NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Washington, D.C. – 29 April 2004
Today is April 29th, 2004. This oral history is being conducted with
Fred Gregory for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.
Interviewer is Rebecca Wright. Mr. Gregory currently serves as NASA’s
Deputy Administrator, and we are talking today in his office at NASA
Headquarters in Washington, D.C., about his first days with the agency
and those days that led up to selection as an astronaut.
Thank you again. We appreciate you taking time from your schedule
to visit with us. We’d like to start by you sharing with us
how your interest in aviation began.
I think it was because my dad, who was an educator, but he was also
an engineer, very early in my life exposed me to areas that I’m
sure that he would have liked to have participated in as a kid. So
I think that when he took me to see things and visit and touch, I
think he was actually taking himself.
One of the places we always went was to an Air Force base nearby Washington,
D.C. It was Andrews Air Force Base [Maryland], and as a kid, I can
always remember him taking me there. If I sit and think, I can’t
remember exactly why, but we were always near it. As an example, in
the late forties or early fifties, they had sports car racing at Andrews.
They would use the taxiway and the runways for these car races. He
would always position himself and me across from a hangar, and there
would always be airplanes. There would always be airplanes on the
ramp or in the hangar that I could see. And though the object was
to watch the sports car racing, you couldn’t avoid seeing the
airplanes in the background.
He was not a flyer. There were a lot of his friends, however, that
I later learned were Tuskegee Airmen, but who visited our house quite
often and talked about flying, but I never really associated their
knowledge of flying with anything that had to do with the military.
I remember, as a kid, when I was very young, taken to a very small
airport and put in an airplane and I was of the belief that they were
going to take me flying, but I recall that my mother banged on the
window and told the pilot not to take off, and so my first flight
was actually a taxi around the runway. But I guess I never really
identified who these people were relative to their importance, but
I do know that as a kid, as a very small child, I was always exposed
I think I was intrigued with the military in the fifties, and I know
much, much earlier than that there was a very active Junior ROTC [Reserve
Officer’s Training Corps] program in the high schools in Washington,
D.C. The program was mandatory for tenth graders and voluntary for
eleventh and twelfth graders, but it was such an important program,
as far as we were concerned, and it was so visible, that in our senior
year perhaps two-thirds of all the boys in the high school would be
in the program. So it was a very, very large program.
So I think I gained an appreciation for the military during that period
of time in high school through that exposure. Then I connected the
airplane and the military, and decided that military aviation was
what I was going to do, and I probably had made that decision by the
time I was fourteen years old or so.
I began dating a young lady who attended a rival high school in Washington,
D.C., and the first date that we went on was to an air show at Andrews.
So I had a brand-new driver’s license, a brand-new girlfriend,
and we drove to Andrews to watch an air show. I don’t think
she really understood or appreciated at that time the love and passion
that I had for both the military and the airplanes, but on June the
3rd we will celebrate our fortieth anniversary. [Laughs] So she was
either very patient or in fact had those same kinds of motivations.
But I think it was the early exposure that I had from my dad to an
area, an environment that he would very much have loved to have been
in, but did not have the opportunity.
You received an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy [Colorado
Springs, Colorado]. Can you tell us how that selection happened?
At one of these air shows I was challenged by the Air Force flying
demonstration group, called the Thunderbirds, and I can recall talking
to one of the pilots, actually going to talk to one of the Thunderbird
pilots, and I asked him how I could become a Thunderbird pilot. As
I recall, though I may be in error, he went to the University of Colorado
[Boulder, Colorado], or at least a university in Colorado, and he
said that they were building a new Air Force Academy in Colorado,
and he said if I wanted to become a Thunderbird, I should go there.
This is before the school was completed and probably before groundbreaking
in the site, in its present site north of Colorado Springs. So I think
probably by the age of fifteen, fourteen or fifteen or something like
that, I had decided that that’s where I wanted to go, was the
Air Force Academy.
But as all young kids’ dreams are not necessarily fulfilled
immediately, I knew my parents would accept this trip to Colorado,
but I also had what I believed were kind of family obligations, and
there was a history in my family of attending Amherst College [Amherst,
Massachusetts]. My grandfather, I believe, had graduated in 1898,
and my uncle, Dr. Charles True, graduated in 1926, I believe. So I
was kind of the appointed one, or anointed one, to go, and so I applied
and was accepted to Amherst.
I went to Amherst, and it was very clear once I got there that that
was not going to satisfy my life’s dream to fly or to pursue
a military career or to be an engineer of sorts. So I think my dad,
realizing and recognizing this, began to search for a sponsor, a congressional
sponsor, for his son. As I understand it, he walked the halls of Congress,
going to all of the black congressmen, looking for a congressman who
would nominate his son, me, for an appointment to the Air Force Academy.
He found a congressman the first year, and I can’t recall the
gentleman’s name. I think he was from Detroit [Michigan], but
I can’t recall. But I was nominated as one of his alternates.
The congressman could nominate a principal nominee and then designate
ten alternates. So I was one of the alternates. If the principal qualified,
then the principal was accepted at the Academy. If the principal did
not qualify, then they went down the first alternate and second alternate
and finally, if they finally, in the eleven total nominees, they would
get at least one person who would qualify.
So the principal did qualify, and that was Charles [V.] Bush, who
was in the first class. He was one of the first three African Americans
to attend the Academy in the class of ’63. I was the only alternate
who also qualified, so eleven were nominated, the principal qualified
and myself qualified. So that meant I would not go in the first year.
So I transferred from Amherst to American University in D.C. for my
second year as I awaited with great hope of getting that principal
nomination the following year. Adam Clayton Powell, Reverend Adam
Clayton Powell from New York, took me as his principal nominee the
next year and so all I needed to do was qualify medically. I qualified
medically and was accepted into the next class of 1964.
During the four years there, since he was the congressman from New
York City, my address, my legal address, as I understand it, was the
Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem for those four years, so that
I could be a New York resident. And you would ask, well, why would
I go off and search someplace else? Well, Washington, D.C., did not
have a congressman or senator, as they still don’t. So there
was no method for getting an appointment from a congressional source
here in D.C. So that’s why my father went and looked for it.
But he did a lot of work. My mom tells me that he spent a lot of time
just knocking on people’s doors, but I think that kind of goes
back to this if he had had an opportunity, he may have done this as
a teenager. And again, I think that I may have been his replacement
Could you share with us some of your experiences being at the Academy,
especially since you were definitely in a minority? It was the early
sixties and, as you mentioned, there weren’t many African Americans
at the Academy at that time. Did you feel like you were at the place
where you could start fulfilling your dream of mixing military education
and aircraft all together?
You know, the intriguing thing is that when I watched these airplanes
fly, I was always fascinated why fighters could maneuver very quickly
and why passenger aircraft were very comfortable for passengers—they
had different characteristics—and why helicopters flew. So I
was intrigued not only from the freedom that you got from flying at
high altitude and looking down, soaring, reaching out and touching,
but I was also intrigued about what the different characteristics
were of these aircraft and why some had different capabilities that
So though I didn’t realize it at the time, I thought with the
name Air Force Academy, there would be airplanes there. In fact, there
were no airplanes at the Air Force Academy when I arrived. They had
some airplanes that were identified with certain programs, such as
navigator training, and during our first summer we had an orientation
ride in a T-33, one of the first operational jet fighters or trainers.
