NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Houston, Texas – 19 July 2002
Wright: Today is July 19, 2002. This oral history with Don Williams
is being conducted in Houston, Texas, for the NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Sandra
Thank you again for visiting with us this morning and taking time
from your schedule to support this project. We’d like to begin
this morning with you sharing with us how your interest in aviation
That’s a really kind of interesting story, Rebecca. As you know,
I grew up on a farm in Indiana. My dad was a farmer, not a really
large-scale farmer, on the order of 400 acres, of which 200 belonged
to us and the other 200 were leased. So after school every day and
most of the time on weekends, I was out in the fields or working around
the farm on a tractor or with the animals or just doing general repairs.
There’s always something to do when you live on a farm.
I just remember vaguely, I guess this was like in the fifties or so,
maybe when I was in high school and junior high. I’d be out
on a tractor and I’d be hot and dirty and dusty and sweaty,
doing whatever it was in the fields, and every now and then I’d
see an airplane go by, a contrail, maybe. In those days, as the jets
would fly across from somewhere to somewhere, I was thinking to myself
that looks like a lot more fun than what I’m doing here. Turned
out that it was.
Then I had an opportunity to go do [it]. So that was a unique thing
to do, and get away from the rural background and into something much
bigger and much more interesting.
Did you follow this interest through to college when you went to Purdue
[University, West Lafayette, Indiana]?
Yes. I applied for some scholarships in various places because my
family was not really well off financially. I applied to the Naval
Academy [Annapolis, Maryland] and the Air Force Academy, [Colorado
Springs, Colorado]. I had an alternate appointment to the Air Force
Academy. I was a second alternate or something like that, which, unless
you’re the first alternate or the primary, you probably don’t
have too much of a chance to go. At the same time, while I was in
high school, I applied for an ROTC scholarship, Navy ROTC [Reserve
Officer’s Training Corps] scholarship, which I was fortunate
enough to get.
Once you’ve been accepted in the Navy scholarship program, you
get to pick a university that has a spot. You can’t just pick
the one you want, necessarily. But I’d also applied to Purdue,
because it was close and I could have commuted if I had to. Fortunately
I got into the Purdue Navy ROTC program also.
I had already decided that I wanted to go into some sort of engineering
because I really liked playing with the mechanical things on the farm.
We took things apart and put them together, fixed them, [and] built
things. I liked to do things with my hands. I like to build things
and I like to work on things. So I said, “Okay, here I am. I’m
in this Navy scholarship program which is going to help pay my college
costs, and I’m in an engineering curriculum, so I got to learn
how to do [things],” which turned out to be a challenge.
Now I’m at Purdue, which is a good engineering school and has
a good background. The background related to the space program, of
course, hadn’t really happened at that point, but it was coming.
And there were several astronauts preceding you that had come from
Purdue. Were you knowledgeable of the fact that you had people that
had been astronauts that had graduated from that college?
Actually, not really, because the first group of astronauts I think
were selected in 1959, maybe, and I was still in high school then.
When I was in elementary school and junior high there weren’t
such things as astronauts, except, of course, in the comic books and
the science fiction stories, which I read a lot of when I was a child.
I guess I hadn’t made the connection at that point between Purdue
and the astronaut program. That came quite a bit later, actually.
Then you moved on into your Navy service.
Yes, part of the Navy ROTC program, the scholarship program, is you’re
committed for a minimum of four years after you graduate and you receive
your commission. I chose to go into the aviation side of the Navy.
Each summer we had a training session that lasted six to eight weeks.
The first summer I was on an aircraft carrier as part of the ship’s
force and worked in all the Departments, from Engineering to Navigation,
to the Deck force. That was interesting and I learned a lot, but I
decided, “Well, I don’t know whether I really want to
The second summer was split. It was three weeks in Quantico, Virginia,
doing Marine Corps orientation. We charged beaches, did pull-ups and
pushups, and runs through the night in the sand. That was okay, too,
but it’s like being back on the farm. There was a lot of dirt
The second part of that summer was in Corpus Christi, [Texas], in
aviation and we got to fly. Once or twice in jets and a couple of
times in a propeller airplane and once in a helicopter. I’m
like, “Hmm, this is not all that bad.”
My third summer, between my junior and senior year in school, I went
onboard a submarine out of San Diego, [California] which is a nice
place to be home-ported. The submarine service, even though it’s
quite challenging and very interesting, the view is not too good,
so I thought maybe I’d apply for the aviation program.
During my senior year at Purdue, people who were interested in Navy
aviation were sponsored by Navy ROTC unit there to go into—they
called it the Flight Indoctrination Program, or FIP for short, in
those days. It was basically a program that led to a private pilot’s
license, if you had enough time to do that. But you still had to carry
your eighteen or nineteen hours of classroom work each semester, because
there was a three-hour Navy ROTC class every semester, in addition
to the engineering workload. I never quite got as far as getting my
private license. I got maybe thirty-five or forty hours, and it’s
a [lot], but I didn’t quite finish the program, because there
just wasn’t time with everything else going on.
When I put in for assignments after commissioning and graduation,
I asked for aviation first and, fortunately, I got it. Then it was
on to Pensacola, [Florida], and the rest is kind of history, which
we’re going to talk about.
That’s, I guess, the next step. Once you go through Pensacola,
then you were assigned for duty, active duty?
Yes. The training command takes anywhere from twelve to twenty months
or so, depending upon what line you chose to go into. You start out,
everybody starts out—the commissioned officers start out in
about a twelve-week Preflight class, which is academics and physical
training, quite a bit of both. Engines and power plants and aerodynamics
half a day, and the other half day swimming and obstacle courses and
running and other kinds of PT [physical training] activities. At the
end of that, you probably come out in pretty good shape.
All Navy pilots, in those days, at least, this was in ’64, the
fall of ’64, go to Saufley Field, [Florida] which is an outlying
field very near Pensacola, for Basic flight training in an airplane
called the T-34 Mentor. It was a propeller-driven airplane used for
Primary flight training.
It’s kind of a screening process to categorize people into those
who want to be Navy pilots and those who really want to be Navy pilots,
because some people find out that it’s not all that it was cracked
up to be when they get into an airplane for the first time with a
parachute and a harness and the straps and the seatbelts and the helmet
and the microphones and all the other complex things that you have
to [wear]. This is a pretty simple airplane compared to the ones that
you fly later on. You go up and you do acrobatics and you do landings
and you do instruments.
It’s a chance for both the individual to decide and for the
Navy instructors to decide whether or not this is the right kind of
person to spend a lot of money on, because by the time you get through,
say, high-performance jet training in the Navy, and probably the other
services, too, [they] have spent on the order of a million dollars
on you. It’s one of these things where you don’t want
to push everybody through there if they’re not going to be productive
at the end.
Apparently you were productive at the end.
Yes, so far, so good, anyway.
Anyway, the Saufley Field Primary flight training lasts on the order
of three months. Then you get to chose whether you’re going
to go to jets, large airplanes, or helicopters. Each student has a
prime instructor in Primary, and mine happened to be a helicopter
pilot. He was telling me how great helicopters were, and actually
I seriously considered it. But in the end, I graduated high enough
in my class at the end of the Primary training, and it’s all
based on your scores in both academics and the flying stuff as to
whether you get your first choice or not. So I went, “This may
be the only time I have a chance to do this, so I’m going to
put in for jets and see what happens.” And I was fortunate enough
to be selected for that.
Then I got a set of orders to go to Meridian, Mississippi. That [was]
the first time I’d been in Mississippi for about six months,
actually. That’s called Basic flight training or Basic Jets.
Once more, academics and flying, lots and lots of flying, daytime,
nighttime, formation, acrobatics, instruments, a little bit of tactical
uses of the airplane in an air-to-air and air-to-ground kind of environment,
[cross] countries and other things.
I distinctly remember the first time I got into a jet. Even though
you’ve been in the trainers and the mockups, you put on a G-suit,
a torso harness, a survival vest, a helmet, an oxygen mask, flying
gloves, and a flight suit and you get into this fairly confined space,
tightly strapped into this thing, and you put the canopy down and
you go, “Hmm, do I really want to be here or not?” It’s
quite uncomfortable, but you get used to it after a while. And it’s
one of those things like, well, you know, you feel sort of undressed
when you don’t have all that stuff on you and you’re sitting
in the airplane.
Probably one of the more difficult parts of that for me was the formation
flying. That’s the thing that stood out for me, because I had
no experience doing that, and it turns out it’s just a relative
motion sort of thing. Pilots have to talk with their hands, so it’s
a relative motion control thing. The instructors would take us, two
instructors and two students, and we’d go up together for the
first formation flight. The two instructors were in the back seats
and the students in the front. The instructors would fly the airplanes
to start with, and they would join up in a wing formation and do some
turns and do some cross-unders and do some maneuvering. Then they’d
level it out and they’d say, “Okay, you got it.”
Then the student pilots would take control, the wingman would take
control of flying formation on the leader. For the first few seconds
everything looked fine. You sat there and you looked at your leader
and everything stayed where it was, then it just all went to—it
all kind of [got] away and you [thought], “Oh, man, there’s
no way I’m ever going to learn how to do this. It’s way
too hard.” But sure enough, after some practice and some drilling,
you do learn how to do it.
That’s kind of a basic thing that you have to learn in Navy
aviation, and probably the Air Force also, is formation flying, because
there’s an interdependence between the leader and his or her
wingman and the Division leader and the Section lead and the two wingmen,
that go with those kind of basic formations, which follows through
the entire implementation of the whole squadron concept. That’s
Basic flight training.
Then back to Pensacola for about three weeks for gunnery, which was
a lot of fun, air-to-air gunnery, and my first shot at landing on
a carrier. I actually got four carrier landings in the daytime there,
which is pretty neat. That became “This is going to be great.
This is going to be a challenge to do this.” It’s kind
of scary the first time, particularly the catapult launches and the
arrested landings, and the fact that the ship has a pretty small runway,
but it was one of those exciting things and, “Hey, you know,
let’s go get on with this.”
After that, Advanced flight training. In my case, I went to Kingsville,
Texas, and flew F-9 Cougars. Nowadays they’re flying Hawks,
The Cougar was a fairly old airplane. It’s a swept-wing jet,
and was actually a combat airplane that was used in Korea, maybe the
very latter parts of World War II, but certainly in the Korean War.
Cougars were flown off aircraft carriers in the Pacific in the war
against Japan. I was also fortunate enough, I guess, during that time,
after the basic part of the basic flying and the instruments, to get
to fly the single-seat airplane for the tactical part of advanced
[This was] my first time in a single-seat airplane, which was kind
of nice because somebody gives you an airplane that’s worth
a half a million dollars or so and says, “Okay, go do it,”
so you do. That was a challenging thing to do, too, but it was also
exciting. We had some good times. You meet a lot of very interesting
people from all over the country who remain lifetime friends.
Then at the end, you get your wings, which is a very impressive ceremony.
You probably don’t realize it at the time, but there’s
not a [lot]—I mean, there’s not hundreds of thousands
of people every year that get a pair of gold Navy wings, so it’s
a fairly significant moment in your life. Like I said, you may not
realize at the time, but later on, as you reflect back on things,
it probably is important.
Once again there’s a decision to be made. It seems like you’re
always making decisions throughout your life, huh? There’s another
decision to be made on “Now what I do? What kind of fleet airplane
do I want to fly?” The choices in those days were fighter, light
attack, or all-weather attack airplanes in the jet pipeline, and that
was pretty much it, although there was a photo reconnaissance option,
which was kind of related to the fighter program.
I put in for the all-weather attack as my first choice, and light
attack for the second one, because I liked the air-to-ground mission,
and the fact that these airplanes are used for interdiction and you
actually go after targets that are of importance to the cause, whatever
it happens to be at the time.
I was selected for the light attack option and went out to the West
Coast, actually to the Central Valley of California. There’s
a Navy base there that’s out in the middle of nowhere called
Lemoore Naval Air Station. You come in as a brand-new Navy pilot wearing
these gold wings and thinking you’re king of the hill. Of course,
what you really are is at the bottom of the hill, because you start
into a [unit], in those days it was called a Replacement Air Group,
or a RAG.
Now it’s called a Readinesss Training Squadrons, where you transition
into the fleet airplane that you’re going to fly in your squadron
when you get to that, which can take about six months or so and usually
does take four to six. I think it took us about five. A lot depends
on weather, aircraft availability, [and] availability of the ships
for workups. There it’s not so much of the basics and instruments
and formation, but how do you use this airplane as a weapons system
and how do you operate all the equipment onboard. There’s quite
a bit of air-to-ground, quite a bit of low-level navigation, quite
a lot of formation and air-to-air kinds of things where you interact
with each other and other aircraft in day and then nighttime, [and]
for the first time, [night] carrier landings. The nighttime ones are
quite a bit more exciting, obviously.
After [I finished the] RAG, I went to a light attack squadron onboard
the USS Enterprise. [My first squadron] was VA-113, Attack Squadron
113, which was nicknamed the “Stingers.” You don’t
know until about a month, or sometimes even a couple of weeks before
you finish the [RAG] what squadron you’ll go into, because it
depends on which squadrons have needs for new pilots. I was assigned
to Attack Squadron 113, and they were due to deploy in six days to
the western Pacific, to the Vietnam area.
The squadron was already in Alameda, California, getting ready to
load their stuff onboard ship, so I packed up my kit and headed for
Alameda and reported onboard on the ship and they said, “Welcome
aboard, Mr. Williams,” Ensign Williams at the time, “you’re
going to be our maintenance material control officer.”
I went, “Aye, aye, sir.” As I turned around and left the
ready room, after meeting the skipper for the first time, I said,
“Wonder what a maintenance material control officer does?”
In the Navy, unlike some of the other services, you’re really
an officer first and a pilot second. The officer part of it is management
and leadership and people and resources control sort of work, as opposed
to just flying the airplane and using it to do whatever it is you’re
supposed to be doing. That was a challenge for me.
