So that
went well, and I was then posted to go back to another shore-based
squadron, VF-102, aboard, I can’t even remember, I think it
was the USS Independence. About that time, I’d already
applied to the second round of the astronaut selection, come down
here, repeated the whole thing. George [W.S.] Abbey was running all
that business then. And managed to get selected, and just as I was
about ready to step foot on the USS Independence, George
called and rescued me from another year and a half overseas and said,
“How would you like to come to Houston, go fly the Space Shuttle,”
and that was a fairly easy decision.
So off we went in 1980 and sold our house in Virginia Beach and moved
to Houston in 1980, was here, and that was sort of the—I stayed
a naval officer, to answer your question specifically. I stayed a
naval officer all the time I was here at the Johnson Space Center
and as an active duty astronaut. That was the way we were organized
at that point. I can’t remember exactly why that was, but the
military allowed us to retain our rank even though effectively I don’t
think I put on a uniform more than four or five times after I arrived
here in 1980. That was effectively the end of my Navy career and the
start of my NASA career.
Let me go back and ask you just a couple of questions. Had you been
interested in the space program while you were going to high school
and in college? Had you followed the program at all?
Well, yeah, I sort of skipped over that. Of course the Apollo landings
caught everybody’s attention, and I will admit when I was in
high school—I graduated from high school in 1964—of course,
all that was starting to ramp up at that point. I was trying to remember
the other day, and I don’t think I remember a thing about it
in high school. I was too involved with being a high school student
at that point to pay much attention to that. And then even the first
few years of even with the ROTC commitment, I was—my thought
process, as I recall, was more the Navy and aircraft carriers or submarines
or ships at sea, that sort of thing. But space, I had made the connection
that the Navy and the space program were somehow interrelated at that
point, and so I sort of, yeah, I remember seeing some of the Walter
Cronkite broadcasts and Wally [Walter M.] Schirra [Jr.] of some of
the Gemini and Apollo stuff. But it was not until the buildup for
the first flight to the Moon, Apollo 11, that I have any conscious
recollection of remembering about the space program, and I was at
the University of Missouri at that time, again trying to figure out
what I wanted to do after I left there. I knew I was going into the
Navy, but I didn’t know what I was going to do in there, and
I didn’t know if I was going to stay in the Navy. My dad was
pressuring me to come back to St. Louis [Missouri]. He wasn’t
pressuring me, but he was hoping that I would come back and join him
in the insurance business in St. Louis, at which he had a successful
small operation there with State Farm.
Then I remember as the buildup to all that, I watched the Apollo 11
landings take place, or maybe it was Apollo 8—and then they
had that photograph come back of Apollo 8 of the Earthrise, and I
never forget seeing that in the paper. Excuse me, this is my—
Yeah, I should have remembered that, because that was quite an event.
I know when that photograph came out of Earthrise, and I’m almost
sure it was Apollo 8 that took that photograph, I just, like the rest
of the world, I was just stunned by that. And that’s when I
first all of a sudden started connecting about the fact that, wow,
this is really something we’re doing, going to the Moon.
So I started following it more closely, and I can’t recall when
it was, but sometime between that point and the actual Apollo 11 landings,
I actually did something I had never done before, which was wrote
off to NASA and asked them about the astronauts and the space program
and so forth. And they do like they’re doing right now, they
sent me a packet of stuff, and of which was in there a compilation
of all of the short summary of the biographies of all of the astronauts
that they had. So I read through the thing, just scanned through it.
But I picked up on the fact that almost all of the current astronauts
they had there were either current active duty military officers or
former military officers and all of them, for the most part, were
pilots, which was, I said, “Hey, that’s sort of where
I’m heading as well, too.” So I just sort of filed it
away as I said, “Boy, that would be really fun to do if later
on I got myself into a position to do that.”
I also noticed that they had enough information in there that all
these guys were pilots and all of them test pilots as well, too. And
the Navy at that point, I’d just come back from my summer cruise
or either I was just going to it where they gave us an aviation oriented
two months, and part of the two months was a little visit to Edwards
Air Force Base [California], the test pilot school out there as well
as Patuxent River. So I just sort of filed that away, saying if that
ever happened to me, I’d be interested in doing that sort of
Of course, Apollo landings came and went, Skylab started, and for
the most part, though, I was busy being a naval officer at that particular
point, and it wasn’t until John Young showed up at the naval
air test pilot school that all of a sudden I said, “Hey, this
connection that I thought of many years ago, it’s still here
and it looks like my timing is just lucky enough to be right that
they’re starting a new phase and maybe I can get into it.”
So that’s how I got involved, yeah.
Why don’t you tell us about the interview process for ’78
and ’80 and give us a sort of comparison. Did they differ at
From my perspective, they didn’t. I got selected in ’80
and didn’t get selected in ’78, that was a big difference.
But you know, I can’t tell you that they changed all that much.
Maybe that’s why I did so much better in ’80, is the fact
that it looked so much like it was in ’78. I mean the interview
board was the same group of characters they had in ’78. It was
George, who I had figured out by this time was the 800-pound gorilla
out of this whole thing, and the rest of the people around the board
were very nice important people, but for the most part it was George
that mattered. And the rest of these guys, I’m sure, had an
influence, but it was George who decided.
But, no, it looked almost a carbon copy to me. My memory was it was,
other than the people I spent the week with down here for the interview
process, no, it was identical. It was even the same time of the year
as I recall, so I’d never been to Houston before, but it looked
familiar to me. Maybe that’s why I did so much better then,
I was so relaxed because it was all more routine. The first time I
came down here, I said, “Wow, the NASA,” like a lot of
us, we were—all of us said, “Wow, this is the tops right
here.” And so some of us were, I know I was uncomfortable. I
don’t think anybody would be, not uncomfortable having—walking
around NASA and so forth at that time. But the second trip was just
better, and maybe that’s why I did better.
Did you make any special contacts with any of the Navy guys in the
You know, I don’t recall ever even—John Young was in the
astronaut interview. Maybe we had contact with those guys, but I don’t
remember any of them, in both groups. The first time I remember having
contact with those people was when I arrived here as an astronaut.
Can you tell us about those first few days after arriving here and
the first meeting in the Astronaut Office?
Oh, yeah. Oh, you mean after I was selected? Yeah. I’m fond
of saying it, the first seven months I was here, I didn’t understand
a word they were saying, honestly. I came from a Navy background and
aviation background, fairly intense flying, both from a test pilot
and operational thing, and I thought, “Okay, this is just going
to space. It’s going to be the same deal.” And I got in
here in my first meeting. We have our standard, they’re still
doing it, I think, eight o’clock in the morning meeting on Monday
where they go over everything that is going on. And these guys stood
up, and, of course, they were in the middle of getting ready to go
fly STS-1 at that point.
But I remember a guy by the name of Dale [A.] Gardner, he was in the
’78 group, he’d have been there for two years. He stood
up to start talking. I can’t even remember the topic. He did
not, other than prepositions and verbs, those are the only words I
understood. He talked completely in acronyms and stuff that I couldn’t
understand. So we laughed when we walked out of there. Charlie [Charles
F.] Bolden [Jr.] was part of my group, and I said, “Did you
understand a word that guy said?”
And he said, “I didn’t understand anything the guy said.”
We sat there for six months like that, not understanding a word they
said. It was only in our classes, in our lectures, where we controlled
what was being said, that the instructors when they came in, of which
were all for the most part JSC engineers or astronauts themselves.
When they came in that room, we started to feel like, “Well,
we’ve got control over this space,” and so we would start
stopping the guy. We’d all made a deal that it’s not stupid
to ask some guy to repeat what he said, only thing in English. So
we started the slow process of trying to understand, but that was
one of the hardest things I ever did. I don’t think NASA to
this day knows how hard their vernacular is to understand to somebody
from the outside. And that’s something I remember when I go
in to talk in public, because you can’t do that in public, you’ll
lose people in a heartbeat. So I try to de-acronym myself, and it’s
still hard to do. Even NASA’s an acronym, for that matter.
Besides classroom lectures, what other sort of training did you participate
Well, we had a gamut of it. I recall scuba training. That’s
something I’d never done before, but we had to do that, and
so that led to a scuba training and doing all that activity. And it
turned out to get our NAUI [National Association of Underwater Instructors]
certification. I still remember the guy. His name is Bill [William
F.] Moran. He was our instructor over there. He’s long since
gone from the Johnson Space Center, but he was our instructor, really,
really quite a character. And so he organized this dive trip afterwards
so that he could then give us our NAUI certification.
So there was about eight or nine of us who decided that would be a
good thing to do. So he organized this dive trip, which I guess he
could have probably done a dive trip here off the Texas coast somewhere,
but for some reason we ended up in Florida. I still remember a guy
by the name of Ron [Ronald J.] Grabe, who was in my group, Mary [L.]
Cleave, in my group, we all piled on this bus at six-thirty in the
morning, or something like that, and drove—or maybe it was that
evening. I can’t remember. All I can remember is Grabe ended
up sleeping in, you know, where you put your bags in the overhead
compartment of the bus. That’s where he slept, because somehow
we’d maxed out this bus with all of our equipment and dive gear
and all that sort of stuff. [Laughter] I remember Mary Cleave was
all the way in the back, and she was piled under something or other
so that she could get a little bit of protection there, because she
wanted to take off some of her clothes but she didn’t—obviously,
this is not a private setting, so we made this little cocoon back
there for her.
And that was a wild, wild dive. We didn’t lose anybody, but
I still remember that, how uncomfortable and unpleasant that dive
You mentioned STS-1. What were your duties for that mission?
What were my duties for STS-1? My duties for STS-1 were nothing. I
was the support crew for—at that time they had support crew,
which basically you’re a gopher for the flight crew that’s
getting ready to go for STS-2, Joe [H.] Engle and Dick [Richard H.]
Truly. And so my job was to go do whatever the hell Joe Engle and
Dick Truly wanted me to do, which was generally just go chase down
a bunch of stuff. They were very nice guys. They realized that was
kind of a tough position, to have a naval officer that was used to
flying airplanes off of aircraft carriers and flight test work, and
now all of a sudden, you’re a gopher for a bunch of astronauts.
But they were wonderful people, and they had me involved in as much
things as I was interested in, and for instance, they had this experiment,
I remember, on their flight where they were going to go—they
thought that they would be able to see sunken ship vessels to something
of a depth, and so they were looking for interesting sunken ships
for targets, and so they asked me to go research some of the sunken
ships to go find. So I ended up, we ended up, picking the USS Houston
of all things, which was sunk in the battle of the Java Sea in World
War II, and so I spent a lot of time researching that and so forth
just in case Dick Truly was able to see it using this device that
he was supposed to look at.
We got the latitude and longitude of it, which in those days of no
GPS [Global Positioning System], it’s not a trivial matter,
traveling in space looking down a hundred and sixty miles above the
Earth, trying to find a particular spot in the ocean where you’re
supposed to train and look for where this ship might be below the
way. So he never found it. Whether or not he was looking in the right
spot, I never know; whether or not our experiments didn’t work,
I didn’t know. But we had fun doing that.
That sounds like a fun task.
What are your memories of STS-1?
I was just in awe of how such a complicated vehicle like that—from
a flight test perspective, I thought it was the most complicated and
successful flight test I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe
that for the first flight test, we were going to actually do the whole
mission from beginning to end. Although it was obvious that that was
the right thing to do, it still had a tremendous amount of risk associated
with it because if there’s nothing, that if I was a test pilot,
and I controlled it and there was any other way around it, nobody
would have ever flown that flight the way we flew it. But just due
to the physics of it all and you just couldn’t do it any other
way, other than the way NASA pulled it off with minimum crew and so
forth, then it just all worked. So I was just dazzled by that fact
that we could take such a complicated thing and make it work for the
first time. And that feeling hasn’t left me.
And when we launched the next one here, I still think it’s the
most complicated thing that human beings can ever undertake, and for
the most part, we do it very, very well, but it’s just fraught
with risk, and I held my breath every time. In STS-1, I held my breath,
and I stayed up or I don’t think I slept much. I didn’t
have much to do, but I just wanted to be over listening so that basically
I could understand, because I knew I’d have to fly it one day.
Still there was a lot about it that I didn’t understand. I wanted
to understand what the crew was going through and what and how the
systems were performing on orbit. I didn’t sleep a lot during
that three or four-day flight, but then I was just happy when it got
back. I [was] just in awe. That was my feeling that I remember.
Were you here in Houston during that flight?
Besides working as a member of the support group for STS-2, what were
some of your other assignments?
Oh, George had little assignments for you all, and because I was a
naval officer, George knew that a Navy officer isn’t just a
pilot, a naval aviator, but you’re a naval officer first. Distinction:
you’re a naval aviator, then you’re a naval officer. First
you’re a naval officer, then you’re an aviator, and what
that meant was that you had to take care of your people. Aboard a
ship, my primary duty, as my captain and squadron commander used to
tell me, is, “Okay, your primary duty is to get these multi-million
dollar airplanes off and back on safely, and to keep yourself alive.
But as equal of importance is you’ve got to take care of your
enlisted guys that are doing various functions aboard the ship.”
That was a given in the Navy. George knew that, and so he had this
position out at aircraft operations. There’s a guy by the name
of Joe [Joseph S.] Algranti, who was running it at that particular
time. Joe Algranti was a lot like George. He was more or less the
up and out guy as I’ve described. He was out thinking the big
picture about what his airplanes were doing and the larger role of
what their missions they were accomplishing. All the hundred and fifty
people underneath him who’ve actually turned the crank and made
the thing happen, Joe, it’s unfair to say, could have cared
less, but he just wished that that would all just take care of itself
so he could focus on this other stuff. And George knew that, so he
always would put somebody out there who could become, as he would
say, the naval officer, and it was always astronauts, their first
tour, and naval officers that went out there and did that tour. And
I went out there for a year and a half as I recall, and like I was
beginning to think I was going to stay out there forever.
