NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Carol Butler
13 May 1999
Today is May 13, 1999. This oral history with Dr. Robert Stevenson
is being conducted in the Signal Corporation offices in Houston, Texas,
for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. Carol Butler is
the interviewer, assisted by Sasha Tarrant and Summer Chick Bergen.
Thank you for joining us today.
I'm happy to be here. I'm happy to be with all of you anytime.
Thank you. We appreciate that. We're happy to be with you, too.
I thought today we'd talk about Shuttle.
I guess to start out, talk a little bit about your involvement in
training the first class of Shuttle astronauts and how that came about,
and what you talked with them about.
All right. Sure. Well, okay. The first class came about in the middle
of 1978, and shortly after they were announced, I got a phone call
from Kathy Sullivan [Kathryn D. Sullivan] who I didn't know, but I
knew that she was a member of the class. Kathy had just gotten her
Ph.D. in marine geophysics from University of what—Halifax in
Nova Scotia, I think it was. She was in California schools before
that, but then she went there to get her Ph.D. Her dissertation was
on the structure of sea floor ridges and fracture zones in the ocean,
North Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia.
Well, anyway, Kathy took it upon herself to organize earth—I
think they called it earth resources in those days, training in the
earth sciences. Since she had gone to sea and figured she was basically
an oceanographer, although a marine geophysical oceanographer, she
called me. She said, "Who's done the oceanography?" It was
John Kaltenbach or Dick [Verl Richard] Wilmarth, who had been the
head of the Skylab thing, told her me, or maybe George told her. I
So I get this call from her. I didn't know Kathy. She wanted to come
out to Scripps [Institution of Oceanography at University of California
at San Diego], and I said, "Well, fine." She could get a
ride to Miramar on a T-38. I said, "Okay, fine. Let me know when
you're coming." She said, "We really are not yet in the
program," which was going to start in October, and this was like
September or so, or maybe August. "So I don't have a lot of money.
I'm doing this on my own." I said, "Okay, fine. So you don't
have money to rent a room or anything. Yeah, yeah, okay, fine."
Since Miramar Naval Air Station was Navy, I knew some guys out there,
so I said, "Can you put this lady up in the BOQ [Bachelor Officer’s
Quarters]?" They said, "Oh, sure," visiting BOQ, they
can do that.
So, anyway, Kathy came out. She had a nice suite in the BOQ, an admiral's
suite. I went out and got her and brought her to Scripps. We sat down
and we chatted, you know, and introduced her to a lot of people around.
She's a very personable young lady and very eager, which, in her early
days, was kind of part of her problem. She was eager to do science,
and she wanted to do her science on the training, but, you know, the
astronauts who go up on the training do what their job on the Shuttle
is supposed to be. So it may not be doing marine geophysics, it may
mean looking at some worms growing or something like that.
So, anyway, we had a good time, got to know Kathy. She came over to
the house and got to know my wife, my late wife. She said, "Will
you come and lecture to us? We're going to start our training in October."
I said, "Sure, fine." Okay. She'd set it up.
So we did. She wanted the Earth science education and training to
be fairly intensive. So I came in October and they set up over two
weeks I did five weeks of lecturing on oceanography, three days one
week and two days—I forget whether it was three and two, or
two and three, but anyway, it was five days over ten days' period.
They had it set up in the Lunar Planetary Institute. There's a big
room there upstairs, where you could have a class. Thirty-five people
in the class.
So it was a fairly intensive—well, you can say a lot of things
if you're talking. We set it at six hours a day, so we'd have lunch
off and that sort of thing, and that I didn't wear out too fast. But
you can say a lot in that period of time, so it was a good class,
and it was good for me because by the end of the two weeks, I knew
most of them by name. Of course, they knew me. They were the people
that you know. There was [Margaret] Rhea Seddon and Rick Hauck [Frederick
H. Hauck] and Sally [K.] Ride and Judy [Judith A. Resnik] and Onizuka
[Ellison S. Onizuka] and all the old guys. Crippen [Robert L. Crippen,
class of 1969] was already there, of course. But these were all the
people who have flown so much of the Shuttle in the eighties and one
of them is still around today. Who's that? Who's the one left from
'78? Female. [As of March 1997, Anna L. Fisher, Stephen A. Hawley,
Jeffery A. Hoffman, and Shannon W. Lucid, remained active astronauts.]
No, she came in '80.
Shannon Lucid, yes. So, anyway, that started it. During those two
weeks was when I first met George [W. S.] Abbey. George Abbey was
then head of FOD [Flight Operations Directorate], as it's called,
and he and Gene Kranz [Eugene F. Kranz] were the leaders of FOD, because
in those days the missions operations was in the Flight Operation
Division. Later on they split it up.
George was an image that you heard was kind of an enigma, you know.
But anyway, during that time, turns out he and Steve [Steven A.] Hawley
became very close friends, or very close at that time, and George
was a big baseball fan, and Steve Hawley was, so they kind of, I guess—I
don't know whether that broke the ice, but they were friendly. So
we went out to dinner one night and Steve Hawley was setting up, and
George wanted to go out to dinner, and he wanted to go out with some
of the new kiddies, but he wanted to have this guy who was talking
to him. Took me a while to understand how to deal with George. A lot
of people never understand that.
But anyway, it was clear to me after that two-week session, and looking
ahead to what at that time was proposed, because at that time the
idea was that there were going to be Shuttle flights eventually probably
twice a month, but at least once a month until they got enough Shuttles
where they could do it more often. Even if they were going to do it
once a month, you know, I was used to the idea, well, you had a flight
now and a year later you had another flight. So I thought, "I
can't handle all this briefing and all of the data that we get back.
Somebody's got to help me."
Paul Scully-Power by this time had come to the U.S. …was a [U.S.]
citizen, and working with the Navy lab in New London, and his family
was there and everything. He had cooperated on the Apollo-Soyuz thing,
where the Australians had ships out and airplanes out, and so [did]
the New Zealand people. So he was very excited about the possibilities
of what could be done from space. So when I called him and asked if
he could help me do this, he said, "When do I start? Tomorrow?"
So it was probably about 1980 when Paul and I began to go there, to
come to the Space Center fairly routinely, and also the astronauts
were coming to Scripps Institution fairly routinely. Of course, this
was the early astronauts, you know, like Joe [H.] Engle and Dick [Richard
H.] Truly and Gordon [Charles G.] Fullerton and Jack [R.] Lousma and
those guys. The first four flights were two-man test flights, really.
Sally Ride was supporting Joe Engle and Dick Truly's flight, which
was STS-2 [Space Transportation System, or Space Shuttle, flight number
two]. Sally, she was a physicist, but she also was very interested
in [Earth] sciences, so she wanted them to have the best possible
Earth observation mission they could possibly have, because STS-2
was also going to carry a synthetic aperture radar. It was a modified
radar from Seasat.
Seasat was an oceanographic satellite put up by NASA under the auspices
of JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California] in 1978.
Had everything on it. It had the radar, all the microwave stuff, had
all the infrared stuff, had all the visual stuff, had radar altimeters,
and it was the most completely instrumented satellite to look at the
Earth, other than with photography, that had ever been built, or that's
ever been built since then. This synthetic aperture radar, although
it was an optical radar, when you got the stuff back, you had to digitize
it to get good imagery, the imagery was so good that, man, it was
really good stuff, you know.
Well, it suddenly had a great power surge internally after it had
been up for 100 days, and that was the end of it. Still orbiting,
as far as I know, but it's nothing; it's dead. There was a lot of
speculation that the military was so concerned about what that radar
was showing, that there was some mechanism—there had been a
lot of consternation at first by the military, or at least a lot of
chat, about the military, from the military, about having that synthetic
aperture radar aboard. They didn't want it. They argued very strongly
against it. So the theory was that they had some mechanism. NASA had
to agree to them that there was a button they could push to blow it
up if it wasn't any good, if they didn't like it. Now, whether that
happened or not, I don't know.
The big problem was that the first two months, two and a half months,
it was in orbit and it was really a test period, and then they put
it in a better orbit so it could cover areas more routinely. So most
of the oceanographers didn't get around to beginning to do their work
at sea, to take data while the thing went over before the damn thing
blew up. Some did, and those who did got some unbelievable stuff.
But anyway, so that was gone. They still had their backup synthetic
aperture radar, so all they did was modify it a bit and they put it
aboard STS-2. It was called SIR-A, Shuttle Imaging Radar-A. I think
they've now had three of them up.
So, anyway, Sally was very eager for Joe Engle and Dick Truly to be
well versed in Earth observations to back up that radar, but also
because she and Kathy and some of the other people in that class were
…eager to see this Earth observation program become a very solid
program. At that time, in '78, it was the plan that the first Shuttle
flight would be 1979. So since Sally was supporting them, she was
out to Scripps almost as much as I was. She was out there all the
Joe Engle and Dick Truly would fly out to Edwards [Air Force Base
in California] to fly the STA [Shuttle Training Aircraft - a modified
Grumman Gulfstream II jet] Shuttle landing test bed, which
was out at Edwards at the time, and that's where they were going to
land, and then they'd give me a call and they'd say, "Okay, we're
on our way back, but it's late and we're not going to get back all
the way. How about if we come into Miramar. [We'll stay] overnight
and we'll chat with you tomorrow morning, then we'll go on tomorrow
afternoon?" I'd say, fine, you know. So they'd do that, and I'd
pick them up at Miramar the next morning. They're down at Scripps
in their flight suits with all their patches on, secretaries running
Jack Lousma. I don't know if you ever met Jack Lousma, but if there
was ever a guy who was physically built to look like a real astronaut,
that's Jack Lousma, big broad shoulders and tall and very classic
features, a very nice guy. He'd walk down the hall and smile, and
the women were swooning.
So, anyway, we began this kind of routine, then, in the early—when
Shuttle was delayed until—first flight was in '81. We still
continued this routine where Joe Engle and Dick Truly and Jack Lousma
and Gordon Fullerton and T.K.—T.K. Mattingly [Thomas K. Mattingly
II] didn't know why in the hell he was going to look at the ocean.
He was Navy. He was a Navy captain, see. Paul and I would go in and
argue with him at great length. But anyway, he was the fourth flight,
so he said, "Well, I can wait anyway."
So, anyway, we were doing a lot of preparing. We were writing little
manuals for them. Dick Truly thought in order for him to remember
these things, because they were still engineering this Shuttle, that
he couldn't remember all that, so could we make him a little book
to take with him, about the size of their crew activity booklet [CAP],
which they didn't have the computers aboard then, so they had these
little CAP books, they'd turn the pages. You've seen pictures of them
with these things stuck up against the front window, up on the dashboard.
So we were down, before STS-1 went off, we were down—let's see.
They went in April of '81, so I guess it had to be in late February,
Paul and I were down there, and we were walking down this old Building
4, third floor, and we're walking down the hall one day, and John
[W.] Young was coming along. John Young was the big hero. I'd met
him, but, you know, he doesn't say much a lot of the times. Once he
starts talking, then you just sit and listen. So he was coming along
in his flight suit, and he stopped and he says, "What are you
guys doing this week?"
We said, "Oh, we're talking to Engle and Jack Lousma."
He says, "Why don't you ever come and brief me?"
Well, we'd love to brief him, but we just thought, gosh, the first
flight, they've got so much going on and what they're supposed to
be doing with that Shuttle, and there's still a lot of question whether
the thing is going to stay together when you get it up there, that
we thought, well, we didn't want to bother them. I said, "When
do you want to be briefed?"