Fortunately, I had a good Chief Petty Officer who actually ran the
shop and about eight enlisted folks that worked for him and ultimately
for me. What I learned from that is, trust your Chief, because they
know what they’re doing.
My first flight from the USS Enterprise was during workups
about 800 miles from Hawaii before we actually pulled into Pearl Harbor
for a few days en route over there. I really didn’t know anyone
in the squadron at that point, but it was an interesting thing. But
the people in that squadron I still know and interact with occasionally
Wow. Lasting friendships.
Yes. That probably covers about two years’ worth of time [I
hope] that’s not an excessive amount of time to talk about that
part of it.
At some point you became a test pilot.
Yes. That was sort of an evolutionary thing as opposed to something
that I always wanted to do. In the process of my first two deployments
to Vietnam and the workups in between—we called it the turnaround
period—I got a little more interested in how do all these things
work and how do they interact and what really makes the airplane and
the control systems and the weapons systems work, and how do they
fit together. So I actually put in for test pilot school [prior to]
my first shore duty tour. The Navy has a rotational [system]. You
[are on] sea duty for a while, then shore duty and back and forth
[about] every two to three years.
When I came off sea duty after my first two deployments to Vietnam,
I became an instructor in the RAG. While I was there, I put in for
test pilot school. But, of course, in the Navy system, you have to
be in the right place at the right time in your rotational pattern,
[and] I wasn’t. You have to be on sea duty getting ready to
go to shore duty, because the test pilot school and the subsequent
tour, after you finish the school, is a shore duty billet.
Instead of that, I ended up going back to an Air Wing staff, and another
squadron, flying A-7s this time, which was the A-4 replacement. In
that Air Wing I was the Administrative Officer, the Safety Officer,
and the Landing Signal Officer, and I flew with one of the squadrons,
once again on the Enterprise.
At that time, the Navy had a rule that after you made two deployments
to Vietnam, you didn’t have to go back. Unfortunately, they
ran out pilots, so that rule was sort of changed in the course of
doing business. There I was back in the South China Sea again, participating
in the Southeast Asia war games for the second time, [my] third deployment
and subsequently [a] fourth deployment.
After that, though, I did get orders to the Armed Forces Staff College,
which is a Joint Service College in Norfolk, Virginia, that has all
four of the military services, plus some of the civil agencies have
folks there. The idea is to introduce mid-grade officers to joint
staff operations, learn something about the Army, the Air Force, the
Marine Corps, the Navy and some of the civil agencies, which was very
interesting because [there were] about a thousand people from all
over the place and all walks of life, doing exercises and planning
and studying and learning together. Plus, there was a series of seminars.
About twice a week, a very senior officer or civil [servant], up to
and including the Secretary of the Navy, who came down and spoke to
the [school], and there was a question-and-answer period afterwards.
So you [got] exposed to a lot of senior people, which was very interesting.
In the meantime, I was still hoping to get into test pilot training,
so I had my application in, and sure enough, I got selected. That’s
a [competitive] selection. You don’t just automatically get
it if you ask for it. Based on merit, of course. I was selected for
the [U.S.] Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base,
[California] which one Navy pilot gets to go in each class, and vice
versa, one Air Force pilot comes to each Navy class. That was going
great. I’m going to get to fly some Air Force airplanes. This
is going to be a real adventure, because you would rarely get to do
that, this cross service thing.
About a month before I was due to leave Norfolk and go to Edwards,
the Air Force cancelled the class that I was going to be in because
they were transitioning it from a six-month- to a twelve-month-program
curriculum. I went, “Oh, man, here it goes again.” I’d
applied twice before. This was the third time I applied for test pilot
school and the first time I’d been selected.
So I called up [my] detailer and I said, “Now what?”
He said, “Well, there’s space at Patuxent River [Naval
Air Station, Maryland] at the [U.S. Naval] Test Pilot School. We’re
just going to send you there instead.”
I went, “Great.”
I moved up the road a ways into St. Mary’s County, Maryland,
and started into an eleven-month curriculum at the [U.S. Naval] Test
Pilot School, which turned out to be a rigorous exercise. For example,
we did half a day of academics and another half day of flying, and
they varied from day-to-day, but the academics were very fast paced
and very rigorous.
We started out with a calculus class, which was supposed to be a review.
Basically it was four semesters of college calculus in twelve weeks.
Then aerodynamics, control systems, stability and control, and performance
measurements. For the first time I realized there was some use for
[the] differential equations that I had learned when I was at Purdue.
Because you can describe the motions of airplanes by using first-and
second-order differential equations and how the control systems and
the control parts of the airplanes interact with the basic stability
of the airplane. It was fascinating to me, because it was exactly
what I was headed toward and what I wanted to learn.
At the end of test pilot school, depending on how you do, you get
a choice of going to different parts of the Test Center to be an Engineering
test pilot for the Navy. There’s flight test, rotary wing, antisubmarine
service test, and engine performance, [and] performance testing.
Flight test was kind of the most interesting place to go. Within the
Flight Test Branch there, or Flight Test Directorate, there were several
branches, of which Carrier Suitability was one. That’s what
I asked for and I was fortunate enough to get it, because the Carrier
Suitability guys did not only interaction of the airplane with the
carrier, but automatic control systems and feedback systems and every
system that interacted with both the ship and the airplane itself,
from the catapults and arresting gear to the flying qualities and
performance of the airplane.
That was really interesting. I did some fairly interesting projects
there, both as a test pilot [with] the control systems and the structural
things that we had to do, and as a project pilot, where you actually
run one or more projects. We put a ground proximity warning system
in a tactical jet for the first time. We flew low-level flights to
see if it would work.
I was the project pilot for tests of a new nose gear for the A-7 airplane,
which was pretty exciting, because we did some nose-gear-first landings,
which is not recommended, but sometimes happens. We did quite a lot
of certification of instrument and automatic landing systems onboard
the ships and Naval Air Stations. It was great.
At the end of that, it was time to go back to sea duty again, so here
I was going back to a squadron on the West Coast, in this case back
through another Readiness Training Squadron. I was going to do a Department
Head tour, in this case as a maintenance officer in Attack Squadron
94, which [was] called the “Shrikes.” The idea that in
the progression of things, if you’re going to command a squadron,
be an XO and a CO, an Executive Officer and a Commanding Officer,
of a Navy squadron, you have to have had a successful Departmental
Head tour as either the Admin [administrative] Officer or the Ops
[operations] Officer or the Maintenance Officer.
Of course, I was really interested in the Maintenance Officer, because
that individual controls most all the troops and all the work that
goes on [with] the airplanes, which is what I was into at that point.
How does it work? How is it put together? How do you take it apart?
How do you repair it? All that kind of thing. How does it interact?
So there I was back on the West Coast again.
I guess I should maybe stop for a minute and see if we’ve caught
up with ourselves or where we are.
We’re doing fine. I’m interested, now that you’re
back on the West Coast and had all these responsibilities, at what
point did you decide to find out about the astronaut program, or how
did that interest begin?
That happened, actually, at Pax River. I was the Branch Chief of Carrier
Suitability Branch when NASA announced—this was in 1976 or ’77,
somewhere around in there, NASA announced that they were going to
accept applications for the Shuttle program. All the junior officers
who worked for me—I was a Lieutenant Commander at the time,
and I had a lot of Lieutenants, like a dozen or so test pilot graduates
working for me, and about thirty or so engineers, and about thirty-five
enlisted guys. It was one of those things where all these junior officers
who were in their mid- to late twenties were putting in for this program
because [it] was the thing to do. I was busily writing endorsements
for them, telling the next step up the chain of command how great
they were and how they’d make great astronauts and so forth
and so on.
Sometime during this process, I don’t remember who it was, but
somebody asked me, “Are you going to put in for the program,
I kind of stopped and I said, “I really hadn’t thought
too much about this.” I figured I was probably too old, because
I was thirty-five at the time and all these guys were like twenty-six,
twenty-seven, twenty-eight years old and they’re really good
pilots and good engineers and good test pilots. They were well qualified
for this program.
I thought about it for a couple days and said, “Oh, well, why
not.” It cost me a few days to fill out [the] application and
break down my flight time in a way it had never been broken down before
on spreadsheets [which] I did, and I sent it in.
In those days, and now, as you guys probably know, in order to get
into the astronaut program as a military officer, you have to be first
recommended by your parent service; in my case, the Navy. My application
and paperwork went on up the chain to a Selection Board, which is
how the Navy selects.
In the meantime, I had [received] orders and gone back to the West
Coast, and I was actually in the Readiness Training Squadron at the
time when I got a letter one day that said, “We’d like
for you to come to Houston for [an interview].” I was actually
selected by the Navy as one of the people they recommended for the
program by the Selection Board, and I went, “Great. So, that’s
nice. That’s probably as far as it’s going to go.”
Then the people that were recommended by the Navy, their records were
sent to NASA in Houston for screening. One day I got a letter from
NASA, they said, “We’d like for you to come down for an
interview,” which was the next level of screening.
I went, “Golly, who knows what might happen here.” Still,
I didn’t have a lot of hope that I’d be selected, because
I was still pretty old considering some of these other people that
were coming in to interview.
I came to Houston, to the [NASA Lyndon B.] Johnson Space Center, for
a week of interviews and testing and indoctrination, and met some
interesting people. It was a fun week because there was another seventeen
or eighteen or nineteen people here from all over the country and
all kinds of walks of life, some military, some civilians, and really
a fun group of people.
I had a good time, but went back to California thinking, well, that
was a good chance to meet some interesting people, but I’ll
never get picked for the program. That was in the summer of ’77.
I finished the Readiness Training Squadron refresher things, [and]
went to my squadron. I was in the process of handing over the Maintenance
Department [from] the guy who was getting orders to go to shore duty
and flying with [the squadron], of course. Everybody [knew] that I’d
gone to Houston for this interview, but that didn’t make any
difference, we still had to get ready for another deployment, which
would have been my first peacetime deployment actually, which was
kind of neat, as opposed to the Vietnam thing.
One day, it was about 6:30 or so in the morning, between 6:30 and
7:00, I was shaving, I had about a half a face of shaving cream on,
and the phone rang, and I went, “Who’d call me this time
of the day?” It turned out it was the Director of Flight Crew
Operations, Mr. George [W. S.] Abbey, who you guys have heard a lot
[about] and who is the former Center Director of the Johnson Space
Center, an interesting individual and a guy I respect a lot.
But anyway, it was George Abbey, and he said, “How you doing?
What’s going on?” and small-talk conversation.
I go, “Why is he calling me, anyway?”
Then finally he says, “Well, you know, we’re thinking
that maybe, if you wanted to, we’d like for you to come down
and join us here.”
I went, “What time do you want me to be there?”
And he said, “Oh, by the way, we want you to keep this under
wraps for a few days here, because we haven’t announced it to
the press yet, until we notify everybody who applied for the program.”
I’m thinking, how am I not going to tell anybody this, right?
So I have to tell the skipper, [and] I did, and somehow the word got
out in the squadron, and after that, everybody started calling me
Each Division Leader, which is a group of four airplanes, has a call
sign, and so my Division became the R2D2 Division. We’d check
in [imitating robotic sound], “R-2-D-2,” when we checked
in on the radio, which the guys invented. I didn’t do it. I
was kind of embarrassed by it, frankly, but it was fun. So we had
a good time.
Then in February of 1978, NASA brought all thirty-five of us in that
1978 group down to meet the press.
Let me drop back for just a minute. When it was officially announced,
there was a lot of media attention, because, first of all, it was
the first group of astronauts that had been picked for the Shuttle
program. It was the first group that had been picked for any flight
program in nine years. The Manned Orbiting Laboratory guys in the
Air Force, when that program was cancelled, they picked some of them,
but that was in 1969, I think. It’d been nine years since anybody
had been picked.
It was the first time civilians had been picked for the program, in
addition to military officers. There were women in the program for
the first time, the first six women. That was a big deal, and generated
a lot of media attention in this little outlying Naval Air Station
[where] I was near nothing, really. The closest decent-sized town
was Fresno, California.
Can I just digress a minute and tell you [a] story? Because it’s
kind of interesting, to me anyway, as a vignette. One of the Fresno
television stations found out that one of the new astronauts was living
in Lemoore, and they wanted to do an interview. So I thought, “I
guess I’m allowed to do that.” I checked with NASA public
affairs and they said, “Sure. We want the publicity.”
My first time ever, probably, on television, and maybe my last, but
I went into the studio for the evening news. It was like the ten o’clock
news. I drove up there, I sat down, they put me on this [chair] and
there’s a camera looking at me, like the camera’s looking
at me today, and above it, of course, was this little screen where
the guys read off all the stuff that they read off during the news,
and the media people understand that sort of thing. Then it came time
to do the interview and they said, “We introduce Don Williams,
a local Navy pilot who has just been selected to the astronaut program.
Welcome to our program.”
I said, “Thank you very much.” And then I realized as
I started answering the questions and responding to what the news
anchorperson was saying, that all his words were on the teleprompter,
but when it came to me, it was just blank. We’re going through
this process and [I was thinking], what am I supposed to say here?
I was answering the questions, [which] were fairly straightforward.
“What’s going on? When are you going to fly? What’s
it like in space?” And all that other kind of stuff, of course,
which you can’t answer since you’ve never done [it].
Then the very last question he asked me, and I’m seeing this
rolling up on the teleprompter, I’m going, “Oh, great.
This is going to be fun,” because he then says, “Well,
NASA for the first time has selected six women for the astronaut program.
Do you think that’s just a token response or what?”
