NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Sandra Johnson
Washington, DC – 17 March 2004
is March 17th, 2004. This oral history with Bryan O’Connor is
being conducted for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project
at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Sandra Johnson is the interviewer
and is assisted by Rebecca Wright.
I want to thank you again for joining us today and agreeing to be
a part of our program. I’d like to start today by asking you
to briefly describe how you first became interested in aviation and
Sure. I grew up in a military family. My dad was a career Marine pilot
and so, from my earliest days, I remember seeing him coming home in
a flight suit, going to the flight line and looking at airplanes that
he flew, and having an interest from my earliest days in that sort
When I went to the [United States] Naval Academy at Annapolis [Maryland],
I felt like I had an open mind, that I was going to see what was available.
Maybe I would get into submarines or ships or something, but the aviation
bug was too deep in there, and so when it came time to select a service
and an occupation, I went for Marine Corps aviation. The first step
in being a Marine officer isn’t to go to flight school; the
first step is six months of training for what they call the basic
school, which teaches you how to be an infantry officer. It’s
just one of the things about being a Marine officer. So having been
through that, that didn’t change my mind either, and I went
from there to aviation training.
The early part of my career was in jets. I learned how to fly jets
in [Naval Air Station] Kingsville, Texas, and went to a squadron on
the West Coast of the United States. It’s a famous squadron,
and it was kind of an interesting thing to be in a squadron that was
actually on television. It was the Black Sheep Squadron, and they
had a TV show about the Black Sheep Squadron. This squadron had been
in existence ever since World War II. I’ll never forget the
black sheep head that was mounted on the wall in the ready room. It
was pretty grungy. I think it had been there since World War II. People
would go by and put cigarettes in its mouth and so on, and it was
a pretty ratty-looking mascot. At one time it had been an actual live
But I enjoyed flying jets and after a few years of flying in the A-4
Sky Hawk, which was a single-engine, single-seat aircraft, I was assigned
to the first Harrier squadron. The Harrier was a brand-new airplane
back then, and they were putting airplanes and people into that first
squadron, and that was a real interesting experience for me, because
it allowed me to touch elbows with some test pilots. It’s fairly
common in the military for the people who have flown a new airplane
in the test environment to actually wind up being in the first squadron
also, and we had nine test pilots in that first squadron, all of whom,
of course, had more experience in this airplane than any of us new
guys. But they taught us how to fly it and were our leaders in that
That’s when I got bit by the test pilot bug. I had an engineering
degree and I was curious about engineering matters and had been to
the safety school, which had some engineering aspects to that, so
it was natural for me to apply to the test pilot school. I guess it
was in 1975, after I’d been a Marine aviator for about seven
years, that I was assigned to the test pilot school up at [Navy Air
Station] Patuxent River [Maryland].
After three and a half years of flight test, I was assigned to go
to the Naval Air Systems Command, which at the time was in Washington,
D.C., and that’s where I got a chance to be in a program office.
I was the Assistant Program Manager for Acquisition. That was the
title they gave what now is called the Chief Engineer’s Office.
In that role, I got a chance to see some R&D [research and development]
activities and acquisition experience, what it’s like to bring
a new system [into the fleet]. At the time, we were working the AV-8B,
which was the advanced Harrier, the American version of the [British]
Harrier. I mention it because later on, I called upon that kind of
experience that I’d had in the Systems Command and in the flight
test community for jobs that I had at NASA. They kind of came in handy
In 1980, after a short tour at the Naval Air Systems Command, I was
picked up by the astronaut selection process and went down to Houston
[Texas] that summer. I’ll never forget the drive to Houston.
My wife drove one of our cars and I drove the other. They were both
Volkswagens, a bus and a bug [Volkswagen Beetle]. Neither one had
air conditioning, and it was July. Two kids, a dog, and a cat, and
lots of stuff, driving down into one of the hottest summers on record,
and that long drive from about thirty miles north of Houston on [U.S.]
Highway 59, when you start getting into the strip malls and so on,
all the way through Houston thirty miles south to where NASA is, I
thought we would never get through that. Of course, that was just
our introduction to what became home for eleven years.
So we raised our sons in Houston. One of them still lives there today.
He considers himself to be a Texan, even though neither one was born
there. They had their formative years and high school and lots of
friends and so on, and a lot of good memories about our tour in Houston.
In 1980, we had yet to fly the Shuttle, and we still had quite a flavor
of the Apollo Program [in Houston]. There were some astronauts in
the corps who had been Apollo astronauts. John [W.] Young was the
chief of the office and, of course, he was a Gemini and Apollo guy.
We had lots of people in Engineering and in the Safety Office and
throughout, in Operations. [Christopher C.] Chris Kraft was the Center
Director. Gene [Eugene F.] Kranz was the head of Mission Operations,
and George [W. S.] Abbey was the head of Flight Crew Operations.
All these guys had quite a history back through the Apollo Program,
and it was difficult not to pick up some of that climate and the cultural
aspects of that, the pride that they had in that program, the frustrations
they were having as we went forward, and things not being the same
as they had been before, where it seemed like there was plenty of
money. Now the environment we were in was a little different, but
a lot of the cultural aspects that had made the Apollo Program great
were interesting to me to jump into and start learning about.
The first job that I got when I came to the Astronaut office, other
than the training itself, was what they called the SMS [Shuttle Mission
Simulator] Liaison Officer. When I got that job, I thought it was
probably going to be the worst job in the Astronaut Office. I was
very envious of my friends in our class. If I remember right, we had
twenty-one astronaut candidates in my class, and all of them were
getting jobs that sounded a lot neater than the one I got. Cape Crusaders,
for examples. Several of them went down to [NASA] Kennedy Space Center
[Florida] and they’d spend all week every week down there preparing
for that first flight, getting the [Space Shuttle] Columbia ready
and developing the processes and working with the [processing and
launch] teams, getting into the cockpit of the real Orbiter and doing
all those things that Cape Crusaders do.
We had some people that were assigned to support crew status for the
first couple of crews. That looked like a lot of fun. They got to
go and be in the simulations, work in the training, helping the crews
to get through all the bureaucratic and technical things they had
to do in their training, getting their flight suits ready to go and
all that sort of thing. So the closeness to the crew really looked
We had some people who got to be what they called the SAIL [Shuttle
Avionics Integration Lab] test pilots or SAIL commanders, where they’d
go over to the lab and fly missions in that simulator, testing the
software. And [there were] various other kinds of jobs, and here I
got assigned to the SMS Liaison job, which was briefly explained to
me by my direct report, a fellow named [T. K.] Ken Mattingly [II],
who is a hero of mine from the early days. Mattingly told me that,
“Okay, you’re SMS Liaison. What that means is, you’re
the guy who represents the Astronaut Office in the activities that
are going on across the street to certify that our crew training simulator—.”
In fact, the SMS stands for Shuttle Mission Simulator. “That
that simulator is accurate and adequate and is what we call certifiable
as a good simulator.”
Now, even though we were within a year of the first flight of Shuttle,
they still hadn’t certified that simulation yet, and there were
a lot of activities going on to make sure it was as accurate as they
could get it. Of course, without ever having flown a real Shuttle
mission, they were going on analysis and ground test data and other
kinds of simulations to build this model and make it accurate. And
part of what they were doing there was to try to make things like
the visual cues and the oral cues that they have for the crew as accurate
as they could so that the environment in that trainer would be as
close to real as they could get it.
