NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
16 December 2002
Today is December 16th, 2002. This oral history is being conducted
with Loren Shriver in Houston, Texas, for the NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Sandra
Johnson and Jennifer Ross-Nazzal.
Thank you for taking time from your schedule to meet with us today
for this project. We’d like to start by talking with you about
how your interest in the space program first began and then your involvement
with the astronaut candidate application and interview processes.
Well, it’s an interesting question. When I was a young boy,
we lived on a farm in Iowa, and not too much associated with anything
in NASA or space-related or even the military. So I often wonder myself
how I got started in wanting to become a pilot. That was probably
the first thing I can point to that really actually started to guide
my career in the direction that it took. But one should remember that
there wasn’t even basically a space program when I was a young
boy, and it wasn’t until I was in high school in the late fifties
and early sixties—I graduated from high school in 1962, so we
were just starting to have a viable human space program back in those
So I guess I was aware of the space program, human space program.
I was aware that rockets and things had been launched by others and
that there seemed to be a lot of activity for us trying to catch up,
but that process did not really drive my thoughts going through high
school and even early college, because, well, it was just too early
in the program to have much effect, and it’s like, well, gee,
those guys are now starting to do that. It looks like it’s neat,
it’s challenging, it would be a lot of fun, but the chances
of me ever doing that, again, living on a small farm in small town
Iowa, just seemed like the remotest thing possible that you would
ever become involved in that.
However, I did have an intense interest in engineering and in flying
airplanes, and, as I mentioned, I have no idea where the idea that
I would want to fly airplanes came from. I had no relatives that ever
flew, no relatives in the military. My dad was not involved in anything
like that. I just knew that some day—and this is at a fairly
early age, like intermediate school level—that I was going to
be a pilot some day and fly, and tried to set about doing things that
would help make all of that come true. So it kind of went from there.
Well, you joined the service. Tell us how that occurred.
Okay. Well, after I graduated from high school, there was, of course,
the problem of how I was going to pay for college, because, basically,
my family didn’t have a lot of money left over after the basics.
I had applied to Iowa State University [Ames, Iowa], and had been
accepted there. But in the meantime I had also learned about the [United
States] Air Force Academy [Colorado Springs, Colorado], which, again,
in those days—the Air Force Academy today is well known and
just an outstanding institution, as it was then, but it was a very
young institution back in those days.
I entered the academy basically when it was five or six years old,
and I was in the ninth graduating class of the Air Force Academy.
So it had not been around very long, and I’d just learned that
it existed. Of course, within my mind, Air Force and Air Force Academy
and flying, and it all seemed to fit together. Why wouldn’t
you want to go there? But I knew very little about the school or the
But I went ahead and applied through my congressman, and got a letter
back in the spring of that year, saying, “You’re qualified.
You have good academic marks. You’ve done all the right things.
But your congressman has already appointed somebody to the Air Force
Academy for this year.”
You know, congressmen have the ability to either appoint someone outright
or appoint a number of candidates and then let the academy select.
So they offered me a chance to go to the Air Force Academy Prep School,
which is located right on the same site as the Air Force Academy is.
So I had to think about that for a while. As I said, I had been accepted
at Iowa State.
But probably, as much as anything, still had an intense interest in
flying and viewing that, well, this might be the shortest way to get
there. Also, of course, was the economics of the situation. So I elected
to go ahead and accept the opportunity to go to the prep school, and
I did that. I was in the second class that the Air Force Academy Prep
School ever had. So again, that was a brand-new institution, and they
were still kind of feeling their way on what to teach.
So that whole year, about eleven months’ worth, right after
graduating from high school, I spent at the Air Force Academy Prep
School, started off down at Lackland Air Force Base [San Antonio,
Texas] in basically Air Force basic training, because they didn’t
know what else to do with us at that point. We went through a shortened
version of basic training at Lackland and then went up to the academy
and finished out a couple more weeks up there before we started the
academic portion of the prep school.
It was heavy concentration on math and English and literature, and
we took the—in those days it was the College Entrance Examination
Board tests—at least five or six times during the year. When
you take a test that many times, you begin to come out pretty well
on the scores, so that’s the way it ended up. I had good scores
on that test, and being at the prep school opened up many, many more
avenues of application of potential appointment to the academy. I
ended up getting one from my senator from Iowa, but there were other
avenues as well.
So after that, basically a year out for going to the prep school,
I finally was accepted to the Air Force Academy, then the next year,
the next summer, and started in ‘63, then, into the Air
Turns out it was a really neat thing to do, to have gone to the prep
school, besides getting a hugely important preview on what you might
expect when you got to the academy. Unlike some of the other people
who showed up right out of high school, I basically knew what military
and military training was all about by that time. And I ended up kind
of being a helper, if you will, to a lot of other guys who just showed
up right out of high school and just were totally culture-shocked
by arriving at the Air Force Academy without having any idea of what
It also, of course, allowed me to get into the accelerated courses
in math and English in the first two years at the academy, and what
that did was leave room then in the last two years for several electives.
The Air Force Academy can’t grant a master’s degree. It’s
only authorized to give bachelor’s-level degrees, but I was
among a group of several guys that took advanced courses, and they
were credited by Purdue University [West Lafayette, Indiana ] after
I graduated from the Air Force Academy toward a master’s in
aeronautics and astronautics.
So, anyway, after the four years at the academy and graduation, all
my classmates were looking forward to two or three months’ worth
of vacation before they went to pilot training. Me and about twelve
other guys went to Purdue, had one week to show up, and we started
that summer session just right after graduating from the Air Force
Academy. So I have never quite forgiven them for having to give up
that much leave, but it happened.
That summer session was very intense. I took nine hours of graduate-level
courses, three different courses, and it was probably the worst—the
most work academically that I had ever put in, even though I’d
had several semesters at the academy with twenty and twenty-one hours’
worth of credit. Three courses at graduate level in the summer just
is not my recommendation as to how to do a master’s degree,
but we got through it all right.