He said, "Come on down right now. Crip's [Robert L. Crippen]
down in the office." They had that corner office there. "Let's
go through some stuff." Okay. Of course, we couldn't show any
slides in his office, which is all open, so we grabbed a bunch of
pictures and came down and started going through this.
The big thing that we had at the time—this is 1981, and you
may remember, or at least you've heard that in 1980 was the Tehran
Hostage Crisis [Tehran, Iran], so they sent the Navy over there. Beginning
in 1980, there were three aircraft carriers, each with a battle group,
sitting around the mouth to the entrance of the Gulf of Oman, within
carrier-aircraft flight of Tehran continuously. They'd sail over and
they'd be there for four months, and then another bunch would come
over and relieve them. So there were six-month tour of duties for
three carrier groups. Of course, then we had more carriers than we
The oceanography of that area was …poorly known by [the U.S.],
and the first battle group hadn't been over there more than two months
when I got a call from the oceanographer at Pearl Harbor [Hawaii],
at Third Fleet, who I knew, and he said, "Do you have any information
about the Arabian Sea in the academic community anywhere?"
So I finally found a guy who was a whale expert, who had a bunch of
information on whales. [Laughter] But oceanographically and acoustically
there was just very little. So I then went over to Hawaii. "What's
the problem? What's the real problem?"
Well, the real problem was that there were six Soviet submarines in
the Arabian Sea, and they'd see them transit in and transit out, but
once they got to their port, which was at Aden, that was the port
they were using, and they went active, they never saw them. They couldn't
find them. They knew that there were two attack submarines and two
cruise missile submarines. The cruise missile ones were the ones they
were worried about, because in those days they had 200-mile cruise
missile, which is as long as they had then. But they could sit somewhere
within 200 miles of the battle group, and they didn't know where they
So I said, well, the only answer to that is to learn something about
the oceanography in detail, and the only thing we could do was the
infrared satellite imagery from the NOAA [National Oceanographic and
Atmospheric Administration] satellites which had a good infrared scanner
so you got water temperatures, and you could scan the water temperatures
and see the differences and where the cold water was and where the
warm water was. And if there were any patterns to this, well, then
you could probably tell where the submarines were operating or at
least what the acoustics were in that area.
Unfortunately, at that time the Navy carriers didn't have capability
of receiving data from the NOAA satellite, and so we therefore set
up a system whereby the Air Force, which could get the information,
would download it in Omaha at Offutt Air Force Base, and make a tape,
and they'd fly that tape by jet out to Miramar, and we'd go up and
get it. We had a satellite facility at Scripps. We'd process the tape.
So it would take us about three days for all that to happen by the
time we would get the images and be able to evaluate them and get
the information by coded message to Hawaii, who would then send it
out to the Fleet.
Actually, although we began to do that routinely and would get this
information to the Fleet, the people on the carrier, even though there
was an oceanographer on the carrier, they didn't know what to do with
it. Well, so what? So there's a big cold water plume going here and
there's warm water over there. So what does that mean? But anyway,
we didn't know that at the time. So here we had a couple of these
images. On the infrared image just inside the entrance to the Gulf
of Oman was a large spiral eddy, or a large eddy that looked like
a corkscrew. We'd never seen this before. We figured if we could see
it on the infrared, what it must mean, that there's some surface slicks
that show this spiraling motion, and they should reflect in the sun's
So that's what we're briefing John and Crip to do. They had an orbit
coming down there. As a matter of fact, a couple of their orbits came
down there. So they were only up a couple of days, two and a half
days, something like that. Well, of course, both of them were very
excited about that, because they're both Navy guys, you know, so,
okay, we're going to help the Navy.
So, anyway, when they did come down, it turned out that they're coming
down, upside down, and the way the glitter was, in order to see this
thing, John had to look over his shoulder back through his side window…but
he did this, and he had a Hasselblad [camera], and he shot continuous
string of shots down in the Gulf of Oman. Of course, we were getting
imagery from the satellite at the same time.
Of course, indeed, in his photograph in the sun's glitter pattern
there was that eddy sitting right on top of where it was from the
infrared satellite, just rotating around like this. No, counterclockwise.
We thought, well, it's an eddy, it's probably there all the time.
There's a big headland coming out in the water. We know the water
flows out of the Persian Gulf, out into the Arabian Sea, so the water
flows down there and hits that headline and spirals around.
But it was of great interest because, of course, the Soviets had a
navy over there, too, then. They didn't have a carrier, but they had
a bunch of ships over there. So there was this big—not only
was there concern about the Soviet submarines, here were all these
Soviet ships. You could have gotten a real fight. Of course, the U.S.
Navy had not been in a face-to-face fight since World War II, when
they were banging away at the Japanese and the Germans. So here they
were, you know. I think they were all excited about maybe they would
be, but they still had, "What are we going do to?" because
acoustically they weren't hearing anything.
Of course, we soon learned from the satellite imagery that where the
battle group was located was in a huge eddy of cold water, and acoustically
the colder the water, the slower the sound transmission becomes, so
if you're listening in here and there's somebody out there in the
warmer water, you're not going to hear them. They couldn't have chosen
a worse place to put the fleet.
Well, anyway, so John and Crip came back, and, you know, that was
pretty good stuff. So we were then able to show Joe Engle and Dick
Truly that, you know, we can really get some good stuff here…
Also they had this imaging radar, SIR-A.
That was a JPL [project], so the JPL troops came in and they had a
fairly sizable room in Mission Control, because they were going to…
control, via radio on and off button, when that radar was on and when
it was off. The crew wasn't going to be permitted to—which irritated
me, because I figured, well, I'd get a lot of good stuff if Truly
would turn it on when we wanted it on. They didn't. JPL didn't care
much about the ocean, but they had agreed that they'd do a couple
of legs off of Cape Hatteras [North Carolina] and another leg off
in the Arabian Sea, because we had ships over there.
We had notified the Navy that there were going to be these two radar
passes off Cape Hatteras and there was going to be a radar pass off
the southeastern Arabian peninsula, where we still had a lot of ships.
This was still in 1981, November... So the admirals in Washington
sent out messages to the fleet to have ships along those flight lines
Well, the flight was delayed for a few days, two or three days, so
that wiped out the ships. They couldn't hang around waiting for the
flight. We ended up… with one ship off Arabia, and… one
ship come out of Norfolk [Virginia], off Hatteras, both of which turned
out to be good.
So, anyway, Paul and I were in this room with the people from JPL,
who were not happy that we were there, because we didn't put any money
into this and we didn't own any of that, you know, but anyway, we
were there and we knew where all the tracks were, if any of the tracks
were going to be anyplace where we had ships other than those that
had now left. We brought in [CDR Bob Lawson] from the Navy who could
communicate with Navy ship control in Washington, D.C. He sat in an
office over in Building 1, so he could call in an instant to determine
where ships were.
Well, so then the five-day flight, after the first day they began
to have problems. A CPU [central processing unit] problem? They had
some problem and they were going to have to cut the flight to two
and a half days. All of a sudden, all of these tracks at JPL had marked
out were disappearing, and they wanted to get all of the imagery they
could. They had eight hours'… of… an optical tape then.
They had eight hours' worth of time on their tape, so immediately
they turned to us and said, "We can do as much ocean as you want,"
you know. [Laughter] Well, that's fine. And they did. And we got some
good stuff. We got some spiral eddies in places that we hadn't even
expected to see. We got this one good leg off Arabia and there, sure
enough, you could see our ship. It was a cruiser in there and it was
tracking right along the track and taking water temperatures and other
stuff. We had a ship that had come out of Norfolk, and it was just
off the point of Cape Hatteras in the Gulf Stream.
So that turned out to be pretty useful, although the photography was
not, because Dick and Joe were pretty busy with whatever problem they
had, and they were going to have to land a lot earlier. It was a little
touch and go, whether they were going to—they had to make it
into Edwards. Didn't have anything at the Cape then. But anyway, that
turned out to be a pretty good mission, and from the point of view
that we got stuff that we didn't expect to get, and yet it also gave
us the opportunity to show to our people higher up in the Navy, yes,
we can get stuff that's interesting, and to the astronauts, that,
yes, see what you can do.
So Jack Lousma and Gordon Fullerton went up, and it was T.K. and—I
forget who flew with him. Well, anyway, the big thing that happened
on STS-3, other than the fact that they had to land at White Sands,
was that Jack and Gordo had clear skies over China. China was still
an enigma. Still is an enigma. But I mean then it was even worse than
it is now. So they just start shooting. One of their pictures was
of a large lake, and there wasn't any habitation, much habitation,
but at one part of the lake there was some buildings and a couple
of larger buildings. But it wasn't anything of any great moment as
far as I could see. Paul and I weren't interested in China, anyway,
so we didn't look at it, but it was interesting to see areas that
we'd never seen from space, you know. Actually, they got some good
shots out on the Gobi Desert, which, when kids, we'd always heard
about these expeditions years and years ago, about these guys going
across the Gobi Desert on camels or something.
But anyway, well, after STS-3, all of the crews did a lot of traveling
and meeting people, you know, making presentations, because it was
a big deal. Shuttle was really something else again. Nobody else had
that kind of stuff going on. So, anyway, Jack and Gordo were invited
to go to China to speak. They spoke in Beijing. I think they gave
three talks—Beijing, Shanghai, and I don't know where else.
But anyway, the talk in Beijing was to a huge audience, you know,
some huge auditorium, probably 1,000 people in there, and a lot of
big wheels up on the stage. I think whoever was the premier was there,
too, at the time. So they were showing pictures. And the American
ambassador was there. A scientist in the American Embassy, they had
them all around in those days at the big embassy, was there. So there
were people there from the U.S. who could speak both Chinese and English.
So, anyway, they were showing this picture, and they showed this picture
of the lake. As a matter of fact, it was such a beautiful picture
that they had it enlarged and matted and framed, with their flight
patch down here and a flag over here, and then they signed it off
to the premier of China. So they were going to give this to him, you
know, after their talk.
Well, anyway, you know, everybody was "oohing" and "aahing,"
you know, as usual, and when they got to this picture, dead silence.
Just dead silence. As Jack later said, they thought, "Well, okay,
so they're not interested in that," and they kept on going. So
when it was all over, of course, there was clapping and, I suppose,
some questions. But it was rather subdued, and they didn't know what
to think about this. So they turned to the ambassador and said, "We
want to give the picture to the premier," and he grabs the picture
and he looks at it and he says, "Is this the same one that you
showed on the screen?" I said, "Yes." He said, "I
think let's hold this for a while. Do you have another picture for
him?" Yes, they had about four pictures of different parts of
So when everything calmed down, you know, and they were leaving the
stage, they said, "What's the problem here?" "Well,
see that little built-up area? That's a secret nuclear facility in
China that they didn't know that anybody ever knew about, and you've
got a picture of it."
And Gordo said, right there he says—you know Gordon Fullerton,
he doesn't have much hair. He said, "I turned so pale, I think."
And Paul says, "Was your head pale, too?" He says, "I
don't know, but, by God, I didn't know." And Jack Lousma said
the same thing. He said, "I wasn't sure we were going to come
What an experience.
Well, this was not advertised at all. Paul and I just heard about
it because we knew all the astronauts and we heard some of the rumors.