I mention that one because that was [a case] where we actually had
quite a bit of fun. I would be in the third seat taking notes and
we would have two Apollo guys like John Young and T.K. Mattingly,
or one of the other guys who’d been on an Apollo launch, trying
to remember what it sounded like when the [engines on the] reaction
control jets fired. The engineers would be outside the simulation
putting in these models and turning up the volume and changing the
pitch and the frequencies of these noises in the cockpit to make them
sound spacelike. Nobody knew what it would sound like on Shuttle,
but if they could make it sound something like what Apollo sounded
like, they thought that was a good start. So it was fun to hear these
guys arguing about whether some noise that was in there was accurate
to the Apollo sounds when neither one of the two guys in the front
had actually flown on the Apollo system for some years, because by
now we hadn’t flown for a while. So I thought that was interesting.
And it was nothing but sea stories. Between the runs, when they were
charging up the simulator and turning it around to get it ready to
go again, you would hear Jack [R.] Lousma and T.K. Mattingly, for
example, arguing about certain aspects of the Apollo system or what
a various launch environment might feel like or sound like. We were
doing not just the noises, but also the visual cues out the front,
both on orbit and in the landing environment.
The landing environment was a lot easier to try to simulate, because
we had airplanes, what we call Shuttle Training Aircraft, to go and
actually fly real approaches to the real runways, so it was real easy
to make the visual cues accurate in the simulator. But the space environment
and what the back of the Shuttle might look like with the star field
in the background, or the Earth or the Moon, those things needed some
advice from these experts who had done it before.
The vibrations was another one. There was a fellow named Roger [A.]
Burke, who was the head engineer in charge of developing the Shuttle
Mission Simulator, and Roger had a little bit of a diabolical streak
in him. The way that showed up was one day when we were trying to
simulate what the vibrations might feel like during launch. The Shuttle
Mission Simulator rotates up to ninety degrees, so you’re laying
on your back in there just like you would on a real launch. And when
you ignite the engines, there’s a vibration that comes in and
shakes, through hydraulic system, the cabin, and gives you some idea
of what that might feel like. Of course, there’s noise that
goes with it and everything else.
Roger was asking these pros—and I think John Young was in the
commander’s seat on this one—asking him and I can’t
remember who the co-pilot on that one was, but for advice on how much
vibration seemed right. So we did several launches in a row and each
time John would say, “No, you need some more. It’s going
to vibrate more than that.” So you can picture Roger Burke out
there, turning this potentiometer up to get more vibration in there.
Then we would fly another launch and John would say, “Nope,
nope. That old Saturn [launch vehicle], that had a lot more vibration
than that. You’re going to have to tweak it up a little more,
So after about three or four of these things, Roger decided he was
going turn it all the way to the max, and he did, and that was one
hellacious ride. John and I both knew what he had done, and all we
could do was just hold on. We were strapped in, but you still felt
like you needed to hold on. You couldn’t see any of the displays
at all. It was just a big blur, and we were bouncing around like it
must have been the case in the old days, when people were going down
the rutted dirt highways in buckboard wagons or something.
Roger actually broke the system on that particular run. We had to
get out. They had damaged some hardware. There were a couple of things
that had been positioned up on top of the simulator with brackets
that didn’t hold, and there were some cables flying loose and
so on, and so we actually broke it. That was the end of the day.
But it was that kind of thing that I found myself doing as the—quote—“SMS
Liaison Officer.” As I look back on it, I realize that what
I thought was going to be a terrible job and not very much fun and
out of the mainstream, was just as important as any other job anybody
else was doing, and that in the space program, it was kind of an early
learning event for me, because I realized then, and it came back to
me many times later on in my dealings with the Space Flight Awareness
Program, that everybody’s important, no matter what their job
is in the space program. There aren’t any non-important jobs,
and as I’ve handed out [Space Flight Awareness Silver] Snoopy
Awards to people who were in what you might think of as non-frontline
jobs, jobs in the background, somebody that audits the books, for
example, might never think of themselves as being all that important
to the space program, and we have given awards to these people for
excellent work and being the top 1 percent of the workforce. And every
time I get involved with something like that, I think back to my first
job at NASA. So that was my introduction to the Astronaut Office.
I remember being kind of in awe of all of this, because there was
enough difference to it, from what I was used to. The space program
had a lot of aspects that were very similar to what I was used to
in my R&D and flight test background, but there were other things
that were not that familiar to me. One example is the idea that we
were only going to fly four test flights. Of course, I had just spent
a tour in flight test jobs and working on programs that had thousands
of test flights before they handed them over to the operators to fly
in the fleet. And planning, when I was in my Naval Air Systems Command
job, for the extensive flight test program that would be required
of the new version of the Harrier, the AV-8B, and then to come to
NASA and hear them talk about four flight tests and then we’d
become operational and we’ll be flying commercial payloads and
we’ll be taking people for rides. I mean non-astronauts for
rides, what became later called the Space Flight Participant Program.
That, to me, was foreign and a little bit uncomfortable.
I remember it may have been after STS-1, but it was in those early
days, in 1981 and 1982, of the Shuttle Program, that I went to T.K.
Mattingly and I told him I didn’t feel comfortable with this.
We were talking about taking the ejection seats out of the Space Shuttle
after the fourth flight. It turned out it was after the fifth flight,
but we were only going to [enable] them for the first four flights.
I told him I just didn’t feel comfortable with how we could
possibly get to a confidence level after such a short test program,
to be able to do that.
He said, “Well, don’t worry about all the rhetoric.”
He says, “We all hear that stuff, and the people up there in
[Washington] are talking about this and so on, but in reality,”
he said, “you and I both know that this it will take a hundred
flights before this thing will be ready to even think of it as operational.”
And when he told me that, I felt a lot more comfortable, like, “Okay,
well, there’s somebody else that has this same [concern] besides
just me around here.” And it was a little bit prophetic on his
part, I thought, because as time went on, and then in later years
after the [Space Shuttle] Challenger mishap and so on, I remember
revisiting that conversation. And even after the Columbia accident,
where we hear about some of the echoes of the Challenger thing and
how we were calling the Space Shuttle operational when it really isn’t
and so on. Of course, it had flown more than a hundred missions by
But I just wonder if we really are comfortable yet, as an agency,
with the idea of development and flight tests versus operations. When
we embark on our new systems and the new vision that we have to go
to the Moon and Mars, my guess is we’ll have a sustained program
that will involve some flight hardware that gets either repetitively
used or we use similar ones over and over again, even if they’re
throwaways, where we allow ourselves get to feeling comfortable because
we haven’t had any failures, when really we shouldn’t,
and that it does take a long time and lots and lots of trials before
you can get to that confidence level.
So, again, in the early 1980s, I remember thinking back on that discussion
with T.K. Mattingly quite often.
like to go back and ask you a little more about your initial process
of becoming an astronaut. When did you decide that that was something
that you were interested in?
In 1977—well, it actually goes back further than that. In 1970,
when I was going to graduate school, I was in a program that had a
field trip to NASA Johnson Space Center, and when we went down there,
Alan [L.] Bean was a fellow that I met. He was training for Apollo
12, and he met our group of graduate students and talked to us a little
bit on his way into the simulator. The very same simulator facility
that I was talking about in 1980, we had that same building with a
similar type of setup. Of course, the cockpit displays and all that
were Apollo, but that was the room that we went into. Then we watched
him and the rest of his crew climb in and get ready to do their training
At that time, by the way, when I was going to graduate school, I was
also in flight training at the same time. They had a program for certain
people with engineering bachelor’s degrees to go through a master’s
degree program at the University of West Florida [Pensacola, Florida]
while they were getting their wings. So it was a Navy-run program,
and maybe that’s why they had a closer tie to NASA, because
it had a government sponsorship.