Took an interim course between the summer session and the fall semester,
and then fall semester at Purdue. That was probably the easiest academic
situation that I’d ever had in my professional academic career,
helped along by the fact that Purdue had an outstanding football team
that year. Of course, back in those days, my four years at the Air
Force Academy, where it was not a coed institution at that time, and
when I got to Purdue, they not only had a good football team, which
we didn’t have when I was a cadet, they also had women attending
the college, which was a totally new experience for me. So, lots of
Anyway, that all worked out fine, and in January finished all the
requirements for the master’s degree, and left Purdue then with
that degree, and went back through Iowa; had gotten engaged, of course,
in the meantime, and got married. And then finally, after all that
academic stuff, got down to pilot training in Enid, Oklahoma, and
went through Air Force pilot training.
Again, just an outstanding course of instruction, a lot of work, a
lot of study, very, very intense, and after a year, graduated from
Air Force pilot training. And finally, after those many years, I had
been flying through pilot training, but finally was a rated pilot
in the Air Force, my major goal at the time. So it worked out great.
You spent a number of years in training and as an instructor before
you became an astronaut. At what point did you decide to put your
name in for the selection process?
Well, again, it’s an interesting situation. I never in my early
Air Force career, proceeded as if becoming an astronaut were the major
goal in my life, again, mainly because I had certain things that I
wanted to do as a pilot, and becoming an astronaut, again, was kind
of, I thought, well, it’d be a lot of fun, but there’s
hardly any chance that it would ever happen to me.
I spent some time, about, well, almost four years, I guess, at Vance
Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, as an instructor pilot for other
student pilots in the Air Force, and what that did was give me a tremendous
amount of experience in, well, teaching and flying, a lot of flying
experience. And then I went on to check out in the F-4 [Phantom II]
down in Homestead, Florida, before Hurricane Andrew. Homestead was
still there. And right after that, then went to Southeast Asia to
Thailand for about a year. So I got the operational experience there
in F-4 fighter airplanes.
Somewhere along the line there, I decided that I wanted to become
a test pilot, too. I think again because of the academic background
I had, I thought I would be suitable at that. I really wanted to be
involved more in things that were more at the leading edge, more exploratory
in nature than maybe just the normal being an instructor pilot or
a fighter pilot. I really did want to become a test pilot.
So when I was in Thailand, I had put in all the paperwork to be considered
for that and was accepted at the Air Force test pilot school then
while I was over there. So when I came back from Southeast Asia from
Thailand, I had been accepted to test pilot school, and I came back
to go through that school.
So if it’s beginning to sound like my life is a series of schools
and training, that’s largely true. It’s quite a process
to get all the background. And, again, I was not doing this because
I thought I was ever going to become an astronaut. These were things
that I thought I wanted to do—well, I knew I wanted to do because
of my interests and the background that I already had and the educational
background that I had. It just made sense to me to become a test pilot,
because that’s the kind of flying that I was more interested
Well, it turns out, then, that after I finished test pilot school
in ‘75, and spent a couple, three years as a test pilot
at Edwards [Air Force Base, Edwards, California], first on a
T-38 lead-in fighter project, and then on the F-15 [Eagle] joint test
force, NASA puts out the notification or the advertisement, if you
will, that they are going to be looking for new Space Shuttle pilots
and astronauts and mission specialists, and they laid out the criteria.
And, of course, being in the military, the Air Force had its own screening
system that it used before it even sent the names on to NASA.
So there I am, sitting at Edwards Air Force Base as an F-15 test pilot,
just having a ball, basically just doing some of the things I’d
always wanted to do, and now I had a big choice to make. At first
my wife was not at all excited about me thinking about sending in
an application. It was not a high thing on her list to have me go
do. But we talked about it for a while, and then finally decided,
well, why not? I do have all the right background. I have exactly
the kind of training and experience that they seem to be looking for,
so why not put an application in?
So I, along with about 60 percent of Edwards Air Force Base, submitted
our applications to the—we submitted ours to the Air Force system,
personnel system, and they went through a screening process based
on, of course, the NASA screening, that criteria, and then they passed
a whole set of names on to NASA, and NASA did their own screening.
And it was, of course, with NASA then that I eventually had the interview
back in—well, late 1977 at that point.
So it was just a series of things that I had done, to do the things
that I really wanted to do or the things that I was interested in,
all those things I had done because I wanted to, not because I thought
I was ever going to be an astronaut some day. It was really not until
being at Edwards and seeing that some former military people had been
selected to be astronauts, that you even thought that there was a
remote chance that you would be considered. And then when NASA put
out the call for names, why, you say, “Hmm, okay. If there ever
is going to be a chance, I guess this might be it.” So in went
the application and that started the screening and interview process,
first in the Air Force and then with NASA just after that.
How much were you aware of the Shuttle development while you were
still part of the Air Force?
Well, when I was at Edwards, of course, NASA had been conducting the
ALT [Approach and Landing Test] program, the approach and landing
tests off the back of the 747 with Enterprise. Of course, those happened
out at Edwards Air Force base, so I knew that they were working on
it. And I guess that probably made me as much aware as anything that
the Shuttle Program was coming along and it looked like it was going
to be viable. Of course, there was a lot of literature and claims
out by NASA on what the Shuttle was going to do in terms of the capability,
of course, was recognizable and just looking at the vehicle itself.
But the flight rate, I remember when we came down for our interviews
and just prior to coming down for the interviews, the flight rate
was advertised to be about, I think it was, sixty flights a year that
Shuttle Program was going to fly. So it seemed like the right thing
to do at that time, and I put my name in the ring.
Now, as well trained and very many years of service in the Air Force,
what did you think of the Shuttle when you saw the Enterprise as an
Well, the Enterprise, I guess folks should remember now, I probably
didn’t know it in detail at the time. Enterprise was basically
just a shell of a Shuttle. It had the right shape on the outside.