I went, “Ahh,” so I had to answer that, and I said, “Well,
of course not. They’re very well-qualified people. I met some
of them while I was there two weeks ago. And it’s time to do
But an interesting part of [it] was, you don’t know that’s
coming until you see it roll up on the teleprompter and you hear the
words coming out of this individual’s mouth and you have about
[snaps fingers] that much time to think of something to respond. It
was my first introduction, probably, to real-time media with the camera
in your face, kind of thing, not quite in your face, but in a studio.
That sort of triggered me to be more prepared in the future, and fortunately,
NASA had some media relations classes we got to attend [that] were
presented by people who knew how to prep you for that kind of stuff
when we got here.
When you looked at this class of thirty-five, it certainly was a different
type of a team or a squadron than you’d ever seen before. Did
you have any apprehensions or hesitations of entering this new era
of your career?
I was greatly impressed by the qualifications of these people. I knew
some of the Navy pilots, and, of course, the Air Force pilots that
came into the program and the Marine Corps officers that came in.
We had sort of a common background and heritage in that we’d
all been doing mostly the same things.
The civilians, though, which compromised twenty—let’s
see. There were fifteen pilots. Twenty out of the thirty-five of us
were totally a new ballgame. They were scientists and engineers and
doctors and people who were extremely well qualified in their field,
but they were very interesting people, too. I was somewhat in awe
of these people, because they had done so many interesting things
and all I’d done was gone off and been in the Southeast Asia
war games and been doing test pilot stuff, which I equated to nothing
near what these people knew. They were really smart, they were very
bright, they were very well educated, they were very articulate and
had outgoing personalities. Some of us who’d been in combat
were a lot more reserved, perhaps, around these kinds of people.
Some of them were quite bit a younger than I was, because I was thirty-six
or seven at the time. The youngest, I think, that came in the program
was around twenty-six or twenty-seven, so they were ten years younger
than we were. When some of us were doing Southeast Asia war games,
they were carrying signs on campuses. But we got along really, really
well, and I think that’s probably a tribute to the program that
NASA had set up for the astronaut candidates, which I expect is even
better now, because we were the first astronaut candidates that ever
came into the program. Before that, everybody who came here was an
astronaut, that’s it, whether you’d flown or not.
We were astronaut candidates, which put us on a one-year program where
anytime during that year you could decide, “This is not really
what I want to do, it’s not what I expected,” and leave,
no problem, no stigma, no questions asked. Or anytime during the year
NASA could decide, “Hey, you know, we don’t think this
is going to work out,” and once again, no questions and no stigma
attached. I don’t think that’s ever happened in the course
of the Shuttle program and now the Station program. But that was a
new way of doing business.
I think the Agency was learning, as well as the individuals were learning,
how to do this sort of thing, because, in effect, the number of people
in the Astronaut Office almost doubled overnight when we checked in
in August of 1978.
And some of the Apollo-era astronauts were still in residence. Did
you have a chance to exchange some ideas with them and work with them
when you first came onboard?
Absolutely. Alan [L.] Bean was actually our sort of den mother, if
you will. He was appointed to be in charge of the astronaut candidates,
or ASCANs, as we called ourselves. John [W.] Young was the Chief of
the Astronaut Office. Both [were] Apollo guys. There were two or three
other [Apollo] folks there at the time, who I think subsequently left.
Those were people who were my heroes. These guys had been to the Moon.
I mean, there were only twelve people in the history of our country
that had ever been off of this planet and gone to another planet.
You have a great deal of respect for those individuals. Of course,
they came from a different era, though, because Apollo was over then
and Skylab was over, and nobody had flown in space for at least—well,
whenever the last Skylab flight was, in ’74, so at least four
years, some six years, maybe, some eight, some nine, some ten. They
were the kind of people [who] had been waiting a long time for the
Shuttle program to get going.
When we came aboard, there were great expectations for the Shuttle
program, it was going to fly twenty-four times a year. Everybody was
going to be flying within a year or two after we got there, and we
were going to do all these wonderful things. Of course, it didn’t
quite turn out that way. It was a bit over—quite a lot overestimated,
and even though we got there in ’78, the first Shuttle launch
didn’t take place until April of 1981, almost three years later.
Then the program never got going as fast as it was expected to go,
and perhaps in retrospect, and hindsight being 20/20, some people
might have known that or seen it at the time. But we were young and
we were eager, and we were excited about it and it was fun and we
were learning a lot, and so it wasn’t important at the time.
The important thing was, we were there and we were doing it.
Your training started, and covered a tremendous amount of new areas,
because, again, the Shuttle was brand new and it was training for
NASA, it was training for you. Can you tell us about some of the episodes
or some of the experiences that you went through, the training, that
are assumed to be most memorable, that was so different, maybe, from
your Navy experience?
The flying part of it, as far as flying the jet airplanes that were
used for space flight readiness training, was very familiar to me.
To the civilian folks it wasn’t at all, and so that was kind
of unique, because now I knew something that they didn’t. When
we were flying with one of the doctors or the engineers or the scientists,
that was all new to them, putting on all this equipment, getting in
a confined space, and acting as a crew member. Of course, it was something
I’d been doing for the last five or six years or maybe longer
than that at the time, maybe ten. So I was very familiar with that
and it wasn’t any problem getting into that part of it.
The systems classes on the Shuttle, as far as how they interact and
operate together, of something I knew a little bit about because of
my test pilot training and experience and my fleet experience in the
The academics, on the other hand, particularly astrodynamics, orbital
mechanics and the life sciences, [basic] sciences, earth sciences,
ocean science, I knew nothing about. So it was a nice interaction,
quite frankly, between the scientists, doctors, engineers and the
pilots. We complemented one another and we interacted with each other.
I distinctly remember several sessions where a couple of pilots would
sit down with a couple of scientists or engineers and talk about the
programs that were going on, the classes that were going on, the academics
that were going on and the training that we were doing. We’d
work with each other in teams, which, of course, was the whole idea.
The flying parts and the systems parts, the same thing, we worked
together in teams to make sure we understood how these things all
worked and everything. So it was exactly what I think the ASCAN program
had been designed to do, was to take this very diverse group of thirty-five
individuals and create some sort of a cohesive unit.
Obviously you’re not best friends with all thirty-four of the
other people, and you probably single out a few that you interact
with more than others, but I respected them all. They all had unique
characteristics and qualities and you could learn from everybody,
and hopefully a few people learned a few things from me while we were
I’m sure they did. Tell us about some of your responsibilities
when you worked with the Shuttle Avionics [Integration] Laboratory,
When we finished the astronaut training program, the one-year training
program, we then became eligible, first of all, for public appearances.
I briefly talked about that before, and there are some interesting
stories that go with that [which] we can talk about if there’s
Anytime you’d like to share those.
Then we also became available for things they called technical assignments,
for flight assignment first, but also technical assignments, which
were assignments that were in addition to [our] duties in the Astronaut
Office. [These] were support activities, [and] continuing training
from astronaut candidate training to the general sort of training,
as opposed to the mission specific stuff that came later.
One of my first assignments was in the Shuttle Avionics Integration
Laboratory, which was an engineering laboratory at the Johnson Space
Center, that had a mockup of the Shuttle cockpit, complete with all
the instruments and all the controls and actually a full-sized payload
bay with most of the hardware devices that were used in the actual
Shuttle there [which were] interconnected with flight-worthy cables.
The boxes were the same and the software that was used in the general-purpose
computers was the same as actually was going to fly on the Shuttle
at that time.
There [were] a couple of major simulation computer systems hooked
up to it to simulate the environment. One computer basically simulated
the atmosphere, and another one simulated the engines of the Shuttle.
A third one simulated the aerodynamics and the equations of motion
that are used to describe motions of airplanes.
The idea for astronauts that were assigned there was to fly simulated
ascent and entry profiles to stress the systems and to make sure they
would perform as expected and there weren’t any glitches in
the software or the hardware before the first flight. We ran these
twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for a while, for about
a year and a half prior to the first mission, STS-1, doing all kinds
of different aborts, all kinds of different contingencies, and all
kinds of nominal and off-nominal ascents and everything that you could
think of to make sure that it all worked as advertised. It’s
important to have a crew member in there to perform the crew member
duties and interact and make sure, as a sort of a quality check, that
this is all going to work like we expect it to.
It was actually pretty exciting. I learned a lot about the systems,
particularly the computer systems and data systems in the Shuttle
during that time, a lot more than perhaps I learned later on. But
it gave me a good foundation and a lot of familiarity with how the
software is put together and how it interacted with the hardware,
and how the crew interacted with the computer systems on the Shuttle.
Other than the fact that working midnight to eight o’clock in
the morning every third week wasn’t too much fun—and the
other two you’d work from 8:00 in the morning until 4:00, [or]
4:00 [p.m.] until midnight. Every week you’d switch to a different
shift. It was seven days a week for a while. It was a tough schedule.
Plus, in the meantime you’re expected to do all the astronaut
training, the systems training that we were doing at the time, and
the flying that the pilots had to do to maintain their proficiency.
But it was an important thing to do and an important function to do.
There were six of us, I think, assigned at the time and we traded
off those weeks with two people on every shift.
Were you also acting as Deputy Manager of Operations Integrations
at the time or was that a separate role?
That was my [third] assignment, actually. I spent about a year and
a half in SAIL, the Shuttle Avionics Integration Lab, and after that
tour, then it was time to go do something else. Usually the tours
lasted from one to two years, the technical assignments, depending
on what was going on. Actually, I was still in SAIL at the time STS-1
flew, and I think for STS-2, -3, and -4, also.
Then I was [assigned] to work as a test and checkout crew member at
the Kennedy Space Center, [Florida] for a while before I went to the
Ops Integration job. That group was called the “Cape Crusaders,”
as a sort of nickname. The job was to be the crew interface with what
was going on at the Kennedy Space Center and the Shuttle test and
I spent a lot of time in Florida with real hardware now and the real
Orbiters, the real Solid Rocket Motors, the real External Tanks, doing
vehicle test and checkout. [It was] very important to have a crew
member involved in helping direct procedures, making sure they followed
flight procedures, understanding what the interaction of crew members
were going to be during countdowns and after post-landing tests and
during tests [when] we were checking out the Shuttle systems. Actually
that may have been after STS-1. I was there for STS-2, -3, and -4,
Whenever the actual flight crew would come down to the Cape [Canaveral,
Florida], we’d be their escorts, particularly when the Shuttle
and its components, tank, and the Solid Rocket Motors, were all stacked
together on a Mobile Launch Platform in [the] Vertical Assembly Building.
The crew would come down for a test, where they’d actually get
in the cockpit and operate things during the test, the crew who was
going to fly that [mission].
We’d always take them from wherever the office space was into
the vehicle space, because it was one of those things where the crews
would say, “You know, we should never go into the Vertical Assembly
Building without a Cape Crusader,” because you get lost in there.
It’s a huge place, as you well know. I thought that was kind
Mostly you’d get to meet a lot of very interesting people at
the Cape, who were very dedicated people, very good at what they do,
and very careful and methodical about what they do, which was a little
frustrating to a real-time individual, the sort of individual who
[likes] to pull back on the stick and see the nose come up in the
airplane. Because the delay in getting things done because of the
processes and procedures and the cross-checks and the cross-cross-checks
and the watchers watching the watchers in some cases took a lot longer
than perhaps some of us would like to see it happen.
We used to say there’s real-time, which is what you see on your
clock, and then there’s Cape time, which runs at a different
[rate] than real-time does. [It was] frustrating at times, but after
you’ve been there for a while, you realize the need for doing
that, because everything has to be documented, everything has to be
recorded, everything has to checked and cross-checked in a vehicle
this complex that’s going to go through the environment that
it flies in from launch like a rocket to landing like a glider, plus
in between activities. You want to make sure that everything is going
to work to the best of your capability. That was an important job
and a lot of fun. I met a lot of interesting people there who were
I kind of got off track. At the end of that—
Before you get to that, I’m curious, if you could share with
us your thoughts of watching the launch of STS-2 and -3 and -4. You
had been studying the Shuttle and you knew the operations. Everything
you had learned was all in the classroom and now you were watching
this new spacecraft.
Yes. The first launch that I actually saw, I think, was STS-2, Joe
[H.] Engle and Richard [H.] Truly, and that was one of those moments
in your life that you say, “Wow.” That’s about all
you can say at the time, I think. It was very, very impressive. Not
so much the fact that you knew what was going on and you knew there
were two people up on the pointy end of this thing, but you also realized
the amount of power that was contained in this stack of what was mostly
inert sort of metal and wires and ones and zeros and propellant. It’s
an awesome amount of power that’s contained there. Then I think
that also reinforces the idea that you want to make sure everything’s
right to the best of our ability to keep that under control and doing
what it’s supposed to do, as opposed to what it’s not
supposed to do.
And, of course, the thought of one day you’ll be in the Shuttle
going up to do your mission.
Yes. Oh, yes, that was a ways down in the future, though, at that
time. I think reality had hit and most of us in the 1978 class knew
then we weren’t going to fly in one or two years, because here
it was 1981 or ’82 and we’d been there for four years,
almost, and we were just now flying the second or third flight. The
first actual crew member from our group to fly, I think, was on STS-5,
maybe. No, STS-7.
You’re still at Johnson Space Center as now the Deputy Manager
Yes, in those days the Shuttle program was organized into several
levels. Level one was the NASA Headquarters Program Office, which
set the policy, basically, and did the interaction with Congress and
the other parts of the Agency.
Level two was actually the program management of the whole program
minus the Washington parts of it, and that was in Houston.
Then the next level was level three, [which] were called the projects.
[They were] the vehicle, the Shuttle itself, the Orbiter project,
the External Tank project, Solid Rocket Motor project, the Space Shuttle
Main Engine project, and a few others.
The Program Office actually oversaw each of those projects and exercised
programmatic controls over [them] for budget, schedule, and content.
They had configuration management, approval boards, direction, and
authority over the projects to manage [them] at the programmatic level.
It was kind of a new adventure for me, getting up at that level of
an organization where you were more interested in Requirements Documents
and processes and the procedures rather than the hands-on stuff.