But I remember at that time thinking that that [would be] an interesting
job to have. I really didn’t connect myself to it, though. I
just thought, “Wow, this is exciting and these guys are doing
some really neat stuff.” Apollo 11 had just landed. My class
and I watched it at one of my buddies’ houses down in Florida,
and here we were now, talking to the very next crew. And, of course,
I don’t know if you remember, but Apollo 12 is the one that
was hit by lightning on the way up. And, of course, because we had
met the crew, we were watching that one, too, and I remember talking
about all that later on. But I can’t say that’s when I
connected myself personally to the astronaut business, but it was
my first introduction to it.
It wasn’t really until 1977, after I’d been a couple of
years in Patuxent River doing flight test work, when NASA asked for
volunteers for the astronaut corps to be part of the Shuttle Program,
that I really thought “Maybe I ought to try that out. After
all, I think I have some of the qualifications here.” They were
looking for a certain amount of flight experience. They were heavily
biased towards test pilots. I don’t think that was a requirement,
but just about all the test pilots that I knew were applying, and
so I kind of just joined the wave and said, “Well, why not me?”
I didn’t really think I had any special qualifications other
than I was a test pilot and I had some interest in doing new things.
And apparently NASA agreed [that] I didn’t have special qualifications.
John Young called me on the phone and said, “You didn’t
This was for the 1978 class. I asked him, “Well, I understand
you’re going to have another one of these in a couple of years.
If you were I, would you apply again?”
And he said, “Absolutely.” And I took that as a hint that
maybe I wasn’t too far off, and I figured a couple more years
of flight test experience, and if I scored fairly high among this
 group, they’re all gone now, they got hired by NASA,
so I don’t have all those people in front of me anymore, so
maybe I’ll be [more] competitive next time. And, sure enough,
I applied in 1980 and I was picked up that time.
I’m kind of glad I did it that way, because as much of an interesting
job the ’78 class had, the class having joined the NASA team
two years earlier than myself, I still had a heck of a good job. Getting
that other year of experience in fight test, it gave me the opportunity
to be the first guy to fly the YAV-8B [Harrier] prototype airplane,
which was my project down there. I wouldn’t have been able to
do that if I had come to NASA. And as much fun as it was to be the
SMS Liaison Officer, believe me, flight test was a great job at Patuxent
Now, I did go for a desk job for my last year before coming to NASA.
I was in Washington in the Naval Air Systems Command, but again, as
I look back, I don’t think I would have flown the Shuttle any
sooner had I been picked up in that first class. It turns out that
they had cut five people [from the 1978 selection]. They were going
to hire forty and they cut five pilots out, because they didn’t
need them, right at the last minute. I found out much later that I
was one of those five. The reason they didn’t need them is because
in that ’78 time frame, the Columbia was having problems. All
the tiles had fallen off on a flight across country. One of the main
engines had blown up on a test stand and the whole Shuttle Program
was slipping. So if they had picked me up in 1978 and I had joined
the Astronaut Office, I probably would have eventually flown the same
time anyway as I did. So having that other two years with the Marine
Corps, I thought was beneficial later on for me, gave me that extra
acquisition experience that I used in different [NASA] jobs.
was your family’s reaction to your choice?
When I was picked up for NASA? Well, I guess it was about the same
as everybody else. A lot of uncertainty. “Yeah, I guess it’s
time to move again. We are a military family. We’ve been here
in Washington area for four and a half years,” in Maryland at
that time, and then Washington. It was a little bit of a hassle for
us personally in that we had just moved into a house at Bolling Air
Force Base [Washington, DC], base housing, and we only were in that
for about eight months when we had to pick up and move to Houston.
It’s just one of those hassles that military families sometimes
go through when they get assignments.
But there was also a lot of excitement about going to a new place
and getting away from some of the colder winter things. Little did
we know how terrible the summers could be in Houston. I’d trade
the winters here for the summers there anytime. But we heard that
the schools were pretty good and the people in the Houston area were
wonderful, so everything we heard said this was going to be a good
assignment for the family.
was the reception when you did get here? You mentioned the Apollo
heroes, and they were heroes to you. What do you feel the reception
was to this new class of astronauts, or even the ’78 class,
Well, it was probably fine, but I have to tell you, I remember a negative
part of our reception, which it must have made an impression on me,
because I still remember that meeting to this day. The [NASA] Administrator,
[Dr. Robert A.] Frosch, and [Dr. Christopher C.] Chris Kraft, [Jr.]
who was the [NASA Johnson Space] Center Director, apparently had had
some issues with some of the members of the ’78 class. I don’t
know if somebody had pushed the rules on airplane flying over the
community or something, but there was some [incident] that had just
happened before our introductory meeting and our welcome meeting at
the Center down there, and those guys were in a bad mood about this,
and it was reflected in their welcome aboard. I remember Chris Kraft
saying something to the effect of, “I don’t want you people
feeling like you’re omnipotent.” That was the word he
used. “Remember, you’re not omnipotent here.”
And I thought, “Wow, we’re getting some cautionary stuff
here before we’ve had even one day.” I found out later,
of course, that he was sort of in a bad frame of mind because of something
that one of the other astronauts had done, which gave him this omnipotent
thing, I guess. Somebody thought they had more authority or permission
to do something that they really didn’t. Because they were—quote—“an
astronaut,” they had special privileges. So that’s the
dose we got of our welcome aboard, was a cautionary thing.
In fact, one of the first jobs we were given as a class was to create
a patch, a class patch that we could wear on our flight suits. So
several of us, just in a kidding way, created some sort of a legitimate
patch design and then, in addition, a joking one. Of all the characteristics
we had in our class, sense of humor was one of them, and that’s
where that showed up. My funny patch was a picture of Alfred E. Newman,
the Mad [magazine] guy, in a space suit, close up of his head, just
like you’d see on the cover of Mad magazine, and at the bottom
was a logo that said, “What? Me omnipotent?” [Laughter]
Of course, that got turned down. I mean, we didn’t even turn
that one in, but it was good for a joke.
But a couple of the other things about being the second new class
in some years—the ’78 class was the first one in nine
years. Then we being two years right after that, I guess some of their
sense of humor bled off a little bit, and there was an attempt to
try to get the whole astronaut aura down a peg or so. The Apollo Program
astronaut corps was very small. In fact, I think when the ’78
class showed up, there were only 28 [or so] astronauts in the office,
compared to what we have now is, what, 150 or something.
I think what they were trying to do was change a little bit of the
perks. I’m not going to call them perks necessarily, but some
of the things that went along with the notoriety of the astronaut
corps, because what they did with us was they said, “Starting
with your class, we’re not going to have any lithographs anymore.”
You know, the picture that you would take to schools and sign. “We
don’t need to do that anymore; there’s not enough interest
in that. Starting with your class, that’s the end of it.”
And I thought, “Well, fine. I didn’t even know we were
supposed to have lithographs. I never had them in the Marines. No
skin off my nose.” Well, of course, the public was not ready
for this, and we were just bombarded with requests from children and
the public all over the country for autographed pictures from our
new class. What we did was we made up a little standard letter to
send back to them that said, “Sorry. Starting with our class,
we don’t do that anymore.” I thought that would probably
take care of that and would cut off the requests, but it didn’t.