It had the right volume. The center of gravity and aerodynamics, of
course, were what they needed to be. But, of course, it could never
have, without a lot of just completely rebuilding the whole thing,
would never have been able to fly into space. But it did, of course,
the job it was designed to do, and that was to figure out if the concept
of the Shuttle and the shape and the aerodynamics and everything were
even flyable—if they had all the numbers right on all the right
coefficients in the right place. So it did precisely what it was designed
to do, and, of course, it also proved the concept of being able to
be ferried on top of the 747 and released from there to conduct these
So I think while it was not a space-rated vehicle, I think in terms
of piquing my interest on being part of the program, it helped a lot.
And the fact that it was conducted at Edwards while I was there really
made it all kind of come together, I guess, at that point.
Definitely a reality happening right then.
Tell us how you were notified and what your reaction was when you
learned you were going to be part of the 1978 class.
After the interview process, which in itself was—well, it had
some interesting points to it, of course. I don’t know whether
it followed a standard format from previous classes or previous groups
of astronauts that had been selected. I suppose some of it was similar.
It was the weeklong process down here at the Johnson Space Center.
A large part of it was medical and medical screening, of course, but
there was also psychological screening, and that was interesting to
me. We had the good guy and we had the bad guy. [Laughs] I hope they
don’t get too upset for me describing it like that, but that’s
basically what it was.
Then there were some interesting tests, medical tests that I had never
had before on the screening part. One of the other kind of related
things was to—I think it was part of the psychological test
more than anything, but they were talking about it in terms of this
little round inflatable ball that was described as a crew transfer
device between a Shuttle that may have been disabled on orbit and
had no way of getting back, and another Shuttle that would come up
and rendezvous with it. And then the guys on the good Shuttle would
carry this thing over, and you would put crew members in it, and they
had enough air supply, and it blew it up, and maintained enough pressure
just long enough to get them over to the new Shuttle.
Well, what it was, was a little fabric enclosure. It was completely
dark on the inside, and they had to crawl inside of that and sit there
for a half hour, forty-five minutes, and I think the whole objective
was to figure out if you were claustrophobic or anything like that.
It would not have worked as a crew transfer vehicle at all, I’m
pretty sure, now that I look back on it, but I was pretty naïve
back then on space-related things, so it was a nice test.
But after we got through all that, I just went home to Edwards and
was doing my normal job. One morning I get a call early in the morning.
The time differential made it fairly early for me. I had just gotten
up and started to get ready to go to work, and I got a call from George
[W. S.] Abbey, and he just basically came right to the point. He said,
“Well, are you still interested to coming to work as an astronaut
I said, “Well, yes, I am.” I didn’t think much about
a smart reply or anything. I said, “Well, yeah, I’d like
that a lot.”
He said, “We’ve screened everybody, and we’ve accepted
you, and we’d like to have you come down.”
So that’s the way that happened. It was a nice, short phone
call with good confirmation. I learned later that the guys who had
not been selected that particular class had gotten a call from somebody
else. So it didn’t take but a few minutes after we all got to
work to figure out if you got a call from George Abbey, you had been
accepted. If you got a call from either Jay [F.] Honeycutt or Duane
[L.] Ross, it meant that you had not been accepted. So it was one
of those little interesting sidelights of the selection process.
Your wife had mentioned that she wasn’t quite sure when you
first put your application in. How was your family’s reaction
to find out that they’d be moving to Houston?
Well, before I put the application in, that’s when she was the
most skittish about it. She was not sure that was the right thing.
But as I went through the process, I think just finding out a little
bit more about the program, seeing the relative excitement of me and
everyone else at Edwards who had applied, when I was notified, then
I think she was ready to have it happen also. And she’s been
fully supportive. We had a great time down here.
She, back then, was a nurse, and she’d been following me around
every place we went, we ended up. I mean, she’d hit the place,
set up home, go to the hospital. They always hired her immediately,
so she had no problem finding work and keeping busy, and I think that
certainly helped her know and feel like, “Well, I can go anywhere,
and as long as I’m busy, why, I’ll be okay.” Of
course, by the time we were ready to move, we had four kids, too,
so that was going to keep her busy as well.
Well, you were one of thirty-five new guys to come into NASA’s
astronaut corps. Tell us what the reception was like for you with
some of the long-term astronauts that had already been in place.
Well, I think there’s various ways you could describe the reception
that our group had. We were the first group in a long time, nine or
ten years, I guess. I think the folks who were still in the Astronaut
Office, which, of course, had been between programs for several years
of that period, were glad to see us there, on the one hand, because
they were all really busy doing the technical things that astronauts
do while they’re waiting to go fly—various inputs to boards
and panels and safety inputs and crew displays and all that kind of
thing. They were all really busy, and I think they were happy to see
us show up so that we would be able to help them and take some of
At the same time, I think there was a bit of the “Oh, no, all
these new guys. How are we ever going to get them trained and up to
speed? Will they ever be ready to go fly in space?” Well that’s
kind of a natural reaction to the group of people who has been there
and done that a lot. That’s a bit of a different aspect of “We’re
happy to have them here, but I don’t know, it’s maybe
just a little more work for a while until we get them all checked
The other thing was, since we were the first in a long time, and since
the Shuttle, of course, was a new program, basically they were inventing
our training as we went along. Now, that sounds worse than it really
was. They didn’t really know. I think the folks who had been
around for a while, of course, a good part of Johnson Space Center
is devoted to training and training astronauts, but the Shuttle was
such a new vehicle, with a lot of totally new systems that they were
learning, first of all, and then trying to decide what a new group
of astronauts needed to know what was important. And, again, they
were kind of putting this all together as we went through the training.
They had a course laid out for us, but there was, I think, a lot of
real-time adjustments. And, of course, each time we finished a phase
or a course, then they would take the lessons learned from our experience,
and I think by the time three or four more classes came through, they
had it pretty well ironed out the way they wanted it. But it was a
fairly new process.