But I was interested in engineering, and from that, using that engineering
and the math to understand the characteristics of airplanes. So though
I went out there to be in the military, I went there specifically
because the Air Force flew airplanes, and I knew that the courses
there would immerse me in an understanding and an appreciation for
aeronautics and the flight of aircraft.
What I didn’t realize when I went there was that that was a
little more than 50 percent of the course of study. I didn’t
realize that I also would concentrate in English, economics, history,
law, geology, human studies. I didn’t realize that. I don’t
think I appreciated the importance of that almost 50-50 division between
a liberal arts and an engineering degree, and I wondered why I had
to take these other courses. In the course of my life, though, I have
learned how important that really was, and that was a great engineer
is only great in the environment if he or she is surrounded by engineers,
but the world is not composed of just engineers. There are other kinds
of people who have other interests, other areas of interest, and that
if you are to be successful, you have to understand their language
too. So you have to be able to talk. You have to take it from the
advanced degree to almost—this is not meant as an insult—but
take it back down to the fourth grade so that everybody can understand
not only why it works, but why it’s important and why you are
so passionate about it.
In fact, I became so interested in some of the other courses, that
though my major was engineering, my minor was English. I came out
in a dilemma about what was more important, and I think it pretty
much set me up for the rest of my career, because I realized that
the background diversity was extremely important and that without
it, you were only a piece of a person, and you really had to be the
whole piece of pie. I mean, you had to be the whole pie; you couldn’t
be just a slice of it.
There were three African Americans in the class of ’63. The
first class of the Academy graduated in ’59, and so this would
have been five years later. It would have been Charles Bush who was
from D.C., and, in fact, he and I had gone through school together.
He was a year or so older than I was, but we were in the same junior
high school, until he became a page, a congressional page, and then
went to page school. But I knew Charles Bush very, very well.
“Ike” Payne, Isaac [S.] Payne and Roger [B.] Sims were
the other two in that class. Roger, unfortunately, just died in February.
He had attended his fortieth reunion last June and was celebrated
because of his achievement, but had very severe diabetes and then
died, passed away in February of ’04.
Ike Payne, I didn’t know him before, but after graduation, he
also, as a pilot, was an engineering test pilot and went through Edwards
Air Force Base [California], Edwards Test Pilot School, and so when
I went through the Navy Test Pilot School [Patuxent River Naval Air
Station, Maryland], the two of us were assigned to Wright-Patterson
Air Force Base [Ohio] in the test wing there and spent many, many
years working together.
These were high-quality people. These were not tokens. These were
people you would be very proud to work with and would learn significantly
from. So they weren’t brought in just to change the color of
the Academy. They were brought in because they were absolutely equal
to the other members of the class.
I was in ‘64, and I was the only one in my class. If I back
up again, that was not my first experience being in an integrated
society of sorts. As a kid, I was in the first integrated Boy Scout
troop in Washington, D.C., and my first exposure was in 1953, when
this integrated Boy Scout troop traveled by train from Washington,
D.C., to Irvine, California, to participate in a Boy Scout Jamboree,
fifty thousand boys out there. So we traveled by train in a first
integrated Boy Scout troop, and it was an experience that was almost
a nonexperience, because what I found very early in my life—and
at that time I was twelve—that if you have a very common interest,
a set of drives, kind of a common goal, in the future, and if it’s
shared, that discrimination seems somehow to disappear. People forget
those kinds of weird things and they concentrate on all crossing the
I had that experience in ’53 and then again in ’54 and
’55, when we traveled by bus to a Boy Scout camp in northern
New Mexico [Cimarron], Philmont Scout Ranch. It was the same kind
of a thing. Though the schools were not integrated in Washington and
the society wasn’t integrated in Washington, these Boy Scout
troops were, and we found that we had common interests. We all had
hangups about this and that and the other, but we were all fascinated
by the adventure that we were on.
I can remember, as we traveled, we generally stayed at Air Force bases,
spent the night there, and I’m sure that, as I learned later,
that this was a very safe place to stay, because the military had
integrated in the late forties. I didn’t realize at the time
how important that was. But one evening, we spent the evening at Tulsa
University [Tulsa, Oklahoma], and Tulsa was a very segregated city,
I guess, because when we’d settled in and we were going to do
a night activity, the night activity was to go to a movie theater
to see a movie, and the several of us African Americans on the trip
were told that we couldn’t go because the theater was segregated.
The Boy Scout troop, the rest of the boys who were with us, upon hearing
that, decided not to go at all. So I remember we spent the evening
in the gym at Tulsa University, playing basketball and running on
the track and just generally having a great time. And that was an
important thing that I don’t think I realized at the time how
important that really was to me.
And that same experience I had in the Air Force. It was as though
“If he can’t go, none of us are going to do it.”
And at this point I began then to realize that the military and the
Air Force had, much earlier than the Brown v. Board of Education,
or any of those activities that began to talk about integration, the
military had already done this, and I believe they had done that in
1947 and 1948. So what I was now living, I was benefiting from the
sacrifices and the horrors that had occurred before the military integrated.
So if I can just jump ahead a little bit, in 1976 or ’77, when
I was considering applying for the astronaut program, Ben [Benjamin
O.] Davis [Jr.], General Ben Davis, who I had known for a very long
time, because he was one of the gentleman—he and his wife had
always come to our house and who had been one of these gentlemen who
talked about airplanes. He called me and he encouraged me to apply
for the astronaut program, and he said he wanted me to do it [not]
because of him, but because of the Tuskegee Airmen. I asked him who
the Tuskegee Airmen were, and he told me the story of the experiment,
and I began putting all these pieces together and realized that it
was a person like Ben Davis, his father, General Davis, and the Tuskegee
Airmen that had so demonstrated their capability to contribute, to
make a contribution, that caused this military change in 1947, which
then allowed me to go to the Air Force Academy and be as a classmate
as opposed to kind of an oddball that is in there only because someone
directed that it occur.
A joke was told the day I arrived at the Academy, a racial joke. I’d
heard jokes all my life like that. My parents told me just don’t
pay any attention to them. Several hours later I was called to the
officer in charge of the squadron that I had been assigned to. He
apologized profusely for telling the joke and committed to me that
I would never be exposed to anything like that in my life. He was
Captain Carter. The gentleman’s name was Captain Carter. We
called him Bobby Air Power, because first name was Robert and he was
very fascinated with airplanes and flying, so we just called him Bobby
Air Power. I knew him as he progressed up through his ranks, and he
retired as a colonel.
Several years ago, I went to his funeral and I walked up to his wife
and I told her about this incident that had occurred forty-five years
before—not quite forty-five years, maybe forty-two years before.