So the NASA hierarchy said, “Okay, I guess that’s not
going to work.” So they went ahead and took pictures of us and
made the lithographs, and then we just followed the old tradition
of letter answering and that sort of thing, and signed pictures.
they were somewhat surprised that that interest was still out there
in the public?
Yes, I think they must have been. They really didn’t anticipate
that there’d be such an overflow of requests. I personally didn’t
get that many, but there were some members of our class who just were
overwhelmed with hundreds and hundreds of requests for pictures. Then
there were some that just said they wanted pictures of everybody,
so it was the same interest as the ’78 class had had. They had
given them the lithographs, so they never had this question, I guess.
Even to this day, they still issue the lithographs to all the astronauts
in the new classes, and it’s probably consistent with the NASA
mission of inspiring the public. That’s the astronaut part of
that, is to get a little closer to the schoolkids and so on with that
sort of personal [inspirational] touch.
talk some more about some of your first duties. You mentioned the
SMS Liaison Officer. Was that what you did primarily through STS-1
Yes, the first two flights, I was involved with that. Of course, the
job changed a little bit. Instead of creating the simulation and certifying
it for the first flight, once we got up and got to the certification
point, then my job changed to more of a facilitator, of making sure
that the Shuttle Mission Simulator was supporting the astronaut training
needs properly and sometimes having to get into things like schedule
problems, or occasionally, which is something I really enjoyed, actually
taking somebody’s place because they weren’t able to show
up. Because I knew what was going on in the simulator all the time,
I was able to what I called “snivel” a lot of rides in
the simulator, and that was a much more interesting simulator than
some of the other ones that my other classmates had been assigned
to, which weren’t nearly as accurate a simulation.
they become more accurate once the first flight came back?
Yes. Now, after the first flight came back, we went back to that other
model that said, let’s get these two guys, [Robert L.] Bob Crippen
and John Young, in there, and let’s tweak it and make it as
good as we can while they can still remember all this, what it felt
like, what it looked like, what it sounded like, and any physical
features that might be off a little bit.
Of course, that was pretty accurate. The switches were all exactly
where they ought to be because we knew the hardware. But some of the
other aspects really turned out to be a little bit off. It didn’t
actually feel or sound or look like the Apollo in many respects, and
so when they came back, there were quite a few changes, and I got
to sit in that third seat and take notes for all of those [sessions],
too, [and it] was a lot of fun. We did the same thing after [each
of] the first four flights.
they have recordings going on so that they would hear the sounds?
Yes. In fact, I forget which mission it was, but we actually put microphones
in the cabin to pick up the real sound of the launch environment,
without any muffling or anything, so that we could try to repeat it
with the electronic sound makers in the simulator, and get it to the
right decibel levels and the right tones.
Now, we didn’t use that [feature] unless the crew had their
helmets on. If they’d do a suited run in the simulator, then
you’d run [it] up to the right noise levels. But most of the
time in the trainer was spent just in shirtsleeve environment, so
they would turn that noise way down to what it would sound like inside
your helmet. Those were some of the subtle things that we were working
in those days.
other duties did you have in those early flights?
On the third flight, I was assigned to the chase program and I got
to be a chase pilot. [Ronald E.] Ron McNair and I were assigned as
partners. He was the duty photographer and he learned all about how
to operate a 16-mm camera. That was our job. We had two other chase
planes with different kinds of cameras in them. One was a 70-mm still
shots and then the other one was a videocamera. Ron and I were what
we called the minimum [entry] point [MEP] chase, which means we were
the third chase plane. I mention that because STS-3 was the only flight
that landed at Northrup Strip out in [White Sands] New Mexico, and
due to the positioning of the number three chase plane at what they
called the minimum [entry] point, that meant you were a backup. In
case the Shuttle didn’t go to the normal runway, if they had
an energy problem, they would go to the MEP runway, and they wanted
one chase plane to be there just in case they had to do that.
It turns out that the minimum [entry] point was pretty close to the
normal rendezvous place for chase planes. We’re all up there
circling around at 40,000 feet, two guys at the normal [entry] point,
and me, with Ron in the back seat, at the minimum [entry] point. When
we did that at KSC [NASA Kennedy Space Center, Florida] or at Edwards
[Air Force Base, California], we were pretty far away from the other
guys and, therefore, we would be out of the picture, wouldn’t
actually be able to fly chase on the Orbiter when it came in, wouldn’t
be able to make it that far in time to make it there.
But at Northrup Strip, the runways were close enough, the minimum
[entry] and the nominal [entry] orbiting points were so close that
we asked permission, once we knew where the Orbiter was coming in—and
on STS-3, that was Jack Lousma and [C. Gordon] Gordo Fullerton, and
when they came in on actual landing day, I had asked permission to
be relieved of my job over there on the MEP as soon as we knew the
Orbiter was definitely going to [be] normal. So they gave me the go
and then I lit my burners and went supersonic and joined up on those
other two guys just as they were joining up with the Shuttle. That’s
the only flight where we’ve had three T-38 [Talon] chase planes,
and it’s the only flight that has a 16-mm film of a landing
because of that, and we owe that to Ron McNair in the back seat; he
took a great film.
In the film you can see the other two T-38 chase planes and the Orbiter,
so when you look at chase films of those early landings, always look.
You’ll see one airplane over there, but not two, except for
that one [landing at Northrup Strip].
that the only flight you had that?
Yes, just one [chase] flight. There were a couple of guys who flew
chase on all the flights, [Charles R.] Charlie Justiz and there may
have been somebody later on, who were our instructor pilots, but the
astronauts tended to rotate through that [job]. The only astronauts
who would fly twice on a chase were people who would fly one of the
backup slots for one flight and then be asked to be the leader for
the next one, and I wasn’t, so I just had that one flight.
Then from there, I was assigned to [Paul] P. J. Weitz’s crew
as part of his support crew and got a chance to see what goes on there
when you’re real close to a crew getting ready for training
and in their training. Whatever they needed in the way of support,
that’s what we did. So that was a lot of fun, too.
STS-4, you did some CapCom [Capsule Communicator] experience for several
Right. I was a CapCom for flights five through nine. A couple of things
that I remember there of great interest were how that experience gave
me such an awareness of what goes on with mission operations; the
planning, the real-time operations themselves, the console work, the
pyramid of support people that sit at places all over the country,
behind them, and the tremendous training, certification, qualification,
whatever you call it, program that they had that allowed people to
be qualified to sit on those front consoles, and then to migrate up
to and become qualified and trained to be a flight director.
I worked with some really great flight directors. One of them is still
down there today, Jay [H.] Greene. I think I worked for [Brock] Randy
Stone, was one of the flight directors, and if not, he was one of
the console operators at the time. [Alan] Lee Briscoe was there. It
was in watching this process and being a part of it and being part
of the flight control team that I developed a real respect for the
flight directors, watching them grow and move from place to place,
watching them in action, looking at their decision process, seeing
how knowledgeable they were of all the systems. That was very impressive
to me. I hadn’t seen anything like that in my military career.
were several firsts on those first flights that you were working as
CapCom. Are there any anecdotes about any of those times?
Yes. The great deal of work we did on entry weather for flight seven.