But we had a lot of great training. We had some visiting folks who
came in from the fields of geology and space physics and astronomy,
and gave us all kinds of lectures and information that had it not
been for that, I never would have been exposed to them. And it was
just all so interesting. That was an aspect of our AsCan [Astronaut
Candidate] training that was completely different than my technical
background as a test pilot in the aero astro engineering field that
I went through school in. This was completely different, and I just
really enjoyed that. I really liked that a lot.
To get a little bit of exposure you might have to try to use some
of that training in the future on looking down at Earth and seeing
the various geology that was represented there, but I would never
be proficient at that, but at least I was exposed to some of the terms
and some of the thought process that they were going to be using,
so it was great.
What were some of your first responsibilities that they gave to you?
Well, toward the end of that first year, after we had done most of
the classroom work that they had laid out for us to do, my first real
assignment, so to speak, was as a Cape Crusader. That was a small
group of people, there were just three of us in the beginning, who
began to spend a considerable amount of time TDY [Temporary Duty]
down at [NASA] Kennedy Space Center [KSC, Florida], where they eventually
had moved Columbia down to KSC, and really it wasn’t even close
to being finished yet when they moved it.
But they moved it down there and finished the manufacturing process
and finished, I guess, as important as anything, the tile system as
a system that had to work, of course, correctly. There had been all
kinds of problems previous to that with being able to bond these things
to the external part of the places of the Shuttle where they needed
it and have them stay there. Eventually they got that all worked out.
But we spent really a couple of years prior to STS-1 in that mode.
[Karol J.] Bo Bobko, myself, and [Francis R.] Dick Scobee were the
primary ones in the beginning. And then [Ellison S.] El Onizuka and
[Frederick D.] Fred Gregory spent some time doing that, and a couple
of other guys as well.
But during that process, of course, we learned a lot about the Shuttle,
because we had a huge amount of exposure to the real vehicle by actually
going into it, inside of it, sitting there and looking at things.
I remember coming back several times, and people would ask you, “Well,
what does this look like? What does that look like? Where is that
switch?” And it all became second nature over the course of
the couple years that we spent doing that.
We’d crawl in that vehicle and help conduct tests and listen
on the net as they went through the process. So the knowledge of the
hardware and what it looked like was right there. I mean, you were
exposed to it. So it was good for learning that part. For some of
the other details, like the ascent profile and some of the detailed
systems knowledge, it might not have been so good as some of the people
back here who had other kinds of jobs, and specifically the functioning
of the software of the guys that went over to SAIL to help check out
the software in the early days, I think came away from that with intimate
knowledge of what the software did at various points. I had more knowledge
of the hardware in the actual vehicle.
Was assigned also then about, I guess, halfway through that process
as the first—we’ll call them ASP—I guess I got to
dream up the name for it—astronaut support pilot. We developed
all the procedures and the checklists and everything for helping to
strap the crewmembers into the Orbiter and perform that function.
And for John [W.] Young and [Robert L.] Bob Crippen as the first crew,
every time they would come down, why, we’d talk over what the
procedure should be, what they should look like, and who was doing
what to whom and when, and all that sort of thing. So it was just
a tremendous experience. The only, I guess, bad part about it was
that it involved so much TDY away from home in Florida.
Must have been an exciting time then for you when STS-1 launched.
Were you able to be down at the Cape [Canaveral, Florida]?
Oh, yes. I was required to be at the Cape because as the astronaut
support pilot, I was in the white room. I helped strap them in. We
helped cinch down the belts and hook up all the tubes. As a matter
of fact, after they scrubbed the first time for the BFS [Backup Flight
Software] issue, they got it back out a couple days later, came back,
and when Crippen got into the seat, put his helmet on, and put the
visor down, he couldn’t get any air flow out of his helmet.
Turns out that the quick disconnect for the oxygen hose that they
had at the time, you had to play with it just right to make sure it
was rotated all fully and fully seated, otherwise, it wouldn’t
flow anything. And I had seen that happen several different times
in tests, so I kind of thought, “Well, that’s probably
So I reached down there. I had to get a pair of pliers out to rotate
it, but eventually, after I heard it click into place, and I said,
“Try it now.” Sure enough, it worked. But I’m not
sure the guys back here in mission control were ready to—it
kind of magically corrected itself. But I don’t know whether
they ever even knew that happened or not.
Anyway, I was there and strapped them in for the first mission, and
we fell back then to the—well, it’s the roadblock that’s
about the closest point that anybody gets to. It’s where the
fire trucks all hang out. Of course, we had a huge group of people
there. The guys said—the ones that had been there a long time,
said, “Well let’s get up on top of these big fire trucks.
Let’s get up on top of there and watch the launch from there.”
So we did.
I remember when the thing lifted off, I was just—there were
a number of things about that first liftoff that truly amazed me.
One was just the magnitude of steam and clouds, vapor that was being
produced by the main engines, the exhaust hitting the sound suppression
water, and then the solid rocket boosters were just something else,
of course. And then when the sound finally hits you from three miles
away, it’s just mind-boggling. Even for an experienced fighter
pilot, test pilot, it was just amazing to stand through that, because
being that close and being on top of the fire truck, I guess after
it got up a ways, of course, the pressure waves are basically unattenuated
except by that three miles of distance, but when it hits your chest
and it was, I think, flapping the flight suit against my leg, and
it was vibrating, you could feel your legs and your knees buckling
a little bit, could feel it in your chest, and I said, “Hmm,
this is pretty powerful stuff here.”
So it was really an amazing thing to experience, quite a—well
the culmination of several years’ worth of AsCan training and
then a couple more years as a Cape Crusader.
I came to NASA and was assigned to NASA in 1978, and that was ‘81,
so we were doing a lot of things in between there, and I didn’t
fly my first mission until the seven-year point in ‘85,
so we had a lot of time to think about what was going on.
Did you have the same duties continue for the next couple of flights?
No, because it had been such a lengthy process and because of all
the TDY, I had told the guys back here, I said, “Hey this is
a lot of fun. I’m learning a lot, but is there something else
I can do?” So right away they assigned me to be one of the chase
pilots for STS-2, which again is a lot of TDY. And one of the other
things I did in that time period was, because of the experience of
being in Florida and watching a lot of construction finished on Columbia,
099 Challenger was being built at Palmdale [California] at that time,
and they said, “Well, why don’t you, as one of your duties,
why don’t you monitor the assembly of Challenger in Palmdale.”