But George, that’s where all of his assets were, other than
his people assets in the astronaut corps, his hardware assets were
all out there, and he wanted them taken care of. So I guess that after
a while it started to dawn on me that this was a good thing, because
he obviously thought enough of me that he put me out there in that
position and he appreciated, he knew, that that had nothing to do
with flying in space, because I was out there doing the mundane union
things. And a guy—his wife’s sick, he can’t come
in, you have to go take care of that, but meanwhile you have to worry
about, okay, who’s going to take care of his role and we’ve
got airplanes to deploy and airplanes break and all that sort of thing.
And largely, I was also out there to make sure George knew what was
going on so in case something happened out there. George wanted to
know because he knew Joe would never call him. [Laughter]
So I still recall Hurricane—I don’t know if you were here
for Alicia when it came through, but that did a lot of damage here
in the Houston area, and it did a lot of damage out at Ellington Field
[Houston, Texas]. It ripped the roof off of one of our hangars out
there, and, of course, the Center Ops [Operations] people and I came
in that day. We escaped and went north, and I came back the day after
there because I knew no one was at Ellington, and Center Ops was already
at work trying to upright trees out here at the Johnson Space Center.
If you’ve noticed, those trees are still bent over from that
storm. You look along NASA Road One, and that’s one I remember.
They were vertical prior to Alicia, and all those oak trees in front
of the lunar planetary museum. If you drive down and look for them,
they’re all just bent in the same direction, and that’s
from Alicia, because they were vertical prior to that.
So I drove out to Ellington, got in there. Security had it all closed
down. I was the first guy in there and found out the roof had been
blown off, and it was still raining at the time. And we had parked
some of our airplanes we couldn’t fly out inside there, fortunately,
and they had debris on them and so forth. So I looked around to start
to get to work and to get the crew in there, realized I had no equipment
because Center Ops had parked it in one of our hangars and then come
out and grabbed it to go work on trees back here at the Johnson Space
Center and other buildings. But for the most part, the Johnson Space
Center came through pretty good. Ellington had the most damage because
of the hangar facilities we had out there.
So marshal George Abbey and as soon as he found out about it, all
of a sudden within thirty minutes there was a stream of equipment
coming down Highway 3, and we spent the next week and a half trying
to clean that place out. That’s one of my AOD [Aircraft Operations
Division] experience[s] I remember is trying to recover from Hurricane
Alicia out there.
What were some of your other assignments besides working out at Aircraft
Let’s see. I know I spent a tour down as a Cape Crusader. I
can’t remember if it was prior to—yeah, it had to be prior
to my first flight, yeah. So I did that, went down there, and I would
describe that as unremarkable, except that it was the first time that
you could get in the vehicle and actually start to—that was
period of time where I actually learned where all the switches were
in the cockpit, all five hundred of them. So that was valuable to
me because I could actually get out there and I was the guy inside
there for any tests I wanted to be. So I ended up pulling a lot of
test time out there. You just throw a technician out who was either
standing in there or who would–to throw switches in case they
needed it. I used to volunteer for all that because it was great,
because if they’d call up and say go to this panel and throw
this switch, before I’d never know where it was. But I got done
with that tour, and I knew where everything was, backwards, and that
turned out to be wonderful training. Sort of like learning to type,
you can sit there and it’s rote and mechanical, just like this
was, but you find out where all the letters were and used it a lot
later in your life. This thing worked well for me.
Then we had our interesting share of incidents down there. There was
one I recall. Challenger was just coming back from— it had just
been built, and it arrived. And it was down in [Kennedy Space Center]
Florida, and about two in the morning I was down there, and I was
asleep in this condo [condominium] we had. And this guy called me,
one of our technicians called me, and he said, “You’ve
got to come down here and see this.”
I said, “Okay.” So I got my astronaut suit in and drove
in and walked down on the floor of the Orbiter Processing Facility,
and there was good old Challenger sitting there. And what they were
trying to do was do some brake work, and they were trying to—I
can’t remember what the reason was, they were installing an
anti-skid box or something like that. But it’s like three in
the morning, so you’d be surprised then and there. You walk
in and you had a lot of autonomy on the floor, as far as doing things,
and the technician’s down there and he’s on a radio talking
to the—they had hydraulic power in the vehicle. I was up inside
the wheel well, and there’s a lot of aluminum tubing and so
forth up there like you’d expect. The guy said, “Now look
right there at that brake line.”
I said, “Okay.”
He called up there and said, “Okay, press the brakes,”
[to] the guy up in the cockpit. So he pressed the brakes. And, all
of a sudden, I heard this huge noise, and the brake line that I was
looking at disappeared. And the stun. And he said, “Okay, let
out the brakes.” And he let out the brakes, and the brake line
I said, “Holy cow.” There was a vibration in the brake
line where it was moving about like this in distance [demonstrates]
and was moving so fast that you couldn’t see it any time the
brake lines were replaced. Now, I looked at that and I said, “I
can’t believe that.”
He said, “Isn’t that something?”
And I said, “Yeah, let’s get out of here, first of all.
If that thing breaks, it’s 3,000 psi [pounds per square inch]
of hydraulic pressure, and we’re all going to be sprayed with
this stuff.” So they shut down the vehicle at that point and
I, quite frankly, called it back to the Astronaut Office, and we didn’t
quite think too much about it at that point. This is not a good story
for NASA, because we thought, “Well, that will be fixed.”
Well, they were under a lot of schedule pressure at the time, and
incredibly, the proposal was that we go fly as is with that condition
and that we just try not to use the brakes all that much on landing.
And we said, “Well, what about aborts and things where you had
to have heavy braking?”
And they said, “Oh, well, you know, we’re not really going
to abort. It’s the end of the mission that’s going to.”
We spent a week and a half with the Orbiter Project Office at that
point trying to say that we should [not] fly as is. Finally, myself
and “Ox” [James D.A.] van Hoften, after about day two
of this, realizing this was heading horribly in the wrong direction,
got a hold of John Young, something you very rarely ever did, and
said, “You’ve got to understand.”
First he didn’t believe it. We had to ship him the videotape
of them showing of—they put a strobe on the thing so that you
could actually see the brake line with the static, because you couldn’t
see it when it was moving, so you had to put a strobe on it at the
right frequency so that you actually could see the brake. And there
it was going through all these contortions, and John just about came
unglued from his chair. He went over to see Arnie [Arnold D.] Aldrich,
who was the Program Director at that time, and Arnie almost came down
and took of the head of the guy running the Orbiter Project Office
at that point, and we ended up getting it fixed.
But as an astronaut at that point—new, budding—we spent
a week before we finally had the right thing done, and that’s
when I started realizing we might be in trouble, as far as our engineering
approach to things and how we look at things, and we say, “Well,
it’s not that bad, let’s look for operational work-arounds,”
or the fact that, “Well, we figure that if he only uses the
brakes for thirty seconds, the line has enough life in it that we
can design an engineering change for it later and get it in later.”
In 1985 or whatever, whenever that was, ’83, ’84, that
was the first time I’d ever been put in a situation where I
saw something so obvious that needed to be fixed that I had to spend
a week arguing to get it fixed. Fortunately, it’s lesser so
nowadays, but back then that was an eye-opener for me, one I still
remember. I probably still have the videotape of that thing somewhere
That would be an interesting piece of history.
Yeah. But in the end the right thing got done. It was just awfully
hard to do that, and it took a while. From my perspective, it took
about six or seven years of bad things happening at NASA before they
started coming around saying instead of “Prove to me it’s
unsafe,” it took us about six or seven years to get it more
into saying that “You’ve got to prove to me it is safe.”
That speaks to the pre-Challenger culture.
Yeah, right. Yes, exactly right. Yeah. And it’s unfair to the
Challenger guys. There was a lot of people that didn’t
agree with that particular thought, including the Orbiter Representative
that wasn’t an astronaut down there. He and I had dinner the
night before out there, and I just was wailing about how horrible
this thing was, and he quite frankly agreed with me, just he was having
trouble with the schedule pressures as they were. And if you go ask
an engineer, “Well, how bad is it?” he’ll run out
and do a calculation for you, and you give him a percent of assumptions
and ground rules for it, he can likely come up with a mechanical answer
that is okay to you, and that’s a lot of what we were doing.
We were trying to achieve a set solution, but it was a set of assumptions
going in that we were having trouble with, and that got us into trouble
Ross-Nazzal: One of your other tasks that I saw on your biosheet was
you were CapCom [Capsule Communicator] for several missions.
Yes. I think that was after I got done with the Florida where they
give you that exposure, again, another great training opportunity
there, just to be able to know the checklist. Like I went down and
knew where the switches were in Florida, it was just being able to
handle all the huge sixty pounds’ worth of documentation. As
a CapCom, you had to be able to know all the books, where they were,
what the pages were, what the procedures were, because when this guy
calls out, “Go to this book at this point and so forth,”
so this was great training for me to be able to do this. And all the
emergencies that we went through, even though I wasn’t doing
them in the vehicle, I started to—that’s when it all started
to come together, for me at least, after that, that tour.
And of course, I was the CapCom for when we lost our very first engine
there, hopefully our last engine, that was Gordon [Charles G.] Fullerton’s
flight when he lost—a sensor shut down one of his engines, and
hopefully I will be the only CapCom ever to say, “Abort,”
the word “abort.” At that point, it wasn’t abort
Spain or anything like that, it was abort to orbit at that point,
but that was an interesting eight minutes there. It was.
[T.] Cleon Lacefield was the Flight Director at that particular—ascent
Flight Director, Cleon, great guy. We had worked on that flight for
like six months, and, of course, the CapCom sits right next to him,
and I can’t say anything without the Flight Director being okay
with it, and there were interesting ways to communicate. I’d
just sit there and look at him. I wouldn’t wait for him to tell
me. I’d look at him, because I’d hear a request come up
from one of the flight controllers, and I could sit there, Cleon thinking
about it, whether or not he wanted to do it. Of course, I already
knew what to tell the crew in the event Cleon wanted to do this. I
just needed his okay. And we had developed this sort of silent communication
there, and he’d just turn to me and nod his head like this [demonstrates],
and I’d, boom, out it would go. And it worked very well, because
it was very quick.
That paid off in spades on that particular flight, the only time in
ascent where we really had a time-critical emergency that the Mission
Control Center actually could do something about, unlike Challenger
and almost any other flight we did. Everything the Mission Control
Center could have take time, you know; that eight-minutes of ascent,
you don’t have time.
And we’re sitting there, in fact, somewhere around four minutes,
and we’d just given them the ATO [Abort to Orbit] call, which
meant that if they lose an engine, they could go right after that.
And maybe somebody knew something back somewhere in the Mission Control
Center. I had heard no talk at this particular point anything was
wrong. And all of a sudden I heard Gordon Fullerton say, just seconds
after I’d given, “You’re ATO,” at this point,
he said, “Houston, the left engine’s out.” It was
like automatic clockwork at that point. It was like Gordon made that
call. Gordon made that call just like on the simulator.
And I said, “Roger, left engine’s out.” Turned to
Cleon, and all of a sudden, we had this traffic. And the Flight Dynamics
Officer called up, “He’s ATO flight.”
Cleon nodded his head, and I said, “Abort ATO.” And as
I recall, I said it twice, “Abort, abort ATO.” I ended
up getting Marie Fullerton all upset, because she didn’t know.
She was sitting in the gallery at this point, and she didn’t
know what that meant at that point. And I can’t recall if I—no,
she was down in Florida. That’s right. She was down in Florida.
But she told me afterwards that, because I’d said it twice,
it got her upset. And I said, “I just wanted to make sure he
heard me.” [Laughs] I probably had a little gain in my voice
at that particular point, too, but I knew that it wasn’t really
anything bad. We were still going into orbit, it’s just it had
the word “abort” in front of it.
And so off we were going to orbit, and we were dumping fuel like we
were planned. Everything looked nominal. All the normal calls were
coming up. And then, I’m trying to remember her name. Her name
was Jenny [M. Howard]. She was the main propulsion system officer.
I can’t remember her name. I think it was Jenny [M. Howard].
She was our main propulsion system officer, flight control officer.
And I could tell some uncertainty was in her voice. About six and
a half minutes, she was saying, “Flight, we think an erratic
set of sensors shut down the first engine, and I’m watching,
in the right engine, one of the two sensors is already disqualified,
and the other sensor is starting to move around,” which meant
if the second engine had gone down, we would have had to end up trying
to land at Crete. That would have not been a good experience. With
two engines out, that’s something NASA just refused to accept
was even possible, and we had cooked these, made these, procedures,
come up with these procedures, that if two engines went out, this
is where they were supposed to go because they had no place to go
at this point. They couldn’t go to orbit. They were past the
point that they could get—they were too fast to go to Spain,
and there was this gray zone of where they go, so they would have
ended up going to Crete.
I heard the fact that the second engine might go down, and my heart
just—that’s when I started getting excited. And Jenny
was sitting there saying, “Flight, I’m thinking about
taking the limits to inhibit,” which would have meant that the
engine would have ignored those sensor readings and just continue
running. It didn’t care what those sensors told it, it would
have continued to run.
So just like classic Cleon, Cleon was listening to all this, and Jenny
didn’t even request it, I recall. He said, “I was just
thinking—I’m just thinking about doing it.” That’s
a big deal in the engine community. The engine community never wants
to run with limits inhibits, because they think they don’t—because
if you run and something bad happens, and the sensors tell you that,
the whole engine could blow up, and so they’d rather have it
shut down. But if the sensors are bad, and we were in such an extremist
situation for the second engine failure of where we were going to
end up. Cleon understand all this, that that was the right thing to
do. So Cleon very calmly said, “Well, I think you ought to take
the limits to inhibit.”