STS-7, I was the entry CapCom for that one, and it was supposed to
be the first flight into the Kennedy Space Center. We practiced every
day of that mission for the landing, using the real weather, and an
actual pilot down there flying around, the real meteorologists at
the Cape [Canaveral, Florida], simulating on console while the mission
was going on, getting ready for a landing. That was a real interesting
exercise. We didn’t land at the Cape on STS-7, because the weather
was bad, so another one got to be the first Cape landing later on.
The other thing I remember was the first Spacelab mission, where we
had what came to be called the POCC, the Payload Operations Control
Center, which was in another room somewhere. They had their own communications
with the science crew onboard. We had a lot of coordination. I was
the lead CapCom for STS-9, and so it was part of my responsibility
to make sure that the CapComs and the equivalent, the folks that were
in the POCC talking to the science crew, were all coordinated. We
practiced what happens if there’s an emergency or we have to
use that communications loop to solve an Orbiter problem, and the
protocols that are used for that; handing off back and forth between
them; writing the rules for how we’re going to do that. That
was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. A lot of planning and coordination.
I also remember some of the fun things that happened during those
missions, where the crew might say something funny and we’d
all get a kick out of it, or we’d send up a message to them
with some humor in it. Bob [Robert F.] Overmyer—he was on STS-5….Well,
I was an Orbit CapCom for STS-5, and I remember I was talking to Bob
Overmyer while the Orbiter was flying over the Pacific Ocean, and
he was looking out the window and he commented over the air-to-ground
loop, he says, “We’re flying over Hawaii and it looks
just like the maps.”
And my response to him was, “Bob, that’s very comforting.”
[Laughter] I didn’t know what to say. “It looks just like
the maps.” What do I say to that? “Very comforting.”
He laughed and we laughed. We thought that was funny. It’s a
minor thing, but in the day-to-day activities of trying to do all
the science and the activities and so on, a little humor every now
and then, from the crew or from us to them, was always appreciated.
I think it’s a tradition even to this day. It’s part of
the culture down there. So I look fondly on my CapCom days.
Being a CapCom is one of the really great jobs. It was one of the
jobs that, when I first got assigned to the Astronaut Office, people
were saying, “Oh, that’s the job you want. You want to
be a CapCom. That’s where it’s at.” And I know why
they said that. It’s so close to the action and the planning
of the actual mission, working with the crew, working with the ground
people, it really engages you right in the middle of the space program
and you feel a real part of it.
you have training for that?
All the training was on the job and it was in simulations. We didn’t
have any ground school per se, but we did an awful lot of simulation
before every flight, so we were very ready to go. We spent a lot of
time in meetings discussing flight rules, developing flight rules.
Sometimes the CapComs would go and run simulations to verify that
those flight rules would actually work with the appropriate crew procedures
and so on. So there was a lot of development-type activity going on.
It’s not just operational. Especially back in those days, when
we were kind of writing the book on how to do Space Shuttle operations,
there was never a dull moment.
were also some other firsts during that time that I mentioned. Were
you working when they did the first spacewalk?
Yes. I don’t think I was on console for the spacewalk. I was
a CapCom for that mission. I know they had a little bit of a problem
with one of the suits and so on. I must have been on the planning
team or something for that one.
mentioned some of the humor. Who decides the wakeup calls for the
astronauts? Is that something that’s a CapCom’s duty?
Yes, the CapComs do that. The support crew concept went away after
a while and the CapComs kind of took over that role, but in the early
days, the support crews had what we thought of as morale jobs. One
of the aspects of that was creating a notebook of pictures and funny
sayings and mementos from the families and things like that, that
the crew would find when they got up on orbit and they opened up their
flight data file. There was a book in there of cartoons, jokes about
the crew, pictures of them in their training, things that made them
look silly and stuff like that, and that was kind of fun. I got involved
with that on STS-5, with Vance’s crew.
Then on STS-9 I was involved with it with John Young’s crew.
I remember we created a picture of him; we cut his head out of one
picture and pasted it over a picture of Lou Gehrig [baseball player
for the New York Yankees]. So you had John Young there in Lou Gehrig’s
uniform. We thought of him as the Lou Gehrig of the astronaut corps.
I don’t remember why. But that kind of stuff we would do, and
it was good for the crew. On the first day, they normally don’t
feel too well, and to pull that thing out and have a chuckle or two,
STS-9 they had the first payload specialists.
were they received by the astronaut corps, and that relationship,
not just those two specifically, but the whole payload specialists
We had two [European] payload specialists that were in my class—Wubbo
[J.] Ockels from The Netherlands, and Claude Nicollier. So our class
was the first one to have payload specialists go through the mission
specialist training. Now, that was a little bit unique. The payload
specialists that flew on STS-9 did not go through that training. They
came from Europe and they trained in their payload specialist jobs
for that mission. I don’t know if that was just an experiment
they were trying with these two guys or what, but there was a little
bit of confusion in those days about who are these people and what’s
their real role? Are they astronauts or not? Are we going to see them
again? Will they fly repetitively? And of course, we had one that
did; [Charles D.] Charlie Walker flew three times.
So it was kind of a mixed bag and there was a controversy in some
quarters. Never a big deal. The crews themselves latch onto their
payload specialists and they’re part of the crew; there’s
no big deal there. But in other areas there was always a question
about, what are they? Exactly how do they fit in? Little things, like,
do we invite them to the astronaut corps reunion? It was obvious for
Wubbo and Claude that, yes, because they went through the training
with us and they were part of our class, so we had no doubt about
that. But then are these other guys astronauts or not? A little what
I think of, more or less, as petty questions that people would ask.
Some of them were asked for legitimate reasons for certain people,
like, do we have to [provide funding] support this person in this
event, or do they get [funding] support from their country for it?
How do we factor that in? And so on.
But, yes, I remember in those early [Shuttle] days, the question about
payload specialists did come up. It looked like there were a couple
of varieties of them, and then we were told that eventually there
will be another variety of them, which will be nontechnical people,
book writers and reporters and teachers. Of course, the teacher part
of that had a name. It was the Teacher in Space Program, but it was
much broader than that. It was what became known as the Space Flight
And the same questions came up there. Who are these people? What kind
of training do we need to give them? How long are they going to be
here? How much do they need to know about the systems? And so on.
1984, President [Ronald W.] Reagan announced the Space Station. How
was that received by the astronauts? Was there excitement with the
opportunity to do something, another Apollo-like announcement that
within a decade we’re going to do something?
Yes. The Skylab memories were fairly recent. Everybody thought it
was a good thing to do. The Space Station had been on the drawing
boards. There were people that had been working on that before his
announcement, but it was kind of like the same feeling we get when
the President comes out and gives our “new vision” speech
just last month. Wow, you know. It’s nice to have the administration
talking for the nation [about] what we’re going to do here on
the Space Station.
There was another piece to that announcement, and that was the thing
that formally declared that the Space Shuttle was operational. That
was part of the same deal. I remember having a different opinion about
that part of it, going back to my early concerns about not enough
test flights and so on. So for me, it was mixed emotions; excitement
about a new program and concern that we’re going operational
a little early [on Shuttle].
and how did you learn that you were assigned to your first flight?
You know, I don’t really remember exactly when I found out about
it. The process, though, I remember, was that you’d get a call
to go over to Flight Crew Operations Directorate [FCOD], which was
at the time George Abbey, and he would tell you that you’d been
assigned. Usually it was done in conjunction with the Chief of the
Astronaut Office. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember whether
they were together or Astronaut Office first, followed by a trip across
the pond over there to talk to the FCOD.