So we picked up on that. Paul went back to New London and he had that
picture blown up to the same scale as they had. He had it framed.
There's a guy, a Chinese guy, at New London working with underwater
acoustics, an American, but of Chinese birth. But he could speak Chinese.
So he had him write on the front of it in Chinese and then sign it
with some Chinese name in hieroglyphics or whatever, you know. On
the back, then, we had translated, pasted on the back, what that said
on the front, you know.
Those days, you know, the manner of daily activities and even space
flight was a lot looser than it is now, and so if we happened to be
in town on Monday morning, then we were welcome to sit in on pilots'
meetings that take place every Monday morning, and sometimes we would
and sometimes we wouldn't. But anyway, this time we wanted to sit
in when we asked John Young if we could make a presentation to Jack
and Gordo, in congratulations, you know. He said, "Sure."
So, anyway, we got up in front after the meeting, and John said, "Everybody
stay, because Bob and Paul are going to make a presentation,"
and he didn't say to whom. So we started in. Paul had this spiel about
five minutes long, about the importance of being able to look at the
Earth and being able to look at it with a very careful eye, and that
we know that Jack and Gordo did such an outstanding job, and that
we knew that especially in areas which people had never seen before,
that we just simply had to put this together, and we have it autographed,
signed by a very important person.
So they then came up, you know, in front of the bunch, and we held
up this painting. I thought Gordon was going to faint. Jack says,
"Where the hell did you get that?" [Laughter]
So then Paul said, "This is all in Chinese on the front, but
on the back what it says is, 'If you damn Yankees ever come over China
again—" [Laughter] And everybody just roared.
Gordo was a little concerned. He said, "That's supposed to be
I said, "Gordon, it's not a secret. You can't keep that a secret.
Everybody in here knows about it."
"How did you know about it?"
I said, "How do you think we knew about it?"
So, anyway, it turned out that they then thought, well, that's a good
idea. And until he left, this was hanging in Gordo's office, you know,
up above his desk. Of course, Jack left earlier than Gordon did.
Well, anyway, that's how it was going along. From the point of view
of looking at the ocean, we still were in a very early stage. A lot
of things we didn't understand. But along came STS-5, and this was
going to have a five-man crew. Bob Overmyer [Robert F.] was the commander,
first non-Navy commander, although he's a Marine, so George said,
well, he's kind of Navy. [Laughter] I'm sorry, that's not true. Joe
Engle wasn't Navy, but Joe Engle was a hero, you see. Joe flew more
hours on the X-15 supersonic than anybody in history, and Joe was
just the epitome of a hot fighter jockey, and a competent commander,
you know. So he was an obvious person to command a flight.
And let's see. On STS-5, I forget all who was on it, but one of the
guys on it was Bill Lenoir [William B.]. I'd known Bill Lenoir since
SL-4 [Skylab 4], because he was part of the Earth observation ground
team. Dick Wilmarth was in charge, and John Kaltenbach, and then Bill
Lenoir was the astronaut representative on the ground team. We selected
sites for them—or they did—each day. They'd look at…
the infrared satellite imagery around the world, at nighttime, and
determine where it was cloudy and where it wasn't cloudy, and where
there their orbits would be and where the daylight would be, and all
this sort of stuff. Then they'd choose sites. It was a great experiment.
But anyway, Bill Lenoir had been on that team, so I knew him well.
Bill Lenoir was a big Earth ops [Earth observation] guy, so we had
a lot of experiments set up for that team. At the time, you see, STS
was like in '84, I think, late '84. Is that right? The fourth flight
was in—no, no, no. The fourth flight—no, no, it wasn't
that late. The fourth flight was in July of '82. Yes, I remember that.
Then along came—this had to be in probably late '82, as a matter
The Tehran thing had been basically resolved, but the Iranians were
not happy, and so the Iranians had blown up the Karhg Island and an
oil drilling platform in the north end of the Persian Gulf, and the
whole Persian Gulf was covered with oil, and it was getting into the
desalination plants on the Saudi Arabian side, down in the United
Arab Emirates, and they were [all] hacked off about this. So there
was still a lot of pressure and a lot of tension about activities
in the Persian Gulf area, so one of the areas we were going to look
at very actively was the Persian Gulf, to determine if we could see
the distribution of this oil pollution. Did it go out through the
Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Sea? All this sort of stuff.
But a bunch of other things, too. I mean, it was the first opportunity
we had for somebody to be aboard where there wasn't much else—well,
there wasn't a lot of other things for him to do, other than really
do Earth observation, and a guy who had some experience or at least
some background interest in it. Plus the crew was a good crew. I can't
remember everybody on the crew, but [Vance Brand] was a very good
commander and was very eager for all the scientific experiments to
So off they go. Bill Lenoir was a real happy chappy, and one of his
great pleasures in life was, he grew jalapeño peppers in his
back yard. When they were still green, he'd bring them to work and
he'd nibble on these things. Yeah. And he thought it was funny as
hell when he'd give it to some of the young astronauts who didn't
much know what it was, and they'd bite into it the wrong way. So Bill
Lenoir took a bag, a paper—see, again, it was a lot easier in
those days. I mean, you still couldn't take things up and cancel postage
stamps. That kind of went out. But everybody was permitted to take
something personal. There wasn't any really close control on what
that personal might be. So Bill Lenoir had this paper bag full of
fresh jalapeño peppers, which I'm sure he thought he was going
to pop them down every now and then, and when they'd have a TV broadcast,
he'd be sitting there chewing on a jalapeño pepper.
Well, for most of the flight, Bill Lenoir was indisposed. I don't
know whether we really want to say that, but, anyway, it just turned
out that there was not the opportunity to visually observe and photograph.
All the areas we had in mind almost disappeared. Had it not been for
Bob Overmyer, who…[was] also interest in all this stuff, if
it hadn't been for him looking out especially over the Persian Gulf
and that area, we probably wouldn't have much at all. We got photographs,
but it was easier to get them, you know, over land because over the
ocean you had to have the sun glitter. It looks great when you look
at a photograph. Yes, yes, my God, how come you can't see that? Well,
the point is, you're going over the Earth at 5 miles a second. That's
some glitter pattern moving that fast. If there's something pops up
in it and you're not ready with a camera, you've got to reach over
and grab this camera that's Velcroed to the wall, it's gone. So you
really have to be prepared to do that. So the guy aboard who was prepared
was Bill Lenoir. Of course, by the time he got to really feeling good
was near the end of the flight, and everybody else had eaten all his
jalapeño peppers. [Laughter]
So where are we?
I think maybe we're at a good point to take a quick break. [Tape recorder
Well, we're now, after five and a half hours of listening to me, we're
probably about a third of the way through. But, anyway—no. [Laughter]
But just to reiterate this kind of camaraderie, I guess you'd say,
when Dick Truly and those guys flew on STS-8, it was in 1983. It was
going to be—although Sally and Rick Hauck and John [M.] Fabian,
I think it was, and those guys on STS-7 did have some reasonable good
sunlight to look at sun glitter in the Southern Hemisphere, they weren't
going to have it as good as Dick Truly. You remember Truly launched
at night, I think, and they were going to land—it was going
to be the first night landing. One of their unofficial decals, or
patches, was, you're looking right straight head on, on the Shuttle,
and here's the cockpit windows looking at you, and here are five pairs
of eyes wide open like that, looking straight ahead. [Laughter] No,
there were four pair looking like that, and one pair of eyes that
was over in the commander's side, and his cockpit just half open.
But anyway, those guys are going to have good light in the Southern
Hemisphere, and in 1983, yes, that was an international assembly in
Hamburg [Germany], and I was there. Paul couldn't get to the assembly,
but after the assembly I was going to meet him in London because we
were trying to set up some—what was the name of the new Shuttle?
One of the new Shuttles was going to be—
Atlantis or Discovery?
Discovery. Right. See, Discovery was a British ship,
went to the Antarctic, was Shackleton's ship. The Brits, then, when
they built one of their first big oceanographic research vessels after
World War II, they named it Discovery. And there's now a
Discovery III. They're beautiful ships. I don't know what
they do with it now.
But anyway, so we wanted to get as many artifacts as we could from
the ship Discovery for the launch, for the crew to carry something
in space that had been on the HMS Discovery. So we did. We got a telescope
that the captain had used…
But also Royal Dalton agreed to remake dishes—the ship Discovery
had these beautiful Royal Dalton chinaware for the whole ship's company
that was designed specifically for the ship, with the ship's crest
on it and the British crown on it and all this sort of thing. It was
beautiful stuff. There were about three pieces still around. The old
Discovery is still in the Thames Estuary, in their area where they
have a theme park, or whatever they call it. You can go there and
look at it.
Paul was there, back in New London, and I was in Hamburg, and Dick
Truly and those guys are up in space. Paul and I were going to meet
in London and get that stuff going, and also we were doing some programs
with the British ASW [antisubmarine warfare] people.
So I got back to the hotel one afternoon, and there was a phone message
for me. This was back in '83, and it was a small hotel in Hamburg,
and they weren't speaking a lot of English, and my German was about
good enough to order a beer and that was it. No, it was better than
that. But anyway, so there's a phone message, and the guy finally
got it across to me that this phone message had come from Houston.
So I took the message, and it says, "Call," and the number
was the number of Capcom [capsule communicator, an astronaut in mission
control who spoke directly to the other astronauts during a mission].
I thought, "What is this?" So I called. Of course, by this
time, of course, it's nighttime there, so the crew was asleep. Anyway,
the Capcom was there. Capcom was Bill Fisher [William F]. Phone rang,
he picked it up, and I said, "This is Bob Stevenson."
"Oh, Bob, hi. How are you? Where are you?"
I said, "I'm in Hamburg."
He said, "Oh."
I said, "Who's this?" Those days, didn't have satellite
sort of stuff.
He says, "This is Bill Fisher."
I said, "Bill, what's happening?"
He said, "Well, you got a message from the commander."
I said, "You mean from Truly?"
He said, "Yeah."
I said, "What did he say?"
He said, "All right, I'll read it." He says, "Tell
those damn oceanographers why aren't they here, that there are eddies,
spiral eddies, as far as I can see either side of the flight path,
from the western southern part of the Indian Ocean all the way past
New Zealand." And he said, "On the first day there was nothing,
and now for five days in a row we've seen this stuff." And that
was it. So I immediately called Paul. Of course, it was night-time
over in New London.
We'd seen these isolated spirals. Sally and John Fabian had seen these
down in the southern Indian Ocean. They were going the other way.
So that was a big step, because we thought they were only going to
be things that would go counterclockwise, because if they went the
opposite way in the Southern Hemisphere, it meant that they were influenced
by the Coriolis influence of the rotation of the Earth. In fluid dynamic
theory, features that small were not influenced by Coriolis, so if
they weren't influenced, therefore they did not conform to the linear
theory of dynamics in the ocean. They were non-linear. Of course,
then and even now, nobody can solve a non-linear equation. But anyway,
so we were kind of excited about that.
But then along comes Truly, and he sees these things for five days
in a row, covering 6,000 miles of ocean, and he says, "As far
as I can see from either side," and, of course, he had photographs.
It was unbelievable when we got them. It was just staggering. So that
was a big step. We didn't really know what to do with it, because,
well, of course, most of the oceanographers, nearly all the oceanographers
who looked at it said, well, it's the wind. The wind is blowing across
the sea, and that's turbulence in the lower layers of the atmosphere
and it's making those things.