I was assigned to be Deputy Manager of Operations Integration, which
in those days was called the Operations Integration Office. That office
was responsible for security, launch and landing activities, and ferry
missions for landing at Edwards, to get the Orbiter back to the Cape,
and interaction interfaces with the Department of Defense, and a few
other classified things. It wasn’t much hands-on stuff. It was
a lot of meetings and a lot of heavy-duty paperwork and a lot of participating
in the decision process.
I worked for Jay [F.] Honeycutt, who later became the Director of
the Kennedy Space Center, and Senior Vice President for Lockheed,
where he still is, I think. A good guy. I’d known him since
the day I came to NASA, because he was Mr. Abbey’s administrative
assistant, I think, when we first checked in, when George was the
Director of Flight Crew Operations.
We called Jay “The Bubba,” which was a Texas sort of term
for being a guy who gets things done, and he did. He was a good guy.
I learned a lot from him. He kind of took me under his wing, and I
got to interact with Glynn [S.] Lunney a lot, who was the Program
Manager then, a gentleman I respected a great deal. He’s not
only smart, but he’s capable and he’s a leader who can
get things done, although sometimes after sitting in a Program Review
Control Board meeting, which we had every week on Wednesdays for like
seven or eight hours, and having a series of presentations made and
some decisions made and others not, I sometimes wondered, “
do we ever make any decisions around here or do we just sit around
and talk about things?”
In retrospect, when you go back and think about that, [it] was the
process. It was a very interactive process, and as a hands-on person,
you get a little frustrated with the bureaucratic processes that go
forth. The thing to be learned, I think, about that is, in a NASA
program everybody had a chance to speak their piece, which is not
true for some other programs.
In the military, it’s a hierarchical chain of command. The NASA
program is very much more horizontal and people get a chance to say
and make an input what they think and what their technical opinions
are. Now, they may not be accepted, but at least you get a chance
to present it, as opposed to a command structure where “These
are your orders. Go execute them.” I don’t think I realized
that at the time, but later on I did. I think as your perspective
changes, you learn things. I learned a lot from that.
And I got to take a couple [of] trips. I was in charge of landing
support for several missions that landed at Edwards or didn’t
land at Edwards. We had to be there anyway. I did a trip to Europe
to look at abort sites. We went to places in England, Spain, and Germany
to look at potential abort sites for high-inclination flights, because
at that point we hadn’t flown any high-inclination flights.
That was interesting, being the operational representative for the
program, to make an input into the decisions about whether Fairford,
which is a Royal Air Force base in England, or Torrejon, which is
a Spanish and U.S. Air Force base near Madrid, or Rhein-Main [Air
Base] in Germany, would be suitable landing sites. That was a broadening
At what point did you learn that you were assigned to your flight?
In those days, it was one of those things where you’re hoping
that you get assigned pretty soon, after the first group of people
start getting assigned in your class. Then one day you get a call
to the Director of Flight Crew Operations office and you go over and
say, “Oh, well, what did I do wrong now?” And you get
surprised by [him] saying, “We want you to go fly,” on
whatever flight. In this case, it happened to be STS 51-D or whatever
it was called at the time.
We went through several evolutions, which I’m sure we’ll
talk about, on that crew with that group of people. I go, “Yay!”
I finally get into this thing seriously at this point.
Tell us about the progression of that and how you met the rest of
the crew members and basically how that evolved. As you just mentioned,
you had a couple of changes of numbers and names.
Just take us through those and what it was like getting ready for
that first mission.
It was exciting to start with, because you’re finally assigned
to your own crew, and Bo Bobko, Karol [J.] Bobko, was my commander.
He was a guy I respected a lot, too. He was the pilot on STS-6. It
was his second mission, and he had pretty much a rookie crew with
him, a group of people who came from the 1978 class. He was our leader
and our shepherd and our instructor and our teacher and everything
else for that period of time.
Bo really knew the systems and the Shuttle backwards and forwards.
He’d been a Cape Crusader actually when I was, when [I] worked
at the Cape. He’d been at SAIL. He’d gone through a lot
of backup training. He’d been a CapCom [Capsule Communicator]
for STS-1, -2, -3 before he was assigned to STS-6, and flew with Paul
[J.] Weitz on STS-6. They had a very successful mission. I had a lot
of respect for him, first of all, as a crew member, but later on as
an officer and a person and particularly as a pilot. He was really
good for an Air Force guy. [Laughter] No, he was. He had Vietnam experience
in F-105 Thunderchiefs. He was an Air Force Academy graduate and an
Edwards test pilot school graduate. A very interesting individual
who I’m still friends with today, and we talk to each other
once in a while.
We started into mission-specific training, as opposed to basic training
and astronaut candidate, advanced training in systems and interactive
systems to mission-specific. Like, “Here’s what you’re
going to do on your mission,” which is a totally different ballgame,
because now you have real launch dates and real profiles and real
payloads and those kind of things instead of generic sorts of stuff.
At the time that mission was supposed to deploy two commercial satellites,
which were to be launched out of the payload bay. [These] spinning
satellites were to be launched by a [device] called a Payload Assist
Module, or PAM for short, similar to the ones that [had] been launched
[for] the first time on STS-5, I think. We were supposed to have two
of those, plus a satellite called a SYNCOM, synchronous communications
satellite. It was a communications satellite for the U.S. Navy. It
looked like a huge drum that actually laid on its side in the payload
bay and was deployed by rolling out of the cradle that it sat in.
That was to be the first one of those to be launched.
It was a challenging mission to go forth and do. We were proceeding
along the training process with Bo and myself and Jeff [Jeffrey A.]
Hoffmann, who was an astronomer Ph.D., [M.] Rhea Seddon, who was a
medical doctor, and [S.] Dave [David] Griggs, who was actually another
Navy test pilot, but he was flying as a mission specialist on his
first mission. He had been selected as a mission specialist, but eventually
was [hoping] to transition to a pilot, which he probably would have.
We had a good time together. We started forming up into a team and
we got to know each other and worked together both professionally
and technically and socially and had a lot of fun.
We were supposed to fly originally in 1984, I think, in the fall of
’84. We’d actually been picked for that mission in the
fall of ’83, which is typical, about a year ahead of time.
Well, during the summertime of 1984, there was a launch abort on [STS]
41-D. Hank [Henry W.] Hartsfield and Mike [Michael L.] Coats, and
[their crew] had an engine start and then a shutdown because something
happened in the systems that said they weren’t ready, which
is the way it was designed to work. Well, that put, first of all,
a delay in the schedule, but second of all, because of the stackup
of everything behind that [mission] and the priorities, it caused
a change in payloads and a great big change in crews and assignments.
The end result was the [STS] 41-D crew ended up taking the payloads
that we were supposed to fly, the first SYNCOM, and an extendable
mast thing. I forgot what it was called, but it was the first deployable
mast that was in space. [Also] one of the Payload Assist Module commercial
satellites, which was really almost our complement of payloads. It
was very disappointing, because to go that far and be within three
or four months of flying and then go back to square one was tough.
So when that all got sorted out, Hank Hartsfield and his crew went
off to do that mission and we were reassigned, Bo and myself and the
rest of the crew, were reassigned to do a Tracking and Data Relay
Satellite deploy, which would have been the second one of those, which
deployed on an Inertial Upper Stage. We jumped into that and went
back to work again and learned how to do those kinds of things and
that kind of mission.
In the meantime, Hank flew [and there were] one or two other flights
in between. And in February, I think, January or February of 1985,
we had actually gone into quarantine for the Health Stabilization
Program, which you do a week before launch to minimize the exposure
of catching a cold or something and having it manifest itself on orbit,
which would be uncomfortable. We spent one night in the crew quarters
here at the Johnson Space Center in the Health Stabilization Program
or quarantine, if you want to call it that, and the next morning we’re
eating breakfast and we get a call [saying], “There’s
a problem with the on-orbit Tracking and Data Relay Satellite,”
or TDRS. “We think it’s a generic problem. They’re
going to pull the payload out of the payload bay and your flight’s
I went, “Oh, man, what else can go wrong?” So, another
big blow and a very disappointing one, I think, for everybody. Morale
was really low for several days, like “Now what are we going
Once again, things got reshuffled, the schedule got reshuffled, and
we ended up with another satellite deploy mission, which had a Payload
Assist Module, commercial satellite on it, in this case a TELESAT
for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and a SYNCOM, the second Navy
communication satellite, which ended up being the one we actually
flew in April [of 1985].
Sometime in this process we had a couple of Payload Specialists added
onto the [crew]. I think when we were going to do the Inertial Upper
Stage, there were initially only five of us, and then when we got
to the second iteration of this mission, we became seven with the
addition of Charlie [Charles] Walker, who was a McDonnell Douglas
engineer [for] an electrophoresis experiment, and the addition of
Patrick Baudry, who was a French test pilot, who was going to fly
as one of the first International astronauts. We had started working
together and learning how to become a team on that mission, of course.
Then somewhere in this process of changing again, Jake Garn was approved
for flying, the Senator from Utah, and he was assigned to our crew
and replaced Patrick Baudry. Now we were seven again, but with Jake
onboard. The day that happened, we all looked at each other and said,
“Oh, man, this is just what we need, a Senator as part of this
Rhea Seddon to her credit, and I give her total credit, we were sitting
around a room, just the five of us, talking, and she said, “This
is a good deal. You guys aren’t going to believe this right
now today, but it’s going to be a really good deal. We’re
going to get a lot of positive press out of it, a lot of publicity,
and we’re going to learn a lot.” I remember thinking about
it, “Hmm. I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.” But it
turned out she was right.
Jake was a great crew member. He had been a Navy pilot and an Air
Force reserve pilot for years. He knew how to be a crew member. He
knew how to fly airplanes, and he was a great guy to work with. He
was actually a very down-to-earth individual, even though he was a
very powerful individual, one of a hundred of the most powerful people
in the country. He was the senior Senator from Utah for a while and
he was a ranking Republican member when the Republican administration
was in power, of several major committees. He was a strong supporter
of the space program, the human space flight program, and all the
space programs, even before he was selected to go fly.
He came down and said, “Call me Jake,” which we did. Bo
kept calling him “Senator,” and he said, “Call me
Jake. That’s what I want to be and that’s what I want
to do.” …
recorder turned off.]
We’re back, and you were talking about the newest addition to
your crew, Senator Jake Garn, and then hopefully you’ll tell
us about how that moved into launch and the [flight] itself.
Let me finish the story about working with Jake, with a vignette or
two. Jake, because he was a Senator and a fairly senior one, used
to be called back to Washington, [D.C.] a number of times for critical
votes and for committee meetings and for whole Senate meetings. Almost
every time that he came back to Houston and he’d join us in
whatever simulation or training exercise or class or whatever it [was]
we were [doing], he would almost invariably come in and sit down and
look around in the simulator or the room and he’d say, “You
know, it’s really nice to be back where people know what they’re
He also brought his administrative assistant down with him most of
the time, and he sometimes stayed in Houston while Jake went back
to Washington. His name was Jeff [M.] Bingham, who also became a very
good friend of ours, of the crew. I learned a lot about the political
process, both from Jake’s perspective, which was a little bit
different, but also from Jeff’s, on how all these things are
handled and maneuvered, and the compromises that are done, much more
than I perhaps even realized existed, and there’s a lot more
even than that. But it was an educational process for me. I learned
a lot and I enjoyed flying with Jake.
One other interesting perspective Jake brought to the program. He
was a Republican Senator from Utah, and, of course, he told us how
there ended up being two parties in Utah. Utah was a pretty heavily
Republican-oriented state when it first joined the Union. But every
state was required to have two political parties. So the leaders of
the church, the Mormon church, of course, called all the important
individuals in the state into a meeting in this auditorium that had
an aisle down the center, and the leaders said, “Okay, now we
have to have two parties in order to become a state of this new Union.
So all you people on this side are now Democrats, and all you people
on this side are now Republicans.” And that’s how it worked.
Whether that story is true or not, I don’t know.
The other interesting part of it, I think, was [when] we got ready
to take our crew photograph, the crew picture which has all the crew
members in it, and we had on our blue flight suits and we had the
appropriate props. We’re trying to arrange ourselves in this
studio where the pictures are taken and Bo—Bobko—deferring
to Senator Garn, said, “Senator, where would you like to stand
in the picture?”
Jake says, “Call me Jake and I don’t care, I’ll
stand anywhere you want me to.”
[Bo] said, “Well, okay, Senator, but we would like your input
as to where you’d like to stand.”
Jake says, “I don’t care where it is as long as it’s
furthest to the right.” No political connection there, of course,
but just a coincidence. If you notice in the crew pictures, on almost
every crew picture that was taken as a group, he’s always the
furthest to the right, whether you’re looking at it or whether
it’s on the crew’s right, which probably just happened
and it might be a coincidence, but on the other hand, maybe not. Who
Well, maybe he just knew his place, right? He just knew where to go.
Where to be, right.
Anyway, we did get through that training, which now became the SYNCOM
and the TELESAT deployment, plus some middeck science experiments.
We actually got through a whole week of quarantine without our flight
being cancelled or payloads being taken away. We got down to the Cape
and we went out to the pad on launch morning, a pad that I’d
been to many times as a support crew member, but never as a real crew
member, and crawled in and strapped in. The weather was a little shaky
because there was an overcast about 12,000 feet or so, they said,
from the weather people and the Shuttle training airplane crew that
was flying around.
We didn’t think we were going to go, and we were kind of just
chatting around and talking about it, because we figured we were going
to do a scrub turnaround for twenty-four hours and come out the next
day. In fact, one of the crew members had even unstrapped and was
sitting on the back of his seat just talking to the guys on the middeck.