But I remember being surprised, because I was the first pilot in my
class to be assigned to a mission. I wasn’t the first one to
fly on a mission, but the first one to be assigned to one. It was
kind of a mixed bag in our class. We thought that that was a sign
of how well you were thought of, is if you get picked early among
your peers. Roy [D.] Bridges [Jr.] was the first fellow to be assigned,
if I remember right, assigned to a crew, and [Ronald J.] Ron Grabe,
I believe, was the first one to actually fly on a mission, in our
class, because they shuffled the missions around a little bit. So
we had three of us who were thinking that somehow we were the first.
But it really didn’t matter very much, because the way they
jumbled things around in those days, the way you wound up actually
flying didn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with when you were
But I felt good about it. I had a good crew. I was assigned to work
with Brewster [H.] Shaw [Jr.], who was going to be my commander, and
I had great respect for Brewster. From what I had seen, he was one
of the topnotch guys in his class. He was two years ahead of me and
had been the pilot on the STS-9 mission, and as the senior CapCom
on that mission, I got to know Brewster pretty well. He and John Young
were a really good team together, and so I figured if he learned his
trade from John Young and I get to learn mine from him, I’m
in pretty good hands here.
I still consider Brewster to be one of the best pilots I’ve
ever known, and also, as time went on, I consider him to be one of
the best program managers I’ve ever known. We worked together
on the Shuttle Program later. He’s one of my heroes. Same age
as I am, basically, maybe a year older, but I always look up to him.
Of course, he’s in industry now, so I have to put the “due
diligent” words all around it, government-industry interfaces
and all that stuff, but a class act and a very highly qualified guy.
I learned so much from him when I was his pilot.
talk about training for that mission, if you can describe some of
Yes, I remember lots and lots of simulation. We slipped for a year,
so we basically trained full bore for two years for that flight. It
was a very full, packed mission. Being in the pre-Challenger era,
we were doing a lot of commercial things on it. We had two very jam-packed
EVAs [Extravehicular Activities], where Jerry [L.] Ross and [Sherwood
C.] Woody Spring went out to build what we called tinkertoy [structures],
but it was early developmental structural [prototypes] that might
have application later when we were building a space station. It was
called EASE [Experimental Assembly of Structures in Extravehicular
Activity] ACCESS [Assembly Concept for Construction of Erectable Space
Structures]. It was a [NASA] Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville,
Alabama] experiment, and I was the IVA [intravehicular activity] crewmember,
which meant that I got to be the choreographer and sort of the stage
manager. While they were outside, I was walking them through the procedures
and keeping track of the EVA. So I got a chance as a pilot to get
real close to [EVA].
I used to go diving with [the EVA crewmembers] when they would be
in the big tank. There was a big tank at Marshall that we used, as
well as the one we had at JSC, and I remember because I enjoyed scuba
diving, I would jump in there and go down and watch them do their
We had a full day of flight test work in between the two EVAs, which
we called the OEX DAP [Orbiter Experiments Digital Autopilot]. It
was Digital Autopilot, experimental software changes they made that
would make the jets fire in different ways on orbit, so you’d
have different flying qualities of the Orbiter. It was meant to look
at ways of optimizing how the Orbiter flies when it’s real close
to another object, which we were concerned about for later on when
we would be rendezvousing on a satellite or docking with a Space Station.
We wanted to have our act together then, so we were demonstrating
It was an interesting thing we did. On the first EVA, the last task
was that Woody Spring would come into the airlock and take out a radar
reflector, a ball about the size of a basketball, and just release
it into space. Then we would fly formation on [it] and use it to fly
in proximity with—we were supposed to use the rendezvous radar,
Ku-band radar system, but we didn’t have one. It broke before
we launched, so we didn’t take it with us. So everything we
did on that test was visual. But because it was proximity operations,
it was supposed to be visual anyway, and I’ll never forget flying
up to and flying circles around that little aluminum ball up there
[200 miles high].
We’ve said many times later that we were one of the few missions
that ever deployed four satellites on one flight, because the other
thing we did on that flight was three commercial satellites, one per
day for the first three days of the mission; one for RCA [Americom],
one for Australia, one for Mexico. So the fourth satellite was that
little ball, that little $1.95 radar-reflector ball that we put out,
with a unique deploy system called Woody Spring. We had a “Spring”
launch system with that one. That ball only lasted in orbit for about—it
had a lot of drag to it and I heard that it only stayed up there about
eighty days and then it reentered. Of course, we didn’t worry
about that. We only needed it for one day.
But those were pretty interesting things, the EVA and the rendezvous
and flight test things we got to do. We also had an IMAX camera in
the back, which Brewster learned how to use. It was a remote camera,
taking pictures from the payload bay of the guys doing their spacewalk
So it was a pretty full mission. It was seven days and never a dull
moment. Enjoyed every bit of it. I didn’t feel good at all on
the first day. I’m one of those guys that got sick on the first
day of space flights. I didn’t want to take any medications
at all. I wanted to see exactly what would happen to me when I went
up there, because that was the time when we really didn’t have
any way to predict how people would react. So I wanted to know, okay,
if I’m going to be doing this for a living, I want to know exactly
what my body does on the first day. Sure enough, after about eleven
hours of that first day, I had gotten myself dizzy, moved my head
too much, and I got space sick, is what we ended up calling it. Space
sickness, or SAS, I guess is the science word for it, Space Adaptation
Syndrome. On the second day I felt fine. I got over it. I was in sort
of the typical not feeling so good the first day, feeling fine the
second day model that so many people ended up getting into.
On my second mission, I wanted to do something different. Again, I
didn’t take anything ahead of time, but they had [this wonder
drug called] Phenergan, which we didn’t have on my first flight.
By the second flight, they had already demonstrated this and people
were saying it was really good. It’s a shot; that’s the
bad news. But the good news is, within fifteen minutes, your symptoms
go away. So as soon as I started feeling symptoms on that second flight,
like I might get sick again—and the second flight, I actually
got them much earlier, because it was so hot. On my second flight,
we had those special suits that we started wearing after Challenger,
and they didn’t have cooling in [the early models], so that
made it even worse. But that shot really took care of me.
your first flight, since you were in the SMS, and all the sounds and
the feeling and everything, how did that compare with the actual launch?
Oh, it was good. I thought the simulator by that time was very good.
There was one thing that we had not simulated, and surprised me and
Brewster both. STS-61B was the second night launch. STS-8 had been
the first one, and when the guys came back from STS-8, they talked
about what it was like and what it looked like to fly at night and
so on. By the time we were assigned to our mission, which I guess
would have been a year or two later, we went to Dick [Richard H.]
Truly, [Daniel C. Brandenstein], and Guy [Guion S.] Bluford [Jr.]
and the folks that were on that first night flight, and we asked them,
“What was it like? What were the sights?” and so on, and
was there anything unusual compared to a day flight. Of course, I
hadn’t been on any flight yet, so it wouldn’t have mattered
to me what any differences might be, but Brewster had. He’d
been on that STS-9 day flight. So we got a full briefing, a very good
briefing from Dick Truly on it.