She said, “Okay, Flight, limits to inhibit.”
And I went, “Limits to inhibit” to Gordo.
And of course, he didn’t understand that, because he didn’t
have any data, but he said, “Limits to inhibit.”
It turned out that sensor wandered around, but it never did. It would
have never tripped, but it was wandering around bad enough where we
had three sensors fail on one flight at that particular point. It
was still the right call. Then we went to orbit and we had a successful
mission after that, flew almost all nine, ten days.
But I’ll still never forget that ascent. I was really proud
with how the whole ascent team worked together. Gene [Eugene F.] Kranz
had some—he was still at NASA at that point. He had some good
comments for us afterwards. He just thought the ascent team just did
so wonderfully, and I remember his words in the press were they crackled,
was the word he said. “I love it when I hear a flight control
team crackle like that.” I think it was a good thing he said,
but I was really proud of it, proud of us for that.
And then, thereafter, we spent ten days during and after that period
of time, because we dumped so much propellant trying to get us to
orbit, we didn’t have enough RCS or reaction control system
jets to be able to protect—initially, we couldn’t fly
the full ten-day mission, so we were only going to fly six or seven.
Then somehow we kept chipping away at our flight rules for entry in
case we have more failures on entry, they said, “Well, we don’t
need that prop, so we can bring it back a little bit. And you’re
too conservative, bring it back,” and we got this thing out
to about eight or nine days now, as I recall.
Of course, poor Cleon Lacefield was also running entry, so he just
had this potentially horrific thing happen to him in ascent. The last
thing he’s going to do is give up his margin for entry. And
keep in mind, we’d only flown the vehicle about nine, ten times
at this particular point. He was not about to give up any of this
margin. He had to defend and fight, and he looked—as we came
in, as we got closer to entry, he looked more and more tired to me.
And of course, in the paper, the [NASA] Headquarter’s Administrator
at that time [James M. Beggs], all he could think about was defend
himself from the word “abort.” We called it an abort to
orbit, and so I had said abort. And so he was being quoted in the
press, “Well, that’s a lousy terminology. It wasn’t
an abort. In fact, I’m going to change this; they’re never
going to get to say this.” This is the crazy stuff we were doing
at that particular point.
And Cleon, poor Cleon, finally we did entry and everything worked
great. But afterwards Cleon decided to leave NASA, and I was just—that
was personally a really tough thing for me, because I thought he ought
to be a friggin’ hero, and he wasn’t because he was too
conservative for this thing. He was on the outside of NASA, but inside
he was getting eaten up, and he left NASA shortly after that sort
So, we had a bad thing happen to us that could have been turned into
something heroic, but we ended up, in my opinion, picking the wrong
priorities for things. So sorry to pick on these negative things,
but they just were the things that stuck in my mind at that point.
Well, and they’re part of the history, too, so, and history’s
not always positive.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Any other memories that you have from any of the missions from where
you were CapCom that stand out?
Of course my first CapCom flight was the repair on Solar Max. That
wasn’t an ascent. I was their basically to backup Jerry [L.]
Ross and start learning this CapCom, and that was when we went to
try to repair Solar Max, and we’d come up with this tool that
Pinky [George D.] Nelson was supposed to put this thing and extend
it from his belly like a big cylindrical box, and he was supposed
to fly up there in the Manned Maneuvering Unit [to] Solar Max and
there’s this little thing sticking out. Of course Solar Max
was never designed to be rescued, but they had this little pin sticking
out, and they had designed this thing such that Pinky would fly in
there, get close, and then get close but not touch it, because if
he touches it, the satellite’s going to go spinning off.
He’s going to get close, fly in close, and then throw this device.
And I don’t understand how it worked, but essentially clamp
down on this thing, then he and satellite would be as one, and he’d
fly this thing back into the payload bay and we would grab it and
then go fix it. Well, that was the flight where he got in close, tried
to do his little clamping mechanism, and it didn’t work. He’d
clamp it, and for whatever reason, it wouldn’t clamp.
Meanwhile, the spacecraft would bounce off of him and go spinning
off, so he had to back out. So we spent, oh, I don’t know how
long. We spent two days trying to figure out what the heck was going
wrong, and it took us about two days before we realized using closeout
photos of the spacecraft, which was launched about a year and a half
earlier, that there was little tiny grommet sticking out about this
far [demonstrates] just adjacent to where this pin is, and it just
happened to be at the right location such that if you get this thing
close enough, the thing had to get flush within maybe a quarter of
an inch. And Pinky was capable of flying it that close, but he’d
get to within half an inch, and the device he had would contact that
grommet and then the spacecraft would get pushed off to the side like
this and just enough at a bad-enough angle that when he did the clamping
mechanism, it wouldn’t grab. Meanwhile, it was bouncing off,
and off it would go.
First history of that building spacecraft and you’re trying
to do this close quarter operation, little details like that are extremely
important because all of the design documentation we had said there
was nothing supposed to be there. We called it, in Boeing, as designed
and as built. We design things, and we’ll put out drawings,
but how they actually end up being built is sometimes considerably
different. We have a task where there’s not a contract where
we try to match up the difference between as designed and as built.
This was a case where the little spacecraft had this little grommet
on there that was used to house a blanket, and all the drawings said
was put the blanket on and use these grommets, but it doesn’t
say—the technician had a wide degree of latitude about where
he could put these grommets and where he could put these things, and
it never dawned on anybody this grommet could be right there at the
wrong spot. So we spent two days doing that and finally gave up on
this method and ended up grappling it with the arm directly.
And that was a real eye-opener to me. Nobody’s fault, but it
was just this new spacewalk business that we’re doing. [It]
had to be really important. The devil’s in the details here,
and we keep learning that lesson over and over again. But one thing
that to me has come a long way in the last twenty years is that EVA
[Extravehicular Activity] group across the street at the Johnson Space
Center, they know all this stuff. And later on, when I was Mission
Director for the second Hubble servicing mission, I worked with our
Goddard [Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland] friends on that
one, and this was the same group of people that built Solar Max, so
we didn’t have to spend a lot of time communicating about these
sorts of little things, particularly when something is EVA intensive
as repair of the Hubble telescope. We spent a lot of time worrying
about as designed and built. We put a lot of money into it to make
sure we didn’t have any surprises in that thing, but that was
our first one. Great, great victory, by the way, too, when we overcame
I’m trying to think what other CapCom. I can’t think of
any other ones.
Let’s talk about your first mission, which was cancelled.
When did you find out that you were selected for this mission?
I don’t remember when that was. Let me see. We were supposed
to fly in ’86, so it seemed like ’85, maybe late ’84.
Can’t remember there. I knew I was up for a mission. George
never says anything; of course John Young is a sphinx, so you never
knew what the heck you were—how bad or good you were doing,
but I thought I was just because of where I was assigned, I thought,
“Well, I’m progressing here.” And we’d performed
enough flights that I thought my group was about ready to start being
I knew the other Navy guy is my group was Mike [Michael J.] Smith,
so he and I were talking back and forth about where we’d end
up. At the time, we were going to fly out on the West Coast. We were
going to have the first flight out—Bob [Robert L.] Crippen was
going to have that flight out there, and so for a while there, Mike
Smith was going out there with him, because they thought they were
going to do the first launch from Vandenberg [Air Force Base, California].
Then I started getting all these simulation flights with Dick [Francis
R.] Scobee. I thought, “Oh, oh, something’s up here,”
because I’d go in there at two in the morning for simulate,
and there’d be Dick Scobee. And so it happened three times in
a row, and I said, “This is something beyond coincidence here.”
So that’s where I thought I was headed was whatever flight Dick
was assigned to.
Then the Vandenberg thing all came apart, or it was delayed. It hadn’t
come apart at that point. I think it was just delayed. And so Mike
all of a sudden showed up, and he started doing simulations with Dick
Scobee, and I started showing up with Jon [A.] McBride. And so I said,
“Okay, that’s how it must be working.” Then in like
’85, all of a sudden they announced that Mike was going to be
paired with Dick Scobee for 51-F, and I was going to do the 61-E with
Can you talk to us about the training regiment that you and your crew
were working on at that point?
You know, I’d done so much training as a CapCom, I’d been
there by now four and a half years, and I’d scarfed up so many
simulation flights, it was just more or less getting to know my crew
and working and doing. I already knew the ascent and entry stuff fairly
well at that point. It was the on-orbit stuff that I had to spend
a lot of time with, that I can’t talk about. Oh, excuse me,
61-E, I can talk about that, yeah.
And we had a couple of payload specialists, and we had this new instrument
pointing system. Our mission was that we were going to go get, go
out there and track Haley’s Comet when it came around. So we
had this instrument pointing system, which was the Shuttle could point
at it, but we weren’t—the Shuttle, in cosmic turns, wasn’t
stable enough, so they’d have this more fine-tuning device,
which is really supposed to focus in on Haley’s Comet and sort
of view it with a wide array of sensors, trying to get this sensor
to work for the very first time. It was basically an Orbiter subsystem,
and so we had two payload specialists onboard that flight that were
trained to use that thing. Trying to get that thing to work was a
real challenge. The Orbiter was mature compared to this thing.
So we spent a lot of time worrying about contingencies. It was the
first flight of this, and we spent a lot of time trying to figure
out how we were going to work around this thing once we got up there,
in the event of its failure modes. Of course, there were EVAs involved
because this thing moved around, and so it was a lot of on-orbit operations,
and we weren’t very mature. But Haley’s Comet was coming
and going, so but we looked at it as a standpoint of, “Well,
we’re going to go up there and do the best we can with this
So I spent a lot of time going over to [Marshall Space Flight Center]
Huntsville [Alabama], I remember that. But for the most part, I just,
Jon McBride and I would just sit there and try to do our pilot commander
thing. I don’t remember too much else about it, other than the
fact we had a good time and we really thought we were ready to go
in March of ’86 until Challenger happened.
Where were you when the Challenger accident occurred?
We were in the simulator and they were getting ready to go and they
decided to stop. And of course, we’d come down and watched the
launch, so that’s when we saw it all happen when we were sitting
down there in the Building 5, in one of the simulators. And when it
happened, we knew what happened, and so it wasn’t much point
in doing much else at that particular point, so I went home.
After you went home, what were some of your assignments related to
the Challenger accident?
I got called like that day by Mike [Michael L.] Coats, as a matter
of fact. He was down in Florida. Of course the spouses down there
were basket cases, and they wanted—we needed to do something
called a Casualty Assistance Officer. NASA was way behind at this
point. All of a sudden, they had this national event in front of them,
and of course, the spouses were all of a sudden had just become the
focus of the entire country because they were the ones that were left,
the widows of that crew, and they wanted Mike—from the military
when something like that happens, you assign what they call a Casualty
Assistance Officer, who is a guy that comes and shows up and basically
does whatever the hell the spouse wants to have done. But largely
you help them. Depending on who the spouse is, sometimes they know
what’s going on with—sometimes spouses don’t have
a clue. Their husband took care of all that. Of course, there’s
the Navy paperwork and insurance and all that sort of stuff.
And Mike Smith was a naval officer, and so I got assigned to be the
Casualty Assistance Officer for Jane at that point, and that was supposed
to be a three-month assignment that turned into almost a year and
a half, not because of the paperwork stuff but just for the fact that
they had all these speaking engagements around the country, and they
had to go from spouse, homemaker, basically in the shadows, to be
out front there. So we spent a lot of time there helping them out
trying as best we could. So I did that for about a year and a half.
At the same time, we still had a mission that came and went, Haley’s
Comet kept right on coming and left. But our crew stayed together.
Obviously, our mission had gone. We had thought that maybe they would
reoutfit Columbia, which at the time was the vehicle, with another
target, because we were lobbying that we should be—of course,
we were lobbying that we ought to go fly this thing because there
was other opportunities for it for later on. Haley’s Comet would
be back, but we ought to go fly it anyway and flight-test it and so
forth. That sort of fell on deaf ears in NASA. They basically said,
“No, that was designed for this. We’re not. There’s
no scientific return. We’re not going to do it.”
But we were still there, and we spent for a year and a half had no
mission, but we were still together. But we knew we were not going
to be together for very much longer, and it wasn’t until, oh,
gosh, it seemed like a year and a half, maybe ’87, ’88,
before I got assigned to 28.
Let’s talk about 28 then. What sort of changes were made to
flight training that you noticed after the Challenger accident?
Well, we had more time. The thing I remember most though was the fact
that in between there I was—another assignment that I picked
up. I didn’t mean to imply that I was a Casualty Assistance
Officer and that’s all I did. I also picked up the SS, the Space
Shuttle main engine requirements. I was the astronaut representative
to the main engine project. All of sudden, Huntsville, the project
offices over there, all of a sudden they wanted us along for everything
if we could. Before, they didn’t. You know, all we did was create
problems. We’d just say, “We don’t like what you’re
They’d say, “Go away.” But now all of a sudden we
were their friend, so I ended up becoming the representative to the
Space Shuttle main engine project mainly because Space Shuttle main
engine, those guys, the Rocketdyne people, they spent forty-eight
hours after the Challenger accident thinking that they’d caused
it, because of the way the vehicle came apart, you couldn’t
tell if it was a breakup or an explosion. Engine exploding could have
been the same thing, and even though they didn’t have any data
to support it, those engine failures happen so fast that they hadn’t
ruled out that they were the cause of it. It took about forty-eight
hours before the finger got pointed at the field joint, and they all
breathed a sign of relief.