At that time we didn't have any photography or observations that showed
anything but the spirals, and we didn't have any that showed any ship
wakes going through them. So we had no way of telling them, no, it
ain't that, except that both of us being physical oceanographers,
we felt that it was ocean dynamics, not the atmosphere.
In those days, people were trying to model the ocean just as they
still are trying to model the ocean, and so anything like that wasn't
possibly going to fit in their model, because in those days the points
in the ocean that they could handle in the model were 1,000 kilometers
apart, and then later they could get them down to maybe 500. Now they
can get them down to maybe 10, but, even so, they're not going to
handle that kind of stuff. But in those days, to think of that sort
of thing, "Forget it, you know. I don't want to hear about it."
So, anyway, that was a big step forward, major step forward, in what
we then began to think about, well, we'd better do this on a more
systematic way. But it was strictly an observation, because Dick Truly
was interested, you see.
When he got back, that's when he said, "Look, I don't care what
you guys say. You guys have got to fly." George had said earlier
that he wanted to fly [us] back in '82, but then the space sickness
thing came up and headquarters said, "No, you've got to put some
doctors up there." So Norm [Norman E.] Thagard went on 7 and
Bill Thornton [William E.] went on 8, and so on. But then Truly said,
"No, no, there's too much going on in the ocean, and, sure, we
can see it, but we don't really know what to look for. We don't know
how." So, anyway, that's kind of how it all started.
Well, of course, I'm not going to stop at every one, but STS-9 was
John Young and Brewster [H.] Shaw [Jr.]. They were in a high inclination
orbit and they had aboard a European Space Agency [ESA] earth resource
package, but their flight was delayed, supposed to go off in August,
I think it was, and it finally went off in December. So that earth
resource package was useless because it was dark over Europe then,
so the Europeans didn't get what they wanted to get. But they came
over Russia, and so Captain Young thought—and they'd been told,
"No, don't photograph Russia." But John wasn't going to
miss that opportunity, so we got not a lot, but we got some photos
of Russia, especially in Siberia; weird things, we didn't know what
they were at first. Of course, a photograph of Petropavlovsk, which
was the big Russian submarine port on the Pacific. That got the Navy
pretty interested. Then some interesting stuff in China, too. A picture
of an interesting embayment there, Nimrod Bay; a very strange place.
Well, so, okay. What's the next big thing here? Maybe we should stop
for a minute and let me—long as I'm saying nice things. But,
you know, John is probably can and does have the greatest sense of
humor of any person I've ever met, almost. You weren't around, but
when Deke [Donald K.] Slayton retired, after Apollo-Soyuz, and went
upstairs somewhere, but retired from the Astronaut Office, they had
a giant retirement bash for him out in the Gilruth Center. I mean,
that place was packed to the rafters. John Young was the master of
ceremonies, and they did this slide show of the history of Deke Slayton's
time in NASA. God, it was funny. Even Deke was sitting there laughing,
tears were rolling down his eyes, he was laughing so hard.
Well, anyway, when John launched the first time in an STS-1, John
and Crip went up. Of course, in those days they had medical monitors
on them, because, you know, what's going to happen with this big—?
Nobody had ever launched on top of this roman candle. So they had
heartbeats and all that sort of stuff coming back. Well, Crip's heart
rate went up to about 145, something like that. John's went up to
78, from a norm of about 72…
So when they got back, at their big press conference one of the questions
that somebody asked, they asked John, "Were you excited on the
He said, "Oh, yeah, it was pretty good, you know. Really shook
around a bit."
This guy said, "Well, your heart rate didn't go up very high."
He says, "Well, you know, I tried to make it go up, but it just
won't go any faster than that." [Laughter] Well, anyway, so John's
a cool cat, you know, he really is. He's a great guy.
So they're flying up there in STS-9. They were up for, what, about
ten days, eleven days. They're getting ready to come back, and they've
got four basic computers for flight computers. They had four of them
in those days. I don't know how many they've got now. And they were
new. I mean, this was big new stuff, to have flight computers aboard
a manned spacecraft, you know, but the fact is that Shuttle was complicated
and you weren't going to manhandle that thing down, turn it around,
and fire the rockets like the Mercury guys or the Gemini guys did,
or even the Apollo guys. Everything was computerized. So you had four
computers and each one was a backup to the main. They're all the same
The flight configuration was that if you lost two computers, you're
in trouble, because if you lost another one as you were literally
in the reentry pattern, then that one computer might not be sufficient
to get you into the landing pattern. I mean, you'd get back down all
right, but then you were going to have to fly that thing down from
100,000 feet down to the ground, and you're still doing better than
mach 5 when you hit that level.
So they're just about getting ready to go through reentry, and they
start punching the number-one computer and it ain't there. So John
says, "Well, that's all right. Just go to the next one. It'll
be all right." Well, it was gone, too.
Brewster later related that he turned to John and said, "This
is not very good. What do we do now?"
And John says, "Well, that's why they pay all the big money."
[Laughter] Brewster said he was laughing so damn hard, he forgot to
be scared of what was going to happen, you know. So, fortunately,
the next two computers both worked and they got back. That was so
typical of John.
All right. So where do we go? Okay. We go to—well, I don't know.
The next one of any great moment—well, they're all good stuff.
I'm sure there are stories for every one.
For everybody, yes. But anyway, probably the next one, you know, that
was really significant to me was 41G.
My wife had breast cancer. She knew she had breast cancer back in
1977, and she did have the surgery, but after that she just didn't
want radiation or chemotherapy. She was going to do it the natural
alternative medicine way. So from there through late 1983, it was
very good. She worked very hard at it. You totally change your diet,
no meat. She was allergic to wheat. She found out she's allergic to
milk and any milk products. No meat of any kind other than seafood.
Not shrimp, because that's shellfish. So to get into that mode was
very difficult. I did everything she did. I didn't want her to feel
that she was imposing on me, and I wanted to be able to help her.
So for all that time it was very good. She worked very hard, and our
whole personal lifestyle of how we lived had changed a lot, and yet
we had a house, a new house we'd built. She came to several launches.
Of course, a lot of the people had been to our house. She knew Sally
well, and Kathy, and a lot of the guys who had come to the house.
We'd take them out to dinner, and we went to quite a few of the launches.
She was a good friend of Bonnie's and so forth and so on.
To her, it was just natural that Paul and I were going to fly sometime,
and it was no big problem with her, except she wanted to be damn sure
she was there. But when we came back from that meeting in Hamburg
in '83, she spent two weeks at a clinic in Germany, a world-renowned
cancer clinic, and lots of people have gone, people whose names you'd
know. Yul Brenner went there, but he went there too late. She came
out of there thinking—and the guy there—I forget his name.
Hans Neiper was quite convinced that it was under control, although
he did notice a little spot on one of her ribs, but that was easily
But when she came back, she hurt—her legs, her hips, and all
that sort of thing. But we still went to the launch that year, but
when she got back, her hips were hurting so badly, she couldn't walk
very well. So finally, in January, I said, "Look. You're feeling
really lousy. The doctors really didn't know. Why don't you just go
to Scripps Clinic and have a complete checkup, let them do the whole
bit, CAT [Computerized Axial Tomography] scans and everything, and
find out what the hell's going on." And that's when she learned
that it had spread first into her neck, bones, and all that stuff,
and that didn't look too good.
But anyway, she was pretty well confined to bed. She could get up
and still get up and go to the bathroom, but she could no longer climb
up the stairs in our house, so we set up a bedroom down in the family
room, which was convenient for her. I did all the cooking. I like
to cook, anyway.
So we were going through this, and the medicals, they told her if
they could just give her a little bit of radiation, they could knock
out this stuff in her neck and then she could go back on her non-alternative
diet or alternative methods, in which she still had a lot of confidence.
So she said, "Okay, fine." That was a horrible time, that
radiation. And once they did the radiation, they still found a couple
of spots in her ribs. Then they convinced us that, "We just want
to give you a little bit of chemotherapy, not the big heavy stuff,
but it will just knock that out now that this stuff is gone. Then
you'll be all right." And I didn't think she'd do it, but, anyway,
we talked about it. It was her decision. She said, "Yes, I think
it will be all right." I said, "Okay, fine." It was
all downhill from there.
So, anyway, it was in March of '84, and I get a call from Paul, and
he said, "George Abbey just called me. He was trying to call
you, but he knew that maybe you were off to the hospital," which
we had been, and he says, "They're going to make space in 41G.
So what he needs to know now, to set up the training, is do you want
to go? You're first. George just wanted me to call you and let you
know. Why don't you think about it and then let us know."
I said, "I don't have to think about it. I can't go."
And he said, "Really? I'd better tell George. I don't think George
likes that. Crippen has not been told which of us is going to go yet,
but George says Crip is willing to take either one of us." See,
they already had another payload specialist. [Joseph Jean-Pierre]
Marc Garneau was already assigned from the Canadian agency.
So I said, "Hey, Paul, I can't leave my wife. I can't do that.
And even if she does get better," and I thought—she didn't.
"Even so, I can't leave her alone. If you're going to go training,
you're going to go training." So I just said, "No, you go.
So he called George back, and the next day I got a call from George.
He said, "Are you sure?"
I said, "George, I just can't do it."
He said, "I understand that."
I said, "If Paul falls in a hole a week before launch, give me
a call. Probably my wife will be better by then and I can go."
So, anyway, it didn't happen that way. It's just as well. She died
about a week before launch. The funeral was the day of the launch.
The whole crew called me from crew quarters that morning. I think
it was the day before. They were going to launch the next morning.
The Admiral [Rear Adm. J. B. Mooney, Oceanographer of the Navy] was
there with them, and George was there, and everybody was there. It
was kind of a difficult time then. The crew sent a beautiful arrangement,
all orchids. My God. Kathy chose those.
But, anyway, so off they went. One of my wife's best friends…
from San Antonio, was there with me, and another of her friends who
lives in Honolulu was there, so we kind of cleaned up the house and
they organized her clothes and that sort of thing. We still left them
there because another of her friends was going to come over and take
care of it. So after a couple of days and I felt like I could get
away, well, off I flew then with old friend to San Antonio, where
she lived, and then I flew on to Houston.
I guess I was here about the third day into the flight, and I was
over in the Astronaut Office. We then had an oceanographer assigned
to the office by the Oceanographer of the Navy. His name was Don Mautner
[LCDR], was there then. No, it was Ty Aldinger (LCDR) was there, but
he was about to leave. Yes, Ty Aldinger was there. I had one of the
desks that was empty in the Astronaut Office. There was always an
empty desk there. So that's where I'd go. So Ty came down to grab
me, and Steve Nagle came to grab me, and they said they're going to
talk—they’re going to dump some stuff over in real time
at Mission Control, "So let's go over there and see what they've
got to say." Okay, fine.
Anyhow, again, those were different days, see. Of course, in those
days we had classified and unclassified badges. Maybe they still have
them, I don't know. So I had a classified badge and I had a badge
that would let me into any building, on the base. So we go over and
it's just above Mission Control. Dick Covey was Capcom. The loudspeaker
was on. I heard him say, "Yeah, okay, Crip, he's here."
I didn't know what that meant. So then they said, "Okay, we're
ready to download the TV," or down—or radio transmit. So
the TV came on the big screen and there was Paul there with his beard,
saying, "I just thought I'd tell you what I'm seeing up here,
you know." [Laughter] It was tremendous.