But even with that, we were surprised by something which was highly
unusual and quite a bit scary on our launch. When we got up on orbit,
we, unlike STS-8, did what we called a main propulsion system dump,
and we did not do orbital maneuvering system burn right away. So when
we dumped the main propulsion system, which is all these ice crystals
coming out of the back of the main engines, those things made this
big cloud all around us and behind us, but a big cloud. We couldn’t
see that, but that’s what was back there, a couple of thousand
pounds of propellant from the lines that are going to the main propulsion
Now, everybody does these dumps. In the daytime, you wouldn’t
notice it, and on STS-8, when they did the dump, they also were doing
an orbital maneuvering system burn, which was moving them out of that
cloud. With us, we dumped and we just stayed there, and the primary
reaction control jets, back in the back and the front, were firing
to hold attitude. And every time one of those jets would fire, we’d
get this big flash of light come up and show up in the side windows,
and there’s a lot of jet firings that go on back there when
this is happening, and all these flashes of light looked just like
what you would think would be going on if there were a big fire going
on behind you, and we both thought we were on fire, and that the whole
rear end of the vehicle was on fire.
We were looking at the instruments. We talked to the ground, asked
them if everything was okay. We were talking to each other and, of
course, scaring our crew, on the intercom, about this, “Boy,
that looks like a fire, doesn’t it? What do you think that is?”
And of course, you can’t get close enough to the window. These
windows have three panes and they’re so thick that you can’t
get your eye close enough to be able to look back, and we’re
strapped into our seats anyway at this point. So it was a little bit
nerve-wracking there for a couple minutes until we finally figured
out what it must be, because it happened right after the dump, during
the jet firings. I’m not even sure; maybe the ground might have
said something about it.
But we were not prepared for that, and that was my second scariest
moment of the launch, the first one having been the actual last few
seconds of the countdown. That was scary to me. Here I am, sitting
in there on my first launch. Now, I’ve been in the simulator
and we’ve been through a dry countdown in that vehicle, on the
launch pad, going through the countdown and so on. But it’s
still my first one and I’m depending on Brewster for moral support.
I want him to look confident over there, okay? Because he’s
been through this before and he’ll know if something’s
wrong, and I won’t. I mean, that was kind of the frame of mind
I was in. Other than that, I was focusing on my procedures, my checklists,
my cue cards, thinking about what ifs and so on, and trying to keep
focused on all of that.
But a couple of times I looked over there to Brewster to see how he
was doing, and I got the full confident business from him. He looked
over at me and gives me a thumbs-up and this look like, “Hey,
no sweat. This is working out fine.” The countdown’s going
well, and when we got down to about, I’d say, the fifteen-second
point, I took one [last] look over at him and I noticed he had his
gloves off and he was wiping his hands on his pants.
Now, what he was doing was getting the sweat off of them so that when
he put his hand around that stick, he would have a good control and
so on. But I didn’t want to see somebody whose hands are sweating
at this point. That was not good for me, and I took a deep dive in
the confidence zone there of, “Oh, my god. My commander, who’s
been through this before, his hands are sweating. Why aren’t
mine sweating? Maybe mine ought to be sweating. I think I need to
be nervous now if he’s nervous.” And that was not a good
thing to happen at fifteen seconds. It would have been better if he
had done that at like three minutes and I could have got through all
that, but fifteen seconds, by the time I’m thinking about this,
the engines light off and I had to snap out of it and say, “Well,
we’re going anyway. I don’t care if I’m nervous
our not; here we go.” So that was my first bout of scaredness.
Of course, I had been through things like this, sort of, in my pilot
days and flying days and test piloting and so on, where you can really
get out of that feeling fairly quickly by getting right back to what
you’re trained for, getting to your procedures, reading your
instruments and so on, and those things kind of go away when you focus
back onto what you’re used to. So it was a fleeting thing, but
I’ll never forget it.
mentioned that Brewster Shaw, of course, was experienced, and Charlie
Walker had had a flight before, but the rest of you were rookies.
How did the crew get along, and what were those first experiences
like, the weightlessness and that sort of thing?
Yes, we got along great. I remember, when I wasn’t feeling so
good, being mad at Jerry Ross, who was our third-seater, because he
was breaking out some carrots and some chocolate balls or something.
I don’t know what it was. Some strange combination. He was hungry,
and of course, as we learned later from the flight docs, what goes
on with some people, like me, when they get up there, Space Adaptation
Syndrome, a big piece of that is that your stomach shuts down. It
goes into some kind of shock or something because of the zero-G [gravity]
environment, where the fluids shift. I don’t know all the details
of it, but the stomach shuts down and part of shutting down gives
you that nauseous feeling, but certainly, when it shuts down, you’re
not hungry. So here’s Jerry back here. I’m feeling terrible
and he’s [popping] chocolate balls, and that didn’t help.
Of course, Mary [L.] Cleave was our arm operator and she had a very
important job of hoisting these people back and forth on the end of
the arm, and I enjoyed my training with Mary, because as a pilot,
I was supposed to be watching out one window and she the other, and
we did a lot of training together in the Building 9 mockups. We had
this big cardboard Jerry Ross that would sit on the end of the arm,
and I’d be in there with her, talking to this nonentity out
there, pretending like we were doing EVAs.
So I don’t know, we got very close as a crew. Even to this day,
Mary and Woody, who are both local here in the Washington area, and
I get together every now and then. It’s one of those things
that sticks with you. And of course, when I go down to Houston, Jerry’s
still in the crew office, and I give him a rough time about how many
flights he’s flown and all that stuff. What is it now? Seventeen
flights or something? I don’t know what it is. And looking for
his next one. But we became pretty good friends through that experience.
Working closely with a crew like that for two years is a great experience,
especially when you like each other. Charlie Walker’s local
here, too. Most of our crew is right here in this area and we see
each other a lot.
There was one story about Woody. Woody is a [United States Military
Academy at] West Point [New York] graduate and I was an Annapolis
graduate, and when we flew our mission, it was during the Army-Navy
game, so, the late November, early December time frame. So we had
a tradition back then, and I don’t know, maybe they might not
do it anymore, but I think they probably do, where the crew gets to
select some—at the time it was audiotapes, small audiotapes
of your favorite music. Each person was allowed to carry six audios,
and NASA would help you record records or whatever you wanted onto
these space-qualified audiotapes. Then we would carry them and a [cassette]
tape player onboard with our equipment. Usually what would happen
is people would break those out when it was time for bed and listen
to their favorite music at bedtime.
Well, it was on about day three. Maybe it was the day of the game;
I don’t remember, but it was on day three that we turned off
the lights and, I don’t know, it was about ten minutes after
the lights were off, and I was borderline asleep, and I hear this
loud cry from the other side of the mid deck, where Woody was hanging
off the wall in his bed. He [yells out], “O’Connor, you
It woke me up with a start, and I had no idea what he was talking
about. “What is it? What is it?”
He says, “You know what it is.” And all of a sudden, it
clicked with me. About a month before flight, when we were having
the people transcribe music onto our tapes, I went over to the guy
that was working on Woody’s tapes and I gave him a record with
the [Naval Academy] fight song on it and I said, “I want you
to go right in the middle of his tape somewhere, just right in the
middle, and superimpose the Navy fight song somewhere on his tape.
Well, it turned out it was his Peter, Paul, and Mary album, and it
was right in the middle of “I’ve Got A Hammer.”
He’s listening to “I’ve Got A Hammer” on his
way to sleep and suddenly up comes this really loud Navy fight song
thing right in the middle of it. We still joke about that to this
day. In fact, sometimes we go to one or the other house and watch
the Army-Navy game together, and we always remember that night on
the [Space Shuttle] Atlantis in the mid deck, during the Army-Navy
day after you launched was Thanksgiving.