She knew the story and knew me, though I had never met her. She told
me how traumatized he was when he came home that evening. So we hugged.
But this was many, many years later, but it was very similar to the
experience that I had at Tulsa University and it was really a settling
experience for me. Things such as that allowed me the opportunity
to do anything that I wanted, because I knew that the stage had been
set, and it was a great opportunity then to just do whatever I wanted.
And I think that’s what my dad wanted.
Soon after you left the Air Force Academy, you became involved with
South Vietnam and being part of the missions. Tell us how that transition
When you go into the Air Force Academy, you become, if you had not
been before, a patriot. [Laughs] Absolutely focused on not only the
protection of what you knew as your United States, but you began to
believe or you believe that what you would do would establish a kind
of the baseline for your next generations.
As soon as I finished flying school, I began volunteering for Vietnam,
and, in fact, probably seven or eight months after I’d finished
pilot training, I got orders to South Vietnam, specifically Danang
Air Base at the northern part of the country, south of the DMZ [demilitarized
zone] , but the northern part of South Vietnam, as a rescue helicopter
I was absolutely—I was just overwhelmed by it. I had no anxiety
at all, and just thought that was what I was supposed to do. In June
1966, I headed over. I had a very fulfilling year as a rescue pilot,
saved quite a few lives, rescued a lot of folks, and came home in
June ’67, with a feeling of satisfaction.
I was still flying helicopters when I came back, and then I had the
opportunity to transition to fixed-wing, so I chose fighters. So I
moved from helicopters into fighters and was trained as an F-4, a
Phantom pilot. They called them Phantoms. At the same time, however,
I had applied to Test Pilot School, so I had one of these forks in
the road. I was accepted to Test Pilot School, but I was also en route
back to Vietnam as a fighter pilot, and I had to make a career choice
and chose the Test Pilot School approach. So instead of going back
to Vietnam in 1969 as a fighter pilot, I went to the Navy Test Pilot
School at Patuxent River. But I was looking forward to the next tour
also, because I would have been in a different kind of airplane, performing
a different kind of a role. But as I look back, I think the choice
that I made to go to Test Pilot School was probably the best one.
Was helicopter training your choice? Do you have a choice?
Yes, I had a choice. [Laughter] You may find this funny, but at the
Academy you are able to select where you want to go to pilot training,
or they assign you where you want to go to pilot training. But I was
just prepared to get married to this young lady I’d taken to
the air show years before, and I began to look at the cities where
the pilot training was located. And the one that seemed, you know,
if I were going to take somebody on a honeymoon, I’d want to
take them to a nice place. So I looked at some of the cities, and
the only one that looked like a nice place was San Antonio [Texas].
So I chose the city San Antonio, and San Antonio happened to have
helicopter training there. So I went to helicopters because I was
getting married; I wanted a nice location for our first home, and
San Antonio seemed like the best place. That’s why I went to
That liberal arts training got you in trouble, didn’t it? [Laughter]
It could have been. It could have been. Actually, the training was
divided. In the first year, we lived in two locations; the first six
months in San Antonio, second six months in Reno [Nevada]. So this
was not a hard decision from my point of view. Though I received quite
a lot of “rotor-head” “chopper” kind of jokes
in my first choice, that I mentioned a little earlier about the diversity
background, that helicopter training and the operational helicopter
flying that I did, and then the transition to fixed-wing fighters,
and then going to the Test Pilot School, where I did as much of both
courses as I could, rotary and fixed-wing, kind of set me up in my
career, because my next assignment after Test Pilot School was to
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the 49-50th Test Wing up there. I
flew both fighters and helicopters, and I was then subsequently loaned
to NASA in 1974, because NASA was looking for a research test pilot
who was qualified in both rotary and fighters.
So I look back and I say, well, did I make a wrong choice by going
to helicopters first? If I had not done helicopters, I probably would
not be where I am right now, because I would have been just like any
other test pilot with a single capability. So that’s why I think
this English minor/engineering major kind of set me up for the rest
of my career, because it demonstrated the importance of the broad
versus the very, very narrow.
Your wife, I’m sure, takes partial credit for all these wonderful
Well, one day I will give her credit for that. [Laughter]
There you go. Well, it was just your care to make sure she was well
taken care of. Maybe you’re a romantic at heart, that might
In fact, we had so much fun in San Antonio, and many of my classmates
who were assigned to those other bases would actually come on the
weekend and stay with us, because San Antonio was such a nice place.
And got nicer. When you went to the Navy’s Test Pilot School,
you were up on the East Coast and then, as you mentioned, you were
at Wright-Pat in Ohio. So you kind of saw a lot of the country as
part of your training.
We did. I think as we look back, we regret that we were not in another
career field, because we never had any overseas assignments and all
my classmates did, Germany and England and places like that, and their
kids were then exposed to different cultures and civilizations. But
when you go into the test pilot business, you are in an acquisition
organization. At that time it was called Air Force Systems Command,
and all of that was located within the bounds of the continental United
States. But we did travel a lot in the southern part of the country.
We had a couple of assignments in Texas. We were in Oklahoma. We were
in Arizona. As I said, we were in Reno, in Nevada. Pax River would
have been the first East Coast trip we made, in Lexington Park, Maryland.
Then up to Ohio at Wright-Patterson. My loan to NASA occurred at the
Langley Research Center, so I was back in Virginia, down in the Hampton
But we did have an exciting time. We had a lot of moves in our early
career. It appeared as though we were moving every six or seven months,
and so we were pretty much nomads. If it didn’t fit in a station
wagon, it just didn’t go. But we had a lot of fun traveling,
growing up with the kids as they were born. So the family consisted
of my wife and I, at first, then my wife and I and a dog, and then
our son, and then our daughter. We had a lot of fun in our early days.
When you were at Langley on loan to NASA, were those specific tasks
that you had there, were they leading up to a project or were you
just there to do some training and testing as they needed it?
I had already been thoroughly trained as an engineering or research
test pilot. I had spent three years at Wright-Patterson as a test
pilot, and since I was kind of multi-qualified, I would fly a variety
of projects in the different kind of platforms, rotary-wing, fighter-type
When I went to Langley, I was loaned to Langley for two years, in
’74. When I first went down there, I looked in the hangar and
they had—oh, they must have had twenty-five airplanes in there,
and I was like a kid in a candy store. All subsonic, except for a
couple of T-38s, and I said, “Well, which one am I going to
And they said, “Any of them. All of them.” So what I did
at Langley, I flew the majority of the airplanes that they had on
specific projects that were assigned to me, myself, and a test engineer.
So during that two years, which then became three years, which then
became four years, I essentially flew anything that they had on any
project that they had.