Then the Launch Control Center said, “Okay, Discovery, we’re
going to pick up the countdown here at T-minus-nine minutes,”
and so all of a sudden there’s this big scramble to tighten
up your harnesses, get your helmets back where they’re supposed
to be, and everybody’s going, “Oh, my gosh, we’re
really gonna go.” We couldn’t believe they were going
to launch us, because there was still an overcast.
[I was] looking out the windows, straight up at the windows, and there
[were] still clouds up there. Usually you don’t launch through
clouds because of moisture and the chance of damage [to] the tiles.
But lo and behold, they finished the countdown and we launched. It
was a quite a lot more than I expected, in looking back at that. It’s
one of those things where you hope you’re pointed in the right
direction, because it’s going somewhere for sure when the Solid
Rocket Motors light.
Sort of like a two-minute long catapult launch. A catapult launch
on an aircraft carrier lasts about two seconds and you go from zero
to about 180 miles an hour in two seconds. Of course, in the Shuttle
you go from zero to about [4,000] miles an hour in two minutes or
so. It’s a very rough ride [with] a lot of mechanical vibration,
a lot of heavy-duty low-frequency noise and a lot of things shaking
and rattling and making a lot of noise. But having been in airplanes,
on carriers, I wasn’t too concerned with that. Bo had done a
real good job of describing to us what it was going to be like, and
so we rode it out.
I was surprised by the intensity of the flash and the fire when the
Solid Rocket Motors separated after two minutes and a few seconds.
It was like being inside a fireball looking out, which was a rather
spectacular scene. In the meantime, as we were going up, we went into
the bottoms of these clouds, maybe right around 12 or 14,000 feet,
and we broke out of them about 19 or 20,000 feet, and I said to Bo—of
course, we’re hot mike intercom, I said, “Hey, Bo, you
think we ought to give them a tops report?”
He [says], “Shut up and watch your instruments,” which
is what the pilot’s job was, to manage the systems onboard the
Shuttle and back up the commander for flying purposes.
The Solid Rocket Motors separated, and after that it got real smooth.
I didn’t get much of a chance to look out, because I took the
commander’s direction. I was supposed to be watching the instruments.
So I was paging through the displays, looking at things and flipping
a few switches so I could see different readings on instruments, making
sure that things were working like they were supposed to and we could
catch anything that [might be] wrong.
When we got to engine throttle back, where you start throttling back
to maintain 3 Gs, it was a little uncomfortable. But in those days,
we were wearing two-piece flight suits and just flying helmets, except
they were full-face helmets, kind of like the motorcycle guys wear
with the visor thing. It really wasn’t too uncomfortable at
that point, just being pushed back in your seat by about 3 Gs, not
much more than an amusement park ride.
The engines cut off and it got very quiet, except for the Reaction
Control System jets that are firing to maintain attitude and separating
you from the External Tank. Of course, in those days ascents were
done [in] a head-down orientation. Nowadays they roll to heads-up
part way during the launch profile. There’s no up or down, really.
It doesn’t make any difference. I recall pulling a pencil out
of my clipboard and letting go of it, just to see if we really were
in zero G, and it stayed there, and I went, “Hey, about that?
It really does work, just like they said.”
I stowed it and didn’t unstrap right away, because there were
a number of things that the crew has to do to get the Shuttle ready
for orbit, some of which are done from the seats and some of which
are done from other places.
Finally getting through that part of the checklist and being able
to look out for the first time, I thought about the reaction I was
going to have when I looked out the window for the first time in earth
orbit, having flown a few thousand hours of jet aircraft, both high-altitude
and low-altitude, and learning how to navigate by looking at a map
and looking out the window and seeing what it looked like and identifying
I’d studied the ground tracks quite a bit as to where the Orbiter
ground tracks were going to [be] during daylight passes, because that
was part of our observation project that is still ongoing today. I
was expecting to be able to look at a map or a page in the checklist
on the map and say, “Okay, now, here’s where we are and
this is what we’re going to be seeing in a few more minutes.”
I looked out the window for the first time, and I do it this way because
by turning my head backwards, because that’s the way you do
that from looking down to looking up if you’re inverted, heads-down
orientation. The first thing I saw was the horizon and the blackness
of space and the thinness of the atmosphere and everything blue on
the Earth, and I just said to myself, “Wow!” So, so much
for being profound. [Laughs]
You get used to it, I guess, after a while, although I don’t
know anyone who has made a space flight who ever says, “This
is routine. I see it every day. I see it all the time.” Whenever
there’s an opportunity and you’re not busy doing something
else, the windows were the most popular place to be always, and I
suspect they even are today on the Space Station, because it has a
nice optical-quality window and a couple of other windows to look
out and see the Earth or see space or whatever it is you’re
Then the on-orbit activities begin, and you have to get the Shuttle
configured and start all the experiments and get ready to deploy the
satellites and so forth and so on. It’s fairly busy. It’s
a fairly small space for seven people floating around getting used
to zero G, of course, which is a new sort of adventure, and getting
on with the Flight Plan, which we practiced a lot in the simulator.
It’s fairly well rehearsed, with the exception of you can now
do it in three dimensions instead of just two. There’s an up
and a down, in addition to the left and right, and a forward and aft.
Learning how to maneuver yourself in zero G without crashing into
things or other people is a bit of a learning experience. I think
most of us crashed into the bulkheads and the decks and the overheads
a few times before we learned to use tiny little movements of fingers
and toes instead of hands and arms and legs and feet. That was a unique
experience, because all of us were rookies, really, except for Bo
[and Charlie Walker]. He had [five] people who had flown for the first
time, plus himself [and Charlie].
Was it an experience that you enjoyed and were looking forward to
the whole week, or did you find all your time so full of activities
and tasks that you didn’t have a chance really to enjoy being
No, initially I think there was some of that, like you’ve got
to follow the checklist, you’ve got to get this thing, you’ve
got to get the next thing done, you’ve got to plan ahead, you’ve
got to be ready and have the proper materials, cameras, instruments,
devices, checklists ready at the proper time to do whatever you’re
supposed to do. But then after a couple of days, it gets to the point
where you go, “Hey, I’m in space. I ought to spend a little
bit of time enjoying it.”
Then my favorite place was, since I sat in the right seat, that seat
kind of belonged to me. But you spend very little time in the seat
in orbit, because, first of all, it’s not very comfortable in
zero G. And second of all, there’s not much to do up there except
for the systems monitoring duties and configuration duties that the
pilot has and some of the maneuvers that you have to do. The most
comfortable position for me and my favorite position was hooking my
legs around the headrest of [my] seat that I sat in during ascent
and entry and just sort of stretching out behind it and looking out
this about three-foot-by-three-foot overhead window at the view, which
was a spectacular view, and taking some pictures along the way. Whenever
Williams wasn’t doing something that was on the checklist or
eating or sleeping, that’s where he was hanging around the windows.
You did have a full line of activities that your crew was supposed
to, and did, accomplish. Share some of those activities with us, because
from what we read about, we understand that not everything went as
smooth as you would have hoped.
No. The two most important parts were the satellite deploys, and then
after that, the experiments. The first satellite deploy went off pretty
much like clockwork. The second one, the checklist and the checkout
of the systems, both from the Shuttle and on the ground, worked just
fine, just exactly like they were supposed to.
We deployed the satellite on time, maneuvered away from it, Bo flying
the spacecraft away from it, and we were watching the clocks counting
up to the point where an antenna was supposed to deploy on the satellite.
And, of course, we were taking pictures of it with television and
cameras that we had onboard. The antenna didn’t deploy. We waited
about thirty seconds, and Bo or Jeff or somebody said, “The
omni antenna didn’t deploy.”
It was an omni-directional antenna, a communications antenna for the
satellite, which then was supposed to be followed by systems activation,
which [were] going to cause it to spin up for stabilization. Then
about half an hour later, fire its rocket engine to put it into a
transfer orbit to get it up where it was supposed to be to do its
job. None of that happened, of course.
We reported, “Houston, the antenna didn’t deploy.”
And they said, “Stand by,” which is what they always say
when you [call them]. They came back and said, “I understand
the omni antenna didn’t deploy?”
“Okay. Stand by.”
In the meantime, we’re going, “Well, now what are we going
A few minutes later, the [Mission] Control Center, having gone to
general quarters and made some decisions on what to do, decided we’d
better go ahead and do the separation maneuver to get away from this
thing just in case its Solid Rocket Motor did fire, because you don’t
want to be around that when it fires. It can damage the Shuttle spacecraft,
the windows or the tiles or anything else, because of the particles
that come out of there.
[We] did the separation maneuver and the SYNCOM disappeared several
miles away and we went about our business. But we were pretty disappointed,
because [when] something like that goes wrong, even though it may
not be your fault, it happens on your mission, people go, “Hey,
these guys did okay, except they didn’t get this done.”
We’re talking about what could be done and what couldn’t
be done. This was on a Friday, I think.
Later on that day, the Mission Control Center came back to us and
said, “We’re thinking about a rendezvous with the SYNCOM
satellite to do an inspection and see if we can figure out what we
can do about it, and we’re working on a plan for that.”
So we went, “Great!” We had actually trained for a rendezvous
mission on the second iteration because we were going to fly a spacecraft
called SPARTAN [Shuttle Pointed Autonomous Research Tool for Astronomy],
which was a deployable spacecraft. A scientific spacecraft that had
some instruments onboard, astronomical instruments mostly, for space
science purposes, and it actually deployed out of the payload bay
and then was recaptured later on with the manipulator arm. We had
actually done some training for that, which is why the ground even
considered doing a rendezvous and some proximity operations, as formation
flying was called.
Bo and I are thinking to ourselves, “Great. We’re going
to get to do something we weren’t planning on doing.”
Then we started looking at each other and he said, “We don’t
have a rendezvous checklist onboard.”
Rendezvous in space is a fairly complicated process. It’s not
like a formation flight where you just join up with another airplane
because you have to take the orbital mechanics into effect, and there
are several maneuvers and burns and things that have to be done at
very precise times in order to keep from either overshooting it or
crashing into it or missing the thing entirely.
We’re thinking about that, and then about the time the end of
the day came, the ground said, “We’re thinking about a
plan here to have you rejoin the SYNCOM, do an inspection and maybe
do an Extravehicular Activity,” or a spacewalk.
So Jeff Hoffmann and Dave Griggs’ eyes lit up with that revelation,
because they were our contingency EVA [Extravehicular Activity] crew
members and, of course, never expected to do a spacewalk. Never in
the history of the [Shuttle] program had there been an unplanned spacewalk.
There had been some Shuttle spacewalks, but they were all planned
They were all excited about that and started hustling around, digging
out their checklists and breaking out the equipment.
In the meantime, sometime on Saturday, I guess it was, the [Mission]
Control Center came back and they said, “We want you to build
a fly swatter,” and this other thing using some onboard materials.
This was like in Apollo 13 almost, except a much smaller scale, because
they got a group of people together over a weekend, and by the time
Sunday evening came, we had a full-blown plan to do this thing, including
a rendezvous checklist that was uplinked on the teleprinter and a
bunch of plans for it. But we didn’t have [an] on-orbit fax
[or a] real-time digital image transmission of things that the programs
have now, so everything had to be sent up on a teleprinter, a typewriter,
if you will. Describing how to build something, it was just words
and pictures with little x’s in the form of whatever they were
supposed to be.
They transmitted this entire checklist up, which ended up [being]
a roll of teleprinter paper that was maybe fifty feet long and it
was all over the middeck. You’d see some pictures of that on
the mission [archives].
We proceeded to take one of checklists that we’d already used,
I think it was the one used for transition on-orbit activities, which
[was] done now. It was called on-orbit preparations or Post Insertion
Checklist, which was done, and we cut the rendezvous checklist and
prox ops [proximity operations] checklist up into pieces and pasted
them in, taped them in this book so we’d have a checklist to
use for the rendezvous, which was a challenging thing to do.
[We] started reviewing the procedures, the EVA guys were starting
to get [their] suits ready and do their checklists. By Sunday evening,
over a weekend in Houston they called a team in, they’d figured
out how to construct these devices out of onboard equipment because
none of it was planned, to go out and do a spacewalk, lash these two
devices, which we ended up calling a fly swatter and a lacrosse stick,
which we were to build onto the end of the manipulator arm. Then the
spacewalkers would come back in, we’d rendezvous with the satellite
and use the manipulator arm to try and trip a lever on the side of
the satellite, an arming lever, which the ground was thinking [might
be] what caused it not to activate.
We proceeded to get to work in building these things and cutting and
pasting and constructing and talking a lot back and forth to ground
and sending video back down [asking], “This is what it looks
like according to what your instructions were. Is this what you’re
thinking about?” And they’d go, “Yeah, but we need
to make these little modifications here and there.”
We proceeded with all that, started into the rendezvous process, Dave
and Jeff got ready for the spacewalk. They got into their suits, went
outside, proceeded over the next several hours to lash these two things
onto the end of the manipulator arm on an unplanned spacewalk. We
took pictures, and it was kind of hard to believe that there we were
looking out the window at a couple of our crew members who were now
satellites in the payload bay. That was quite an adventure, and an
unexpected one, of course, on the mission.
To shorten the story up, we executed the rendezvous. Bo did a masterful
job of flying it up close, and we got into formation flight with the
satellite. It was spinning, of course, at the time. The idea was to
take the satellite, which weighed about 20,000 pounds, which is like
a big drum and had solar cells all over the outside of it, and, while
it was spinning, to let the devices drag along the surface right where
this arming lever was, of course in the right attitude, and trip the
arming lever, which was a little lever about as long as your finger
that poked out the side of the satellite.
We did that, caught it at least five or six times, [but] it didn’t
activate, which was really disappointing, but we figured, hey, we
did everything we could.