Well, that’s just more TDY, just going to the opposite coast.
So I spent a good part of that next year or so TDY, doing the same
type of—watching the same kind of tests, helping them run the
same kind of tests as they were building Challenger out at Palmdale.
So it was interesting. A slight change, but still a lot of TDY.
But there was more opportunity, I think, in there to spend some time
around here and begin to get a little more of the simulator time that
the guys that were assigned and stayed more here had gotten to do,
that I had not been able to do in this first couple of years.
When did you learn that you were being selected for STS-10, as it
was called originally?
Let’s see. I don’t remember the exact date that we learned
about that crew selection. It would have been, oh, more than a year
ahead of when we actually flew STS-51-C. Crewmembers were basically
the same on both of those flights. Everything kind of runs together
back in those days.
Did you learn right away that this was going to be a DoD [Department
of Defense] flight?
We knew that STS-10 was going to be DoD, and when the crew was formed,
it was all military guys that formed the crew. So I think NASA believed
that it didn’t have to do that, but I think it also believed
that things would probably go a lot smoother if they did. So they
named an all active-duty military crew.
Of course, as we started to do some of the background work, the early
training work, learning about what was going to be required, then
it became apparent during that process that STS-10 wasn’t going
to go in sequence or on time. And that’s when we started to
learn that the numerical sequence of the numbers of the missions,
that didn’t mean a lot in those early days. And, as a matter
of fact, of course, eventually that whole nomenclature went away,
and by the time we resurfaced as a crew, NASA had gone to the 51-C,
the numbers and letters for the fiscal year, and the sequence in that
But it was an interesting process. I thought, “Well, maybe I
never will fly.” It was the kind of situation where once you
were identified as the crew for that mission, then especially this
one being a DoD mission, you were kind of linked to it, as long as
there was some thought that it was going to happen. And it never did
completely go away. It just went kind of inactive for a while and
then came back as 51-C.
How did security conditions associated with the mission affect your
training and your preparation?
Well, as with most things like that, if you’re the first one
of a dedicated—this mission was dedicated to DoD. It was all
DoD. And so since it was the first one like that—now, there
had been a couple of other missions that had particular portions of
the mission that were DoD-related, and there would be some classification
surrounding that, but this, the entire mission was classified.
We were really worried about that, as a crew, because, of course,
in the NASA system, everything is completely open. That’s one
of the strong technical parts of NASA programs like the Shuttle, is
that it is so open, everybody just keeps data and information on everybody
else so that when that process was all through, everybody is pretty
well assured of having the information that they know they need. We
were concerned that just the opposite was going to happen, that because
of the classification surrounding the mission, that people were going
to start keeping secrets from each other and that there was a potential
that some important product or piece of information might not get
circulated as it should.
I think that was overcome, though, by basically the way things operated.
The mission, yes, was classified. Certain descriptive details about
what was going on were always classified, but within that classification
shell, so to speak, the system was able to find a way to operate and
operate very efficiently, I thought. There were still some hiccoughs
here and there about how data got passed back and forth, and who could
be around for training and who couldn’t, and that sort of thing.
But eventually all that got worked through fairly well, and I think
the pathfinding we did on that mission helped some of the subsequent
DoD-focused missions to be able to go a little bit smoother.
But I remember back—the Air Force did not even want the launch
date released. They didn’t want the crewmember names released.
We weren’t going to be able to invite guests for the launch
in the beginning. This is your lifetime dream and ambition. You’re
finally an astronaut, and you’re going to go fly the Space Shuttle,
and you can’t invite anybody to come watch. It was pretty—it
was an interesting process. We finally got them talked into letting
us invite—I think each one of us could invite thirty people,
and then maybe some other car-pass guests who could drive out on the
causeway. But trying to decide who, among all of your relatives and
your wife’s relatives are going to be among the thirty who get
to come see the launch, well, it’s a career-limiting kind of
decision if you make the wrong decision. [Laughs]
Pretty touchy subject.
You know, you have part of the family mad at you for the rest of your
life. Turns out that I think we got some rationality into the system,
and both my wife and my family are from Iowa, anyway, so it’s
far enough away that other than fairly close relatives weren’t
really going to be able to make the trip anyway. So it all worked
out, and I don’t think anybody felt left out, and besides that,
we made up for it on the next launch.
What type of restrictions were imposed on you and the crew because
of the security in classified missions? Anything somewhat unique that
you can share with us that other crews did not have to—
Well, sure. I mean, everything about our mission was classified. I
couldn’t go home and tell my wife what we were doing, anything
about the mission. Everybody else’s mission, everybody in the
world knew exactly what was going on. That’s what I’m
talking about. NASA’s system is so wide open. They could tell
their wives about it, their family knew, everybody else in the world
knew what was on those missions. We couldn’t talk about anything.
We couldn’t say what we were doing, what we had, what we were
not doing, anything that would imply the launch date, the launch time,
the trajectory, the inclination, the altitude, anything about what
we were doing in training. All that was classified. Couldn’t
talk about anything.
Did you have specific trainers assigned to you the whole time so that
you didn’t have a variety?
Yes, you had the same crew assigned. But it was so much counter to
the normal culture within NASA, that that’s why we were so worried
in the beginning that would they even be able to pull this off and
get us trained properly, and would we know enough about the systems
and everything. But it turns out that all ended up fine. It’s
just that nobody outside knew much about the mission. Whenever I go,
still do it, when I go out to the public and talk to the public I
mention the fact that I flew a DoD mission, and the fact that I wasn’t
sure my wife ever believed I went on a Space Shuttle flight because
I couldn’t tell her when I was going or when I was coming back.