But in that intervening period between ’86 and ’89 that
we flew between 51-L and STS-26, the Space Shuttle main engine project
used that to get well. They put in thirty safety-flight modifications,
as I recall, to that engine. I briefly followed the engine program,
because there was a lot of explosions over the test sands there, and
each time an explosion happened, we would go through and go through
this process where everybody would try to figure out why it is that
it was okay to go fly on the next flight, even though we just had
a meltdown of an engine on a test stand over there. And they’d
had a lot of them, and so I’d gotten involved in that process.
Fortunately, all the testing they had done, they had gotten better,
but really they needed about thirty fixes in that engine. In that
intervening three years, they had the time to do it and they did it.
Most of it was engineering work. All I could sit there and nod my
head and say, “I understand why you’re doing it.”
But there were some areas, particularly with respects to limits and
the sensors and so forth and that we got heavily involved in and ended
up, I think, positively influencing how the engine responds in the
event a pair of sensors starts not working properly.
I felt really good in walking out to Columbia in 1989, just because
I knew about those thirty changes, and I tried to communicate that
back to the Astronaut Office that we are—I can’t quantify
it but there’s probably some probabilistic person that would
argue that this number, but as far as I was concerned, the engine
was ten times safer than what it was in 1986 and we would have eventually
gotten all those things in but we would have had to fly a lot of flights
before we would have got them all in. So I told them I thought we
had used the three years well. We made the program whole as far as
I was concerned and we were ready to start finally flying this thing
at approaching the flight rates starting in 1989 that I thought that
we’d hoped to do in 1984 and ’85 and now people were marching,
I won’t say blindly, but way too fast trying to get us out to
flight rates when the vehicle wasn’t ready to do that. So in
’89 I felt a lot better about that.
And your question was about training?
About training, yeah.
Yeah. And so training was kind of routine. I’d already done
all that stuff. We had a payload, classified payload, can’t
talk about that, but the ascent/entry stuff was pretty much—I’d
now been at the Johnson Space Center for seven, eight years. Probably
a year of that or nine months of that, I lived in a simulator, so
I was getting to be pretty bulletproof as far as the simulator was
concerned, so it was just the real experience I was lacking. So I
can’t recall too much about it. It was, again, getting used
to a new commander, Brewster [H.] Shaw [Jr.], and then the three compatriots
out there, which was a good crew. We had a good flight.
Can you talk about that crew relationship? You were an all-military
crew. Was there any sort of military rivalry?
We didn’t have to communicate. No, we didn’t have to communicate
a lot. We were all cut from the same cloth. There wasn’t too
much that we needed to talk about. We all understood each other, and
so from that sense it was probably boring to the outsiders but it
was comfortable for us because we all knew each other.
What were some of the challenges associated with flying a classified
Keeping it classified and not getting into trouble, yeah. We had some
weird stuff we had to do as far as what we could tell our wife, what
we couldn’t. Some of it’s pretty complicated. I usually
approach those things, “Well I’ll do what makes sense.”
But when I got into it, this thing was so classified that we had to
do things that were, in my mind, crazy. But I knew I had to do them,
so it was just a question of remembering and trying to do that. That
was the hardest thing, was to make sure that you didn’t inadvertently
have a security leak or a security breakdown there that you could
not only jeopardize your mission and your payload, but also yourself
I wonder if you could take us back to that day of launch and sort
of walk us through the beginning of that day up until you actually
launched in the Orbiter.
Let’s see. As I recall, we were one of the few crews—I’ve
got four flights. I’m one of the few crewmembers who I think
can say that the day they flew down to Florida, they actually launched
three days later. I did all four of my flights, and this was one of
those. This was one of those.
Columbia was a vehicle. It was the first flight of Columbia after
Challenger. We all felt good about the vehicle. I can’t recall
anything specific, other than the fact of just going down there, we—the
wives were there, of course, and they had gotten along really well
with each other. In fact, my wife and Kathy Shaw, Brewster Shaw’s
wife, started [as] volunteers down at the Museum Fine Arts in Houston.
They still, in fact, they’re out together today. So they got
to be good friends, and so we had a really tight-knit crew.
I recall the first time going out to the beach house, which is a famous
place down there, which is where we go and relax down at the beach
and just had a ball out there, as much as you can have, and so all
of that was routine and I felt pretty relaxed going out to the vehicle.
Then launch came around and, you know, we counted down. The weather
was just drop-dead gorgeous. I remember one instance we got down to
T-minus twenty minutes, and they started the clock, and everything
was going pretty much routine. And we had a software transition where
they take it out of the ground mode and put it in a flight mode about
T-minus seventeen minutes or something like that, and all that, we
were sitting there watching the displays.
Normally in a simulator, all you see is the display change and that’s
it. Well, when the display changed, we heard this huge bang that shook
the whole vehicle, and so I turned to Brewster, and I said, “That
wasn’t in the simulator,” like [demonstrates] and “What
the heck was that?”
He said, “Ah, those guys in the ground, if there’s something
wrong, they’ll have seen that sort of thing.”
And I said, “Okay.” So we sat there for the next ten or
eleven minutes, got down to T-minus nine, sat there and waited for
ten minutes. Nobody said anything, and I said, “They going to
say anything about this, about this big bang we had?” I mean
it was a big bang. It wasn’t just a little thunk. It was a big
bang. And we sat there and waited, and they came out of the T-minute
nine-minute hold and started counting.
So we’re having a lot of debate inside the cockpit at this time,
because Brewster’s got to give the go to come out of the hold.
We’re having a lot of debate inside. “Well, do we say
anything?” And finally it was his call. He finally decided,
well, there’s enough data on the ground. If this thing would
really hurt something, they’d know about it. So he didn’t.
He elected to not say anything.
And so we came out of the T-minus nine-minute hold and we launched
and everything was just wonderful. And we flew to space and came back.
Now when we came back, we got into the debrief process and sat down
and we started saying, “Okay, hey, did you guys see anything
at T-minus seventeen?”
And so the whole Mission Control Center group is sitting there looking
at us, incredulous faces, and said, “We had this really loud
bang at T-minus seventeen minutes.” And that prompted this big
investigation. They had never seen anything. They were clueless that
any of this had ever happened, didn’t know what it was, didn’t
know what it could be. And so we did this huge investigation trying
to find out, went back and looked at all the data, all the strip charts,
everything, could not find anything at all. In the end, we concluded
that—well, let me fast forward then for about two years later.
I can’t remember if it was Columbia or something else, but this
technician is standing there in the aft compartment. They were getting
ready to throw some valves on the main propulsion system. And all
of a sudden, he heard this huge bang, and he reported it. Everybody
remembered from our incident. Okay. So they went back again. It turns
out we have these little, we have these huge seventeen-inch lines
that come up. They had come together like bellows, and there’s
this complicated bellows where they give and relieve and they move
around, and this bellow can actually get cocked. And it can sit there,
and as it moves around, it can actually get off center, and it turns
out it can ride. The way this thing is bent, it can ride up on a little
bit of a ridge of a piece of material, and then when it’s supposed
to relieve and come back, it’s supposed to come back down, sometimes
it hangs up, and then it will sit there and sit there and sit there
until something thermally happens that the thing will contract just
a little bit. And then all of a sudden, it will just give and go boom.
So when the seventeen-inch line does that, we finally figured it out
that that’s what it was, but interesting story, interesting
In the end, I was convinced, and Brewster would, if he was here, he’d
know this story, so I don’t care. If he reads this, he will
know. And I was never sure he had made the right decision on that.
In the end, two years later, we made the right decision, because it
turned out it was just this bellows relieving, and so it was okay.
But, boy, the sound was just—the sound sure didn’t sound
like it was a bellows relieving. And if we’d done that, we would
have put Columbia down for six months, because NASA would have come
and after Challenger come and broke that thing apart, and maybe we
would have found it after that period of time, but we would lose six
months for something that really turned out to be not all that bad.
But that was my one experience there.
Then in the flight, I can’t tell you about what happened, but
we had our first fire in the flight. Turned out a little piece of
GSE cable for a nonclassified experiment built over here somewhere
by some either Warren. I’ll never forget. Dave [David C.] Leestma
was sitting there in the cockpit, sitting there doing something. I
was sitting in the seat about day three or four. All of a sudden,
I hear Dave go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” and he actually got
to see a fire in flight. It actually started, it melted down; they
had a short and started burning all the wire material. There a little
ball of flames, a sphere of flame, about this big occurred [demonstrates],
and so that was our one exciting moment there, and we took care of
it ourselves, turned off the switch, like you would do if you had
a fire, electrical fire on your flight, and the fire went away and
never did trip the smoke detector. But that was the other interesting,
interesting part of the flight. That’s about it.
What are your memories of your first landing of the Space Shuttle?
Brewster had this technique that we were landing at Edwards and everything
was fine in entry. The thing that surprised me so much was on entry
I kept seeing stuff come off; things would fly by me at mach 17, and
you just go by—it would go by the window and I’d turn
to Brewster and I said, “What was that?”
And he said, “Well, just hope it isn’t important.”
Oh, that makes you feel good, huh?
Finally, a similar about mach 10, something came off and just splattered
my right window, and it looked like a giant bird poop, is what it
looked like, and it just splattered the right side of the window.
Again, I had this stuff coming back, and little fiery things would
come off and they’d go by, and I was just surprised by that.
I didn’t think anything was supposed to come off, but there
was more stuff coming off than I had been led to believe. And this
thing hit the window.
So we got out and we landed. Should get on the landing. Brewster had
this technique where he really—his last landing, he’d
had the lowest sync rate ever by a Shuttle pilot, which pilots like
to have that happen. See, he had this technique and he’d get
down close to the ground and he’d just tweak back, pull back
on the stick a little bit, and then relieve and then we’d float
a little bit longer and he’d pull back some more and float a
little bit longer, float a little bit longer. And that worked pretty
well the first landing.
The second landing, he kept doing that; we never landed. We even got
to a foot. I called a foot for what seemed like thirty seconds. We
were in landing, I said, “One foot. One foot. One foot. One
foot. One foot. One foot.” Finally the nose came up. We landed
at something like a hundred and seventy-five knots, which is really
slow. We were supposed to land on like a hundred and ninety-five knots.
And the problem is, you see, that he got the vehicle cocked up so
much that when the vehicle comes over, it actually goes in a negative
angle of attack and about here it loses all authority to keep the
nose up, so the nose just goes right through [demonstrates]. And so
the higher you are and the slower you are, you lose authority even
sooner and nose ends up coming forward even faster, and you can get
so slow you worry about breaking the nose gear off.
Finally about a hundred seventy, I think I recall saying something,
“We’ve got to land here.” And when we finally landed,
I said, “Get the nose down.” And Brewster quickly flew
the nose down. He didn’t let it fall through. He flew the nose
down, and it just landed. Oh, it felt like that friggin’ nose
gear just collapsed, because we’re on—it wasn’t,
but it just was a horrible sound. And so I remember that, and Brewster
will remember that as well, too. But we gave him a lot of pilot grief
for that. Afterwards I said, “Brewster, I’m not going
to be using that technique if I get to land.” [Laughter]
Then so we get out on the ground, and the first guy to meet us was
Don [Donald R.] Puddy, who was running Flight Crew Operations at the
time, and I told Don, I said, “Hey, something came off at mach
10, splattered my right window, and it’s still there, didn’t
ever burn off. You ought to go get it.” And so they told the
ground crew about that, and so the ground crew went out there, scraped
this stuff up. It was still in liquid format somewhat. And they scraped
this stuff off the window, and he didn’t have anything to put
it in, so he took a coffee cup out there and put it in.
So about three days later, I see Don at one of our startup debrief,
and we had to go through our flight, and I said, “What’s
Orbiter say about what the material is.”
And Don goes like this [demonstrates] and he says, “You’re
not going to believe this.” This guy took this thing back, puts
in on a counter, guy comes up, pours coffee in it, and drinks it.
[Laughs] And he said, “This is the worst tasting coffee I’ve
ever had,” and throws it away. So we never found out what that
was, other than the— [Laughs]
Oh, my gosh.
So that’s what I remember about landing. [Laughter]
Did you have any PR [Public Relations] duties after this flight?
We had PR duties before that flight and after the flight, and most
of them were classified in nature, going out to whatever it was we
had onboard and talking to the people that helped make it. That’s
No hometown tours or anything like that?
I think I did that, too, yeah, I did that, but I don’t remember
much of them.
What were your duties after this flight until you were named to your
As I recall, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the ground. I don’t
recall a duty because I almost got immediately assigned to STS-41.
I’d been told beforehand since I had been—that was nine
years between the time I reported to the Astronaut Office to the time
that I flew for the first time. And I remember in the Astronaut Office,
we’d had a whole bunch of people being selected to the astronaut
office at this point. They were up to the class of ’85 or maybe
even ’87 at this point. So we had a whole bunch of astronauts
that had not flown, and so when we did our debrief when them, I said,
“I was the plank holder. I was the longest guy that had waited
at that particular point, nine years.” And I remember making
the speech. I said, “Well, I hope I’m the last guy that
has to spend nine and a half years here between the time he walks
in the door and he flies.” And I guess management felt like
they owed it to me to make it up to me, so they had turned me around
and got me ready for my first command on STS-41 right away. And so
I don’t recall spending a lot of time before I was announced
that I’d be the commander of STS-41, and we weren’t that
far from flight at that point. So I think my memory was we went right
back into training at that point. NASA was pretty good to me about
that, Don Puddy in particular. I know Don was post-George there, and
Don took a lot of guff from a lot of people, but I’ve got nothing
but good things to say about Don Puddy.