The thing is that he had seen these whole fields of spiral eddies
that Truly had seen in 8, and it was one of the things we want to
know. Do they really exist other places or was it just a strange event
down in the Indian Ocean? He said, "The whole Eastern Mediterranean
is full of them, see them off the Gulf Stream," and blah, blah,
blah, blah, blah. They only had five minutes in the past. He was going
on and on.
So then Kathy came floating by and said, “Hi Bob!” you
know. [Laughter] Sally came up feet first, like this. "Wish you
were here!" They all dumped and that sort of thing.
So, you know, then they came back and landed. I remember they landed,
flying in the STA back to Ellington [Air Force Base, Houston, Texas],
and we went out. It was raining to beat hell. The water was about
this deep on the ramp. Of course, they had to climb down on the ladder
of the STA and walk across the ramp. The families were running out,
and I just walked out, you know. Paul's wife was there, of course,
and his kids, and all the families were there. So that was a big event.
For me that was a major event.
Then, of course, for the next week, the whole crew was debriefing,
but so was Paul. So he and I just sat there and he just dumped. He'd
taken a tape recorder with him. He'd recorded everything he saw. Plenty
of photographs. But then he just sat there and dumped to a tape recorder
and to me. You have to do it quickly, because it's amazing how quickly
the people who go in space really forget the feeling and forget things
that they saw and did in sequences. The feeling goes in probably about
I remember Rick Hauk coming back from whatever mission it was, I think
it was the mission they flew with Sally Ride. It was the next day,
and usually, even though they're tired and everything, they usually
come out to the photo lab the next day to look at their pictures.
It's one of the things they all get excited about. Their excuse is
that they've got to give a media debriefing and they want to get the
best pictures ready for the debriefs. So Rick was there, and I said,
"How are you?"
He said, "I'm madder than hell."
I said, "What happened?"
He says, "Well, I don't like it."
I said, "What do you mean, you don't like it?"
"Well," he says, "I woke up in the middle of the night
last night in bed, at home, and I had to go to the bathroom, and I
tried to push out of that bed, and I kept pushing and I wasn't moving.
I couldn't figure out what the hell had happened." Well, you
know, up there, you know, if they've got to go anywhere, they just
go like that and they go sailing away. "It took me about five
minutes to [get] up and figure out that I was at home in bed, and
it was so damn hard to get out of bed." [Laughter]
But after a day or so, you see, they lose that feeling. So this is
why it was so important that Paul sat and just dump to me. His wife,
the next day, flew home with the kids, because they'd been down to
the Cape a little before and during the flight. So she was with him
for one night, I guess, and the kids, and then he—we had a hotel
room. We just sat there half the night, talking.
So that was a big deal, and it was a big deal for oceanography because
he had confirmed, or he had determined that some of the things that
we thought were just maybe sports of an occasion or just happened
occasionally and were not really real things, or didn't last for any,
or there were not many places, were indeed true. They were there.
And, of course, he also showed that there were these huge waves coming
through the Strait of Gibraltar that we knew were internal waves,
but we didn't know they were that big. There were ten kilometers between
crest to crest. Well, that means they were not regular internal waves,
they were not waves like all other ocean waves and sound waves like
this; they had peaks and then they had this long flat bottom, then
another peak. The wave heights were under water, but they were about
150 meters. Then you go for ten kilometers and get another one.
Well, that's non-linear. We'd kind of known that. I have a photograph
that Vance [D.] Brand took on Apollo-Soyuz, but we'd never seen it
again, but here it was in the Strait of Gibraltar. Everybody knew
there were internal waves coming in. See, the water in the Strait
of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean water is highly saline, more saline
than the Atlantic Ocean water, so it's heavier and it goes out through
the bottom, on the bottom of the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Atlantic
water comes in. So there's a very sharp density break between the
top water and the bottom water. When the top water's coming in, it
impacts on that bottom water and it makes waves down here on that
Okay, the internal waves coming in through the Strait of Gibraltar.
The fact that they were solitons, that is, they were internal waves
that had a peak, and there was a long trough in between the peak,
was not known. We did not know that before 41G and we got the photos.
Since that was one of the prime sites that we were going to look at
during Paul's flight, or during that flight, we did have a Navy team
over there working on the waters of the Strait of Gibraltar, a team
from the Navy Ocean—NORDA, Navy Ocean Research and Development
Activity, or whatever it was. They had ships over there. They had
a couple of aircraft helicopters.
They were particularly interested in internal waves, and they even
had an old war-weary B-17 over there for photography, that was owned
by the French Geodetic Survey when the French were down there to get
pictures. So it was a well-covered experiment, but it was not expected
that those waves were solitons; non-linear.
The thing is that back in the pre-World War II days, the U.S. oceanographers
did not know there were internal waves in the ocean. Of course, physical
oceanography in pre-World War II in the U.S. was not nonexistent,
but it was very usually done very near shore because we didn't have
research vessels, big research vessels. But the Germans had a big
research vessel called a Meteor. They're probably up to Meteor
IV by now, I don't know. I don't even know whether they have
one now. But I know I sailed on the Meteor II once. But they
had the Meteor, and they had some of these early German oceanographers.
They were famous.
After the war, we were able to get some of the papers written by these
guys that were published in the late thirties and the forties, that
were not available to us before the conflict. So this guy [Albert
Defant] had been on the Meteor and he'd been making stations off Northwest
Africa, off the bulge of Africa in waters off of the continental shelf
in waters maybe 1,000 meters deep. They just sat there for about a
week at that one station, and they made temperature and salinity and
depth casts into the water every hour.
When he put all that data together when he got back, the temperatures
showed that there were waves beneath the surface for these longer
wave lengths, lengths of maybe one to two kilometers on the surface
of that boundary layer between the warm water and the cold water here.
So they knew there were internal waves, but we didn't know that. But
even if we had, I doubt if anybody would have worried about it.
Then on that particular cruise, it was Albert Defant who was on the
cruise, they went on up to the Strait of Gibraltar and made a similar
set of stations just inside the Strait, a little to the east of the
port of Gibraltar, which was British. This was in 1938, so there wasn't
any conflict going on yet, and the Brits thought they had it under
control. But they made this station in there.
Again, we didn't learn until later that they had indeed determined
that there were internal waves there. They did not, in their paper,
… consider that the waves were indeed solitons. They said they
were long wave-length, but they just didn't have enough data to be
able to determine that they had such long troughs relative to the
crest or that they were really created routinely every day.
See, there's two high tides in the eastern Atlantic every day, and
going north and south across the middle of the Strait of Gibraltar,
between Gibraltar, which is in towards the Mediterranean, and Algiers,
which is out on the Atlantic coast, there's a ridge that goes across
the Strait and comes up to about 150 meters from the bottom, whereas
on either side it's much deeper. So when the highest of the two high
tides, which is once a day there's one high tide higher than the other,
punches that water into the Strait, it finally gets enough water there
so it breaks over the top of that ridge, and that's when the waves
are created that flood like somebody bangs on a piece of water and
that wave floods into the Mediterranean. Now, we didn't know that
until later, but the Germans knew that.
The British, of course, they had Gibraltar during World War II and
wasn't anybody going to get past them and Gibraltar. They didn't want
any German submarines coming in there. The Germans didn't have a port,
you see, in the Mediterranean. The Russians didn't have any submarines,
didn't have to worry about that. So all the British shipping and our
fleet in the Mediterranean, which was running around, felt fairly
secure until early in 1941, when the first event happened, when a
British ship was blown out of the water and they didn't know what
had happened. They figured it was a mine, because the Germans were
very active flying their long-range patrol aircraft and dropping mines.
So they just attributed it to a mine that they hadn't picked up on
their sonar or something.
Then later in early '43, a couple more Brit ships got blown up, and
by that time the U.S… was in North Africa, so we had some ships
in the Mediterranean, too. The Americans got really pretty twitchy
about all this. The British had a Corvette, kind of like a destroyer,
but a little shorter than a destroyer—Brits were big on Corvettes—that
they had stationed off Gibraltar in deep water, that had hydrophones
down on some cables beneath the water, so that they figured that if
any submarine came through or even tried to come through, they'd hear
They weren't hearing any, but, nonetheless, they began to realize
that there were some submarines in there. How did they get in there?
The British had submarines in there. Well, it wasn't till after the
war that we learned what they did. The German oceanographers were
brought into the German Navy. A pretty longtime good friend of mine
now was an oceanographer and was in the German Navy, beginning in
1938, I think, eventually was shot out of the water from his ship
and went in the POW camp.
But anyway, they went to the submarine people and said, "Well,
look, when we tell you what's down there, there's this strong density
difference. The water up here is much less dense than the water down
here, and there are these waves along there. If you could get your
submarine down to 100 meters—." And 300 feet, that was
pretty deep for a World War II submarine. "If you can then make
it neutrally buoyant, just kind of let it sit there, you can then
surf in on those waves. Shut off your engines and just cruise on in."
They didn't know how far the waves would go in, but the waves may
take you by this British hydrophone station and you're home free.
So they did that. That's how they got in. We didn't know that. But
anyway, we heard that story. There were a lot of American oceanographers
who will never believe that story, but it's documented in German literature.
But anyway, so it was a big deal for us to look at that. Number one,
we learned that they were solitons. Number two, what Paul was able
to document was the fact that when you see the group of waves that
have come through today, you also could see the waves that were farther
into the Alborn Sea and the Mediterranean, that were made yesterday.
As a matter of fact, with some of the photography he got, you were
able to document that you could see at least three days' worth of
waves going through that sea.
This is important because that means that those waves, being long
and very active, because the water, even though there are not waves
going around like this, the water, as the wave goes by, is down here
at 150 meters, but when the wave comes, that water's got to go up
to the surface. The wave is coming by. Then the water is going back
down. Furthermore, if it's a soliton, it's not a regular ocean wave,
a regular ocean wave is just a wave that goes up and down. The water
just goes up and down around with the wave, but when you get a soliton,
it is literally moving through the water, so this whole mass of water
is moving at reasonable speeds, 10 knots or something like that in
the ocean. That's pretty fast.
So what it meant, therefore, was that whole area of the Alborn Sea
was going, past Spain and Morocco down on the south side, was moving,
and therefore that was the main dynamic factor. So anything that was
happening in that water didn't have anything to do with eddies, didn't
have anything to do with the difference in water temperature, was
created by those waves going through.
Of course, even back in '83, that was a big deal to both the Russian
and U.S. navies, because we both had stuff going through there. So
the Navy was very excited about that. Worse than excited. Panicked,
some of them. Well, that was a big deal. Plus the fact that Paul had
seen spiral eddies in fields.
Then, of course, for the next year, Paul was in such demand by the
Navy to brief people. I did a lot of briefing, too, and we finally
decided—I briefed the Pacific Fleet and he'd do Washington,
D.C., and the Atlantic. But he was Australian, so he had to go down
there and shake the hands and drink the beer and all that sort of
stuff, which he loved. Paul's a great entrepreneur. He's a great buddy,
and he loves to be friendly with people, which some of the lady astronauts
didn't like … too much. But anyway, you know, he had a beard.
The only guy to fly with a beard. They told him, "You have to
cut the beard off because you can't wear it under your helmet."
And he said, "I ain't gonna cut it off and I'll wear it under
my helmet." And he did.