It only lasted three days anyway. She actually obviously knew that
the Shuttle lunched and I was in it, but it made for some interesting
According to our research, the Air Force insisted on adding payload
specialist Gary [E.] Payton to the crew to possibly prevent the astronauts
from gaining any more knowledge of the payload. Can you tell us anything
about that statement?
Well, I guess I didn’t ever see Gary’s role as that. It’s
just a little bit different than your impression or your research,
apparently. But, yes, and payload specialists, I think, were always
a kind of a part of the thinking of those organizations that the Shuttle
wanted to come fly or entice a customer, so to speak, to come use
the Shuttle for whatever. I think there was always an implication
that in a lot of cases they would be able to send a payload specialist
along with the mission.
Certainly [Charles D.] Charlie Walker flew three Shuttle flights,
and that was his status on each one of them. He was a guy that operated
the separation device, the protein crystal growth stuff, and he had
a specific purpose. Well, Gary had a specific purpose, but I don’t
think it was to make sure that we didn’t learn about what the
details of the mission were. As a matter of fact, we all got briefed
into the mission, and we knew exactly what was going on.
So, as a pilot on the Shuttle, I have certain duties that I’m
supposed to do, and that was where my training focused, and the payload
specialist and our mission specialist focused more on the mission
itself. But that’s the way our system is designed anyway. So
I never viewed Gary as being there to try to prevent me from learning
something about what was going on.
Did the change of orbiters from the Challenger to Discovery cause
any impact to the crew or to the mission?
No. We were—I mean, all that was transparent. I guess it may
have happened that way, but as far as our training and what we did
for our training, it didn’t change anything.
Just one last question about the mission. Were you ever in a situation
where you felt somewhat compromised, and did people ask you questions
or did people avoid asking you questions about the mission because
of its classification?
Well, people ask questions all the time, and they ask more questions
when they know that the answer is prohibited from their knowledge.
Then they just get even more adamant that you should tell them, and
try to dream up of more tricky ways to get you to say something. The
media, of course, being number one in that game.
There was rampant speculation throughout our entire training period
as to what might be on that mission. Everybody had an opinion as to
what it was, and you’d just say “Cannot confirm or deny,”
and that’s all that was necessary. It got to be kind of a chuckling
situation. It was humorous, I guess, to listen to people out there
trying to guess as to what it might be. You’d say, “Okay.
Well, just let that churn around out there. I’m going to go
do my training and not worry about it.” And eventually you don’t
think much about it.
But it does require you, then, when you do go meet the press or you
do go do public presentation that you have to, of course, think a
little bit harder about what you can say and not say.
And you had a seasoned commander there to help with that mission as
well, working under [Thomas K.”T. K.”] Mattingly [II].
Yes. T. K. he helped invent the Shuttle, I think, in certain respects,
the avionics and flight control system. He just knew a huge amount
about that. And so it was a very educational experience to be part
of one of his crews for my first flight. I learned a lot about the
stuff that I needed to know about, being a pilot and then the commander.
He was an excellent mentor and teacher on the first mission.
Well, after you returned, 1985 proved to be a very busy time for NASA
and for you. You provided mission support for STS 51-G, F, and J,
as well as STS 61-A and B. Share with us what the working atmosphere
was like due to this aggressive flight schedule.
Well, you’re correct, right after you fly a mission, of course,
there’s a flurry of debriefing activity that you go through
to pass along your experiences and lessons learned, and then you go
right back in, at least in those days, went right back into the support
mode, doing CapCom [Capsule Communicator], training, going to boards
and panels. There’s a myriad of activities that happen, most
of which the average Joe is probably not aware of, but it occupies
a tremendous amount of time, and I did a number of those, I guess,
while we were waiting.
We flew in ‘85, and it wasn’t too long to where we
began to learn that, well, there’s probably another mission
on the horizon. As a matter of fact, we were sort of headed in that
direction with a few folks on one mission specifically. Turns out,
of course, then the events of Challenger [STS-51-L accident, January
28, 1986], of course, altered that plan greatly, and all of those
missions kind of went away while the Shuttle got reinvented and the
boosters got reworked.
So it was a busy period, that early part. Things were beginning to
click along. The flights were more frequent. Things were going along.
I think everybody had the sense that, “Boy, this is really going
to pick up,” and I don’t know whether we ever thought
we were going to get to sixty missions a year. That would have been
pretty amazing, but I think people could see more frequency and more
flights coming. Of course, not really aware of this issue with the
booster joint seal that was kind of lurking in the shadows. But, yes,
it was a very busy period, and everybody, I think, having good feelings
about programs getting going. It was really moving along.
The common thread for most of those missions was deployment of communication
Did you have specific duties with any of those satellites, or can
you remember or can share with us some of the specific things that
you did for these missions? Was it a common thread for you, or did
you have something for each one?
You’re right. We did a lot of satellite deployments, and we
were working Spacelab quite a bit back in those days. One of the missions—I
did not have too much to do with so much any of the satellites, although
being in a very basic familiarity with the launch mechanism and the
basic support stuff that went with it, the individual satellites I
didn’t deal much with, again because that was more of our mission
specialists were directly doing that sort of thing.
I mentioned that after 51-C, then we were beginning to look at another
mission which involved a high degree of Japanese participation in
Spacelab, so we were beginning to look at that. It turns out that
didn’t get very far into maturity before Challenger happened,
but had Challenger not happened, I think that mission probably would
have blossomed into more of a mission than it ever did. But when Challenger
happened, of course, that put everything on hold for quite a while
and kind of reshuffled things after that.
If we can, let’s take a few minutes and talk about Challenger.
It certainly was a tragedy for the nation and for the space agency.
Can you tell us where you were when you learned of the accident?
I was spending most of my time here in the Houston area. After that
first mission, 51-C, we were doing more training and sticking closer
to home. I was in one of the small conference rooms that had a TV
in it and had voice loops piped in from mission control as well up
on our floor. So I was in that conference room watching the Challenger
51-L launch and could pretty well tell, just pretty much immediately
that something was definitely not right on that launch. And then after
that, of course, the voice loops confirmed all of that. And remembering
not quite what to think about everything. But I think everybody has
a natural tendency to start off with what can be right or what can
positively happen, and maybe not fully realizing the extent of what
had happened and what might be the result.