It was a very fulfilling time, but after the three years at Wright-Patterson
and the three to four years at Langley, it was very clear that the
excitement of being a research test pilot was waning. So that’s
why I was intrigued by the call for the astronauts. I believe I first
saw it in probably ’76. I also saw a TV advertisement, a NASA-sponsored
TV advertisement, where one of my—I was a Star Trek freak, and
the communications officer, Lieutenant Uhuru, Nichelle Nichols, showed
up on TV in a blue flight suit. As I recall, there was a 747 in NASA
colors behind her; you could hear it. But she pointed at me and she
said, “I want you to join the astronaut program.” So,
shoot, if Lieutenant Uhuru looks at me and tells me that, that got
me thinking about it.
Then I had to go research and find out what this was, because there
had not been any selections for astronauts as long as I can remember.
Of course, when I went back, I found out that the last real selection
was in ’6, though some of the MOL, Manned Orbiting Laboratory,
folks from the military came into NASA in ’69 or so, but the
last selection had been ’6, and this was ten or eleven years
later. So I had to find out about it, and as I was researching, that’s
when General Davis called me. So all of these things kind of came
together in that late ’76, early ’77 time frame.
In your busy years in the sixties, had you kept up at all with the
space race and the space program?
No, I think I had not. I was an observer to it and so Neil [A.] Armstrong—well,
when Frank Borman and Bill [William A.] Anders and the other gentleman
on Apollo 8 [James A. Lovell], when they did the Bible read of Genesis,
you know, that was one of the highlights of my life. And, of course,
when Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” [Edwin E.] Aldrin stepped
on the Moon in ’69, that also was a little closer connection
because my parents had met Mike [Michael] Collins as he began the
[Smithsonian National] Air & Space Museum [Washington, D.C.],
so that was a kind of a personal connection. But other than that,
I just kind of followed the program.
I, though, realized very early in my life that humans were not to
be constrained by gravity or the atmosphere, and the Air Force had
a form that you filled out—we call it a dream sheet—and
on it you would put down your short-term, your mid-term, your long-term
desires, and I can recall every year putting down in the long-term
desire block a very strong interest in participating in a joint activity
that involved space. So I think I was very interested in space, but
probably from the systems point of view. But since there was very
little interest in or call for astronauts, I didn’t put that
down. But I think I had an interest in leaving the atmosphere and
working outside the atmosphere. But I think it all kind of came together
in ‘76 and ‘77, when they started the call for the Shuttle
pilot category of astronauts.
When you were doing your research for this new class, did you involve
the Air Force, because the Air Force had an opportunity to appoint
you as well, or did you do this all on your own as an interested individual?
It’s a tough question, because I think I was aware that to be
nominated to NASA, I needed to have a military backing for it, and
I knew that there would be a board of some sort that would evaluate
the records of the officers that they were considering. I knew that
the Air Force would focus—that the selectors would primarily
be test pilots or people with an engineering, with an aeronautical
background of some sort. I also realized that you had to be a known
entity, and so the package itself wouldn’t be adequate, that
they would have to know you, that they would have to be able to say,
“Yeah, I know such-and-such. Good guy. He worked for a buddy
of mine. Buddy always said, ‘Great guy.’” Okay,
so that I was aware of.
But my career was such an unusual one, since I’d started in
helicopters, I transitioned to fighters. I had a very limited fighter
career, because I went then to Test Pilot School, not to the Air Force
Test Pilot School [Edwards Air Force Base, California], but to the
Navy Test Pilot School. So at least during the Test Pilot School days
I was an unknown. Then instead of going from Pax River, the Navy Test
Pilot School, to Edwards to be a test pilot at Edwards, I was sent
to Wright-Patterson, and Wright-Patterson was not of the same ilk
that the pilots who flew at the desert, at Edwards were. So I was
not known at all by that community that I thought would be part of
the selection, and so though I sent in my application through the
military, because that was so directed, I knew that there would be
no chance whatsoever that I would be selected by them.
So I made a conscious decision to submit an application as a civilian,
with a letter saying that if selected, I would resign from the Air
Force. I sent that in, I sent the civilian application in on the last
day of applications, which was the 30th of June 1977, and I mailed
it from Wallops Island [Wallops Flight Center, Virginia], because
I happened to be out there. And I got it in, it was postmarked in
time, which was the last day.
Then I heard nothing at all until—this would have been the end
of June—in August I was at home and I was on my way to work,
and I got a call from General Tom [Thomas P.] Stafford, who was the
division commander or a title such as that out at Edwards, and he
said, “Who are you?”
And I said, “Sir, I am Major Fred Gregory.”
“Yeah, I know that, but who are you?” He said, “I
got a call from a friend of mine,” John [W.] Young at the Johnson
Space Center, Chief of the Astronaut Office, and he said, “John
said, ‘Who is this Air Force guy applying as a civilian?’
So he called me and he asked me that question, so I’m calling
you. Who are you?” [Laughter] So I went through my career, and
he says, “Oh, okay.” That was in August.
So what had happened was that I guess my paperwork went down to Johnson
as a civilian, with this little letter on it, so John Young—I
don’t know what his interest was, but it was probably intriguing
to him to get this application from a military officer as a civilian.
Heard nothing else. In November of that year, at that time I was at
the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk [Virginia], in a three-
or four-month kind of mid-level professional school. I got a call
and said, “You’re invited to come down to interview for
the astronaut program.” And I mean, I was absolutely shocked.
I’d had a little hint of it, though, because I was beginning
to get calls from friends from all over the world, informing me that
there had been people there asking about me. In fact, at the Armed
Forces Staff College I would have a person come up to me and say,
“Well, this gentleman—where did he go—had just come
to ask about you.” I never saw these people, but I was getting
these calls, but I never knew what it was that they were—you
know, I didn’t know what they were after. It was kind of a strange
So in November in ’77 I was called and said, “Come down
for an interview.” I went down to interview for a week, which
was a medical, a psychological, included also an interview, an hour-and-a-half
or two-hour interview, and I mean, by this time I was thinking, “What’s
going on here?”
Then I finished the interview that week and came back, went back to
Armed Forces Staff College. Then the week of graduation, which was,
I believe, the week starting the 17th of January—I believe that’s
correct—1978, I came into school that morning and in my little
mailbox was a little buck slip saying “Call George [W. S.] Abbey
at Johnson Space Center.” This was about seven-thirty in the
morning, so the message had probably come in just before that. So
I called Mr. Abbey, and he said, “You still interested in this
job down here?” [Laughs]
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Well, you have to keep it a secret until noon.”
I said, “I can do it.” Well, I did for five minutes, I
So that was the week of graduation at Staff College. So I know this
was a Monday, graduation was on a Wednesday, and by that time the
whole school knew about it. As we walked across the stage for graduation,
the entire school got up and applauded. Fascinating. Fascinating day.
What a nice moment. You at some point called your wife and said, “We’re
Maybe I kept that secret till noon. [Laughs] I don’t know. It
was an amazing day, because the report date wasn’t until June,
and this was January, so I had to come up with a job, because after
you go through a school like that, then they send you to—I had
a job at the Pentagon. I had already received a job at the Pentagon,
so our intent was to move from Pax River up to the Washington area
someplace, which would have been the first time that we would have
come back to our home, where we both grew up. Of course, that ended
and instead of moving to—well, I had to get a job, so I called
NASA again at Langley and told my old boss, Jim Patton, I said, “Can
I stay another six months?”