Quite a significant mission.
Yes, it was. It was a big breakthrough from the point of view of Earth
observation. I think it was a breakthrough from the point of payload
specialists, because they'd had these guys like [Senator Edwin] Jake
Garn and the Prince of Saudi Arabia [Al-Saud, Sultan bin Salman bin`
Abdulaziz], and later on they had—I guess those guys were after
that, actually. I think that was maybe early—he and Mark were
maybe the first payload specialists. I think that's right. Then they
had a bunch after that, guys who were paid to fly by their companies
and then Jake Garn and the Prince. Oh, my. And then finally the [Clarence
William] Willie Nelson [Jr.] congressman who was on the Science Committee
or Space Committee from Florida. As John Young says, "The one
who doesn't sing." Yes, those were—I don't know why they
did that. I don't even know why they do that. They did that just a
few months ago with this senile senator.
Jake Garn was up with [Margaret] Rhea Sedden, and they had a problem
with one of their satellites. They were sitting there, trying to put
things together with tongue depressors. Jake Garn was sick, was pretty
sick. I don't know whether we should tell stories like that. But anyway,
Jake Garn, he has made a mark in the Astronaut Corps because he represents
the maximum level of space sickness that anyone can ever attain, and
so the mark of being totally sick and totally incompetent is one Garn.
Most guys will get maybe to a tenth Garn, if that high. And within
the Astronaut Corps, he forever will be remembered by that…
The young kids don't know… the origin of a "Garn."
I'm sure somebody explains it to them.
Yes, I always do. The Prince flew with [Daniel C.] Dan Brandenstein.
I forget who else was on that flight. That was a good crew. The main
thing, other than the fact that his daddy wanted somebody from Saudi
Arabia to fly, what he was going to do was, when they came over Arabia,
he'd take pictures. But during the flight, at the appropriate times
he demanded that he be permitted to pray to Mecca. So it was the responsibility
of the flight deck crew to make sure that he knew at the right times
what direction Mecca was from the mid deck down below, so he could
point himself in that direction.
When I heard that, before they were going to fly—I forget what
mission that was, it was in '85, anyway—I was talking to the
crew one day and I said, "You know we can all become millionaires
out of this flight, and it would be very simple, won't cost us anything.
This guy is going to pray. I don't know how, four times a day, whatever
it is. He's going to get on his knees and get his head down on the
floor on the mid-deck. Everybody's going to leave him alone for that
time, right?" Right.
Now, it's the Prince. He didn't want to get his knee on the metal
decking of the mid deck or the grill deck down there. I said, "He's
probably got a towel or something like that to kneel on. What we want
to do, we want to go down here to Houston to a furniture store, and
we want to get one of these imitation Persian rugs, about yea long,
long enough so he can kneel on it and pray, with fringes on the end.
And we let him kneel on that.
"Now, when he kneels, you know, he's going to be in zero G, so
he's probably going to—he can't hold himself down because he
couldn't pray properly that way, but he may do it quickly, but, nonetheless,
he's going to be up like this. So what you want to do is get that
rug, get him on that rug, and take some pictures, enough so that you
can see that here he is kneeling on this carpet and he's up away from
the surface. Now, when he gets back, we'll take that picture and we'll
fix it up so that the background is desert and the trees of Arabia,
but here's the Prince up above on his flying carpet. Real Prince,
see." And I said, "Can you imagine how many millions of
those things you'd sell?" He thought about it for a while, but
Brandenstein finally chickened out. He wouldn't do it.
So, let's see. What else came along? Those were little things that
went on. I'm sure that Dan, who's now a vice president of Lockheed,
will probably say, "I don't remember that." But Shannon
Lucid remembers it and [Steven R.] Steve Nagle remembers it. I don't
know about the Frenchman [Patrick Baudry].
How did your role change over time? Did you continue to come in with
each new class and do training?
In those days, there was a class of '78, and then the classes through
'85 would just be a few people come in, half a dozen or so, so it
wasn't really a class. So what would happen would be, sometime during
a month or so after they'd get in, John would tell them, "Paul
Scully-Power and Bob are going to talk to you today or tomorrow,"
or whatever, and it would depend on what we thought we might talk
to them, get them for a day and we'd do it in the Gilruth Center,
and get them away from the Astronaut Office.
We'd talk to them usually for a day, six hours. We'd get rather detailed
with them, technical, because in those days it was important that
we be concerned with acoustics. Paul would give them at least an hour
of underwater acoustics. It was fairly simple to do. There wasn't
any organization that controlled the training of the astronaut class
then as there is now.
I can remember whenever it was, when Mike—I think the last class
that he and I did that way was when [C. Michael] Mike Foale came in.
I forget when that was, in the late eighties, I think it was, when
he came in. That was the last class. After that, things began to get
under the hands of the bureaucrats. They schedule these classes. The
classes, instead of kind of training by osmosis, they had regular
training periods of class. They were training for a year and they
were astronaut candidates for a year. Now it's two years. Stuff like
So, again, in those days it was still kind of the same. The only difference
was that there would be some time during the year when John Young
would say, "Hey, you'd better take care of those guys,"
and so we'd do that. And even after, when reflight was a long one—let's
see. Who was head? Dan Brandenstein was head of the office. It still
was that way for a while. But then I think what changed really was
when George Abbey, of course, was deposed for a while after the Challenger.
I forget the guy's name who was FCOD then, some guy that came from
Washington. That was when the bureaucratic stuff began to really start.
Even when he was there, there were enough guys like—I think
[David C.] Dave Leestma was his deputy, and stuff like that, so there
were enough people from the time before that things really didn't
change a lot, and the director of NASA-Houston was still hanging on
from before. I think it really wasn't until a lot of things changed.
[Dr.] Carolyn [Huntoon] came down to be the director, and George came
down to back [her] up, and [Daniel S.] Dan Goldin became the administrator.
That's when the big changes began. Dan Goldin insisted on control.
Did you work with each crew?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. After the Soviet Union disappeared
[in 1991], it became less intensive because for a while it was difficult
to prepare them in a way for observations that had some meaning that
they could understand, because there wasn't any big demand by the
Navy any longer. So why do you want to look at these things in the
ocean? Don't you have enough of them? Well, you know, no. We're still
finding things we hadn't seen before. Not a lot, but—
The big thing after—I guess it was after midway in '85, I was
first going to fly with Joe Engle and those guys, and then when that
satellite broke down and they had to change that flight to go up and
get that satellite and [James D. A.] “Ox” van Hoften got
out there and held the big satellite, if you remember seeing that.
They got it all fixed and he says, "Okay, you bad boy. Go,"
and pushed it away. [Laughter]
So, you know, about that time, in that period leading up to that,
Paul was busy running around doing other things, but I'd see him every
now and then and talk to him frequently. We came to the great conclusion
that spiral eddies were everywhere, that they simply were not confined
to certain areas of the ocean where there were strong currents or
where they were spun off from the shoreline, but they were everywhere.
The reason we didn't see them everywhere was that there were not enough
organic oils, refractants, these monomolecular oils on the sea surface,
to permit the streamlines to be reflected back by the sunlight into
the camera or into the crew's eyes.
So I began to try to get the crews to look for spiral eddies in areas
where in no way would we ever expect to see them. There were no major
ocean currents, there were no bumps in the bottom of the ocean, there
was no shoreline, no anything. Out here in the middle of the Pacific
Ocean away from everything, there aren't any spiral eddies, but what
is there? Well, they began to see them, isolated, maybe, but very
difficult to see because, as I say, there's not enough biological
oils on the surface there. It's pretty biologically barren in a lot
of the seas, but, nonetheless, we began to see them.
It became very clear that they're everywhere. They're ephemeral. We
began to see areas where there would be spiral eddies, and then the
Shuttle would come back on that orbit two or three days later, whatever
the orbit was, and there would be spiral eddies there, but not the
same spiral eddies. You could never see the same ones. So that meant
the field was still there, but these things were moving and changing.
Like smoke from a cigarette, you can't follow any puff as you blow
it in the air, or pipe or whatever it is, or any kind of motion like
that. You can't continuously follow that for very long, because they
keep changing. That doesn't mean that they're not dynamic. They're
still there. There are still eddies there.
We then learned that they go down to 100 to 200 or 300 meters. They're
rotating. They're rotating at good speeds. They're only rotating cyclonically.
That is, they go counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise
in the Southern Hemisphere. There have been oceanographers say that
can't happen, but, you know, nobody's ever been able to explain why
that does happen. This one guy, I was giving a talk somewhere, a guy
I'd known for years and years and years, a physical oceanographer
from England, he said, "Bob, that's against the law of conservation
I said, "Who the hell ever made that law?" [Laughter]
He said, "I did. It can't happen."
I said, "Yeah, but it does," you know. So we became convinced
that they were indeed everywhere, and the forces that were creating
them, therefore, had to be everywhere. It wasn't just here along that
current boundary or that shoreline, but there had to be something
else. So we finally began to realize there had been a lot of Russian
research also on these subsurface eddies of a little larger scale,
but, nonetheless, subsurface eddies.
So then we decided then it had to be that at the thermocline where
the sea temperature in the upper layers it's so well mixed by waves
that the temperature is the same going down to a given depth, and
then finally that surface turbulence disappears, it can't go any deeper,
and so then the temperature begins to decline. So there's, again,
a surface there where this density of the water is less than this
density down here. That's called the thermocline, or the place where
the temperature gradient changes. People have known that for years.
This surface layer was where all the navies like to have an acoustic
channel, so when nuclear submarines came along and they could below
that, that was a big—oh, God. Horrible.
So, anyway, the thing, then, we began to feel what's going on here
is that that subsurface layer is probably not flat, because there
are these eddies the Soviets had found down below the surface. So
they're going to be rotating, and they rotate one way, the water's
going to go down, and the other way it's going to go up. So that subsurface
layer is probably like a bunch of hills and valleys. So on top of
the hill, the water subsurface is going to flow off the top of the
hill, and in the Northern Hemisphere it's going to turn, because of
Coriolis, it's going to turn to the right, and if you've got a valley,
then that water's going to flood down the valley. So what you're going
to have is those subsurface hills and valleys, creating a motion in
the upper layer, which is going to spin into eddies. But we couldn't
really prove that.
So it wasn't until—actually, it wasn't until the late eighties
and early nineties when the French and the Italians and the Germans
and the U.S. had a big experiment called physical oceanography of
the Eastern Mediterranean, POEM. You know you always have to have
a good acronym. They went over and they did, for several years, very
detailed examinations of this variation in the depth of the thermocline
and what the difference of water, because in the Mediterranean it's
a big deal. A lot of evaporation and Jacques Cousteau running around
saying the Mediterranean's dead, and yet all the fishermen who live
around are catching fish just like they always did. They don't listen
to him, anyway, you know.
So it was a big deal to figure out what is really going on in the
exchange of water between the eastern Mediterranean and the west,
because there's water coming out of the Black Sea, you know, through
the Bosporus, and all that stuff. And then there's always these people
who say there's so much water coming out of the Nile River that it's
creating all this. Of course, the Russians are going to build a dam
and there isn't so much water.
So it was really a big deal to find out what is the structure in the
eastern Mediterranean, and therefore can you translate that to other
ocean areas, like the South China Sea, which is kind of closed, or
the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico or any sea that's kind of
inclined, maybe you can translate what's in the Mediterranean to those
seas. As a matter of fact, maybe you can do it to the open ocean.