But pretty soon, of course, you start thinking about the reality of
things and the fact that nothing was found immediately, you pretty
much have to know that things are not going to turn out very well,
and that was the case.
What were your duties during that time period immediately after the
I guess the most immediate thing was that—I don’t know
whether you’re familiar with the term “casualty assistance
officer.” In the military, anytime there’s a human fatality,
they always assign a member, casualty assistance officer, CACO [Casualty
Assistance Call Officer], we call it, to help the family of whoever
has been killed or injured or whatever. And since Ellison Onizuka
and I flew as crew members on the first flight, I guess it was probably
equal parts volunteering to do it and equal parts of George Abbey
and John Young realizing that maybe it was a good thing, since I knew
Ellison probably as good as or better than a lot of guys, that I do
So some of the first things I did right after that had to do with
the casually assistance role with Lorna Onizuka and her two girls,
and then all, of course, the relatives that were immediately here
from Hawaii. There was a huge, huge amount of activity that went on
there, and took a long time. Took—well, it went on for two or
three years, as a matter of fact, in various forms. And then for several
years after that, still had some things happening that I kind of stayed
involved in because I’d been involved early on. Certainly got
to know Lorna and her family and Ellison’s family very well
in that year or two right after the accident.
That really occupied most of the time for several months, actually,
but interspersed with all of that, there was a role in the reworking
of the hazards analyses and the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management
Agency] Silva [phonetic], the documents that document what can happen
if a certain thing breaks, what does that mean to the total system.
And a lot of that work got redone, and I was a safety representative
to the space flight safety panel for the Astronaut Office for a while.
Filled some other safety functions for a while in the office.
Again, went to a lot of technical forums and boards, and quite a bit
of the casualty assistance role for several months right after that,
interspersed with some of this other activity, especially as it got
laid out better as to how much detail they were going to go into redoing
all of that and the redesign of the booster and all that. But it was
more located here rather than somewhere else, because of the casualty
Just a year before, with your flight on 51-C, it was your mission
at that time that had launched at the coldest recorded temperatures.
And after it was determined there had been a problem with the O-rings.
Were there any thoughts you would like to share with us on that?
Well, I’ve talked a lot here this morning about how open NASA’s
system is, and how the safety of human space flight depends on people
not hiding things from each other, not keeping them in the dark. Well,
it turns out the Challenger accident was the classic case of basically
that having happened. There was an issue on the booster seal, the
joints, and how they came together and how they sealed against each
other, and it had been manifesting itself for some time, it turns
out. There were several missions that had some erosion of the O-rings
even prior to ours on 51-C.
We launched 51-C, of course, in January. It was a very cold morning.
Well, the day before we didn’t even launch because it was so
cold in Florida that day that they were afraid that the water in the
fire ex [extinguish] system would freeze, and if they needed to use
it, it wouldn’t work properly. There’s water pipes throughout
the thick surface structure that spray water on a lot of stuff if
it’s needed. So the first day we were supposed to launch, they
didn’t even try, and then the second day was still cold, but
a little bit better.
Turns out, I was told, after Challenger came to light, that 51-C was
the next worse erosion of any other mission. And so you kind of wonder,
well, it’s maybe a good thing it wasn’t quite so cold
or whatever. But that sort of information—I’m not sure
one could have a problem like that today and have it not be called
to the awareness of everybody else in the Shuttle Program, as opposed
to what happened there.
There were a few folks who knew what was happening, but the information
didn’t get out. So it’s a classic communication problem,
complicated, in the final analysis, by a stroke of bad luck with cold
weather, of all things. Of course, it wasn’t going to manifest
itself without the cold weather being there, but what a way to have
Unfortunate for all that it happened that way.
We are approaching not necessarily the time that we’re going
to be closing, but a time to release you for your appointment. Before
I do that, I was going to ask Sandra and Jennifer if they have some
questions for you, and when they’re finished I have another
one before. Then hopefully we can come back and meet with you again
and start with your missions—the next ones that you actually
got to fly and got to tell people about.
I’ve been too wordy, huh?
Absolutely not, but it probably is a good place to break. I don’t
really want to start on STS-31 and then have you lose all of that
momentum and good thoughts and we have to start all over again.
So let me ask Jennifer, do you have any questions for today?
I don’t have any questions.
I’ve got one that when we were talking about support crews,
I know that you also supported STS-8, which was the first mission
to launch at night and the first one to—
Could you tell us about your role and the preparation for the night
landing? I understand you helped developed and test them and those
methods that were used for that.
Yes. Well, of course, the Shuttle is a hypersonic vehicle. At reentry
everything’s pretty much got to be behind the tile and inside
the mold line. When the gear comes down, there’s no landing
lights on the Shuttle. A normal airplane has several lights that come
down when the gear are extended or other lights that the crew can
deploy and turn on.
So here we are, not wanting to not be able to land at night because
some of the missions, of course, are going to require—I mean,
to be a fully operational program, you’re going to eventually
land at night somewhere. And without landing lights, you need some
kind of illumination on the runway in addition to just the normal
runway lights. In a normal airplane, as it comes in to land, it’s
supplying its own landing environment light for the situation, and
the pilot has the cues that he needs.
We were worried that the Shuttle coming in—the runway itself
has lights along the edge. It has threshold lights, or approach lights.
There are a lot of cues, but there is nothing that’s illuminating
the touchdown zone like the landing lights of an airplane does. So
we had to figure out a way to supply some of that lighting onto the
touchdown zone and are far enough ahead that the commander then could
get the visual cues that he would normally have to fly in and land.
So we experimented with a number of things, a number of methods. There
were methods to fly the glide slope on, and then after the pre-flare
to fly the shallow glide slope, the inner glide slope, we developed
a ball bar system that did that, after looking at several different
methods for the inner glide slope. And then we used various combinations
of other fairly high-powered lighting systems to try to supply this
light up on the touchdown zone.