He said, “Well, what are you talking about?”
I said, “I just got accepted.”
“Oh yes. Come on back.” So we just stayed right at Langley
for that next six months and then did not move to Houston [Texas]
until June, would have been 1978, we moved from Hampton to Houston.
It was a very exciting time, an extremely exciting time.
I remember one of the questions during the interview was, “Do
you feel comfortable giving speeches?” And all of us lied. [Laughter]
“Of course.” Many of us, though, had never really done
a lot of public speaking. After I was selected and it was announced,
I had a lot of calls to give speeches in the Hampton area, in the
Virginia area, and I remember the first one I went prepared with a
script and read the script and it didn’t work at all. I did
that probably one more time and then just began the ad-lib. Since
then I have given 3,500 or so talks of some substance, meaning ten
minutes or more, between ’78 and—I actually quit counting
in ’92 or ’93. But I feel very, very comfortable giving
talks on just about any subject. [Laughs]
I guess so. During that interview process, did you have an opportunity
to tell Captain Young who you were, since he had called Stafford and
John Young knew who I was, but—oh, during the interview?
Oh, during the interview. I don’t think I really had any time
to interface with him during that day. He came in and gave briefings,
but he was very busy in his office. Though I spent time with—I
was kind of assigned to Dick [Richard H.] Truly, who was in the Astronaut
Office, so as I would complete an activity, sometimes Richard Truly
would carry me from one place to another. I remember he had this Corvette,
and I was very impressed with that.
I don’t think I really met John Young until we were selected,
after we were selected, and we had our first kind of reception. It
was the first time I met Tom Stafford, too. I walked up to him, and
he kind of looked at me and grinned. Of course, we have become the
best of friends. He and I worked together quite a lot. We have worked
together and continue to work together even to this day.
Tell us about those first few days in Houston, getting adjusted to
not just a new job, but truly a brand-new career, because not only
was it new for you, it was new for the world.
[Laughs] You know, that was like a dream. Let me go back to the sports
car thing I had mentioned a little earlier. Many of the sports cars
that raced at Andrews were Ferraris, so not only was I intrigued with
airplanes, but I was also intrigued with this brand, Ferrari, and
I began buying Ferraris and had a series of them. But at Langley,
when I went to Langley, I got to a point and I said, “You know,
I don’t need these cars anymore.” I don’t know whether
it was a transition time or not, but I’d always had sports cars
and I had this series of Ferraris, and one morning I just said, “I
don’t need these cars anymore.” Actually, I’d sold
my last Ferrari and I’d bought something called a Panterra,
which is a very high-performance Italian body, but an American high-performance
engine in it, a Ford engine in it.
One day I just woke up and said, “I don’t need it.”
And I sold it and bought a Honda Civic, a really small one, a ‘75
or ’73 or something, Honda Civic. I went through kind of a flip-flop.
My wife didn’t believe it, so she encouraged me to go out and
buy a Porsche. Well, I didn’t really like Porsches, but we bought
it. It stayed in the garage for a year, and I may have put a thousand
miles on it, because I was happy with my Honda.
We were selected for the astronaut program, and we had a boat. The
Porsche wouldn’t pull a boat, so I went to a Dodge dealer and
traded this Porsche for a Dodge Ram Charger, an SUV [sport utility
vehicle]. It was one for one. Probably lost a lot of money on it,
but I just didn’t need the Porsche, and we bought this Ram Charger.
So I was beginning to see these things. These were changes that were
occurring in my life that, as I look back, I kind of laugh at them,
but it was showing me that I was now moving into a different life,
a different world, and I think the purchase of that Ram Charger was
my first true hint.
So we drove down there, and they were waiting for us. I mean, we went
to a bank to get a loan on a house, and they had a very special rate
for us. Everybody was extremely helpful in Clear Lake City [Texas].
We rented a house, initially, as we looked for a house to buy. A couple
of months after we got there, we did buy a house. But we wandered
around. The school system was terrific in that independent school
district down there. The majority of the people who lived in Clear
Lake City were people who were associated with the Space Center. All
the services supported the Space Center. All the major aerospace industries
were located down there. Many of the neighbors were. So it was like
moving into utopia, and so the transition was great.
Now, once you got into the neighborhood, then you were just part of
the neighborhood. Our friends were friends because they were neighbor
kid friends, and their kids went to the same school, or our kids went
to the same school that they went to. So it was a wonderful place.
It was a wonderful place.
Now, the heat and humidity was something that we had not been used
to. Houston is a lot different than San Antonio, and we’d never
been in a coastal city. So I will be honest. It took a couple of years,
really, to adapt to the temperature and humidity and lack of true
seasons. But once we adapted—and we were there for fourteen
or fifteen years—then it was just absolutely normal.
Now, you were adapting professionally from a test pilot environment
To an astronaut environment, but it was the same kind of thing, and
I could see why they wanted people who had had the formal training
that you received, one, as an engineer, formal training in the academic
world, but also in preparation to be a test pilot. Because basically
that’s what we were looking at, was a test vehicle, a research
test vehicle, unflown.
The mission specialists who were selected were of that same type.
They were very, very smart. They were all class Type A personalities.
The majority of them had no ego whatsoever; they were very humble.
Each said, you know, “If I sit and think, there were so many
other people who were much more qualified than I was. I don’t
know how I got selected. We’re very happy to be here.”
A very compatible group, the thirty-five of us who showed up down
But it was kind of the same kind of job that we had had before, except
it was a much more complex vehicle that we were going to go fly, in
a different environment.
You were able to keep your military connection?
Well, apparently I was. [Laughs] And the first hint of that was when
the Air Force Times announced the Air Force astronauts who had been
selected for the astronaut program and my name was there. [Laughs]
Clip it out and keep that.
Oh, I do. I have it. But I guess they decided not to allow me to resign,
but put me in as an Air Force astronaut.
Is there a certain type of agreement that NASA and the Air Force makes?
Yes, there is an agreement, and I’m not really sure what it
is, but I think it is we are detailed to NASA, and I think the military
paid our salaries and NASA paid for our travel and things of that
nature. I don’t know if there was a reimbursement to the military
for our services. But once we got there, military uniforms went off
and we were just NASA employees.
You joined another group of astronauts, because there were some that
were there, as you mentioned, ones that were from the MOL Program
and then the class of 1966.
And earlier. Some of the veterans and certain legacies that they had
already set down. Tell me how the reception was from these folks and
how your new class became entwined with them as one large astronaut
Well, were just kind of like the freshman, and they were the seniors.
As such, we paid great respect to them. [Laughs] Al [Alan L.] Bean
was assigned as our training official, and so Al Bean set up the training
schedule and coordinated all of that. John Young was the chief of
the office down there. [Fred W.] Haise [Jr.] was—our offices
were all mixed together, and so Haise was in my office, and then I
learned about Apollo 13 and what his role had been there. But there
were many Skylab type—Owen [K.] Garriott. I mean, there were
a lot of folks down there who had not only been Apollo, but they had
been Skylab and obviously had come in from the MOL Program, like Richard
Truly and [Donald H.] Peterson and Bob [Robert L.] Crippen and people
like that. Then the scientists, really, who’d come in in ’6.