Nobody knew that.
Well, anyway, they did such a great job in determining the surface
topography of that thermocline layer, they made beautiful maps, charts,
and so they had one that was of the Aegean Sea. Aegean Sea is between
Turkey and Greece, north of Crete, you know, and it's up where Rhodes
is and all those famous old islands we all want to go see but most
of us haven't. I haven't, anyway.
So we had some good photographs from that area. [James F.] Jim Buchli,
on 61-A, had taken some fantastic photos of spiral eddies in the Aegean
Sea, so I just took that thing and I got the chart from those guys
that year, in the fall and winter of 1985, and I just laid the photo
over, changed the photo so it was vertical, and laid it over, and
that's where they are.
Just perfect. Now the thing is, you see, that so therefore it turned
out that spiral eddies represent a major dynamic feature in the ocean.
Kinetic energy, which is the energy which makes the water rotate,
before anybody knew there were many eddies in the ocean, they thought
that kinetic energy was all created by the major ocean currents, the
Gulf Stream flowing over to Europe and coming back, and the equatorial
currents, and over in the Pacific the Kuroshio [Japan] current, and
so forth and so on. But when you start putting eddies into that scene,
they rotate, too, and if you have enough eddies, then they have got
to be accounted for in the budget of kinetic energy.
By 1976, the oceanographers determined that these great huge eddies,
which are 100 to 200 kilometers in diameter and go down to about 1,000
meters, there were enough of those in the ocean that they represent
the major part of kinetic energy in the world ocean. That turned the
whole physical oceanography world upside down. But they didn't know
about spiral eddies, so then along come spiral eddies and, you know,
first of all, they're nothing, they don't mean anything.
But the more we saw and the more we realized that they were indeed
integral parts of the dynamics of the upper ocean, therefore when
I saw one of the key oceanographers, I said, "You know, you really
have to understand that they represent a significant percentage of
the kinetic energy of the “oceans;” spiral eddies. You
can't have more than 100 percent. But they're part of this 80 percent
or whatever it is of the eddies. So the big eddies are not 80 percent,
they're less than that, and these are whatever." Probably 
or  percent.
We finally got to the point where spiral eddies were everywhere. They're
ubiquitous. We saw them in the Caspian Sea, saw them in the Salton
Sea in California. They're in Bay of South China. You name the sea,
they're in it. Not the Aral Sea, it's too small now and too shallow.
But if they are, as we had realized, influenced by a coriolis, by
the rotation of the Earth, then there's going to be a place in the
ocean where there are no spiral eddies because the coriolis influence
effect isn't there. That's at the equator.
So the big challenge to the astronauts was, therefore, beginning in
the middle of 1985, how close to the equator are spiral eddies? Gary
[E.] Payton on 51-C had photographed one about 9 degrees south in
the Arabian Sea, and that's the closest we'd seen one.
Well, nobody got any very close, much closer than that, but finally
on 61-C, [Robert L.] Hoot Gibson and [Charles F.] Charlie Bolden [Jr.]
and [Steven A.] Steve Hawley—who else was on that? Hoot Gibson,
Charlie Bolden, Franklin [Chang-Diaz], Steve Hawley, and [George D.]
Pinky Nelson, along with Willie Nelson, the one who doesn't sing.
So, anyway, this was Charlie's first flight. He's a nice guy. He's
now a three-star general, Marine Corps. Good guy, though. So Charlie—I
forget, it was Hoot's third or fourth flight, second or third, anyway,
and they told Charlie, "Look. You're not going to get space sick,
but when we get to zero G, just don't start moving very quickly very
So they get up there, and they're in zero G. All the crew are there
getting their gear off, and Charlie's just sitting there, got his
helmet on, just looking straight ahead, you know. Finally he says,
"Can I take my helmet off?"
"Yeah, sure. Go ahead, Charlie."
So he takes his helmet off, unscrews it, gets his helmet off. I think
Steve Hawley grabbed it from him. But he's still looking straight
ahead. He said, "Is it okay if I look out?"
Hoot says, "Oh, yeah, sure. You can look out now."
By this time they're upside down and they've got their cargo bay doors
open, all that sort of thing. So Charlie looks out and, as he later
told me, he says, "You know, the first damn thing I saw, that
whole damn ocean was full of spiral eddies, and I said, 'That goddamn
Stevenson, he's right! He's right!'" [Laughter]
But anyway, the deal on that flight was, they were going to find the
eddies closest to the equator, but the sun angle wasn't all that great,
so it wasn't until near the end of their flight that they had the
opportunity to do that. That flight, they couldn't come back [on schedule].
They had some weather problems, so they had an extra day in orbit,
but by that time they'd shot all their film. They didn't have anything
to do, so they decided, "Okay, we're going to find those eddies,
but we don't have anything to photograph, so everybody's just going
to draw a chart."
So Charlie and Hoot and Steve and Pinky were going to do this, and
they, therefore, had a pool of who found the one closest to the equator,
except, as Steve says, "How are we going to prove it?" But,
see, by that time they had the Spoc computer aboard, and they could
just hit that computer and give them immediate latitude and longitude
of their nadir point. But even so, how were they going to document
Well, anyway, they came back, and three of them had hand-drawn eddy...
They're all trying to convince me that they saw the ones closest to
the equator. But the bottom line is that nobody—as far as we
know, they do not exist within 6 degrees of the equator. That's the
closest we've ever got it. And even ships, Navy ships and research
vessels going through equatorial waters, you know, had become interested
in this sort of phenomenon, and they have not seen it either. So that's
a fairly clear area.
On STS-26, the reflight, [Richard O.] Dick Covey was the pilot. Dick
Covey was a classmate of my number-one son at the Air Force Academy,
so he was a pretty eager sort. Rick Hauk was the commander, and he
was good. He was very eager to do these sort of things. But anyway,
Dick Covey was—they were going to have a lot of time over the
equator in the Pacific, where the sun angle was perfect, there would
be sun glitter, and, by God, he was going to do it. So part of his
flight task was to be at the window with a camera in his hand.
By this time, people got the brainy idea that if they put some Velcro
stuff all around, that they could hang cameras all around their windows
anyway. So he did that… when he got back, I saw him the next
I should break here and stop this tale for a bit and say that I wasn't
very comfortable [briefing "reflight" crews]. See, I used
to brief the crews down in crew quarters, before they launched, maybe
one or two days before they launched. I'd go to the launch and I'd
come back here. On 51-L, I was down there, and I knew the crew well,
other than Chris [Christa S. McAuliffe] and Gary [Gregory A. Jarvis].
That mission kept slipping day after day after day. So every time
I'd be ready to brief them, well, [Michael J.] Mike Smith would come
out and say, "We're changing all of our crew activity plan for
this," blah, blah, blah. I'd say, "I'll come back tomorrow."
Finally, on Saturday, before they launched on Monday, on Saturday
I said, "Are you going to go tomorrow?"
"No, no, no, we're not going to go tomorrow."
I said, "Look. I can't stay around anymore. I've got briefings
all next week back at JSC [Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center], so I'm
going. You guys know what I want anyway. I've talked to you enough
times. It's no problem." So I left, flew back here. It was Super
Bowl Sunday. I watched the Super Bowl game on TV.
Next morning I was watching NASA Select. I was over at the Camino
Village Apartments... I see all the ice hanging from the tower, and
I say, "Well, they ain't going today." So I went in [to
the office]. When I got in, I heard that Mike Smith had called his
wife, who was down there with the kids, and said, "We're not
going today, so don't even bother to come out, because it's cold."
It was cold.
So I don't know what time it was, about 9:30 or so, Steve Nagle came
by and he says, "Let's go watch."
I said, "Watch what?"
He says, "They're going."
I said, "They're not going."
He said, "Yes, they are. Come on down."
So we went down to the then library of the Astronaut Office, back
in the old building. That all bothered me. I mean, you know, over
and above the fact that we lost so many good people, good friends.
But the fact that—see, the day before [Virgil I.] Gus Grissom
and those guys [Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee] burned up,
I had briefed them the day before, you know. They didn't want me to
come down for the launch in those days, but they were going to go
in to do this sim [simulation] in the capsule, so they said, "Why
don't you come down and do a briefing then." So I did. The next
day, they were gone. I never briefed another Apollo crew. Didn't want
to do that. So it was tough to—I did not go down to the Cape
for the STS-26 launch. I just wasn't going to do that. As a matter
of fact, I didn't go down for a while.
So when they got back [STS-26]—but I was waiting for them when
they got back. Dick Covey's walking down the hall and said, "Come
on. Let's go over and look at the film." He says, "I'm really
sorry, Bob. That damn tropical ocean was just flat as a board. There
was nothing there, not anything. Clouds around, but no eddies, no
nothing, no waves, no nothing."
So we go in the photo lab, and Hauk was there and others, and we were
looking at film. I'm cranking some film over. We had three viewing
tables. I'm looking along, and I'm looking at the equatorial area,
and here are these long lines going through the ocean, and there we
saw solitons. We later learned that there are suloys. Suloys are chaotic
wave lines where two masses of water will come together and the waves
are being blown, but the water on one side is going this way and the
other side is going that way, and the waves come here at that point.
The waves just crash together. You can see little ones out here in
Galveston Bay or even in Clear Lake. But in the ocean, they can get
pretty big. They can get so big that in the old days sailing vessels
couldn't get through them.
We had known that they existed, and we knew they existed in bays where
tides would come in and there would be this thing in front. The Soviets
call them a suloy. We call them chaotic wave lines. But we called
them suloys after we learned what they were doing. So I looked at
those things and I said, "What is that?" So I got the list
of the nadir points and I saw that that line was right along where
the boundary between the equatorial current was going west and the
countercurrent was going east. So it was clearly a converging boundary,
so that had to be a suloy. So I yelled at Dick, "Come over here
and look at this. Here's the tropical Pacific and you were taking
He said, "Yeah, look at how flat that is. There's just the wind
I said, "Yeah, but what's that?"
He said, "God, I never saw that." Well, they were all over.
It was the first evidence that we had that there were these long converging
wave lines showing a convergence in the ocean, that there were these
long things in the open ocean.
So then Paul and I began to go back through oceanographic data to
see if we could ever find any subsurface information about them, because
they're not very wide. You look at the photograph and it looks like
some guy had a hoe and dug a trench in the ocean. Well, they're really
wider than that. They're maybe 100 meters wide or something like that.
But from space they don't look that wide. So Paul finally found—he
said, "I remember this research crew I was on down in the Coral
Sea, and we found something like that, but it was at nighttime, and
I was not on deck, but the guys took a lot of data, so let me see
if I can find the data."
Well, sure enough, what's happened is when those things come together,
they actually form a bunch of very tight internal waves that go down
to as deep as 500 meters. Well, what a hell of an acoustic discontinuity
that's got to be. Then we dredged out some papers from Japan. They
call them—what do they call them? Siomes. And they determined
that they gave off a hissing sound. Under water, listening to them,
it gave off a very high-frequency sound that sounds like bacon frying,
So when we checked into the frequency, it was exactly the frequency
[of] the new, fancy Mark 45 torpedo, that will go 40 or 50 miles,
and has its search sonar on its nose, so when it gets going and its
fire-by-wire thing, it gets out far enough and you kind of head it
towards where you think the other guy is, then it can pick up the
noise from the ship or the other submarine and home in on it. But
if you're firing through a suloy, it ain't gonna make it, because
there's the sound and it's going to explode on contact.