Right. We had Thanksgiving dinner, which was irradiated turkey, with
no cranberry sauce, and I couldn’t even eat it. I think they’re
doing a better job now of the food than they were back then, but the
gravy didn’t taste very good to me, but the mashed potatoes
were great. The beans and potatoes, I thought were wonderful, but
I didn’t go for that turkey. But I really appreciated them doing
[it for us], though. That was a nice touch. That was a real morale-builder
up there. “Hey, they really thought of us. Thanksgiving. How
other experiments? You mentioned the one where you did the OEX and
the autopilot. Were there any other experiments or any other duties
that you had during that flight that you’d like to talk about?
I don’t remember anything outstanding. There were a lot of things
we did for locker experiments. There were some life science things
we were doing. I think we were taking some air samples. Some of that
stuff I can’t remember anymore, but there were quite a few things.
The CFES experiment, the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System, was
on its second flight and, of course, that was Charlie Walker’s
bag, and we didn’t really get involved with that other than
to support him. He had quite a bit of equipment there, and some of
us got some training to back him up on some of that, mostly Mary,
a little bit with me. I really don’t remember too much of the
other stuff that we did. Must have worked pretty well, because I don’t
remember any failures or anything.
there much free time during this mission?
No, not too much free time. Whatever free time we had, we spent looking
out the window, of course. On a seven-day flight, looking out the
window is so great. My guess is that on these real long missions they’re
flying on [International] Space Station and so on, eventually that
gets a little old and you look for something else, like videos from
home or some other things that would be better for people that are
up there a long time.
[But] I’ll tell you what, on seven or nine days, just looking
out the window was all I wanted to do, if I wasn’t sleeping
or working, looking at the oceans from space. We got some really good
training in how to look at the oceans from space and take pictures
Oh, of course, that’s one of the major things we did was photography,
and I’m proud of the pictures I took of the ocean from space.
I think I listened pretty well in class, because some of my pictures
were—at least they tell me they were of great benefit to the
oceanographers. Some of the things you can see when you look into
the sun glint in the oceans are just incredible. To this day, when
I’m flying in an airplane over the ocean, I look in the sun
glint and try to pick up things like ship wakes and circular eddies
and things like that. You can see really neat things when you look
close at them.
want to ask you about landing at the end of the mission and what that
experience was like.
Well, the landing isn’t nearly as exciting as the launch, of
course. It seems like it’s dragged out quite a bit when you’re
doing the entry. As the co-pilot on my first flight, the thing I remember
about landing was that we had to go through some clouds. When we rolled
out on final, we could not see the runway until we got through about
6,000 feet because of a very small cloud that just happened to be
right in the way. It was just one of those things. I always remember
that as to why we need to pay close attention to our flight rules
on weather, because the flight rules on weather are relatively conservative,
but even when we met the flight rule for weather for landing that
day, the tiny bit of clouds that happened to be around just happened
to migrate right over the landing aim point. So Brewster had to fly
instruments until we popped out of that cloud, just as if it had been
So it gave me great respect for the weather and the importance of
having good weather. When you don’t have engines on there and
you’re stuck with a glider that’s not a very good glider,
it’s best to have a pretty good view of what’s going on
Brewster made a great landing, as always, and I did my part of putting
the gear down and calling off altitudes and so on. The actual landing
itself happened so fast compared to the entry, which was very slow.
The other part I remember about entry is the feeling of gravity coming
back. We had G-suits, if I remember right. Yes, we had G-suits that
we wore, and we were supposed to pump those up so that the fluid wouldn’t
come out of your head and lose consciousness or awareness. I remember
feeling gravity coming back, or the affects of gravity. Gravity is
always there, of course, but feeling the effects of it when you slow
down. It represented itself as greater and greater feeling of weight,
getting a little lower in my seat. I remember taking my pencil, and
as we began to feel it [early in the entry], let loose of my pencil
and just watch it float down just the tiniest bit. Then just a few
minutes later, let loose and it comes down a little faster. Just kind
of being aware of that environment was really a lot of fun and interesting.
On my second flight, of course, I was in the commander’s seat
and that one was quite different. I felt a lot more responsibility
on my shoulders. Everything was on me now, not just lowering the landing
gear; it’s actually making the landing. So it was a totally
different feeling that I had about it. I remember thinking about it
later, that it shouldn’t have been that much different. If I
had really been doing my job as the pilot on the first flight, I should
have had that same feeling of accountability and responsibility, even
though I wasn’t supposed to make the landing, because if the
commander got hit by a bird or something, and I would have had to
take over, I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind on
that first flight. That’s something that I remember integrating
in my head after my second flight; that I should have done a better
job as a pilot. Of course, I didn’t have to take over and everything
worked fine, but it was kind of lesson for me in retrospect.
The landing itself, I felt proud of my landing, because I landed within
1 knot of my speed that I was supposed to land. I landed right close
to the centerline. I had like two feet per second sink rate. These
were all things that we tried to do to make good landings. But then
afterwards, they told me, “Boy, you came across the threshold
really low. I mean, your wheels were only four or five feet above
the end of the runway when you crossed over it.” Now, of course,
that got my attention, because the threshold of the landing runway
for me was out at Edwards Air Force Base, the concrete runway out
there, and there’s a lip on that thing. You wouldn’t want
to land short and then hit that lip with your wheels.
So that got my attention and told me that I don’t think I was
as cognizant of what was going on as I thought I was. If I really
thought I was that low crossing the threshold, or was going to be
that low, I would have done something about it and I didn’t,
didn’t realize it. In fact, I remember talking to the Flight
Crew Office about it and we all agreed that, yes, your cognizance
level of where you are from visual cues and so on, may be impacted
a little bit after a nine-day mission in space, and we have to allow
for that and think about it.
Of course, later on, they put a trainer up there, a little computer
that you can simulate and practice landings while you’re up
there on orbit. That was one of the reasons why we did that is for
these longer missions, because I think nine days was as long as we
had flown. When I flew that mission, I think it was one of the longer
missions to date [at the time]. It was a Spacelab mission and we wanted
as much science as we could get up there. So we were stepping up to
the longer missions a little at a time, and that was one of the lessons
that I passed on.
there anything else about that first mission that we haven’t
talked about, that you’d like to mention?
No, I think that’s it.
you landed, within just a few weeks, the Challenger accident happened,
and we probably don’t have time to get into some of that today,
but did you have any post-flight duties after your landing, as far
Yes, after landing, you do your debriefings, you write your flight
report, and, of course, as a pilot, I had a big part to play in writing
the flight report. It was Brewster’s report, but he gave me
quite a bit of work to do there to help put it together. Then we did
some visits and made our video and got our photographs together, and
all that post-flight stuff that is normal we went through.
Of course, the abnormal part of my post-flight was that I went on
what they called a hometowner, where crew members go to their hometown
and they talk to the schools and the kids and the Rotary Clubs and
the people in your hometown about your flight. It’s a perk or
an obligation or [a] mixture of the two, that they will let you go
to your hometown. That’s a nice thing, but on the other hand,
it’s part of our obligation to spread the word about what we’re
So I had put my pitch together and I was on my first leg to California,
where my hometown was, landed in El Paso [Texas], and I had just landed,
and the guy that came out to meet me had tears in his eyes. I shut
down my engine and he said, “We’ve lost the Challenger.”
They were showing the replays on the TV. The launch had been during
my flight to El Paso. Of course, I turned right around and went home,
never did do my hometowner. My whole life changed right there in many
ways, so that was the one big difference between my post-flight and
most other people’s, was that interruption.
think it probably would be a good place to stop today. That will give
you time to get to your next meeting.