I think Story Musgrave was in that group.
But, you know, they were just kind of all there, but us thirty-five,
we were in kind of our own world, and they had us eight hours a day
in academics or in some kind of orientation that went on for easily
six months. Then after that initial orientation of NASA acronyms and
locations and things, then we began some initial training in the single-system
trainers that they have and into the Shuttle mission simulators, the
SMS simulators down there. So we did not interface with these guys
daily, though they were kind of our superdads down there to make sure
that everything was prepared for us.
The simulators and the coursework that you took, how was it similar
to that that you had taken as part of your military training to prepare
for those aircrafts?
I think they were very similar. Obviously, most of the folks who put
the books together were not military, did not have an orientation
in the military, but I think that the folks in the Astronaut Office
who did have the military orientation edited. So I felt very comfortable
when I got these books, specifically the training books for the simulators.
I thought they were very well put together. The academic books were
very much like I had experienced in colleges and universities. So
I thought that they had done a very, very good job preparing the literature
and in preparation for the lectures. I felt very comfortable in that
environment. I was not surprised at all.
I was surprised at how complex the Shuttle was. I had never been in
any kind of an airplane that was that involved.
When did you first get to actually be close to the Orbiter in your
Once we finished this kind of orientation, then we were given technical
assignments, and one of my first technical assignments was to be assigned
to the Kennedy Space Center [Florida] as an astronaut liaison. We
had a name; we were called the Cape Crusaders, the C2s. Every Sunday
evening or Monday morning, four of us would fly down to the Cape [Canaveral]
and we would stay all week. We would attend meetings. We were always
in our blue suit, and one of the privileges was that you would spend
a lot of time sitting in the cockpit of Columbia. So I was exposed
to the hardware in ’79 or probably a year, year and a half after
I got there, and I stayed through the second launch of the Orbiter,
STS-1 and –2. I was there for both of those.
I was also there during the time when they removed all of the tile
from Columbia and replaced it. I met these young kids who had chosen
to remove themselves from—I think all of them had finished high
school, but many of them had chosen to come work on the tile instead
of going to college. So for a year, these young kids, these high school
graduates, were there replacing tile. I stayed in touch with several
of them after that, and most of those kids were extremely successful
in their career, and each attributes that success to this time-out
that they took working with the Shuttle Program down there.
So ’79 would have been my first exposure, and I was a hardware
guy and learned as much as I could about the Orbiter down there.
One difference of flying the Shuttle, or training to fly the Shuttle
and training to fly military aircraft is that you were going to be
on a mission longer in your aircraft than you would be for your military.
You were going to be in space for several days. What types of training
activities do you recall that NASA supported or sponsored for you
so that you could learn how to work and live together as a team in
Well, if you’re asking if we ever did seven- or eight- or nine-day
simulations, no, we never did. The training, however, though, put
together a group of people who would work together, whose life depended
on the team, and the training that we had was of a nature that allowed
you to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the members of your
team, and allowed you then to figure out how to compensate, adjust,
trust the team.
The two visible groups of the team included the crew and then the
training team, and the training team and the crew worked together
and became one entity. We lived together; we breathed together; we
ate together; we thought together; we prayed together. I mean, we
were as one, except when we went into the simulator. We always joked
about it. We always joked that the training team constantly tried
to kill us and the crew tried to make them look ridiculous. So there
was also competition between these two groups, but it brought the
groups closer and closer together, such that when we were prepared
to fly, we were both able to say, “We are prepared,” or,
“They are prepared.” And there was great pride in a training
crew’s successful training of that crew, and vicariously, they
were on the mission with us and received the same credit, though not
I’m sure you felt some of those feelings when you were down
at the Cape for those first two launches. Could you share with us
what it was like to be there for STS-1 and STS-2 and watched you getting
a little bit closer to your dream come true?
It was a fantastic experience, because some of the training of John
Young and Bob Crippen, and Truly and [Joe H.] Engle occurred in Columbia,
and I would be their gofer. I was there to help them get in the seats.
I was there to make sure they had all of their training documents.
I was the kind of interface with the problem that they had with some
of the procedures, back to Houston to see if we could get them corrected,
or work out problems. I was the one who would configure the Orbiter
with all the circuit breakers and switches in preparation for tests
and specifically for their dynamic integrated test—I think that’s
what it was called.
We were also there because many times we would end up at midnight
or one o’clock in the morning, we’d go with them when
we’d have dinner or breakfast. There was one place called the
Mousetrap down there. We would always go there because it was the
only place you could eat after midnight. I remember we used to get
these mouseburgers or mooseburgers or something down there. But we
were just kind of available to support them as much as we could.
For the first launch and the second launch, I configured the cockpits
for them. I was not in the White Room when the crews actually came
up, because I was something called the Contingency Operations Director,
and as the COD leader, I was responsible for all of the rescue forces
that had been assembled. It was a huge force of military, Air Force
and Navy, underwater demolition, the rescue specialists, helicopters,
boats, all standing by in case there would be an emergency.
So for STS-1, I was on the taxiway near the Shuttle landing strip,
sitting in a helicopter, waiting to be deployed in case of an emergency,
and this was kind of a culmination of literally a year or so of training
with these folks. So I was standing there as Columbia lifted off for
its first time. I can recall I was watching it through binoculars
and I saw it kind of lift like this [gestures] and I realized it looked
just like television, so I put the binoculars down because I wanted
to see what was going on everywhere, not just right there, and I never
used binoculars since then. But I was so surprised, because I was
used to an Atlas launch, long, slender, and this little short, stubby
thing came up and I kept looking back down into the smoke, looking
for the rest of it, because it just didn’t look like an Atlas.
So I was there and then immediately flew out to Edwards, and I was
there for the landing and then El [Ellison S.] Onizuka and I both
went into the Orbiter after Columbia landed, and we’re the ones
who cleaned it out after the crew had come out. I did the same on
STS-2. We had the same kind of role, so there were a couple of us.
Bo [Karol J.] Bobko was kind of the leader of this group. We had Dick
[Francis R.] Scobee and El Onizuka and Loren [J.] Shriver and I, and
Don [Donald E.] Williams, eventually. We were the Cape Crusaders down
there. We just kind of lived down there.
Talk about an exciting hands-on experience for you to watch that happen.
It was 1983, in February of 1983, when NASA announced that you would
be assigned to a flight. Then it was STS-18 and then later renamed.
Tell us how that happened and how you were able to be so patient from
watching those first two flights to getting yours.
Oh wow. I think this had to do with whether we flew or not, it didn’t
matter, because just the privilege of being there was enough for all
of us. But, you know, the whole schedule was delayed by several years
because of the tile replacement, so though we anticipated flying in
’78 or ’79, we didn’t fly until ’81, and then
just a couple of flights, ’81, ’82 or so, then we began
to spool up. Let’s see. I didn’t realize it had been—February
’83, you said?