So, you know, suddenly this opened up a whole new can of worms, because
these torpedoes were highly classified, you know. I didn't know much
about them. Paul did, but I didn't. He said, "By God, that's
it," then he went back home to his lab and told these guys all
about it, and then this accounted for a lot of premature firings that
nobody could explain.
So then the question was, where are they? Where are they in the ocean?
Well, you know, once the astronauts saw these things that Dick Covey
had photographed, then other guys say, "You know, I saw something
like that out in Hawaii," and so we began to get more and more
information about suloys. Well, they're not only created in the open
ocean, as we knew, but they're in tidal areas, sounds where the tide
moves in, and they're between islands. There's a constant suloy between
Maui and Lanai in Hawaii. It gets so great, if you've ever been to
Maui, there's the Kaanapali coast, Lanai is down here, you know, you
know the famous old song, "I'm going to Maui tomorrow, to marry—"
Oh, well, okay. Different generation. [Laughter]
Anyway, Lahaina is here. I don't know if you've ever been there. It's
a neat town, a little old sailing village. Then you come up along
the coast where all of the hotels are. And then right across is the
island of Lanai, which has now become a nice, very expensive sort
So there's this suloy. I'd seen that thing the few times I had stayed
there. I then went back to learn about it, and it turns out that each
day it's a tidal thing, and it gets so high that if you're in a sailing
vessel, sailboats—a lot of sailboats over there—and you're
heading north and that thing's there, you're not going to get through
it. So there are certain times every day when the people who live
over there, the Hawaiians and, of course, the Haoles [white folk]
have gone over there and live, don't sail their boats up there. I
mean, they wait until the tide changes, because if they get caught
in it, they can't get through, and they've got to either come back
or go around Lanai or go around Molokai or something like that.
So, anyway, those kinds of things then begin to pop up all around
the ocean. Of course, once the threat of the Soviet Union went away,
they still became important, because they then permitted us to be
able to determine boundaries of water motion. We knew water motion
from the spiral eddies, we knew that kind of motion, but how do we
detect where the actual boundary is between equatorial and countercurrents?
Or are there boundaries along the edge of the Gulf Stream? Yes, there
are, but we didn't know that until we began to see this. So, yes,
it was a serendipity sort of thing, because Dick Covey never saw them,
but after that, you know, the boys and girls, astronauts, would see
them. So, anyway, that was a pretty big deal.
Looking back over your time at NASA, you've brought up so many important
points where there was a new discovery or new findings, but as you
were going through, what was your biggest challenge throughout the
whole time, whether it was scientific oriented or people oriented?
Our biggest challenge, without question, was to convince the scientific
community and, in the case of the Navy, the naval community, that
these things that we were seeing were real and should be addressed
in a scientific way. The physical oceanographers better find out what
the action is that creates these things and so forth and so on, and
the Navy better damn well look at them. That was the biggest problem
in the early days.
After Paul flew and we briefed a lot of high-level Navy guys in England
and we got to know people like [Admiral Sir John] Sandy Woodward,
who was the big admiral, went down to Falkland Islands and all that
sort of stuff, and the admirals here, and a lot of people who were
operational submarine people and aircraft people. Aircraft people
were kind of easy to do because they had seen crazy things, but they
didn't know what they were. That was the biggest challenge, to convince
people that what the astronauts were seeing with their eyeball and
what they were photographing with a camera were indeed real, important
features in the ocean, and were features that represented dynamics
in the ocean that you had to address if you're trying to consider
the origin and the changes in the ocean.
Spiral eddies, you know, now that the threat is gone, spiral eddies
are really a key to all this stuff that they're trying to do about
climate change. See, one of the biggest things in the models that
they're doing on changing climates is the influence of the ocean,
or the interchange between the ocean and the atmosphere. It's very
difficult to model the ocean, and so what they do is that they model
a mean ocean temperature and then they forget it, and they may change
it as they're running their model year by year by year by year. They
have enough capability to change the ocean temperature twice a year,
summer and winter, but that's it.
Now here are these spiral eddies, you see. They're at the surface.
They're spiraling cyclonically, which means there's cold water in
the center. They're not turning because there's cold water there;
they're turning because there's some force that's created them. So
they're bringing the cold water to the surface. So if you're out there
measuring ocean temperature, then if you happen to measure in the
middle of a spiral eddy, which you're not going to see from a ship
or whatever, then that water is that temperature, but over here it
ain't, 15 miles away.
But when you get so many of these things, people say, "They're
just 15 kilometers in diameter, or 30. What difference does it make?"
Well, you get these whole fields of them covering a major portion
of the ocean, and therefore they're a major difference in the temperature
of the sea surface and you must account for that. But you can't do
it, because, number one, they're ephemeral. The whole field may be
there all the time, but they are not there. So what is there for the
difference in temperature that they create? And there's no way that
these models can possibly address that.
Furthermore, those eddies are bringing water up from 100 meters or
150 meters, whatever it is. That water is much different than it was
at the surface, because there are a lot of beasties down there, as
John Young—well, I don't say that. But there are a lot of beasties
down there which eat up the carbon dioxide, right? So this water in
the center of the spiral eddy is lower in carbon dioxide than surface
water would normally be, and therefore if there's a field of spiral
eddies, which there are all the time, they represent a carbon dioxide
sink—that is, carbon dioxide going into the ocean—which
has not been, and in their models is not addressed.
So all this mystery about—see, there's a big mystery. They cannot
account for the CO2 that's produced by man—or by women, too,
but I mean, you know—they cannot account for where 50 percent
of it is. They measure CO2 in the atmosphere, it's only half. If they
take this CO2 that's up there and man's producing this much, which
is going up there, that amount cannot be found in the atmosphere,
so it's got to go somewhere. So this is a big deal, looking for sinks.
Recently somebody said, "Oh, the forests in the Northern Hemisphere,
[are] grabbing it all up, and people growing orchids in Hawaii,"
all this. They don't know where it is. Since they've measured the
ocean on a broad basis, they say, well, the ocean temperatures, that
determines how much CO2 can be drawn in. But that ain't it, see.
But the spiral eddies are creating a circumstance or a situation which
is very difficult to determine, because the eddy that you measure
right now is not there probably four hours from now. There's another
one there. This whole field is moving around just like smoke in the
breeze, smoke rings and all that sort of thing. They exist. There's
probably roughly—we figured there are probably 5 million spiral
eddies rotating in the world ocean continuously, somewhere, so they
represent a major part of the ocean.
So from the point of view, from the Navy, that's bad news. From the
guys who are worrying about climate models, it's impossible. Forget
it. "I don't even want to talk about it." But the models
aren't any good anyway, are not very good anyway, but they cannot
ever be anywhere close to being precise until they can account for
that continuous change in temperature. It's either going to have thermal
energy going up or it's going to have thermal energy going down, and
you can't do anything unless you know that.
It's the same with all these gigantic cumulus clouds that are roaring
up in the Tropics. There are thousands of them. They're like chimneys.
They're like air and water and everything is going up at 40 miles
an hour, up into the stratosphere, every day, and then at nighttime,
there isn't enough energy and they all collapse. Well, that stuff
is going up and down and up and down. How do you account for it? You
have to, but they don't.
Everybody's worrying about CFCs [Chlorofluorocarbons] are going up,
all this air-conditioning stuff, and you can't have that anymore,
that's bad stuff, because it's going up and eating up all the ozone,
because the chlorine disassociates from the CFC and it becomes chlorine
monoxide. All this sort of stuff. Probably not true. [Besides], they
say there's not enough chlorine going up there from the ocean, because
chlorine is hydroscopic, you see. It will grab water, and when it
gets up there, the moisture in the cloud or the moisture in the atmosphere
will get together and it rains down. It doesn't get to the stratosphere.
But if you look at these towering cumulus in the photographs that
these guys take many, many times, you can see there in the stratosphere,
the rising air currents are 40 to 50 miles an hour, and that stuff,
chlorine, is not going to rain out of those things. More than once,
aircraft have been at that altitude, or balloons, to measure what's
going on, and even when they're worried about ash from volcanoes in
the stratosphere, they get up there with airplanes and they scrape
around in the stratosphere, in the lower stratosphere. You can't get
up too high. Don't have airplanes to get that high.
They take a lot of stuff, and there's a lot of chlorine up there.
There's a lot of dust up there and, interestingly enough, on some
flights in the Caribbean, after Mt. Pinatubo [Luzon, Philippine Islands]
erupted, they were up there and they were trying to determine how
much ash might be up in the lower stratosphere, because Pinatubo created
kind of a change in temperature for a while. So they had all these
little things in the front of the airplane that were collecting air
samples and little screens to filter out the ash. They could get pieces
out to a few microns in size.
These meteorologists got back and they looked at this stuff. Gee,
what's that in there? There's something in there that they didn't
recognize that looked like silica. Well, it was pieces of marine microscopic
phytoplankton that had been carried into the stratosphere. So the
point is that there's a tremendous amount of energy that's carrying
stuff in to the stratosphere that we haven't been accounting for.
Then, of course, these things collapse and go down.
So you get the spiral eddies that are creating havoc. Suloys don't
create a lot of havoc. Internal waves do in the sense that they are
so numerous now, we know internal waves now are in many, many open
areas of the ocean, as well as near shore, and, of course, what they're
doing is carrying water up. They come up to the surface, 50 meters
or 100 meters high, and they come up and they bring that stuff up.
Well, it's kind of like a spiral eddy, except it's in the waves and
this stuff is going through the water. Then on top of that you got
all this stuff coming out of the ocean, into the huge cumulus clouds,
and even some of the climate guys doing models say, "Man, we're
never able to take care of clouds."
So a lot of this stuff that looks kind of—well, it's kind of
fun stuff. There's spirals down there, and, oh, boy, there's a suloy.
On STS-88 up at 240 miles, Jerry [L.] Ross and [James H.] Jim Newman.
Jerry Ross claims they wouldn't let Jim have the camera, but I don't
think that's right. But anyway, they got pictures of south Australia
and the southwest Pacific Ocean that we never had before because it
was clear there. They just put the long focal length lens on, and
they got a fantastic picture of this tidal suloy going up Prince Consort
Sound next to Adelaide. We'd never in the world seen that sort of
So you keep going on, and the more you understand or the more you
feel is that this ocean and the atmosphere is so mixed up and so turbulent
and so dynamic, that when you start playing around with a computer
model, even though you may run that damn model for what computer-wise
is a couple hundred years, you know, it's kind of like fun and games.
It's a "what if." The modelers hate to hear that. They don't
like to hear me. But it's a "what if" thing. You say, "What
if the CO2 in the atmosphere was twice what it is?" Which it
ain't yet, but what if. What's going to happen? So they run it, and
it's going to be that much warmer, and [Vice President Albert] Al
Gore claps his hands and all that sort of stuff. But the point is,
you see, the model does not really take into account what the dynamic
ocean and the atmosphere really is. And they can't. I mean, even the
big computers are not big enough.
So, what was the biggest challenge? It was getting people to be convinced
that this kind of turbulence in the ocean really did exist, does exist.
Quite a challenge, and I think you've really shown how—
We did it.
—how intricate it all is.
We did it.
You did it. I think it's a good point to stop here.