As you guys know from the history project, later on another flight
that Joe Engle commanded re-rendezvoused with that satellite. They
did another EVA and [captured it]. They did a heart bypass on it,
really is what happened. They took up some special cable harnesses
that had been fabricated for the purpose and hooked them into some
of the ground connectors and test and checkout connectors on the satellite
itself and then were able to reactivate it. It subsequently boosted
itself up into geosynchronous orbit and became an operational satellite.
That was a pretty neat mission, too, that those guys did, and my hat’s
off to them for a successful [mission]. They ended up having to capture
it with their hands, in spite of the fact that they had some tools
to do [it] that didn’t work quite right. So Jim [James D. A.]
van Hoften was the hero in that one. [He] actually deployed the satellite
himself, a 20,000-pound satellite, by just pushing it off with his
hands and arms and shoulders. That was pretty neat.
Back to the mission. After that was over, we separated from it again
and cleaned everything up and proceeded to finish up the rest of the
science experiments we had onboard. There was a plant growth experiment,
an echocardiogram experiment, which is the first time an echo had
flown onboard. [Charles] Walker, of course, was doing electrophoresis
experiments, the protein substance separations, and Jake was doing
a bunch of medical experiments, and the rest of us were supporting
other kinds of things. We had a materials processing experiment onboard,
the middeck kinds of things, and the rest of us were doing our jobs
until it came time to come back.
Then it was one of these [times] where the weather was a little questionable
in Florida. They were thinking about sending us to Edwards, and Bo
talked them into letting us stay another day, which we wanted to do
anyway. We got an extra day on orbit out of it, which was great.
Then reentry day came, and we did the appropriate get ready, get set,
the de-orbit burn, and came into the atmosphere out over the Pacific
Ocean somewhere, and it was dark there. It was daytime in Florida,
of course, but it was dark there. I distinctly remember the de-orbit,
or the reentry process, of looking out and seeing nothing but stars
and then seeing a very, very pale pink-type glow outside the windows
as we started back down into atmosphere. I mean, it was almost not
there. You say, “Well, is it really light up there or isn’t
it?” And then it got a little deeper pink and then it finally
got like rose-colored and then red and then bright red and then white,
and it was flickering all over the windshield. Of course, that was
the plasma [created by] the atmosphere as the Orbiter [was] blasting
through it about Mach 20 or so. It was like a fire. It was like being
inside a fire for several minutes during the reentry, which was quite
spectacular. If you do a reentry in the daytime, you never see any
of that, but at night you do, and it’s absolutely spectacular.
Of course, what you’re looking at is 1,500 degrees right outside
of these three panes of glass and on the stagnation points of the
nose cone, the leading edge of the wings and the leading edge of the
tail, you’re looking at 2,000 degrees. Of course, aluminum—being
a little bit of an engineering guy—starts losing its strength
at 350 degrees and I was thinking, “I hope this thermal tile
stuff works.” Of course, it did, so that wasn’t a problem.
The other thing I remember about the entry is it was daylight when
we crossed the northern part of Mexico and part of Texas. We came
almost right across Houston and along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. on
our way into the Cape, was the [sensation] of moving really fast,
which of course [we were] at Mach 7 or 8 at that point, and the ground
was really moving by compared to the way it does on orbit, which is
about the same relative motion that you see when you’re on a
commercial airliner, except you’re much higher and much faster.
But it’s about the same relative motion. When you’re coming
in during entry, it’s a lot of faster, a whole lot faster.
We’re approaching the Gulf Coast or the Western coast of Florida
and we’re going to go almost right over Tampa, St. Petersburg
area, MacDill Air Force Base, and the Sunshine Causeway Bridge, which
many people have seen, probably, the people who live there. We were
a right bank at that time so I got a chance to look out. The Shuttle
banks back and forth to the left and right during reentry for energy
I was looking out, and we were about Mach 5 at the time, headed for
the landing field, the Shuttle Landing Field at Kennedy, and we were
over Tampa and I’m looking down at the causeway and I can see
MacDill and we’re at about 75,000 feet or so. It’s a beautiful
day and I look out ahead and I can see the Shuttle Landing Field.
I look down at Tampa and I look up ahead at the Shuttle Landing Field,
which is about 100, a little over 100, between 100 and 150 miles away,
and I look at the instruments and we’re doing Mach 5 and I’m
going, “No way are we ever going to slow down in time to land
at that airport out there. We’re going to land 100 miles out
in the Atlantic Ocean.”
But sure enough, it does. It all [works] like it’s advertised.
We came in overhead the Shuttle Landing Field at about 50,000 feet
or so and did the normal approach to landing. It was a right turn,
which is not the ideal thing you like to do. As a commander, you’d
much rather do a left turn because you can look out and verify landmarks
that you’ve practiced on. So Bo is asking me where we are and
I’m going, “You’re right on. You’re doing
great.” We roll out, and sure enough, we’re lined up with
the runway right about where we’re supposed to be. Bo did a
great job, perfect landing, touchdown, rollout.
There was a crosswind of about 12 knots or so, gusts to 17, I think
at that day, direct right crosswind, so that ended up requiring some
right rudder and right brake more than left brake to keep it centered
down the runway as we’re rolling out. We’re down to maybe
just almost walking speed, maybe 5 knots or something like that, and
there’s this big “bang, thump, thump, thump, thump.”
I knew right away what it was. It was a blown tire, having blown tires
before in airplanes on carriers and on runways. That’s exactly
what it sounds like.
But we’re almost stopped anyway, so it turned out not to be
a big deal and not an issue. Of course, the only thing to worry about
is, since this tire is blown, there could be some debris problems
which might cause a puncture or might cause some reason to have to
evacuate, a fire or something like that. But there really is not a
lot of stuff around the landing gear that’s flammable when you
reenter and land, so it wasn’t a great danger. It turned out
not to be a big deal. The ground crew came up and made sure everything
was okay, and we proceeded to do the power-down of the systems and
the shut down and climb out and greet our friends on the ground after
a very successful mission. Even though we didn’t recover the
satellite, it did subsequently get recovered, and that was a lot of
Regarding the landing, had there been discussion about doing an autoland
with your mission?
Yes, we did talk about doing that for a while during one of the get-ready,
get-set flights, and it might have been the first iteration of that
when we were still at 5 person crew. Bo and I had a very strong input
into what training was going to be required for that. I, of course,
had a lot of—one of the jobs I did back at Pax River, when we
were talking about that, was automatic landing systems and certification
of automatic landing systems both on the field and onboard ship.
The Navy has an automatic landing system on carriers that you can
actually land hands-off. Most people don’t actually do it hands-off,
but close. We had determined what was going to be required [for] testing
and what was going to be required in the way of training for the crew
and what the emergency procedures takeover criteria were going to
be. We did probably more than half of the training that we had decided
we were going to do in simulators and Shuttle Training Airplane to
I wasn’t real confident, having had quite a bit of experience
before as a test pilot. Because the simulator was perfect, you did
the same thing over and over and over again, but the ones and zeros
never change. Also, the simulator doesn’t fly through a real
atmosphere. The question in my mind was, “We need to do this
and see if it’s consistent in a real atmosphere in a real airplane
where there are gusts and there’s turbulence and there’s
thermals and there’s the flying qualities of the airplane and
the interaction of the aerodynamics.” We did [runs] in the Shuttle
Training Airplane, but it wasn’t very consistent. Sometimes
you’d land—it’d be a perfect landing at half a foot
per second, 2,500 feet down the runway, exactly where you’re
supposed to land, right on the centerline. The very next pass when
not much has changed, you’d land 5,000 feet down or you’d
land on the end of the runway, the approach end of the runway, or
it would go way low and scrape it in over the approach [lights]. Sometimes,
you’d land at 195 knots and sometimes at 215 and sometimes at
160, which is disastrous in the Shuttle. You don’t want to do
that. It had to be within a certain box. I wasn’t real confident
in the system, even though the engineers said, “It’s going
to work, it’s going to work, it’s going to work. It’s
certified and we’ve done all this [testing].”
At some time during the course of this whole thing, for various mostly
technical reasons, but based upon performance that we’d seen
so far, it was decided to not do this autoland Development Test Objective,
or DTO, it was called at the time. It was scrubbed from the flight,
which we weren’t unhappy about, because neither Bo nor I had
a lot of confidence in it at the time, and I still don’t. To
this day we’ve flown over a hundred missions and never made
an automatic landing in a Shuttle, even though the system is there
and it is certified.
The real question I think was, “Why would you ever want to [do]
this?” Because one reason for having a commander and a pilot
on a Shuttle is redundancy. The thing that was used to sell the autoland
system was “Well, if the weather’s really bad, we can
get them back in.” Well, if the weather’s really bad,
you don’t want to land there anyway, because it’s going
to eat up the tiles and there’s a good chance of structurally
damaging the spacecraft to do that kind of thing in really bad weather.
And if it’s foggy, how do you know where you’re supposed
to be if the visibility is near zero? You don’t want to do a
zero-zero landing in that kind of environment. In fact, the flight
rules precluded a zero-zero environment and precluded flying through
clouds that had moisture, and precluded descending through clouds
at the kind of speeds that you’d be doing the approach and landing.
The second thing that really bothered me is there is no independent
monitoring system. In the Navy airplanes I flew off the ship; there
were two systems. There was the one that you coupled the autopilot
to that controlled the airplane, and there was a totally independent
instrument landing system that you could display on a different [instrument]
in the cockpit that told you where you really were. So if it was night
and the weather was crappy and you couldn’t even see the ship
until you got into a quarter of a mile or something like that, you
could fly that automatic approach, but how do you know whether the
system is really controlling you to where you want to be or not without
some independent means of monitoring? So that was another thing that
bothered both of us.
Even to this day that doesn’t make sense, which is probably
why we’ve never done an automatic landing in the program. It’s
there, it’s a certified system. If we ever need it, if a crew
were totally incapacitated, it could be used, but the process of getting
ready to do that, of developing the flight rules, developing the monitoring
criteria, developing the takeover criteria, training to do that sort
of thing, what happens if you get in real close, and it happens onboard
ship sometimes, the airplane would [make] some kind of strange movement.
Like sometimes it’d head to the left or the right or it’d
go up or down, and you don’t want it to do that in close, because
there’s very little time for correcting that sort of thing.
So you’re constantly sitting there waiting to just disengage
In a Navy airplane I did it with my little finger, because that’s
[where the switch was located]. In the Shuttle you had to actually
punch a couple of buttons up on the glare shield, and we took to flying
with our fingers on those buttons every time when the auto system
was flying it, just to be ready to take it over. You have to practice
the takeover, because if it starts in a direction and then sets up
an acceleration or a velocity in that direction before you get much
displacement, you have to make the decision fairly quickly to take
it over before it gets outside the envelope for a safe landing.
So it’s there, it’s a certified system. I suspect if we
ever need it we’ll use it. “We” being the program.
But there’s a lot of overhead and training and getting ready
for this to do it for a crew, to actually do a routine one just because
it’s time to do one. Then there’s a question of the flight
rules, of why would you ever use it.
The other thing is, you would never ever use it in an abort landing,
which is when you might really need it, because the Shuttle is very
heavy, much heavier than you normally land. You land in a strange
airfield in Europe, somewhere in the United States, or in Africa that’s
certified for emergency Shuttle landings, and it probably doesn’t
have the Microwave Landing System that’s required to make the
autoland system certifiable and work. It didn’t make sense to
do that. It never made sense to me to do that. I argued against it,
when the program decided to do it, you [say], “Aye, aye, sir,”
and go off and do the best you can.
Well, at least you got the option to not have to use it.
Eventually that test objective was cancelled anyway, so we didn’t
Several years before you flew again, on your mission that you were
selected as a commander, you had some duties in between that, if we
could briefly go through those, in between your mission time.
Yes, I guess the one I remember is, of course, when we came back from
that first mission, that was in April of ’85, and I was reassigned
to another mission which was supposed to actually fly in the fall
of ’86. I was quite happy about that, had a crew assigned, and
we were excited about getting together and starting training.
My pilot on the next mission was to be Mike [Michael J.] Smith, who
was a Navy A-6 pilot, a guy that I’d known for quite a while,
a really topnotch individual, and I was looking forward to flying
with him. It was going to be his second mission, the first being a
flight in January of ’86, and we were supposed to fly in October,
In the meantime, I was assigned to be Deputy Chief of Aircraft Operations,
which is NASA’s Air Force at Ellington Field, [Houston, Texas].
That was like a Deputy Division Chief’s job. Another management
job but this time a little bigger than what I’d done at Pax
River and much more complex because we had five different [types]
of airplanes, a staff of maybe , 15 pilots, about 40 engineers
and about 250 or so contractors who maintained and did the engineering
work on the airplanes. For the fleet of T-38s, the Shuttle Training
Airplanes, [a] Gulfstream, and the zero-G airplane, [as well as the
747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft].
[I was responsible for] day-to-day management of that operation, because
the Division Chief took care of Division-level things and the Deputy
took care of everything else. It was a good leadership and management
job which was kind of exciting to me, and that’s the direction
I sort of wanted to head anyway.
[I was assigned] there [from] the summer of ’85 [through the
summer] of ’86. When we lost the Challenger and her crew [in
January ‘86], that put a big hold on everything, of course.
Where were you when you learned of the Challenger accident?
I was actually in the Astronaut Office spaces, which were then on
the third floor of Building 4, before Building 4 South was built.
It’s now called 4 North.
Of course, I was interested [in the launch]. We always watched launches,
because that’s an exciting and critical part of missions. We
had a small conference room in the Astronaut Office that had air-to-ground
loops [and the Flight Director loop] in addition to the public affairs
Maybe fifteen minutes or thirty minutes before [the] launch, I happened
to be walking by that conference room. I looked in there and looked
at the television, NASA’s closed-circuit television, and they
[were showing] the pad cameras. There was probably a dozen different
cameras on the pad in different areas that they switch around a few
seconds on each one just examining everything that’s around.