Yes. It was announced and then, of course, you flew in ’85.
Yes. I guess there was shifting of launch times, because we were on
Spacelab 3 and I know we launched before Spacelab 2 and after Spacelab
1. I think they had some payloads that they wanted to deploy quickly,
and so the laboratory missions were kind of put in a kind of a second
category for priority.
But, you know, the date wasn’t important at the time. To be
assigned to a crew, though, with Bob [Robert F.] Overmyer as the commander,
and I was going to be the pilot on it. We had Norm [Norman E.] Thagard
on it and Don [L. Lind] and Taylor [G.] Wang and Lodewijk van den
Berg. It sounded like it was going to be an exciting crew and an exciting
time. Bob Overmyer in himself was, you know, quite an interesting
Marine, and to be able to work with him was—I was privileged.
So I guess I had not worried about or hadn’t even considered
when it was. It was just we were going to be the best we could be
when we flew.
How did you learn that you had been selected?
In the scheme of things, it was probably George Abbey who called.
George did most of that. But I don’t recall how I was told.
Do you remember the reaction of your family when you shared the news
with them that you were going to be flying?
I’m sure they were excited, but I don’t recall. [Laughs]
That’s all right. Well, we had talked a few minutes ago about
training, and I’d like to talk about the actual training of
your mission. I’m going to stop the tape for just a minute and
trade out the tape.
You were sharing with us the names of the members of your crew. Tell
us how you started training and became not individuals, but crewmembers.
Spacelab was an interesting assignment, because it was a 24/7 assignment.
We had two shifts. Bob Overmyer was the commander of a shift and I
was the commander of the second shift, and while each shift worked,
the other shift slept. We had enclosed bunks on the middeck of the
Orbiter, and that’s where the off shift would sleep, so we never
saw them really. There was a handover period, but once we began working,
they were sleeping and we just wouldn’t see them.
How did we train? Well, there was a common portion of the training
and that was the ascent and the entry, so Norm Thagard, myself, and
Bob Overmyer were always involved in the ascent and landing portion
of the training, and that was—oh, I can’t come up with
a number, but I’d say 75 percent to 80 percent of the training
was ascent and entry.
Now, at the same time, we had payload specialists and mission specialists,
and they had very specific roles. Norm Thagard was also a mission
specialist, but he was part of the ascent entry team. But Don Lind
was the NASA mission specialist, and then Taylor Wang and Lodewijk
van den Berg were both payload specialists. So the mission specialists
were generalists. They were people who had a capability and a talent
to do anything. The payload specialists were people who had a very
specific project that they’d brought on board and that was their
So in our ascent and entry, though it was eight and a half minutes
for the ascent and about an hour for the entry, and the mission was
scheduled for seven or eight days, most of our concentration, and
my concentration was on the ascent and entry portion. The intent there
was to try to get these three people, the mission specialist number
two, the pilot, and commander, in a kind of a mind set such that—well,
it’s like a ballet, you know, without music, individual but
coordinated activities that resulted in the successful accomplishments
of each of these phases, regardless of the type failure or series
of failures that this training team would impose on you. So that’s
what we trained for.
There were two thousand or so switches and gauges and circuit breakers,
any number of which we would involve ourselves with during these two
phases, ascent and entry. So the intent was for us to learn this so
well, understand the system so well, that we could brush through a
failure scenario and safe the Orbiter in the ascent such that we could
get on orbit and then have time to discuss what the real problem was
and then allow you to correct it.
During the entry, the entry was a phase that prior to the Columbia
accident would have been considered the easier part of the training.
In any scenario that you were exposed to, the object was to get back
on the ground and land. So though you would have a series of failures,
all of those failures would then allow you, after you safed it, to
come home and land. So that’s what primarily we did.
On the on-orbit portion, the mission specialists and payload specialists
spent a lot of time on their payload or payloads, and they were generally
walk-throughs. They would have failure scenarios on their pieces of
equipment and apparatus. There were on-orbit operations to maintain
the Orbiter in the right configuration that would support those things
that were going on in the Spacelab. But that was primarily a subset
of the ascent and entry.
So we must have trained for two, two and a half years, only because
if it was February ’83 and we didn’t launch until March—
In fact, it was today in ’85. April 29th.
Oh really? Okay. In ’85, so that would have been two years and
about three months or so. We spent a lot of time training for that.
So when we flew, I thought we were pretty well prepared for that mission.
But these kinds of delays and having missions inserted was not an
unusual activity at the time. You kind of accepted it and you kind
of ran with it. So I’m sure that when we were designated February
’83, our launch time was not April ’85. It was probably
within the year or year and a half or so or something like that.
I mentioned to you about patience, but Don Lind had waited since 1966.
Yes, he waited. He’d been waiting.
Did you ever have an opportunity to talk about that with him, about
Oh sure. Yes, Don not only waited for those—he was a ’66
guy, so that’s nineteen years. He had not only waited those
nineteen years patiently, but was at the same desk, as I understand
it, that he had when he arrived in ’66. So he never changed
desks in that time frame. Then he flew, he was satisfied, and then
went back to the academic world.
Wow. Well, share with us about the flight. Here it is, it has now
come, the delays are over and you have an opportunity to be a part
of this crew that’s going to go up. Can you tell us about those
moments and about your first flight?
I’m sure I was very excited. I think I was probably anxious,
but certainly not afraid. I had great confidence in the team and sub
teams. I was not of a thorough understanding of all of the science
that was being conducted, because we had other areas of concentration,
and as the pilot, my responsibility was maintaining the Orbiter to
assure that it provided the right environment for the science to take
But we had worked as a crew for a long period of time and it was a
happy and exciting crew. We were still flying in flying suits. The
only thing that differed from our training was that we would now be
wearing this helmet to provide oxygen for us in case of loss of integrity.
But the assumption was that you could maintain the integrity of the
atmosphere in the cabin long enough to get the Orbiter back on the
We got in the Orbiter. Of the three, I never had any delays once we
got in the Orbiter. So this was just the first of the three. We got
in, and with one little hiccup, but it was just a delay, just a moment
delay, and then we launched. It was similar to the simulation, but
they left out the 5 percent and that was the “Wow!” [Laughter]
The wow factor?
Yes. The wow factor. The wow factor was never in the—I think
they intentionally left that out.
I remember the feeling inside when the main engine started, how it
was almost a nonevent. You could hear it; you were aware of it. It
sounded like some kind of an electric motor at some distance, but
you looked out the window and you saw the launch tower there and the
launch tower moved back. At least that’s what you thought, but
then you realized the Orbiter was moving forward and then back, and
when it came back to vertical, that’s when those solids ignited
and there was no doubt about it. You were going to go someplace really
fast, and you just watched the tower kind of drop down below you.
As I am normally, I was probably laughing during this time frame.