Could you compare and contrast your role as pilot on STS-28 with your
role as commander on this mission?
Yeah. It was more I was more in charge of making sure the crew was
trained and trying to think about the big picture rather than just
my role there. Also mentoring the pilot at that time. The pilot I
had was Bob [Robert D.] Cabana, who was a new guy. It was going to
be his first flight, so I’d just gone through that so I was
interested to try to make Bob as comfortable as possible. And we also
had two other. We had a crew of five. Two of the mission specialists,
Bruce [E.] Melnick and Tom [Thomas D.] Akers had never flown before.
And the only other seasoned guy I had, he had only flown one flight,
was Bill [William M.] Shepherd. So Bill and I had, with our one great
one-flight experience, were the veterans, and the rest of us were
rookies, so we had a—I was struck by how new this particular
I had had the luxury of nine years getting ready to go fly. They didn’t
have that much time. And so I decided to do a little crash course
in systems knowledge, and I sort of came out and decided that they
would start giving lectures on systems from their perspective. So
we’d do that once a week, that sort of thing. Popular with some
people, not so popular with others. [Laughs]
So we spent a lot of time, I spent a lot of time, worrying about their
systems knowledge and ship basics because of the lack of their shelf
life. Turned out to be they were great. By the time we got done on
that crew, we knew that vehicle backwards and forwards. My contribution
to that was probably small. It was just that they were—I had
a very smart, capable bunch of people who were just—and they
were all military background, just like I was so, so we didn’t
have to spend a lot of time talking to each other, because we could
look at each other and we’d understand where we wanted to go
with things. So we were pretty good, and that’s what I spent
most of my time worrying about.
Then that was the summer of hydrogen leaks. I don’t know if
you recall, but as I call it, Discovery was doing, as I recall, a
major modification, and so it spent a lot of time in down period because
it was going through a major mod [modification] period, and we were
going to get it to go fly in October after that with this Ulysses
mission. And Columbia and, I guess it was, [Atlantis], I can’t
recall, were going to try and launch all throughout the summer, and
couldn’t ever get off the ground because they’d get down
to T-minus nine minutes and all started picking up hydrogen leaks
in the aft compartments, and it was on two vehicles. NASA was tearing
its hair out trying to figure out. We spent like six months.
In our heart, we thought Discovery was just going to be just fine,
didn’t know why, but it’d just come through major mod,
they’d done a lot of leak inspections on the aft plumbing, and
so we felt like we had the best chance of anything to go out to the
launch pad. And when they finally tanked and fueled the thing, which
is where we could only pick these things up, when the cold hydrogen
got in there, turned out our vehicle was tight like we thought it
was, and so we launched.
What sort of knowledge did you pass along to Bob Cabana from your
own previous experience?
Just a lot of it personal. You know, I told him in a simulator, you’re
going to be able to move around a lot more than you’re going
to be in this spaceflight. I got on him pretty hard that that’s
fine, maybe you’ve got more flexibility than I’ve got,
but have two ways to be able to get to a switch. If you’re behind
it, don’t count on the simulator being able to look like he
was doing. Start training yourself to be able to look in your mirror,
because on launch day you might find you can’t turn around.
So I don’t want that to upset you. So be able to look in a mirror
and find that switch and throw it, which is, you know, in mirrors
things are backwards. So he had to train himself to be able to do
You know, checklists, insist that it’s right. We’ve got
this huge army of flight data file people out there, make them earn
their pay. And so Bob is basically one of the nicest guys I’ve
ever run across, still one of the nicest guys over there. I think
the Johnson Space Center people probably love him. I just got on him
more to be hard, be more of a hard-ass than what he was doing, because
Bob was, “Well, this is okay. This is okay.”
And I said, “No, it’s not. We’ve got all these contractors
out there. We pay them a lot of money. Make them go do it right.”
So those little things, that’s all.
How closely were you and the crew working with ESA [European Space
Agency], who built Ulysses and with JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Pasadena, California] who was managing?
Pretty good. Well, that was one of our first things, to go over to
Europe and meet the European Space Agency people that were building
the Ulysses spacecraft, and so we did that, and they were a great
bunch, German contractors, as I recall, with a lot of Dutch project
management there. So our first exposure to ESA and we were—it
was a small thing. I don’t know if I still have it or not. Yeah.
It’s back here in the corner, that little gold thing [points].
It’s really tiny. It was really tiny. You could literally go
out there and pick it up and put it in the back of your pickup truck
and drive off with it if you wanted to. It was really small. The only
thing about it was heavy because that RTG [Radioisotope Thermoelectric
Generator], radio nuclear powered power source they had for electricity
So it was not a lot of staff in there. It was maybe about fifteen,
twenty people that maintained that, and I was just—it was my
first with European culture. At four-thirty, end of the day, they
have one shift working on this thing. Of course, they’d been
waiting for a long time to go fly it. Well, post-Challenger, so they
had it ready to go. So at four-thirty, end of the day, the German
crew would sit there and say, “Is it four-thirty yet?”
Said, [speaks German], and they would all of sudden, they would open
up their cooler and there they’d have kegs of beer, German beer
there, and we’d all sit around there and sit next to Ulysses,
toasting Ulysses and having beer. We didn’t do that here in
the United States, and so that culture was different. I kind of liked
it, but. [Laughter] And we got along great with them.
What are your memories of the deployment once you were up in space?
Never forget Tom Akers, quite a guy. He was my prime go-to guy for
deployment of Ulysses, and there was a time critical bunch of steps
where we had to purge the RTG of all of the coolant in there and a
bunch of switches. Tom had to get down on this switch panel, which
was, for some reason, located in this obscure corner of the flight
deck. And he was down there, and we were counting down, and once you
start this process, it’s an automatic process and you have to
get it done. We were at like T-minus deploy minus maybe four or five
minutes, and Tom was down there doing his thing.
And, of course, everybody’s nervous. This flight had a lot of
pressure on us because we’d finally gotten off the ground. It
was the summer of hydrogen leaks, first time NASA had flown in like
about six or seven months, a lot riding on this, the Space Shuttle’s
reputation, that this thing work. And so four minutes, I had not bothered
Tom, not asked him one thing the entire sequence, and he’d thrown
all these switches, configured the vehicle. But by now it was up to
him, because the Mission Control Center had very little insight into
what we were doing. We’d cut the electricity off from the Ulysses
spacecraft, and the only people that could see anything that was going
on was Tom, and he was doing all these switch throws down there.
A couple times in the simulations, he had been late, and so we just
said, “Tom, you know that’s a big deal.”
He said, “I know. Okay, don’t worry.”
So finally about four minutes, I’ll never forget, I had to ask
him, said, “Tom, how you doing?”
And he just turned to me and he looked up at me and smiled and said,
“Never had so much time.” [Laughter] And I relaxed and
everybody relaxed and so we said, ”Okay, we’re okay.”
And the spacecraft came out, came out beautifully, and it was thereafter
we were done with it at that particular point because everything was
automatic thereafter and it had this complicated IUS [Inertial Upper
Stage] burn followed by a—it would jettison and then it had
this solid rocket motor section on it that it would automatically
fire three minutes later and then it would separate. And then this
little tiny thing that you could fit in the back of a pickup truck
would come out the other end, no data, nobody knew what the heck was
going on. And literally the ESA had their deep-space network, or maybe
our deep-space [network], pointed at this one spot in the sky, hoping
this thing came out. If it had blown up, nobody would have known.
All they would have known was it didn’t show up, and I’m
sure everybody held their breath. And twenty minutes later, beep,
beep, beep, beep, beep, there it comes on its way to Saturn to get
spun out in ecliptic and the thing’s still going around.
It came back. It came back here, I think, three or four years ago,
still working. That RTG on it just kept giving power, and it was going
to come back eight years later, and as far as I know, I think ESA’s
shut down now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to
get back in operation, because I’ll bet it’s still working
at that point.
What were some of the experiments that you worked on onboard the flight,
They were close-circuit. We had the first, our first, introduction
of voice-activated commands for closing; Bruce Melnick did that, was
controlling the cameras out in the payload bay. That was kind of cool.
Let me see. What else did we do? Flew the first Macintosh in space,
I remember that. Bill Shepherd liked that a lot. Macintosh had their
first version of a portable. I’d always joked that space was
the only thing, only place worthy for this portable because the portable
weighed thirteen pounds.
Let me see. After Ulysses was deployed, we did cats and dogs experiments,
and those are the ones I remember, mainly because they were a lot
of fun to deal with. And then the few exercise equipment. Actually,
that was the time when NASA said, “We’ve got to launch,
and we’ve got to get back.” That’s the part that
never made any sense to me. We go to all this trouble to launch, and
then they wanted to get back as soon as possible, and so we had a
four-day flight and then we had to come back and land at that particular
point. And always just frosted me that we spent all this time and
effort getting up there and then we couldn’t find something
to keep us going for longer out there, but that was the way NASA was
oriented at that particular point.
Let’s take a break here for a second. We need to change our
Still on this let’s be nice to Dick plan, which was I thought
was pretty good, that Don Puddy had, I don’t think George had
made his comeback at this particular point, because we got done with
41 and then it seemed like I walked into—I can’t recall
who the Chief of the Astronaut Office was at this point, [Daniel G.]
Brandenstein, or maybe it was Brandenstein, I can’t remember.
I think it was. And he said, “Yeah, we’ve got this mission
coming up here that Bonnie [J.] Dunbar has more or less gotten funding
or helped NASA get funding for. It’s called—.” Because
I’d complained a lot about the four-day flight, and they said
okay. I said, “Four days.” I just raved to NASA about
the fact that I can’t believe we’re going up there and
only spending four days here when you do this. So they said, “Okay.
We’ve got this flight coming off called United States Microgravity
Laboratory [I], and you’re going to be up there with it. We’re
going to give you an extra set of oxygen and hydrogen tanks, and you’re
going to get to go fourteen days in space with it.”
Great. And my memory was I didn’t spend a lot of time. I probably
did some things as far as assignments, but I can’t remember
what they were. It seemed like I went right into STS-50 is how my
memory of it went, because it was they had a payload specialist, two
shifts, and as I recall the training for that starts like two years
ahead of time. Bonnie was already assigned at that particular point
and payload specialists were already assigned, so it was just adding
myself and Ken [Kenneth D.] Bowersox to the complement. So, yeah,
that started that process.
Let’s go back and just talk a little bit more about STS-41.
There are a couple things that I wanted to ask you about.
Were there any challenges that you had to face on that mission, that
you can talk about?
I don’t recall any, other than getting Ulysses out, and I don’t
recall any. And the other challenge was this was my first landing.
It was going to be at Edwards Air Force Base, and I didn’t want
to land at a hundred and seventy-five knots, I knew that, and the
landing turned out to be—I decided to use a different technique
that the rest of the Astronaut Office was using at that point, and
that turned out to work wonderfully. And for the most part, a lot
of guys have adapted that technique.
And what was that technique?
Basically, fly the vehicle down to about five feet, and then don’t
touch it anymore because ground effect, the vehicle’s got so
much wingspan that once it gets down to ground effect, there’s
a natural cushioning. In fact, you’ll end up landing at maybe
about one foot per second. You won’t be the world record touchdown.
You won’t go .001 and then be able to say you did point, but
you’ll land consistently at one foot per second. And so that
was my technique for that sort of thing, and it turned out to work
just like I hoped it. So I think the Astronaut Office liked that.
I think there’s a lot of people that—I think I’ve
always said, “This thing flies very well without pilot inputs.”
[Laughs] “It just occasionally needs to be guided, so just guide
it, don’t fly it.” So that worked out well.
Anything end up on your windshield?
Not that I recall. Not—more debris comes off, but now I was—now,
my second flight, Bob made the same comment. He said, “Here
comes some more stuff.”
I said, “I know. It did that on my flight, too.”
And after Columbia was lost, you sit there and start wracking yourself
for that, about maybe. I’m sure they must have been seeing the
same stuff on Columbia come off, and you start saying, “Maybe
I should have complained more about that.”
Of course, we came back and we reported all these things, but when
we lost Columbia, I started thinking, “You know, it was pretty
lucky, pretty lucky. Maybe we were more lucky than good,” on
those sort of things.
It turned out STS-50 on launch, we lost the same section of that ET
[External Tank] that ended up coming off Columbia on this last flight
and hitting the leading edge of the wing. Instead of hitting the leading
edge of the wing, it went about a foot below the leading edge of the
wing. It ended up hitting the lower surface of the wing and knocking
off a section of tile back there. Of course, we launched through an
overcast, so we never knew on 50 that it even happened. We took photographs
of the tank, but the photographs weren’t down-linked to anybody.
They were just sat up there. So we didn’t know that the section
had—the first thing we found out about it was when our post-flight
walk-around after landing, Ken Bowersox and I went out, and we said,
“Oh, look at that,” big long section of white showing.
Turned out to be not—the tile are fairly resilient, surprisingly,
even though you can take one of these things and knock a hole in it
pretty easy. But as long as the last little bit of it’s there,
it can put up with entry. It can look bad, but it turned out to be
not a big deal.
It wasn’t the first time that section came off, but it wasn’t
until Columbia, we lost Columbia, that we realized how lucky we were
because a foot higher it would have hit the leading edge of the wing
and then we would have been the first recipients of that thing. So
no, other than 41 no I don’t remember anything more about that.
You mentioned there were two shifts on STS-50. What shift did you
The commander shift, which was the one oriented to be ready to—I
went to bed as soon as we got up on orbit, which was fine with me,
about two or three hours after we got on orbit. And then they shifted
me. The whole mission was oriented around keeping me shifted so that
when landing time come, I was full up ready. Ken Bowersox, my pilot,
was the on the other shift, and although he had to be ready to go
as well, they biased the daylight hours to me, and then Ken would—is
No. Ken and I were on the same shift. I’m sorry. Yes. That’s
right. That makes sense. And Ellen [S.] Baker, who was our MS [Mission
Specialist]-2 or our flight engineer, she was on the other shift.