We ended up zeroing in on xenon lights. These are very bright searchlights
that the Army hadn’t been using for some time. We found that
certain arrangements of these lights in groups of four or groups of
two, and angled across the touchdown zone, not only sort of headed
you in the right direction, but supplied the light. But we used a
number of different—we tested quite a bit out at Edwards at
night out on the lakebed and on the hard surface runway, and we eventually
got a system that we thought would work, involved lights and reflectors
and various things.
Then it became apparent that once you come in, if the light sources
are behind you and you’re trying to land on a lakebed, the wing-tip
vortexes and everything that are generated and Shuttle touching down
or rolling out produces a huge amount of dust on the lakebed. So if
the lighting sources are behind you and the dust billows up behind
you, it starts to cut out the light in the rest of the touchdown zone.
So it’s maybe not a good thing to try to land on a lakebed at
night, because the dust is soon going to block out all the light.
So very soon after that, of course, we put all that stuff on the hard
surface runways, and we basically said, “Well, if we’re
going to land at night, we want to land on a hard surface runway.”
But most of our experimental work was done out on the lakebeds at
Was this a time-consuming process?
Well, yes, there were so many iterations that we tried. We tried various
configurations. I think, first, we had to decide what that inner glide
slope device was going to look like, and we kind of narrowed in on
that after several different experiments and tries, and then the overall
area lighting, that took a little tweaking as well. And then there
were various combinations of reflectors added. We did some, and then
the guys that were kind of doing it after I left that project to go
train again, they added some other stuff, too. So it was kind of an
evolving process there for a while.
And one other question about your other duties. At some point early
in your assignments, you were assigned to be the interface with the
Vandenberg Air Force Base [California], because at one point they
were believed they were going to do launches—
Yes, there was a short period of time, and I did go out there a few
times to kind of get the setup for the launch pad, which was different
than Florida. But we actually never ended up doing—coming very
close, because of budget reasons and various other reasons, but mostly
budget, I think.
But I made some trips out there and did some work trying to—well,
the design of the crew quarters, for example, we worked at for a while
and sort of got that laid out, and we looked at the launch pad and
the various things. But before it got—they had a huge amount
of stuff built, and there was a lot money involved in what they did,
but we never really got that close to actually pulling off a launch
Was that assignment a reason—part of you being a part of the
Air Force, or was it just luck of the draw?
Oh, I suppose some of it was, but it was just kind of a natural thing,
too, since I had been involved in a lot of the early days, I think
at the Cape, getting ready to fly that, that it might think that it
was kind of a natural thing to say, “Okay, here we are in the
beginning part of a potential Vandenberg launch. What are some of
the things that they’re going to need out there?” And
looking at the runway and the lights and flying a few approaches and
then just some of the basic things that went in to support the Cape,
then you’d want to think about having that same capability at
Okay. Is there anything else that you would like to add about this
part of your career before we start again on your next segment where
we pick up where you become commander of your flight?
Oh, I don’t know. I think one of the questions you had written
was what was some of the more difficult things, and as I look back
on it, this business of being a casualty assistance officer is not
easy to do. Totally different than the technical background that I
have, and the duration of it was another factor. It was very, very
long and very tedious work, very satisfying in some respects, very
difficult to do though in some respects. But I would say that was
probably more difficult to do than many of the technical things I’ve
been involved in so far in my career.
And I would imagine that some of those duties just never felt like
Oh, yes. I mean, today it’s very remote in the past, but they
did go on for a long time. And there are still linkages that I have,
because of that work, to Ellison’s family in Hawaii that every
once in a while get renewed in some way or another. But, yes, it was
a pretty traumatic time for everybody involved and a different aspect
of anything I’d ever done before.
All the training you’ve had, I’m sure it was very hard
to be able to be trained in that position.
Yes, well, all the training I went through was to do a job that I
already knew quite a bit about, and that was flying an airplane/space
vehicle. This kind of training is something you just don’t get.
After all those early effects of Challenger, and, of course, being
in that position you were in, did you ever have any doubts that maybe
this isn’t what you wanted to pursue?
No, I don’t know as that entered my mind. I could see the huge
amount of rebuilding, redoing, reinventing that was going on in the
overall program. Of course, the joint was redesigned—the solid
rocket booster joint was redesigned. You get the feeling, then, that
with all that effort that has gone into it, that actually things may
be more safe now or right after that than they were just prior to
that. And that’s probably the case in most situations like that.
But, of course, it’ll only stay that way as long as everybody
stays alert and vigilant and pays attention to detail. And from what
I see these days, we certainly haven’t let up on that at all.
Did it almost seem, those preparations for return to flight, was it
almost like being those first days back when you first started with
the Shuttle Program, everything being reviewed?
Yes, or even worse. I say “worse.” Even more so. Everybody
is familiar with the terminology, the pendulum swings back and forth.
Well, maybe the pendulum had gone too far in one direction, but when
it swung back the other way, it probably went a little too far in
the other direction as well. And when it does that, the amount of
expense and cost in the program gets pretty huge, and the last little
bit of that, it’s arguable as whether it has actually done that
much to increase safety or not.
I think the basic things that we did were what I think actually ends
up improving the safety of the program, and we probably went a little
further than necessary and encumbered the program for many years with
a lot of practices or paperwork or whatever procedures that added
a lot of time and cost and people, but actually didn’t improve
the overall safety of the vehicle all that much, if at all. But I
think since that time we have filtered out some of that, and I think
we’re back more toward a rational approach.
Were you involved with the STS-26, of any of the preparations?
Not really too much there, no, not direct support to what they were
doing. Again, a lot of this casualty assistance stuff was still going
on, even that late.
Well, I’m sure that those duties will long be remembered by
all of those involved.
Well, we’re going to close for today so that when we begin again
we can start on a very exciting note of you being named as commander
of your next mission and talk about those missions, and then move
to the administrative part of your job as well.