Since we had trained constantly for failures, I anticipated failures
and was somewhat disappointed that there were no failures, because
I knew that any failure that occurred, I could handle. It was where
I slipped back into an ego thing. I anticipated failures that I would
correct and then the newspaper would say, “Gregory saves Shuttle,”
but, heck, none of that happened. [Laughs] That was Challenger and
it just went uphill, just as sweet as advertised. The eight minutes
went through very quickly, because we knew everything—it was
all the dynamics of the vehicle, so everything worked just like it
The first indication that this was not a simulation was when the main
engines cut off and we went to zero-G, and though [Steven A.] Hawley,
I think, had been attributed with this comment a lot later, or maybe
earlier, it was a common comment, “Is this space? Is this it?
Is this real?” And it was an amazing feeling. I’d never
sensed anything like this before. I know this was Bob Overmyer’s
first flight. It was all of our first flights. So we did not—oh,
I guess this would have been Norm Thagard’s second flight, so
Norm was the only truly experienced—well, this would be Overmyer’s
second flight, too. So Overmyer and Thagard had both experienced that
before, but the rest of us hadn’t. So this sensation of zero-G
was like a moment on a roller coaster, when you go over the top and
everything just floats.
So once we got there, then we had to start business. So we’d
done this eight and a half minutes. We were safely on orbit. Communication
worked well. So it was now time to open up the Spacelab and begin
to set up the Spacelab for the six or seven days remaining. So once
we got there, it was just business as usual, just as we had practiced
and performed on the ground.
We did have to adapt to this microgravity environment. The adaptation
varied with each of the individuals, but whatever the adaptation was,
within days—I mean, not days, but within a day, everybody had
adapted to it and so it was just a matter of working on all the programs
and projects of the projects that you had. So it was a fascinating
What I found, the Orbiter worked very well. I don’t recall any
serious issues with it, and since that was the job that I had, was
to maintain it, and it was working well, I spent a lot of time looking
out the window. And you immediately realize that you are either a
dirt person or a space person. I ended up being a space person, looking
out in space. It was a high-inclination orbit, so we went very low
in the southern hemisphere, and I saw a lot of star formations that
I had only heard about before and never seen before. I also saw aurora
australis, which is the Southern Lights. I was absolutely fascinated
But if you were an Earth person, or dirt person, you were amazed at
how quickly you crossed the ground; how, with great regularity, every
forty-five minutes you’d either have daylight or dark; how quickly
that occurred, about seven miles per second; how quickly you crossed
the Atlantic Ocean.
The sensation that I got initially was that from space you can’t
see discernable borders and you begin to question why people don’t
like each other, because it looked like just one big neighborhood
down there. The longer I was there, the greater my “a citizen
of” changed. The first couple of days, D.C. was where I concentrated
all my views, and I was a citizen of Washington, D.C. I was confused
because I thought everybody loved D.C., but Overmyer was from Cleveland
[Ohio], and Don Lind was Salt Lake [City, Utah], and Norm was Jacksonville,
Florida, and Lodewijk was the Netherlands, and Taylor Wang was Shanghai
[China], so each had their own little location for the first couple
of days. After two days, I was from America, looked at America as
our home. Taylor, China. Europe for Lodewijk. And after five or six
days, the whole world became our home.
You could see this kind of sense of ownership and awareness. We had
noticed with interest the fires in Brazil and South Africa and the
pollution that came from Eastern Europe, but it was only with interest.
Then after five or six days, then it was of concern, because you could
see how the particulates from the smokestacks in Eastern Europe, how
that circled the Earth and how this localized activity had a great
effect. When you looked down at South Africa and South America, you
became very sensitized to deforestation and what the results of it
was with the runoff, how it affected the ecology. Then you’d
have to back up and say, well, this is not an intentional thing to
destroy; this is something that they use coke as part of their process,
and in order to get coke, you’ve got to burn.
So you began to look at things from different points of view, and
it was a fascinating experience. So that was the science that I was
engaged in, but never anticipated it. And it was a discovery for me,
so as each of these other great scientists who were with us discovered
something that they had never anticipated, I also did, and I think
the whole crew had.
When I came home, I was intent to see my neighbors, and my neighbors
now included every country in the world, and it was very clear that
the space program wasn’t north of the equator, and that for
us to be extremely successful, it would involve all citizens from
this world. It was very apparent to me, when I looked down and saw
how, one, there were no defined boundaries and borders, and, two,
that for the success of our future programs, it was going to involve
everybody, either with their support or their participation in some
I allegedly have an ancestor who came from Madagascar, and flew over
Madagascar quite a few times on this orbit. On the western side of
Madagascar there is a delta called Betsiboka, and because of the deforestation
of the island of Madagascar, there has been a lot of runoff of the
surface soil from Madagascar into the Strait of Mozambique, which
is the water separating Africa from Madagascar, and it looked like
the island was bleeding. That’s the way it looked. It was that
red. It was an iron oxide of sorts, at least a red dye. So it was
my intent to go to Madagascar. I then realized, after I landed, that
Madagascar knew I was flying and so, in the papers, I was getting
a lot of things from Madagascar, saying, “Madagascan in space.”
So I have a lot of these articles written in Malagasi, and in 1990,
I was privileged to head a delegation to Madagascar. How? I don’t
know. Why? I don’t know. But I was privileged to lead a delegation
that consisted of my wife to Madagascar as they celebrated their thirtieth
anniversary of their independence from France.
And I spent a week and a half there, traveling in and around the capital
city. I was a special guest of the President, [Didier] Ratsiraka.
My wife, though I spent all of my time at the right hand of the President,
my wife was escorted by the Prime Minister.
During that time, we visited what was called the Queen’s Palace,
and on the wall there were pictures of the Madagascan royalty, and
one of the gentleman’s pictures looked exactly like my uncle.
Someone was telling me the story about a queen in the 1820s, in Madagascar,
who was killing the pretenders to the throne and throwing them off
a cliff, and about this one prince who had successfully escaped and
had come to America. It’s interesting because the stories that
we heard in America was that there was a prince from Madagascar who
arrived in America in the 1820s, and this was the ancestor. So we
got a different story over there that was the same story.
The Queen’s Palace, by the way, burnt down, unfortunately, after
1990, and I would guess that those paintings were lost, but I think
we have pictures of them. It was a fascinating experience for me.
Ambassador Howard was the U.S. ambassador there. We just had a fantastic
time. We had a fantastic time.
We were the only westerners there. All the rest of them were Soviets
and North Koreans and Libyans and, you know, you name “bad guys”
at that time, that’s what it was. But this was the Madagascar’s
first outreach at the western world, so my wife and I were the first
entrée of western into Madagascar. So it was fascinating, but
it was all kind of, “Yes, I need to go there,” because
I’d seen it. It seems like a very essential part to the future.
Even though it was a long trip, it was a fascinating trip.
It sounds it. Unfortunately for me, our time is up for today, but
I’m looking forward to picking this up where we left off and
we can explore more fascinating adventures of your career.