That’s right. So, yeah, shifting was fine. We got these little
sleep compartments that I’ve never had before, and I thought
it was wonderful.
How much contact did you have with the other crewmembers on the different
A lot. But for the most part, you know, we’d had a lot of trouble
on other twenty-four hour shift two-shift flights from previous flights
where the crew is their own worst enemy sometimes. They work too hard.
And there was some science flights where the mission specialist and
the payload specialist, because of problems they were having in the
laboratory, and they were the anointed expert on this thing, they
would stay up beyond their time of going to bed, and you start doing
that very much, and it’s a slow spiral to about day ten or eleven,
you’re a basket case.
So we made a hard rule, about the only rule I had for the entire flight,
was that everybody was going to go to bed on time. “I don’t
care if the lab is coming unglued, you better train the guy that’s
going to relieve you, because even if that’s your experiment,
you’re going to bed. The other guy has got to be able to do
it, got to be able to take your place. And you’ve got an hour
to hand over, and then you’re going to bed.” For the most
part, our guys did that. They all went to bed on time, so I was happy
about that. And for the most part, I think we came through it, came
through it pretty well.
I had one payload specialist who was—I won’t say who—
was really into his experiment and ended up working this glovebox
really hard. He ended up injuring his shoulder sometime in the middle
of the flight because he was trying to work against some resistance.
Just like almost like working on, what is it called, carpal tunnel
or whatever it is? He got it in his shoulder, and rather than tell
anybody about it, he kept working, and he ended up aggravating such
that on day ten he was in so much pain that he finally had to confess
that he was in so much pain he couldn’t do it. Fortunately,
he was on my shift, and so I said, “Okay.” We had to get
the docs involved.
The poor guy, he was laid up. I moved some priorities around so that
somebody else would work that stuff. Turned out the other person onboard
the flight could do it just fine, but he wanted to do it because that
was his experiment, and I understood that, but it ended up close to
damaging his shoulder. I think he ended up having surgery, so it was
that bad, you know. If you work something and keep doing something
like this, you can really hurt yourself after a while.
What sort of experiments were you involved in as the commander?
The only experiment that they would let me do—Bonnie was in
charge, the payload commander, and Bonnie would have been happy if
I never came in the lab. [Laughter] And so I tried to say, “Okay,
I won’t.” And in fact, the only time I did go back in
there, I came back in the lab maybe two times, and on my second trip,
I brought some coffee back there, and I hadn’t realized that
Bonnie had made a rule that there’d be no coffee in the lab.
So I went floating back there with my coffee thing, and Bonnie was
looking at me, and I didn’t know this was a rule or else I wouldn’t
have done it.
And it turned out that the reason she didn’t write a rule is
because people spill, and I hadn’t spilled coffee in seven days.
I went back in that lab and spilled coffee. I think she gave me a
look like, “Will you please go back up on the flight deck and
go do your Shuttle stuff.” You know, that’s the last time
I went in the lab. [Laughter] I’ll never forget the look she
That’s when Ellen Baker told me, “Bonnie has a rule that
says nobody brings anything in here.” Oh, shit! [Laughter]
And so I stayed up on the flight deck for the most part, and it was—I
had this SAREX, which is the [Shuttle] Amateur Radio Experiment. First
time I’d ever used it, but I was going to be up there for fourteen
days, and I thought Columbia was going to work great, and it did.
So there were going to be no emergencies to work. It was just going
to be routine stuff, and all the action was going to be in the lab.
And I was just going to be up in the flight deck waiting for alarms
to go off and I assumed no alarms were going, so I had this SAREX
experiment, and I had a ball with that.
I found the conversation between the Mission Control Center and yourself
is nice, but because everybody listens to it, it’s what I would
call microwaved. It’s any little colorful comments are usually
expunged in that. In SAREX, it ain’t that way. It’s direct
to the ground, and whoever you got down there, they’ll talk.
They’re going to say whatever the hell they want to say, and
I enjoyed. After fourteen days, I enjoyed that.
I had some, what I would call—they were guys, but I used to
have an expression called “girlfriends.” Girlfriends talk,
you know, I said. The crew would laugh and say, “Well, you got
any girlfriends today?”
And I says, “Yeah, I got my girlfriend in New Zealand, who I’m
going to be looking for.” Turns out it’s a guy, but it’s
just an expression we had. And so I’d be sitting there when
he’d be sitting there at two in the morning over in New Zealand,
waiting for me, and it turned out to be a spot in the—never
did meet the guy, but he and I shared the news. I’d get to find
out what was going on in New Zealand, about the all-black rugby team
and all that. Then in California there was another guy who had the
biggest transmitter. In all of Southern California, he had the biggest
transmitter, so if he wanted to talk, he’d drown out everybody
else around him.
So this guy would always have photographs to send up, and I had a
way of getting photographs on our monitors. And he would send up news
clips about the mission in color and pictures and things like that.
And then another guy in South Africa did the same thing. Another guy
in Argentina, actually patched us through to our—he had a way
to take your transmission and patch it through the phone system to
the public phone system. So by the time I figured this thing out on
day eight, I was about one rev [revolution] away from having him patch
me through to my wife, which I thought would be kind of cool, because
she’d be on her mobile phone driving around town. And he tried
to do it, but she had her cell phone turned off, so it was going to
be surprise. [Laughs]
Of course I couldn’t call Houston and tell them, “Tell
my wife to turn her cell phone on.” They’d wonder, “Well,
what’s going on?” [Laughter]
What are you doing?
So I said, “My next flight if I do this, don’t turn your
cell phone off.” [Laughter] So that was a lot of fun for me.
And I ended up on day nine, I got a call. Of course the ground, Mission
Control Center, was about as bored as I was because all the action
was in the payload community. So SAREX was the only thing, and I was
always telling them, “Okay, I’ve got this contact,”
and so forth. So finally they called me about day nine and said, “Hey,
there’s this Polynesian sailing vessel that’s out trying
to recreate the navigational techniques of the Polynesian sailing
from Hawaii to French Polynesia, and they’ve got their own amateur
radio equipment on board that they use for emergency purposes, and
they’d be glad to talk to you.”
I said, “Great. Where is it?”
So they said, “It’s here and here.” So, okay. So
I look and I had this little program where I’d sit there and
know when they were within range. So up they’d pop, and we’re
out on the middle of the South Pacific. There’s no one around;
even in space, there’s no one around. I made a call, and sure
enough, got the guy. Turned out he was the captain of a vessel called
the Hokolea [phonetic], which was out of Hawaii. We got the
small talk out of the way, and then said, “How are you going?”
He said, “Well, not too good. We’ve been becalmed here
for a day, and so people are getting bored.” He said, “You
can’t see any weather around you, can you?”
I said, “Well, I’m not sure where you are.” I made
a best guess as to where he was, and I looked out to the north there,
and I said, “Well, where I think you are, yeah, it looks like
you’re calm, because I don’t see any whitecaps. But out
to the north of you, I think about a hundred miles, I see lots of
He knew the weather in the area a lot better than I did. That made
him really excited, because apparently there was a front coming down,
and that gave him confirmation that their weather was about to change.
He said, “Oh, great. Thanks.”
Sure enough, a day later when I went over it. I called him again,
and he was under sail at that point. So he was just so happy, and
he said, “We want to invite you to the Pacific Asian Arts Festival
in the Cook Islands.”
I said, “Great. Sure, I’ll be glad to come.” Sure
enough, these guys were serious. When we got back a week later I got
a message from them. They were in French Polynesia outfitting for
their trip to the Cook Islands, and so a month later my wife and I
were in the Cook Islands sailing aboard this vessel. So I thought
that was one of the cooler trips I’ve ever had, yes.
What was your call sign?
Did everyone have a chance to experiment with the SAREX or was it
Ken Bowersox didn’t. I don’t think Ken was particularly
enamored with it. He wasn’t interested in it, and so it was
myself and Ellen Baker, for the most part. Ellen thought it was as
much fun as I did, because she was on the other shift, and she was
worried she wouldn’t have anything to do. So as soon as I got
done, she would get on, and she said she’d go over her list
of girlfriends that she had collected on her side of the world that
she flies over when we’re asleep. So she had a ball, too. Ellen
and I still have fun recalling that experience.
I noticed your crew was up during the Fourth of July. Did you have
any sort of celebration?
Not a lot. Not a lot. No, we took out a moment to honor America and
tried to do the best we could with that sort of thing, but there wasn’t
really much about that sort of thing.
Any other interesting anecdotes from this flight or landing?
No, not that I can talk about. No, everything else, it was a great
flight, and we had some physical problems brought about by that much
time in space. None of it affected the crew that mattered in entry.
We were all in good shape, but we learned a lot during that flight,
let me put it like that, that help people fly those long-duration
flights. Again, that’s you have to do the unique thing we do,
which is land the vehicle after that. But, yes. No, everything else
Okay. Do you want to talk about your last flight, or should we wait
until next time?
What time is it here? Well, let’s see here. Let me see what
I got going on here, see what the next event is. We’ll see.
I just have one more question about this flight. Did you have any
sort of PR tours after this flight? Did you go to Europe?
Let’s see. Europe, yes, I think. I’m trying to remember,
where did we go? It was the United States Microgravity Laboratories.
So no, we didn’t go to Europe. We went back up to Washington,
D.C., to thank the congressional people that supported that particular
flight. Then my recollection is the Cook Islands was—that sort
of overpowered all the other events. I’m sure we did other things,
but I just don’t remember them.
Do you want to talk about STS-64?
Yes. Let’s see. I’m trying to remember what I did on—it
seemed like it was maybe a little while. I must have done something
in the Astronaut Office between 50 and 64, but I know I went in as
we normally did after the last flight, and I told the chief that I
thought maybe my next one, or whatever it was going to be, was going
to be my last one, and I would like the rendezvous flight, that was
all, if I had a chance. So Dan Brandenstein or “Hoot”
[Robert L.] Gibson—I can’t remember who was in charge
at that point—offered up this hodge-podge flight that they had
on the books called STS-64. Unlike any of my other flights, there
was not going to be a major payload. This was going to be a bunch
of different things. He put me on that flight. I can’t recall
what I did in between there and then; maybe I’ll remember and
tell you, but I can’t remember what it is. Seemed like between
50 and 64, I was off doing—maybe it was—I know I spent
somewhere about six months up in [NASA Headquarters] Washington, D.C.,
as a flunky for the Legislative Affairs people.
One second. I’m on this particular flight.
recorder turned off.]
What are your recollections of testing the SAFER [Simplified Aid for
EVA Rescue] on this flight?
I was nervous as hell. That thing, Mark [C.] Lee and Carl [J.] Meade
were out there doing that thing, and I think that the things built
by the Johnson Space Center Engineering Department are wonderful,
but this one didn’t have necessarily the controls, safeguards
in it that I would have liked to have had, so we made some very conservative
ground rules—but nevertheless—for what they could and
could not do, so that they could keep them, so I could keep my eyes
on them in case they got into trouble. Because I was convinced if
something went wrong and somebody made the wrong move with their hand
or arm, we would have a human spacecraft out there, and, of course,
I was going to go get them. So for the entire time of that three-
or four-hour thing, I was glued to my window back there. Turned out
it went perfectly well; Carl and Mark just did a wonderful job flying
that thing, and it worked out. The piece of equipment was wonderful,
and it worked out very, very well. So it was just the nervous commander,
that’s all, but I was glad when it was over with.
What are your memories of deploying the SPARTAN spacecraft?
I remember it all went routine, and the fact that later, a later flight
turned out to be they ended up deploying SPARTAN the same like we
did, and ended up misconfiguring it and almost losing the spacecraft.
It made me very thankful for the crew I had, because Sue [Susan J.]
Helms was the—now General Helms—was the mission specialist
in charge of SPARTAN, along with some help from Carl Meade on that
thing, and they made it go routine. In fact, I don’t remember
being worried about it at all. Later, watching that later flight,
I said, “Boy, I should have been a lot more worried about that
thing.” But I wasn’t, and they did a wonderful job with
it, both on the deployment and then the rendezvous itself, all went
just like I hoped it was, routine, and brought that thing in and hovered
it over the payload bay and turned it over to Susan, who just maneuvered
the arm right over, grabbed it, and we stuck it in the bay, and it
was all very satisfying, because it worked very, very well.
There was a volcano that exploded in New Guinea.
Yes, there was. There was.
Can you talk about that?
Yes, it just sort of showed up. All of a sudden the ground, Earth
Ops people, said, “There’s a volcano that might go. Take
a look for it on your next rev.” And literally, we’d flown
over it the previous rev and not seen anything, and the next rev we
came back over and it was obvious. We could see this smoke and ash
cloud streaming almost maybe seven, eight hundred miles away, and
then flew over it, and it was very present. Made us glad we were there,
and not down there where those poor people were having to deal with
that thing. But it was a very impressive act of nature.
Any other recollections from this mission?
No, but I’ll go back to STS-50. I’ll go back and tell
you about the only time I was scared in space. You’re apprehensive.
Now, there’s a difference between being scared and then apprehensive,
and this is somewhere between—not scared, but this is more apprehensive
than normal, let me put it like that.