I knew it had been cold there and had rained the night before, but
I was surprised how much ice there was on the fixed service structure
and rotating service structure and around the Shuttle. There was huge
amounts of ice on there, like an inch or more, big icicles and frost,
and it was in the thirties, I think, that day, mid-thirties or something.
It was starting to melt off, but there was a lot of ice on all this
steel out there that I, of course, climbed all over. I’d been
in every nook and cranny of that when I was a Cape Crusader.
I looked at that and I stood there for maybe a minute or two and watched
through the cycle of cameras, and I said, “There’s no
way they’re going to launch today.”
I went back to my office and was working on some paperwork, [when]
somebody came by and said, “Hey, they’re at T minus 9
and starting the clock.”
I [said], “You’re kidding me.” Because I figured
there was absolutely no way they were going to launch that day.
I walked over to the conference room, and sure enough, they did launch.
And the rest is history. You watch that [event], and when the mishap
occurred, it was, of course, [an] initial shock. I knew what had happened
almost instantaneously, being from an airplane background. Other people
probably didn’t who were in the room at the time.
It just got very, very quiet and I was standing in the doorway watching
at the time. I looked at that picture and I just shook my head and
walked away and went back to my office and looked out over the green
grounds—even in January it’s green in Houston, the Johnson
Space Center—thinking to myself, “We lost them.”
Having been in a squadron, you lose—you know, aviation, any
high-performance military aviation business, people have mishaps and
sometimes lives are lost and sometimes they’re not, but not
in that kind of a highly visible manner. That was a very sad day,
and it still is, probably always.
Were you assigned to special duties during that time, after Challenger?
My job was as Deputy Division Manager of Aircraft Ops. The first thing
I did after the dust settled in the next hour, I think, [and] realizing
that this crew had been lost, was to get myself back out to Ellington
Field, because the Division Chief was in Florida, and start talking
to the team out there. I said, “Okay, guys, there’s going
to be a lot of requirements for transportation, maybe even today,
and certainly in the next twenty-four hours. Let’s get every
airplane that we have here up and ready to go, all of them, the entire
fleet, and standby for orders,” which we did. That was my initial
contribution, I guess.
And was your initial reaction proven to be correct, that you had lots
of action out there?
Oh, yes. There were a lot of requirements laid on us right away, [to]
transport people and things. Later on during the aftermath, in the
Navy, and most of the military services we had a thing called Casualty
Assistance Control Officers, or CACOs for short, is the acronym. When
you lose somebody in a squadron, another squadron member is assigned
those duties to support the family and make sure they get everything
they need and all the help they need and [are] able to navigate through
the bureaucracies and get things done and just be there for them.
I went in to talk to Paul Weitz, who [was] the Deputy Chief of the
Astronaut Office, and I said, “P.J., we’re going to need
CACOs for these people, and I’d be willing to volunteer if you
want me to.”
He says, “Yeah, you’re right. We’ll let you know
within the next day or so.”
I was assigned to Dave Griggs’ family, who was another Navy
guy. Not Griggs, but Mike Smith’s. Let me try it again. I’m
getting out of order here. This happened later on. I was assigned
to Dave Griggs’ family after he was killed in a small airplane
For the Challenger thing, I was basically back at Aircraft Ops and
running the show out there until the Division Chief got back and took
over, and it was the day-to-day operations. Of course, everything
was put on hold and the whole flight schedule just collapsed for the
next two and a half years or so until the teams discovered what had
caused it, fixed it, and did all the testing that had to be done and
[got] ready to go again.
At any time during this stand-down period did you feel that maybe
what you needed to do was to exit the program, or did you want to
Oh, never. I knew we’d get it fixed and we’d fly again.
You have to have confidence in the system and the people that are
going to do it. You’re sad about what happened and you go through
the standard series of things that you do when that happens, of shock,
grief, anger, and acceptance. It takes different amounts of time for
different people to get there and it took me probably as long as anybody
else. In fact, today I don’t like to think about that, because
it was a very sad time and I lost a number of good friends all at
once, and it didn’t need to happen. But I can’t blame
myself for it, because I didn’t have anything to do with it,
other than the fact that I was there and part of the team. We talked
about that a lot amongst ourselves and other people, because you feel
some amount of guilt on something like that, like “What could
I have done to stop it?” And the answer is nothing, because
I wasn’t in the decision process at that time.
As you moved along and started to look towards goals, one of the goals
was to be your next mission. As you mentioned, Mike Smith was supposed
to fly with you and, of course, had to be replaced. Tell us how you
learned when your new mission was going to be scheduled and how all
of that took place as you went along, to get everything back to normal.
The crews were assigned for the next several missions. The first one
was supposed to be the crew that Rick [Frederick H.] Hauck commanded,
which turned out to be STS-26, which was the next flight after Challenger.
We were like third or fourth in line after that I think. We lost the
Challenger in ’86. It was going to be a real busy year. There
were like twelve flights scheduled that year or something like that,
which was the most ever, I think.
The plan was to do these along a sequence. Well, some of the crews
were kept intact and some weren’t. The ones further out, the
ones in the fall, mine and the next two or three were all broken up
and reassembled into other crews. So sometime during [the] process
of this turnaround stuff, part of which I spent at Ellington and part
of which I went back as a lead for the Cape Crusaders and spent some
time in Florida again, with test and checkout and all that, get-ready,
I was reassigned to a mission that we actually ended up flying. It
eventually was planned for October of ’89, to deploy the Galileo
spacecraft, which was a really interesting mission, because we got
to work with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, [Pasadena, California]—we’ll
get into that discussion [later]—and a totally different crew
than the one I was originally assigned to, which was going to fly
in September with Mike Smith. None of the same crew members were involved.
They kind of broke up that crew, even though we’d started to
work together and form up into a team, and reassigned everybody, and
I got an entirely new crew. In this case, Mike [Michael J.] McCulley
as the [pilot], and Ellen L. Baker, Shannon [W.] Lucid, and Franklin
[R.] Chang-Diaz [were mission specialists] when we were reassigned
to the Galileo mission. That was kind of a mix master time when nobody
knew exactly what was going to go on until things got sorted out.…
Were there differences between pre-flight activities for your STS-34
mission, compared to your first mission? Mostly because of changes
that had been made after the accident.
The big difference was, as far as crew is concerned, was pressure
suits that were now required for launch and entry. That was a whole
new training exercise to learn how to operate within those and use
them and do the survival training. Different environment. Other than
that, the abort procedures changed a little bit. The contingency abort
procedures changed a lot. Contingency abort being where you’re
not going to make it to a runway. In the original Shuttle program,
you were supposed to ditch the vehicle, the Shuttle, which might have
been a challenging thing to do, to put the spacecraft down in the
water somewhere and not break it into lots and lots of pieces. The
new procedure was to bail out, and so there was a lot of effort put
on that and, of course, a lot of practice and training.
But as far as the launch, on orbit, and entry procedures, they were
mission-specific, of course, for each flight, [and were] not changed
a lot. Having gone through that exercise for STS 51-D and its predecessors,
and then being assigned as kind of a test-the-system crew during the
stand-down and going through them again, it was really my third time
through almost the whole process of a mission-specific training. So
I was comfortable and sort of knew what I was doing, I think.
I had two folks who had flown before, namely Franklin and Shannon,
and two rookies. So the idea was to get that team formed up and get
the two new rookies integrated into it and get going on this new mission.
You were also going to be in a different Orbiter. Did you have any
thoughts about “Now I’m not using Discovery,” and
going to Atlantis?
No, that wasn’t it. They’re pretty much almost carbon
copies of each other. Columbia is the one that’s really different,
because it was built for the original orbital flight test program,
and so its systems are different, although it’s been overhauled
now and is pretty much the same as the other ones. Challenger, Discovery,
Atlantis, and eventually Endeavour are pretty much exactly the same.
It’s like walking out on the flight line to an airplane. They
may have different tail numbers on them, but they all are pretty much
And a big difference on this mission, of course, was you were commander.
What did you hope to accomplish with your crew and what thoughts and
words of leadership did you pass on to them as you got ready for your
First of all, the perspective from the left seat is a lot different,
not because you’re physically sitting there, but because of
the responsibilities of command. With [the] authority that you’re
granted to take this billion-dollar spacecraft and these human beings
and this several-hundred-million-dollar science spacecraft that’s
been put together by thousands of people, and successfully complete
the mission and you’re given the authority, once the Solid Rocket
Motor lights, to go do it, with some help from the ground, of course,
but, nevertheless, the onboard decision is the commander’s and
no one else’s.
There’s some amount of loneliness at the top, if you will, of
being a commander of something like that and having that authority,
and with it comes the responsibility for accomplishing the mission.
And with those first two comes the most important one, in my mind,
which I learned early on as a midshipman at Purdue in Navy ROTC, is
with the authority and responsibility comes the accountability, and
if something goes wrong, it’s not somebody else’s fault,
it’s the person in command’s fault.
In the Navy, if you run a ship aground, if it happens in the middle
of the night and you’re the Captain of the ship and you’re
in your bunk, it’s not the helmsman or the Officer of the Deck
that gets relieved, it’s the Commanding Officer who’s
The same thing is true when you command a mission. You’re accountable
for the performance of the crew, for the accomplishment of the mission,
for getting the objectives completed successfully and for getting
the spacecraft back so somebody else can use it again. That’s
the name of the game. You know, any landing you walk away from is
a good one, right? If they can use the airplane again, it’s
a great one.
The perspective is different, first of all. You have to exercise some
management functions of not necessarily the crew, because they’re
really part of your team, but everybody else that you interrelate
with, the ground team, the training team, the payload team, the administrative
team, everybody has to work together to make this thing happen. That’s
a management function to make sure you keep people informed, communicate,
and people understand each other.
The leadership part of it is to set goals and objectives and make
assignments fairly and treat the people fairly and with respect [for]
their capabilities, and manage that function of it. But with that
comes the responsibility and authority and accountability that goes
with it. So it looks different from the left seat.
That’s what I came to Houston to do in the first place, was
to command a mission and do it successfully. That was my goal when
I first came to Houston. I had hoped to do it in a much shorter time
than, let’s see, ’78 through ’89, eleven years,
but, nevertheless, that was my goal and I was finally about to reach
that and say, “Okay, this is what you came here for. Let’s
go do it.”
And after a couple of rescheduled dates, you were able to launch and
move on to orbit.
Yes, we had a weeklong delay for, I think it was another Inertial
Upper Stage, an IUS problem, and then that was fixed and we were ready
to go again, and then there was another weather delay. I think the
first time we attempted to launch it was an abort field, landing field,
problem. But then we actually got to go on a nice day in October and
had a great mission.
Tell us your thoughts of watching the Galileo deploy and you being
able to guide the Orbiter away and set that satellite off to do its
We spent a lot of time with the Jet Propulsion Lab and the contractors
and the Air Force [team who] control the Inertial Upper Stage getting
ready for this mission, to make sure we understood our part in it
and what we had to do and what troubleshooting we had to do.
The first time we really saw the spacecraft, though, in all its splendor--we’d
seen it in pieces and parts in test chambers, but in all its splendor
it was when we opened the payload bay doors on orbit, and it was absolutely
spectacular. I was floating back to the window. I was looking out
and saying, “Wow, that guy’s really big isn’t it?”
The Galileo spacecraft and its Inertial Upper Stage [weighed] about
47,000 pounds, which was the [heaviest] payload that had been carried
by the Shuttle to date. It filled almost the whole payload bay except
for the very front part. When we elevated the spacecraft up on its
tilt table and got ready to deploy, it really looked big.
Then when we actually deployed it, Shannon was the person who executed
the deployment, Shannon Lucid. I was flying the Shuttle from the back,
from the commander station in the back window looking out there, and
the spacecraft came up over the crew module of the Orbiter and it
was supposed to miss us by twelve or fifteen feet and it probably
did, but it looked a lot closer than that. Said, “Boy, that
guy is really big. I hope it misses us.”
We did the initial separation maneuver and then the separation maneuver
to allow its rocket motor to fire, and went off about our business.
recorder turned off.]
I think we were talking about the Galileo and working with JPL [Jet
Yes, the spacecraft was—I really enjoyed that mission probably
even more so than the first because it was my goal to command a mission,
first of all, and I got to do that. But secondly, because we knew
that Galileo was going to be a lasting program as opposed to the first
flight, [where] we deployed the two satellites, [but] it turned out
to be a unique flight, too, because of the spacewalk. The Galileo
mission we knew, if it was successful, the spacecraft was going to
end up in orbit around Jupiter several years later and then there
[were] going to be several years of data and images sent back. It
was going to be a living, ongoing program, and we got to be a part
of it. That was a really unique experience.
Plus I got a chance to interface with the JPL team, a bunch of other
people that I had become acquainted with before, who were extremely
professional people, very smart and capable team of people there who
know what they’re doing and designed a spacecraft that turned
out to be very robust in spite of an early failure in the mission
that occurred with the high gain antenna not deploying.
Your mission was only five days, but, of course, this was the major
goal, but you had other experience and other tasks to do. Are there
any that you can share with us now that bring back some memories?
Yes. I think two or three, perhaps. The first flight of the Shuttle
Solar Background Ultraviolet System, or SSBUV, that acronym. It was
a [NASA] Goddard [Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland] small
payload that actually fit in a Get-Away Special can that Franklin
and I were in charge of [operating]. It was kind of unique because
it was an ozone-measuring device, which, of course, is ecologically
important to our existence here on this planet. That was kind of fun
because we got to work with the Goddard guys on one side and the JPL
guys on the opposite coast.
Then there were several medical experiments that were of interest,
a blood-flow experiment and a retinal scan experiment, a student experiment
that was actually sponsored and designed by a high school student
that Shannon and I worked with. And perhaps even more unique was the
first Toys In Space mission, which was done in conjunction with the
Houston Museum of Natural Science, and that turned out to be a lot
of fun. That actually was on the first flight; I’m sorry. It
was the first flight we did the Toys In Space.