STS-50 ascent, there was a landing. We ended up landing in Florida,
but our primary landing site was Edwards, and of all things, we had
a summertime hurricane come up from [Cabo San Lucas], in that area,
come up, and it was hugging the coast of California. The clouds were
spilling in over the Edwards complex. A little bit gusty, the high
clouds and so forth. Not bad, but we thought we were going to land
there, and it was dark. It was going to be a daylight landing, so
Ken Bowersox and I were sitting there in the vehicle, and it was about
three revs prior to our deorbit. We came up over this huge hurricane,
which was just off the coast of California, and it’s dark. We’re
sitting there, and we know two and a half hours from now we’re
going to be coming back down this same track; only thing, we’re
going to be a lot lower. Well, this hurricane must have had probably
more than—this number is probably grossly inflated, but it seemed
like it—sixty thunderstorms going on, and there was cloud-to-cloud
lightning. Every once in a while, we’d see what we thought was
lightning come out of one cloud, go across the top of the clouds,
and go enter into another cloud.
You made me recall about what things I worked on in STS-2. There was
an experiment on STS-2 called NOSL, [Night/Daytime Optical Survey
of Lightning]. A little tiny experiment. It had, you know, maybe three
people behind it, and Dick Truly was supposed to get up there and
take a look at thunderstorms and try to photograph them. Because this
guy had a theory that lightning hit the ground, but that’s just
because that was where the ground was and that’s where the neutral
point was, but lightning doesn’t care. If there’s a path,
an electrical path that goes up, it’s happy to go up as it is
down, and he had had airline reports of lightning actually going up.
Airliners would report that they would somehow see something in the
atmosphere, so they would go up and then come back down.
So I’m sitting there watching these sixty thunderstorms, and
all of a sudden I think of this guy I was having this conversation
with back in STS-2 about the fact that lightning can go up just as
well, and I’m starting to think, “Let’s see. We’re
going to be coming back right over the top of this thing, and instead
of being at 160 miles, literally, I’m going to be at 160,000
feet, which is going to be real close to streaming this plasma trail
behind me, which is nothing but electrically charged atmosphere.”
And I’m starting to think, “Now, I don’t think we’ve
ever done an entry before over this much electrical energy, spewing
a plasma stream.” I didn’t tell Ken Bowersox that, because
I didn’t want him to get upset. There’s no way you can
tell the ground of your concern, but I started going over the physics
of this thing in my mind and said, “Boy, I—gosh, if this
landing didn’t occur, I’d be really happy.”
So then the next rev we came on, and they were getting ready to go.
They were getting ready to go to Edwards, and we had one more rev
and came across, and it was worse. There must have been seventy, eighty
thunderstorms, and it was just the most horraceous [phonetic] lightning
show I’ve ever seen. So I said, “Well, next rev, we’re
just going to have to suck it up and say, ‘Well, we’ll
see what happens.’” And then, all of a sudden, about ten
minutes later they decided that the clouds at Edwards and the gusty
winds were just such that they just didn’t like it, and so they
were going to go land in Florida, which the weather was beautiful.
So we didn’t have to do it, and they had one relieved commander.
[Laughter] Don’t know if that will ever happen again, but I
know that was—all I could think about was what was going to
happen to us when we flew over those sets of hurricanes. I don’t
know if it’s real or not, to tell you the truth.
So, back to 64. What was your question here?
Well, any other anecdotes or memories?
Let’s see. Yes, this was a mistake on my part. Mission control
never—they sort of saw it, but they didn’t know what happened.
The EVA got done, and a mistake, we allowed them to put a lot of science,
all the other science aboard the Shuttle at that time. As I mentioned,
we had a lot of little things. All the other science couldn’t
do anything while the EVA was going on, so as soon as we got the two
people back in the hatch and closed the door, we were ready to maneuver
and start doing other things.
We were having trouble getting Carl and Mark out of the hatch because
of some equipment problems, and so I had a couple of people down there,
Jerry [M.] Linenger and Susan down there helping them. Normally I
would put one person down there, but Susan—Susan or Jerry, one
of the two—had to go down and lend a hand. So it was left to
me as the commander to go pick up Susan’s duties, and I’d
done it, but there’s a lot of switch throws that you do. A lot
of switch throws that you do, and I went through and very careful
to do them all, and I did them all. One of the switch throws you have
to do is you have to go down to the bathroom. We end up sucking wastewater
out of the suits and putting it in the waste tank that the toilet
also goes to the same waste tank. So you have to configure the bathroom
so that you say, “Don’t use this thing now.”
There’s this little guard. It doesn’t do anything; it’s
just a guard, and it’s got a little sign on it that says, “Don’t
use this thing.” Well, I went down there and configured the
valves underneath there, but I neglected to take the little guard
and put it over this thing. Well, not that would have done any good.
We finally got Jerry or Carl—I can’t remember if it was
Carl or Mark, but they got out of their suit, and they had to go use
the restroom. I didn’t even think twice about it; I said, “Yeah,
go ahead.” They didn’t ask me; they just went.
They got in there and saw that all these valves were not configured
properly, and Mark says that, “Well, if the lever had been down,
I would have known not to do that.”
So I said, “Okay, I didn’t do that.”
He got in there and just undid it all and used the bathroom—and
all went well—and then left it in that configuration. So we’re
sitting there maybe about forty-five minutes later, and nobody had
used it. We keep a screen across the vent so you can’t see in
there. So it so happened that I think it was Susan who decided she
wanted to go use the restroom, so she went and opened the curtain.
I’ll never forget her, or whoever it was, who went, “Aaaaah!”
I float down there, and there in the end of the urinal hose, it turned
out the water has to go into the tank, and instead, the way we configured
the valves, we closed it off. So the water was now, from the EMU [Extravehicular
Mobility Unit], wastewater was coming up through the urinal hose,
and I had this ball of water that was this big and perfectly round,
and it was just sitting there, undulating back and forth, just attached
with surface tension to the end of the hose. So we had this huge ball
of water sitting there that you couldn’t—we didn’t
have enough towels, clothing, to mop this thing up. If it had gotten
loose, it would have been a disaster.
And so, “What do we do?”
I said, “Well,” and we’d been told not to do this,
turn on the fans inside of the toilet so that it would suck all the
water down in the urinal tube, because sometimes you can stall the
fans and ruin the fans, and then you won’t have a toilet to
work anymore. But we didn’t have a choice, because one jet firing,
and this thing was going to fly into a thousand pieces. So I went
over there and said, “Okay, guys, hold your breath.” I
went [imitates sucking sound], turned this thing on, and it was amazing
to watch this thing go [imitates sound]. [Laughs] We could hear that
little fan going around [imitates sound] as it sucked this huge ball
of water. It just got smaller and smaller and smaller, and it finally
just [imitates sound] disappeared like a little ghost or something
you see in Ghostbusters where they vacuum up ghosts.
And it was just fine. We waited until the fan finally went [imitates
sound] and it returned to a normal sound, and then configured everything
and put it back in the right configuration for all the rest of the
EMU water. And the ground control, mission control, never said anything.
So in the debrief, we laughed about that thing. God, we laughed about
it. In the debrief, we asked them, “Did you guys notice anything
peculiar going on?”
And the guy that was in charge of the toilet said, “Yeah, I
saw some currents that I couldn’t quite understand. We spent
a day talking about that, but again, everything returned to normal,
so we didn’t ask.”
I said, “Well, that’s what it was.”
The other incident I remember most was [L.] Blaine Hammond [Jr.].
What a great guy. Blaine thought that after this flight he was going
to end up going to Russia as part of our contingent of people that
were starting to go over there. So prior to the flight he had been
taking Russian lessons. Well, while we were waiting to deorbit, we’d
spent—I think it was like we’d spent two attempts trying
to land at Edwards before they finally, the third day, landed us at
Edwards. We spent two attempts trying to land there, and so we spent
a lot of time sitting there going around and around, waiting for NASA
to decide if the weather was good enough to land in Florida. For the
most part, we were all dressed up, sitting in our seats, so we had
a lot of time to kill in those two days.
So we were going around, and it so happened every time we fly over
this particular portion of Russia, all of a sudden our frigging audio
system would just light up with extraneous noise, and we knew what
it was. There was an old Russian ground site down there that was radiating
us with electrical energy, and they were just radiating us. It would
shut down our FM trans—mission control knew what was going on,
because all their data would stop. They knew this was going on, and
they would always tell us, “We’re about to lose data,
because you’re going over this site.”
And said, “We understand.” We would just stop, and we
would keep going and get on the other side, and the data would start
again. Well, the thing they didn’t know about it was the fact
that it made this horrible noise in our headsets as well, too.
So finally after going over that spot about eight times, we were sitting
there on day two—no, this is the third day. The first time we
sat there, we went over this site. Sure enough, there it comes again.
We’d hear—and even you could hear people talking in Russian;
we’d hear all this stuff. They’d intentionally get on
our UHF frequency just to be irritable. So finally I said, “Blaine,
you speak Russian, don’t you?”
He says, “Yeah.”
I said, “Why don’t you just reconfigure that headset and
just tell these guys to get the hell off our frequency.” [Laughs]
Susan Helms is behind us, saying, “Yeah, Blaine, tell them.”
And the rest of the crew is sitting there, “Yeah, Blaine, tell
So Blaine configures the thing so that mission control can’t
hear this, and it just talks into UHF, which is just line of sight.
So he said something in Russian, and as Blaine says, “All I
did was very nicely tell them to please not—this is the Space
Shuttle Discovery and would you please not use this frequency, as
we’re conducting critical operations.” Probably in the
nicest words you can, but he probably also—I don’t know
what he said. But he got on there and he started speaking in Russian,
and next thing we knew—we thought that this was irritable—they
turned on their superjammers, and just radiated us with all this electrical
energy, and it was so loud that we had to turn off UHF by how much
they were radiating us. They started yelling at us in Russian, you
know and all that. We were laughing so hard. We gave Blaine Hammond
so much crap over that thing. “What the hell did you say, Blaine?”
He said, “I didn’t say—.” [Laughs] I still
talk about that. Blaine never did go to Russia, but we were laughing.
We were getting punchy at this point, we were laughing so hard about
these Russians and their reactions to it, and of course, we all blamed
Blaine for this thing. But that was a funny story.
So what did you do after this mission?
After this mission? They asked me to go to Russia and be the Director
of Operations over there. This was the first time I told the chief
of the Astronaut Office that I didn’t want to do something,
the first time I told him no in my fourteen years there. I told him,
“No, I’m going to leave the Astronaut Office.” Didn’t
know what I was going to do, but I was done flying. At the time that
was an unaccompanied flight, an unaccompanied experience over there.
George was the Center Director of this thing, and so I knew as soon
as I said this, George was going to find out about it, and so he wouldn’t
be happy with that. So I knew that I was going to leave the Astronaut
Fortunately, at the time Brewster Shaw was the head of the Shuttle
Program and wanted some help over there. So I decided to go work for
him and offered that up, and I think that made George happy. Don’t
know; George never talked to me about it. But at least George knew
I was doing something else. I just told him I couldn’t go to
Russia and leave my wife for a year and a half. I didn’t want
to do that. Later they changed it so that she could have come. Whether
or not she would have or not, that’s another matter, but at
the time it was unaccompanied, and I just wasn’t interested
in doing it. So that’s when I decided to leave the Astronaut
Office and went to the Shuttle Program to work in the Flight Management
Office under Ron [Ronald D.] Dittemore over there, and Brewster was
the Shuttle Program Manager at the time.
And you became a Mission Director?
Yes. I was what they call a Flight Manager first. That was a new office
that Ron Dittemore started over there, Flight Manager. But I also,
part of my Flight Manager duties was Randy Brinkley had just completed
the Mission Director role for the first servicing mission for Hubble.
They liked the Mission Director concept, they just wanted to bring
that person into the Shuttle Program, whereas Randy was outside the
Shuttle Program, and they wanted to bring the next one inside, so
Ron and Brewster asked me to do that. I said, “That will be
good,” so I went ahead and did that.
What were the basic duties of the Flight Manager?
I had a small amount of budget that Ron gave me that I could go spend
as to however I deemed fit. Our largest issue was making sure that
we were all working together; we didn’t get any silos going
where the Goddard Space Flight Center does it this way, and you, Johnson
Space Center, you need to change your ways and vice versa. We had
to work together as a team. Largely, I didn’t have to spend
too much time in that area, because we had some great people at Goddard
and great people at the Johnson Space Center.
One thing I may have done is had some influence on who the people
were at the Johnson Space Center that were assigned and got some great
people assigned to that thing that were proven team players, and so
we worked together. I was very, very fortunate. I never had to spend
much time arguing about personalities. Had a great crowd of people
that you don’t have to do much, just point them in the right
direction, generally tell them where you want them to go, put the
few things that are out of bounds, out of bounds, and then just listen
and watch them work, and that’s what happened here. Jeff [Jeffrey
W.] Bantle was the Lead Flight Director for that, and John Campbell
was the head of the Hubble Project at Goddard. Just great people;
can’t say enough about them.
The only issue we had was that Hubble’s solar arrays were bent.
Apparently it was a manufacturing problem, combined with the unknowns
of space. The arrays, the last time they visited and they deployed
them, turned out they had a curve in them, and what that meant was
they were weaker than normal. We spent a lot of time worrying about
not breaking those arrays just by the process of docking, rendezvous
docking, and the crew working in or around that thing. So we spent
a lot of time worrying about particular area, and that was the biggest
thing was investing our money wisely to try to come up with preventative
measures to make sure we didn’t break Hubble in the process
of trying to fix it.
What were some of those preventive measures you came up with?
Oh, largely just foot restraints. We invested in some foot restraints
that had some shock absorbers in them, so that when the crew was—literally,
the arrays were so fragile, they were worried about the crew literally
getting in the foot restraints and then rocking back in there and
react against the foot restraints would react against the Orbiter,
which would make the arrays move. Theoretically, it’s possible
that a crew, if he did it fast enough, he could actually break the
arrays. It was hard for me to believe, but we treated it like that
would happen, and it turned out the crew at the time was just great.