We can talk about that, because we didn’t have a chance to talk
about it either. Would you like to—
Yes, can we drop back?
Let’s go back in history a little bit here, since through the
magic of television we can turn the clock back if we want to here.
That was something that was added on kind of late in the program.
One day we met with Carolyn Sumner, Dr. Carolyn Sumner, who is in
charge of part of the Houston Museum of Natural Science up in Memorial
area. She came down with a big box full of toys and said, “We
want you guys each to pick one or two of these and we’re going
to fly them onboard the Shuttle. It’s been approved by the program
and we want you to do some ground-truth video of what you’re
doing and explain and talk about [them],” which we did in the
simulators, the mockups, “and then we want you to do the same
thing on orbit, and we’re going to make a video of this to be
used in classrooms [so students can see] the differences,” which
turned out to be a lot of fun, because here we are, a bunch of kids,
playing with toys. And Bo Bobko said, “Okay, guys, now you’ve
got to pick one or two, because we can’t take them all.”
“But we want to take them all! This is going to be great fun.”
So we did, and it turned out to be very interesting. Perhaps some
unplanned kinds of things occurred, and it turned out [a] video was
produced from that first Toys In Space, I’ve gotten more comments
from schoolchildren and from other people who have actually seen this.
This thing got distributed all over the country and sometimes in other
nations, so a lot of people have seen [it]. They say, “I saw
you on TV with the toys in space.”
“Yes. Well, we had a lot of fun.”
Did you get to pick the toys you wanted to play with?
I picked a paddle ball, which is something I’d fiddled with
before just because I was curious as to whether there would be any
difference. I [also] ended up with this little plastic flipping mouse.
You wind [it] up and you sit him on the table and he does back-flips.
[He] became our unofficial mascot for that mission, and we called
him Rat Stuff.
Going back to STS-34, as your mission started to close down, you began
preparations for landing, and was this going to be a different landing,
because not only were you going to be landing the Orbiter, you were
landing out at Edwards.
Yes, the flight was originally planned to land in Florida, [but] the
weather was bad and it was forecast to stay bad. We tried to talk
them into letting us spend another day or two until it cleared up,
which it was forecast to do, [but] the ground, Mission Control, decided
no, they really needed [us] back, because there was a short turnaround
between that flight and the next flight. They said, “Okay. Not
only do we want you to come into Edwards, but we want you to come
in two orbits early,” because the winds were forecast to pick
[We said], “Aye, aye, sir.”
We got everything ready to go and did another reentry and this time
landed on a lakebed at Edwards. It was kind of interesting because
sometime during the mission [training], during the preflight, get-ready,
get-set for that mission, I was thinking to myself, “You know,
if we ever have to land on a lakebed, I’d like to have landed
on one before, instead of this being the first time.” I’d
never landed on a lakebed.
One day when we were out practicing [landings] at Edwards in T-38s,
I asked the tower if I could land on a lakebed [runway] and they said,
“Yeah, go ahead.” So I actually made three or four landings
on different runways, touch-and-go’s on a lakebed, just to get
familiar with them. I’m kind of glad I did, because we ended
up landing on a lakebed runway and I wasn’t expecting that at
[We] landed on Runway 23, which did not have a Microwave Landing System,
so it was more of a hands-on landing perhaps than it would be with
the Microwave Landing System, because you have a more accurate glide
slope and lineup display with the Microwave Landing System than you
do without. But, once again it was successful. Any landing you can
walk away from is a good one, right? We rolled to a stop and got the
[vehicle] secured, and scrambled out of there, and when your feet
get back on the ground you [think], “Hey, we did it and it worked.”
It was a successful mission, and I look back on that with quite a
lot of pride.
If we can for just a minute or two, talk about what you felt like
when your feet got back on the ground. You were talking earlier about
adjusting to space. How was it to adjust back to being on the Earth?
Having done it once before, I knew what to expect to some extent.
As probably other folks have described, you feel very heavy, like
four or five or six times your normal weight when you try and get
out of the seat, even after spending only five days in zero or near
Your sense of balance is affected slightly to the point where you
don’t want to do any rapid head movements, because you feel
like you’re going to tip over or stumble or perhaps not be able
to stand correctly or walk correctly. Caution, I think, is probably
the word that I would use. Be careful for the first few steps, the
first time you go down a stairway or up a stairway, or climb into
a vehicle, or drive, until you get yourself reoriented to the 1-G
environment that we all grew up in since we were babies.
That presents, of course, some interesting ideas about what happens
to people who do longer duration space flights, or maybe some day
live on the Moon or another planet, which has a different gravity
environment than that on Earth. Can you come back? We don’t
know yet, do we?
Not too long after you returned [from] STS-34, you announced your
retirement from NASA. What moved you in that direction?
Actually, it was reaching the goal that I set for myself when I came
there. It was to successfully command a mission and then what’s
next? I distinctly thought about that some before the mission and
“What am I going to do after this? This is a lot of fun, I’d
love to stay here and fly for a long time.” But once you reach
that goal, then what do you do?
I had decided that I had four alternatives. I could stay and fly again,
which was an option, and that was offered to me. I could go into a
NASA management job as a civil servant, which was also a possibility.
I could go back to the Navy as an officer, because I was still on
active duty, and military officers were detailed to NASA. Or I could
go into private industry and see if I [could] make a living there.
I explored all four of those over the next few months, and it turned
out just by a matter of timing, I guess it was, I ran into an individual
that had been a neighbor of mine and had been a Flight Director in
Houston. His name [is] Neil [B.] Hutchinson, who you ought to interview
for part of this program, if you haven’t already. [He] was looking
for a person with the qualifications that I had, for a potential job
that he had for the company he worked for then. It turned out it was
a good fit mutually for both of us, and so it was time to move on
and do something else.
I did explore all three of the other options, though, and decided
on that one and never looked back. When you get into the flying business,
particularly jet flying, it’s hard to turn loose of it for some
people. But I decided, probably sometime when I was at Pax River,
or before, even, that when it came time to hang up my helmet and G-suit
and oxygen mask, I was going to do it and walk away and not look back.
That’s not easy to do for some people, but if you make the decision
early enough, I think that you have time to consider all sides of
it from whatever direction you’re going to look at that, and
you’re at peace with yourself and comfortable with that. It
can be done. And I’m a witness to the fact that it can be done,
because I never really looked back. When I see jets take off and land,
I [watch them], like all of us do maybe, but I don’t have any
need to do that again. I’ve been there and done that, and so
I don’t need to do it over and over and over again just to prove
to myself that I can do it.
Looking back over your career with NASA, what do you consider to be
your most challenging milestone and/or your greatest accomplishment?
The mission commander job by far. The responsibility that weighs somewhat
heavily upon you and the accountability that’s always there,
always there sitting on your shoulder like, “Okay, Don. This
is your chance. Go do it.” That was a challenging thing to do.
The second most one from, a crew member and a pilot perspective is
learning enough about a very complex vehicle that you can fly and
operate it in all of its environments from the launch pad to the landing,
[and] post-landing activities.
I’ll give you an example. I flew A-7 [E’s], the Corsair
[II] airplane, a light attack airplane, off of the Enterprise in all
kinds of weather, at night and [and in a] wartime environment. That
airplane had inertial systems, radars, weapons systems, environmental
control systems, hydraulics, electrical, heads-up displays, electronic
warfare systems, and communications. It was a fairly complex airplane,
and flying that by yourself at night off a carrier on a scale of one
to ten is about a seven or eight, roughly, in complexity.
The Shuttle on that same scale is about a thirty. It’s two orders
of magnitude more complex. It’s amazing. It’s largely
due to the environment it flies in, from a rocket launch to an orbiting
spacecraft, to a hypersonic reentry, to a conventional gliding kind
of airplane. The systems onboard to make that all operate are very
complex and they all interact with each other and they have a lot
of redundancy by design. But the redundancy also adds complexities,
because you have to know how to gracefully fault-tolerant them down
as you have failures, which you have lots and lots of in simulators
and hopefully not too many in orbit. So it’s a very complex
flying machine and it requires a lot of attention to detail by everybody,
not just the crew, by everybody.
The mission commander challenges, personal challenges, and for me
personally being able to—I don’t know whether you ever
master something as complex as a Shuttle, but you get pretty familiar
with it to a point where the 800 or so switches and controls onboard
there, you know what every one of them does. And when you pull one,
push one, turn one or toggle it or whatever you do to it, you have
some idea of what happens inside the spacecraft, whether it’s
under your foot, next to your arm, or seventy feet away in the back.
As we start to close down our session today, I was going to ask Sandra
if she has any—anything that you have?
And I want to ask you if you have any other segments of your NASA
career and/or the missions that we didn’t get to talk about?
Are there any other thoughts that you would like to share today before
we close, anything else that might come to mind that we didn’t
go through as we were going through your career?
Maybe two, the first one being the teamwork that it takes to pull
this off. I think you may have heard a lot of other people say this.
But in order to successfully pull off a Shuttle mission, or any human
space flight mission, [it] takes thousands and thousands of people
all doing their job correctly every single time. You cannot afford
[for] anybody to fail and have a successful mission. And I think every
crew member that you ever talk to will probably say that, if you ask
them about the teamwork that’s required. A lot of credit goes
to the invisible people, as they call them. The training teams, the
flight control teams, the planning teams, the contractors, and civil
servants that make all this happen. The secretaries, the people that
take out the trash, the people that glue the tiles on the Orbiter,
the people that do the launch countdown, the people that paint the
towers, the people that make the hardware and the software that make
it all work.
Every single one of those people has to do their job, and there’s
thousands of them, and it all has to come together in the end. Those
of us, who get on the pointy end of the spear, if you will, maybe
get a lot more credit than we deserve.
You have to have trust. You have to trust them, and that’s a
special thing about being part of this human space flight program.
It’s a very special thing and it’s very unique about this
program and perhaps aviation in general, particularly high-performance
carrier aviation, where you depend on the people that work on the
airplane, that work on the catapults, that work on the arresting gear,
that drive the ship, that fuel the airplane, that load the airplane,
that fix everything that goes wrong and get it ready to go, so you
can go fly it and do your job. That’s part of the team. So,
being part of a huge team like that is a really fascinating and wonderful
thing. I mean, that’s an enjoyable thing to do.
Then, finally, the perspective you get from on orbit of this planet
of ours, which has been described in much better words than I can
put it, but you say to yourself, “Hey, it really is round,”
which is good, because otherwise all this orbital mechanics and stuff
wouldn’t work. The perspective you get, that there are no boundaries
between nations and there’s no labels on anything. The only
visible boundaries, quite truly, that I recall seeing as I go back
and look at the video and the pictures, is between the land and the
sea. Therefore, why is it that we fight over things so much and we
disagree and we argue about lines that are drawn on the surface by
humans, which seems to cause people to disagree about things, when,
in fact, we’re all in this together.
I’m not necessarily an advocate of world peace and world unity,
but on the other hand, getting along with each other seems like the
right thing to do, because we don’t have anyplace else to go
right now. Maybe some day we will.
Maybe some day we will, and then who knows where your career will
bring you again.
Yes, there you go.
It might be on the pioneering part of that, as well.
Yes, I hope that I see humans back on the Moon in my lifetime, and
perhaps on Mars, but I don’t know now. It’s looking increasingly
unlikely that that will happen, but it’s a matter of time.
And hopefully with a lot of good planning we’ll get there.
It’s already been done. It’s a matter of time now, and
having the national or international or global will to do it. The
technical parts are pretty much solved of going back to the Moon.
That’s fairly straightforward. Going to Mars is a little harder,
but it can be done if there’s some driving force to do it. I
don’t know what that is, though.
The real question, I think, to be answered is “Why.” In
the case of the Moon, that was an easier one because [it] ended up
being a competition, and everybody likes to win. Americans, in particular,
like to win. If you’re on a team or if it’s your hometown
team, you want to win. That’s sort of in our psyche. You don’t
like to lose.
But why go to Mars? There’s no compelling reason to do that
right now. People say, “Well, because it’s there.”
That’s not a compelling reason.
“Because we need to.”
“Well, it’d be fun.” Nope, that ain’t it.
There has to be a good reason to do [it], and this is not my original
thought, but let me mention it anyway. There’s only three reasons
that people explore: the first one is fear; the second one is greed;
and the third one is curiosity. Throughout recorded history, people
left their homelands where they had been for generations and for centuries
because they were oppressed or being made slaves, and migrated to
places they’d never been before and never heard of before because
they were afraid. And other people have migrated to various parts
of the world because there was a chance to get rich or make lots of
money or become wealthy. Example, the California Gold Rush in the
1800s. Example, the movement of people from other nations to America
when it first became a nation and we became this great melting pot,
or whatever it is we call ourselves nowadays. Then there’s the
curiosity thing, like, “I wonder what’s over the next
hill.” Another hill probably, but you don’t know that
until you go there. “How are we ever going to know if we don’t
go?” as this fifth grader once said, and it was quoted widely
in some NASA [publications].
But until there’s one of those first two drivers, then it’s
probably not going to happen because of the fiscal realities that
we live in globally today. Internationally in the whole world, there’s
not enough resources to go do a Mars mission, just to go there. But
if there’s some reason to go there, for example, survival of
the human race, or if there’s some reason to go back to the
Moon because there’s a lot of money to be made, a lot of wealth
to be created, then guess what? It’s going to happen. And I’m
curious about it, too. I would have loved to have been an Apollo program
astronaut and gone there. I’d love to be a part of the first
Mars crew, but, somebody will get to do that.
We look forward to watching it, I would imagine from day-to-day, as
we know from the last few years, we just never know what’s going
And maybe your kids or my grandchildren will. We’ll see.
And we could sit and listen to their stories.
There you go.
Well, we thank you today for talking with us, and appreciate all your
time and effort.
You’re welcome. I enjoyed it.