It turned out to be Mark Lee, again, who was my EVA for the SAFER
flight. He was my payload commander for that flight, and so again
I had a good dialogue with Mark, and so if there was something going
on, we found out about it.
What were your duties during the mission itself?
Largely just to sit there and help come up with the priorities and
the payload priorities, in the event that something happened such
that Jeff Bantle and his flight team tried to write down as many of
the priorities as possible so that if something did happen, they knew
where to go. They didn’t have to ask the program. So, largely,
all these things were agreed upon prior to flight. During the flight,
I’m trying to remember. I don’t think there was very many
things. There was maybe one or two incidences where the payload community
wanted to look at something, and they’d made the request to
the flight team to do it. The flight team had decided it wasn’t
worth it to do it, so then they would run around the corner and come
to us in the program, and say, “Will you tell those guys we
need to do this?”
So then we’d go—I’d have to go out on the floor
in the Mission Control Center and, “Okay, Jeff. Let’s
figure out what’s the right thing to do.” So we’d
always end up at a compromise. But that was very rare.
And the flight went well, in your opinion?
Yes, it went great. We almost broke the arrays, for a reason we didn’t
know about. Turned out that was a—they had a modification to
the Orbiter. They removed some vent lines for—when they decompress
the air lock, the Orbiter had a modification to it that moved the
vent for this thing to a new location. We have so many people off
doing things, it’s hard to keep track, but we in the program
are supposed to keep track of this stuff. But they moved this thing,
and it wasn’t a lot of air, but air escaping, high-pressure
air escaping through a little vent, it expands very quickly, and it
can be a force in space.
So as soon as the crew started venting the cabin, we looked up, and
there went Hubble’s arrays, which, at this point, hadn’t
moved much at all. We saw both arrays literally do this. [Demonstrates]
Bent up to ninety degrees. Should have broke them at that point. Should
have, but at this point the air, most of the air, was out of the hatch,
and it turned out to be this cloud of gas had come up, pushed the
arrays up, and then they allowed them to come back. They reacted back
down this way and did all this sort of thing. I was sitting in the
Payload Control Center at the Mission Control Center. I thought the
Goddard people were going to have a friggin’ heart attack. I
know I almost had a friggin’ heart attack, waiting for the arrays
to snap off. But we lucked out, and they didn’t, and turned
out, we didn’t break them.
Turned out that this vent was moved by the Orbiter Project. We’re
supposed to have a control in place whereby when you do that, there’s
called a systems interface control document that Systems Integration,
another part of the Orbiter—not the Orbiter Project, another
part of the Shuttle Program—is supposed to pick up on this thing
and then change their interface control document to recreate, okay,
here’s where the plume clouds will be now, and then send it
out to all the payload customers, who use it to make sure that they
know about it so that they can plan around it. That second step never
got done. Again, people thinking moving this little line can’t
possibly change anything. It meant a big deal to Hubble.
I also understand you worked on STS-75.
That’s the tethered satellite, yes. Again, that was our more
challenging flight. We had some high-energy personalities on that
flight, and so I spent more time with that one trying to make sure
we were working together as a team, this time from the Marshall Space
Flight Center and the Johnson Space Center. We spent a lot of time
on that one. It was a big deal. Putting out a spacecraft that had
a twelve-mile-long tether attached to the Shuttle was a big deal.
Lo and behold, we lost that one due to the fact that the tether had
been in the container for so long that, much like the fire we had
on STS-28, it was due to the protective material cracking and allowing
arcing to occur.
Same type of deal. This tether, which was an electrical conduit, had
been wrapped in this container for such a long time that about ten
miles down into the wire container, it had a small crack, and when
that crack came out in space and then they put electricity through
it, it saw a short, arced, snapped the tether off, and then the tether
departed the spacecraft at that point, much to the surprise of everybody
at Huntsville and the Johnson Space Center. So that was not one of
our better moments.
What led to your decision to resign from NASA?
Brewster. He’d gotten me over in the Shuttle Program, and I
hadn’t been over there more than two months when he decided
to leave and go work for the Boeing Company. Then he got out to California.
He knew I wanted to go to California, and he called me up one day
and he was laughing about—I remember, we’d just lost the
tethered—I had moved on. I had been promoted up to be the Program
Integration, which is sort of the deputy to the Shuttle Program Manager
at that point, so I was Tommy’s—Tommy [Thomas W.] Holloway
took Brewster’s spot. Let’s see, was that right? Yes,
that’s right. Tommy Holloway took Brewster’s spot. Ron
Dittemore went down into the Orbiter Office, so Tommy was running
the Shuttle Program. So they needed somebody to run the day-to-day
operations, so Tommy was nice enough to promote me up into that spot.
So I’d done that for about two or three years, and doing the
MMT [Mission Management Team] meetings and so forth. Brewster called
up one day and said, “I’ve got this opportunity in California
for you. Would you be interested in leaving NASA and coming to work
My wife and I had always wanted to live in California, and we went
out there, took a trip out there just to see what we thought about
it, and decided that was a good time to make a move. So we did. Then
we came out, and everything was wonderful. We got out there for three
years, and then Boeing decided to move the Shuttle Program back to
So what have you been doing for Boeing since you left NASA?
Went out there and worked in several outfits, all of which, those
organizations supported NASA in one way or the other. We did a lot
of business development work, trying to—at one time point NASA
was interested in doing inflatable habitats. You’ve probably
heard of that one. We were trying to figure out a way if there was
some way that we could get involved with our own money and go into
it with a partnership with several other industries and some independent
people out there—I would call it atypical NASA people—and
NASA, and try to form some sort of a partnership where we could build
this inflatable thing and put it on station.
We tried. Getting partnerships where money is at risk between industry
and NASA, it was a learning experience for me. Everybody talks like
they want to do it. Everybody wants to do it. In principle, it’s
the right thing to do, but the devil’s always in the details,
and it’s the amount of risk the individual companies want to
take on. NASA, of course, is interested in shedding as much risk as
possible onto the private companies, and private companies are trying
to shove all the risk onto the government. We could never get to a
position whereby the investors and the government could ever get to
the same position. So we eventually walked away from that. I always
thought that somebody would walk into it that would be willing to
accept more risk, and that, from private industry, just the Boeing
Company was not willing to do that. Unfortunately, it never happened.
Then the Shuttle Program came along, and they were looking for some
help to interface with the Program Integration people over at NASA,
so I picked up that job. Then I was involved with several other—John
[F.] Muratore’s X-38, I had the Boeing piece of that sort of
thing, of which we never got very far in that, either. A similar type
of deal, sharing of risk and so forth. We just never could get comfortable
Where were you on February 1st, 2003?
I’m a volunteer here in the Houston Area, and I was heading
for my volunteer duties there on Saturday when Henry [J.] Kunkel,
who was my Deputy at that time and assigned to go to the Mission Control
Center and watch the entry, called me and said, “They’ve
lost Columbia, and they don’t know where it is.”
I went, “What? You’ve lost Columbia, and mission control
doesn’t know where it is?” It took me a few seconds before
I realized that Henry is talking about—talking about the fact
that it broke up. Then it made a lot of sense to me. Then at the same
time I was listening to KTRH, and they were already reporting the
news articles about people seeing fiery debris up in Lufkin [Texas]
and that area. So I obviously canceled my volunteer work and headed
in here to do whatever I could.
What did you end up doing those first few days?
Not a lot. I had Program Integration, so that my people did work the
debris transport work during the flight. We knew the piece had come
off. We knew it had broken up into two or three pieces. We had to
model where it could have hit, and then pass it on to the Orbiter.
So we had done all that work, and all we could do was give them a
range of probabilities, all the way from the leading edge of the wing
to the wheel well area, about where it might have hit. We knew it
hit, we just didn’t know where, because the photography, it
looked like it was under the side of a wing, but we couldn’t
tell for sure, so we gave them probabilities as far as where it could
hit. So we went back over that work; impounded all that data, because
we knew, or it didn’t take too long to figure out, that that
had something to do with it. Got all the people involved that did
the transport analysis, analytical work, locked their desks. We told
them to go home; don’t talk to anybody, get ready for a long,
arduous process. So that’s what we did.
So you were primarily involved in the investigation?
Not really, no. Because I ran Program Integration, I think they thought
I was too close to it. I was surprised by that. I would have thought
I would have been, but they decided to keep me out of that sort of
thing. It was really a NASA show, and our people was just there to
support NASA in their investigation, both in the Orbiter side and
the integration side. I would have thought I would have done a lot,
but I really didn’t. I really didn’t.
Yes, that’s what it sounds like.
So what have you been doing since the Columbia accident?
About a year after the Columbia accident, Steve [Stephen S.] Oswald
asked me to take over our Shuttle development organization. We had
thought at the time the Shuttle was going to be flying out to the
year 2020, and we saw a lot of instances where the subsystems aboard
the Shuttle were aging and weren’t supported. We had anticipated
that we’d have to design replacement subsystems for them, so
we were putting ourselves in a position to compete for those opportunities.
Then when February 1st came along, it was good we set up that organization.
We set it up for the wrong reason. It was clear at that point that
there weren’t going to—we didn’t know it, but we
didn’t figure now with three Orbiters, we didn’t think
NASA was going to be flying to 2020 anymore.
But what their real interest was, was going to be to fly the three
vehicles they had for as long as possible. Thermal protection systems,
and the resilience to thermal protection system debris, was going
to be important. Fortunately, we had a number of R&D [Research
and Development] projects, internal R&D projects that we’d
been working on for over a year. Didn’t think we’d ever
be able to have an opportunity to sell them to the government, because
it takes too long to put them on. Turned out NASA was interested in
all of them. So we were able to at least help in that area, bring
forward—as well as the rest of industry—bring forward
these things for their consideration as far as where they wanted to
take the vehicle.
Then when they picked the boom inspection system, that was like adding
a whole new subsystem. Our people were critical to integrating that
system on the boom. So we had to build all new hardware for it, and
that was, as I said, it was a system that normally takes three years;
it was done in a year and a half. This last Christmas was the first
Christmas my organization didn’t have to work in the last three
years. I was able to tell them, “Go home.” The rest of
the time they had all worked over Christmas, trying to get all this
hardware and analytical work done.
I just had a couple of general questions for you, and then I was going
to ask Rebecca if she had any.
What do you think has been your most significant accomplishment while
working for NASA, if you had to go back and look at one thing?
Probably the most significant accomplishment was I’m not going
to take credit for it, but I like to think I’d take credit for
it. You’ve got two guys over there at the Johnson Space Center,
and they’re both my pilots, Bob Cabana and Ken Bowersox. I was
very proud of them after the flight. I think I had maybe somewhat
of an influence about how they approached spaceflight and what their—they
already had their own instance, and they’ll probably deny I
had anything to do with it, but I think I influenced them somewhat
about how to treat your crew members and how to treat other people
and how to conduct yourself such that you don’t push people
away; they want to come toward you instead. I’m very happy.
I think they were naturally inclined for that, anyway, so all I did
was reinforce ideas. Maybe my best credit was I could just reinforce
something they already had inside of them. But now, seeing them in
the positions they’re in over there, I feel very good about
that, and I feel good that NASA is in pretty good hands over there
right now, if those two are any example. So that’s probably
the best thing I feel about.
What do you think was your most challenging moment while working for
Getting the organization to realize that the Shuttle is never going
to be an operational vehicle. I spent six years listening to—and
I’m going to describe it as bluntly as when I was there—it
was bullshit, about how the Shuttle was an operational vehicle, particularly
in the pre-Challenger era. It was like crashing your head into a wall.
After Challenger, that whole paradigm changed. We were able to do
things as we had been doing. Unlike the Columbia accident, which NASA
got beat up pretty bad for their culture and that sort of thing, from
my perspective, it wasn’t anything like it was pre-Challenger.
I’m less concerned about the culture issue that the Columbia
[Accident] Investigation Board brought out; I’m much less concerned
about it. I think NASA should be concerned about it and make sure
it doesn’t creep back in, but I’m as conservative as anyone,
and I was involved from the Astronaut Office into the Shuttle Program,
running day-to-day operations in the Shuttle. I know what my personal
philosophy was on it, and I know what Tommy Holloway’s was.
I never saw us once get to the point of being so coarse towards people’s
safety as what was described in the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board. They made it appear as if we were horrible, and I think that
was a gross unfairness to those people, particularly Ron Dittemore
and the rest of that group. As such, NASA has had to spend a lot of
money and a lot of energy focused on something which I think is a
The Challenger was—is much, much worse. The cultural change
occurred then. Now I’m sure it will occur a little bit more,
but I’m just worried maybe it’s gone too much. Spaceflight
is inherently risky. The question is where do you decide the acceptable
amount of risk is, and as we get an aging vehicle, my hat’s
off to those people that have to be able to still make those decisions
over there. But in the end they have to make a decision, because the
spacecraft will never be perfect when it lifts off, and you just have
to decide where that point is where you don’t do something silly.
In our culture here, it’s very hard to do, because we only have
three vehicles, and if you lose an accident, it’s so public
and so politicized that you’re going to be criticized no matter
what you do. But in the real world, in my opinion, the poor guys at
NASA got beat up unfairly on Columbia. The hardest thing was prior
to that, which they changed.
Rebecca, do you have any questions?
Do you think there’s anything that we might have overlooked,
or that you want to talk about?
Oh, I’m sure you probably overlooked something, but I can’t
think of anything.
Okay. We sure appreciate you taking the time this morning to talk
Okay. Okay. Very good. Okay.
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